Today's Topics in AgBioView.
* Food Fights Can't Feed The Hungry
* Greenpeace In Doll Demo Over GM Baby Food Claim
* Abuse of Wetland Systems in Africa
* Scientific Basis for Battling Biotech
* Bio-Scope, corrected version
* Hard Choices for the Environmental Movement - Patrick Moore
Email your response to
Food Fights Can't Feed The Hungry
- Hans Kornberg, 8/21/2001, Boston Globe page A19
Beneath the debate in industrialized nations over biotechnology foods lies a tragic irony: Those who have the most may deny this promising technology to those who need it most.
That is the conclusion of a recent United Nations report warning that the world's poorest cannot afford for its richest to stall biotechnology on the basis of scientifically unfounded fears. Without biotechnology, the UN's Human Development 2001 report says, developing nations may be unable to feed their rapidly expanding populations.
So it is sad - and potentially dangerous - that, in the report's words, the debate in the West 'mostly ignores the concerns and needs of the developing world.'
The reason, the UN says, is perspective: 'Western consumers who do not face food shortages or nutritional deficiencies or work in the fields are more likely to focus on food safety and the potential loss of biodiversity.' By contrast, "farming communities in developing countries are more likely to focus on potentially higher yields and greater nutritional value and on the reduced need to spray pesticides that can damage the soil and sicken farmers."
That does not detract from the sincerity of those in wealthy nations who have raised concerns about biotechnology. But those with the luxury to debate the issue must acknowledge our privileged vantage point: We get our food from grocery stores that are stocked full. The world's poor depend largely on subsistence farming. Already 800 million are chronically malnourished. Now, as the world‚s population continues to expand, developing countries must feed more people on less land without ravaging the environment.
Food biotechnology - the techniques used to improve crops at the genetic level - offers scientifically proven ways to help a hungry world by enriching the nutritional content of staples, improving agricultural productivity, and protecting the environment. For example, scientists are developing a strain of "golden rice" fortified with with extra betacarotene, which could combat millions of cases of vitamin A deficiency, which can result in blindness and death. Researchers are also exploring more nutritious strains of sweet potatoes and cassava, which are the staple foods of many underdeveloped countries.
Biotechnology can also improve yields by developing crops that can protect themselves against pests and disease, which devastate harvests in the developing world. Other crops might someday be able to grow in droughts, extreme heat, and other difficult conditions. Biotechnology can also lessen agriculture's impact on the environment. Crops that use soil nutrients and water more efficiently could help to conserve natural resources, and by growing more food on the same land, the need to cut down ecologically sensitive environments like rain forests for food production will be decreased.
Crops that protect themselves against pests and disease - like strains of corn, cotton and potatoes already in widespread use in the United States - also reduce the need to spray chemicals. And genetically modified strains of soybeans and cotton have transformed weed control in the United States, enabling more farmers to employ no-till practices that conserve topsoil and minimize runoff of sediment into rivers and streams. Consumers in industrialized nations will reap these benefits too. But it is the world's poor who most need them - and, ironically, the world's wealthiest who have the most power to stall them.
In attempting to halt biotechnology, its opponents often cite concerns about its safety. They may find some comfort in the UN's call for a rigorous system of regulation and testing to ensure biotechnology foods are safe. Such a system already exists in the United States, where biotechnology foods have for years been required to meet the same strict standards for dietary and environmental safety as every other product. That system - and reams upon reams of objective scientific research - have proven that biotechnology is safe and beneficial: There is no valid evidence that anyone's health has been permanently damaged through the consumption of genetically improved food. And for the world's poor, the United Nations says this technology is indispensable.
To be sure, that should not preclude industrialized nations from conducting a robust, open and ongoing discussion of biotechnology. That is the privilege of living in a free society. But we should not forget it is also the luxury of living in a wealthy one.
Hans Kornberg is a professor of biology at Boston University and former chair of the United Kingdom's Advisory Committee on Genetic Modification.
Greenpeace In Doll Demo Over GM Baby Food Claim
(Forwarded by Gale west )
Greenpeace activists have blocked the HQ of a Swiss-based food manufacturer with hundreds of baby puppets. Greenpeace says it found between 34 and 66% of soya in Gerber/Novartis baby food products sold in the Philippines was genetically modified. The company says its baby food is GM free and that it will investigate the claims.
The baby puppets blocked the entrance to the company's HQ in Basel. The puppets held signs saying, 'Novartis/Gerber, keep your promise!' and 'Novartis/Gerber, stop genetically modified Baby food!'. "We demand an immediate stop to Novartis' double standards policy," Bruno Heinzer of Greenpeace Switzerland said in front of the Novartis building. A Novartis spokesman told Ananova: "Our policy is that we don't actively source GM products for this food." He added the company will investigate, saying: "We will have to check and verify to see if these claims are correct." He also said: "We must also stress this is not a safety issue. We stand firmly behind the safety of the product." Greenpeace say they tested three baby food products at the Hong Kong laboratory, DNA Chips. *See this story on the web http://www.ananova.com/news/story/sm_379960.html
Re: Making Room for Farming and Wildlife In Africa
Having been professionally involved in agricultural research and as an amateur conservationist in Africa, including the countries mentioned in this article, and also in a developed country with an agrarian economy, I am alarmed at the suggestion that farmers (usually subsistence farmers) cultivate wetlands - sic ' Instead of building costly dams and irrigation canals, the farmers fence off irrigated gardens in shallow, seasonally waterlogged depressions called "dambos." '.
This issue has been gaining prominence in recent times. On the face of it, I agree that (temporary) yield gains can be achieved at little financial cost. A little of this practise here and there doesn't look too bad either. However, wholesale abuse of wetland systems in Africa will have consequences that people from developed countries cannot comprehend, largely because most their wetlands changed form generations ago.
In converting from a natural wetland to a cultivated "dambo", expect to
see the following changes over time:
* Changes in hydrology from a slow release sponge to annual flooding followed
by drought -changed soil structure - Changes in soil chemistry - Changes in soil micro- Flora and fauna; - changes in mega- flora and fauna
At first, changes will be barely noticeable, except for evidence of cultivation and planted crops. This will be followed by a host of exotic opportunists - weeds, pests and organisms better adapted to the changing environment than the original. Ultimately, the very reason for cultivating the wetland will be quashed by the changes that occur. It is perhaps the changes to the hydrology that are the most concerning since these effects are not confined locally. Massive change to the hydrology of a wetland seriously and adversely affects the breeding cycles of a multitude of downstream organisms.
What takes a short time to do, may take forever to undo!
Yours sincerely, Ken Cunliffe
Scientific Basis for Battling Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology
(Barry Commoner, an elder statesman of the environmental movement and founder
of the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems, Queens College, CUNY has put some intriguing thoughts here below. I requested Wayne Parrot to examine the issues put forth by Mr. Commoner and his response also appears below this....CSP)
Background by Barry Commoner
The recent reports about the outcome of the Human Genome Project illuminate the contradictory aspects of molecular genetics and its application to biotechnology. When the federal effort to create the Human Genome Project was launched in 1990, the director, James Watson, defined its purpose as AThe ultimate description of life...that determines if you have a life as a fly, a carrot, or a man.@ This goal was justified by a singular idea that for decades has dominated biological and medical research. Enshrined by Francis Crick (with Watson, co-discoverer of the DNA double helix) as the 'Central Dogma,' it reduces inheritance, a property that only living things possess, to molecular dimensions:
Each of a living thing=s DNA genes, which collectively comprise the genome, exclusively governs the formation of each of the individual proteins that, through their biochemical activity (for example as enzymes), give rise to the creature=s inherited traits. The gene=s DNA carries a Acode@ that is represented by the linear sequence of its four types of components (nucleotides). Through a series of intervening steps, this code is expected to determine the distinctive linear order of the amino acids that are strung together to form a particular protein molecule. Finally, based on this distinctive amino acid sequence, the protein achieves a specific biochemical activity that gives rise to a given inherited trait.
In theory, then, by identifying and enumerating all of the human genes and characterizing the unique sequence of their constituent nucleotides, the genome project could use the encoded, one-to-one correspondence between gene and protein to define the molecular structure and therefore the function of each of the human proteins that determine our inherited traits.
In February, the chief outcome of the genome project was announced. It was 'unexpected.' After a massive and ingenious search, only about 30,000 human genes were found. Based on the expected one-to-one gene/protein correspondence, this is too few to account for the 100,000 or more known human proteins. Moreover, by this measure, people are only about as gene-rich as a mustard-like weed (which has 25,000 genes) and about twice as genetically endowed as a fruit fly or a primitive worm. If the human gene count is too low to match the protein count and cannot explain the vast inherited difference between a weed and a person, there must be much more to the 'ultimate description of life' than the genes can tell us. Thus, the main outcome of the genome project was to contradict the scientific premise on which it was undertaken and to overthrow, or at least critically damage, its guiding icon, the Central Dogma.
In retrospect, it is clear that this 'unexpected' result was anticipated by discoveries made nearly 20 years earlier. In 1982, well before the genome project was even planned, experiments had shown that protein enzymes can cut out bits of the DNA that comprises a single gene (Agene splicing@), which are then reassembled in different ways and prescribe not just one protein but a variety of them. For example, the several hundred different proteins that establish the tone-sensitivity of the array of cells in the cochlea of the inner ear are all derived, by splicing, from a single gene. Thus, such results contradict the assumption that a single particular gene exclusively governs the molecular structure of a single particular protein B and hence the individual inherited trait that it generates.
This is but one of a series of experimental results that over the last 40 years have contradicted the basic precepts of the Central Dogma. For example, in the 1960s researchers had already found that the DNA code is often so poorly copied that it cannot account for the much greater reliability of biological inheritance itself; here too, it was discovered, protein enzymes are at work, this time to repair the mis-coded DNA. Another discordant observation relates to the fact that in order to become biochemically active and actually generate the inherited trait, the newly made protein, a strung-out ribbon of a molecule, must be folded up into a precisely organized ball-like structure. Crick assumed that the strung-out protein simply Afolds itself up@ in the right way. But in the 1980s, it was discovered that, on their own, nascent proteins are likely to become misfolded, and therefore remain biochemically inactive B unless they come in contact with a special type of Achaperone@ protein that somehow manages to p
Thus, over time experimental evidence has accumulated to show that, contrary to the Central Dogma, a given gene is not in exclusive control of an inherited trait. Rather, it exerts its effect on inheritance only through the intervention of a system of protein-mediated processes, an arrangement that can give rise to a far more complex array of inherited traits than can the genes alone.
What has been learned in the last 20 years about the 'prion,' the infectious agent that causes the Mad Cow disease and related human brain degenerations is perhaps the most portentous example of the unacknowledged discrepancies in the Cental Dogma. According to that theory, biological replication, and therefore infectivity, cannot occur without nucleic acid. Yet, when scrapie, the earliest known degenerative diseases of the brain (in sheep), was analyzed biochemically, no nucleic acid could be found in the infectious material. In 1980, Stanley Prusiner at the University of California Medical School, San Francisco, began a detailed study of the infectious agents that cause scrapie and similar human diseases. His work confirmed that these agents are indeed nucleic acid-free proteins (which he named prions) and showed that they replicate in an entirely unprecedented way. Invading the brain, the prion encounters a normal brain protein, which it then refolds to match the prion=s distinctive three-dimensional str
All of the foregoing examples are the outcome of research on the molecular basis of inheritance, typically guided by the precepts of the Central Dogma. By any reasonable measure, their results contradict the theory=s cardinal maxim: that DNA genes exclusively govern the molecular processes that give rise to inherited traits. But if nucleic acids are not solely responsible for inheritance, and if genes do not uniquely specify protein activity, then it is hazardous to rely on this flawed theory for assurance that the consequences of genetic engineering are B as the biotechnology industry claims B entirely predictable. Yet this conclusion is rarely even mentioned, let alone debated, in the scientific community. The press has been equally silent on this issue. For example, a computer search of articles in the major U.S. newspapers between 1980 and 2000 finds none on chaperones or the infidelity of the DNA code. That a gene, reassembled from fragments, can govern the production of a multiplicity of proteins beca
The Central Dogma's ideological grip on the research community has been so strong that in 1997, when Stanley Prusiner was awarded the Nobel Prize, several fellow scientists publicly denounced the decision because his claim that the prion, although infectious, is a nucleic acid-free protein contradicted the prevailing belief in the Central Dogma and was, therefore, too 'controversial' to warrant the award. This dogma-induced bias has seriously impeded not only scientific progress, but human health as well. In response to the vocal criticism of Prusiner's work, Ralf Peterson, the deputy chairman of the Nobel Assembly, has pointed out that, by casting doubt on Prusiner's work (which, incidently, explained the prion's unique resistance to the conventional sterilization procedures that were relied on, ineffectually, to control the disease), his critics delayed effective remedial action against the Mad Cow disease in Britain for so long that A[B]y then it was too late."
How do such discrepancies in its guiding theory affect the reliability and safety of genetically engineered agricultural crops? This technology is based on the precept that the specific biochemical properties of a protein that give rise to a plant's inherited traits are derived, via the genetic 'code,' exclusively from a particular DNA gene. It follows, then, that a gene artificially transferred from a wholly unrelated species B for example, from a bacterium, in which the gene produces an insecticidal protein B will produce the same outcome, and no more, in a corn or soybean plant.
Within a single species the overall outcome of the gene=s influence on the protein B and hence on the inherited trait that it governs B is usually predictable. But this does not reflect the gene's exclusive control of the inherited trait, since, as we have seen, this outcome depends as well on an array of other protein-mediated processes such as: DNA code repair, gene splicing, and chaperone-mediated protein folding. Rather, the reliability of the natural genetic process results from the compatibility between the gene system and the equally necessary protein-mediated systems. This harmonious interaction between the genome and the protein-mediated systems is developed during their coexistence over very long evolutionary periods, in which the incompatible variants that may arise are rejected. In other words, within a single species the reliability of the successful outcome of the complex molecular process that gives rise to the inheritance of particular traits is guaranteed by many thousands of years of testi
In contrast, in a genetically engineered transgenic plant, an alien bacterial gene must properly interact with the plant's protein-mediated systems, such as DNA code repair and chaperones. But these plant systems have an evolutionary history very different from the bacterial gene=s. As a result, in the transgenic plant the harmonious interdependence of the alien gene and the new host=s protein-mediated systems is likely to be disrupted in unspecified, imprecise and wholly unpredictable ways. These are revealed by the numerous experimental failures that occur before a transgenic organism is actually produced and by genetic defects that occur even when the gene is successfully transferred.
Thus, a recent study has shown that in transgenic bacteria the new host's code-repair system fails to correct the faulty replication of the alien gene, a necessary repair process that does occur in the original host. This means that in the new transgenic host, random uncorrected errors in gene replication can persist, giving rise to unforeseeable genetic changes. Similarly, in a recent experiment, a jellyfish gene that governs the production of a green-glowing protein was successfully transferred to a monkey egg, and later detected in the tissues of the resulting offspring. But there, the green glowing protein itself was absent, signifying a failure in one or more of the processes that must translate the gene=s code into an active protein. Moreover, since the protein was detected in the egg, this defect arose at some later time, during fetal development. These are examples of how the disruptive effect of a 'successful' gene transfer between different species may be not only unpredictable but also long delay
The degree to which such disruptions do occur in genetically modified crops is not known at present, for the biotechnology industry is not required to provide even the most basic information about the actual composition of the transgenic plants to the regulatory agencies. For example, in the case of corn plants that carry a bacterial gene for a specific insecticidal protein, no tests are required to show that the plant actually produces a protein with the same amino acid sequence as the original bacterial protein. Yet, this information is the only way to confirm that the transferred gene is in fact yielding the theory-predicted product. Moreover, there are no reported studies to investigate the long-term, multi-generational consequences of the gene transfer. This would require, for example, detailed analysis of the molecular structure and biochemical activity of the alien gene=s protein product not only in laboratory test plants, but in the transgenic commercial crop as well. Since some unexpected effects m
In sum, billions of transgenic plants are now being grown with only the most rudimentary knowledge about the resulting changes in their composition. Without detailed, ongoing analyses of the transgenic crops, there is no way of knowing what hazardous consequences may arise. But, given the failure of the Central Dogma, there is no assurance that they will not. The genetically engineered crops now being grown represent a huge uncontrolled experiment; its outcome is inherently unpredictable. Our project is designed to help develop effective public understanding of the dangerous implications of this critical predicament.
Response From: Wayne Parrott
Re: Dr. Commoner's attack the science of biotech
Overall, a lot of distortions, half-truths, non-sequiturs,
1. The number of genes in the human genome is still an open question. The only issue which is clear right now is that the software which is used to count genes still is not where it needs to be. Nevertheless, it does appear that the human genome may resort to alternate splice sites. This does not negate that there is still one DNA sequence for each gene. Based on limited data, the use of alternate splice sites may be more a feature of virus and vertebrates than of plants.
2. There are several genes that can result from shuffling of DNA, particularly for immune related genes. Nevertheless, after the shuffling, there is still one DNA sequence per protein.
3. I am not sure what the issue with protein folding is. There are more than enough transgenics available now to suggest that folding is not a universal problem-- if at all. If transgenic proteins folded incorrectly, they would not be active in their new hosts. Overall, many if not most of the most basic cell biochemical processes are highly conserved throughout evolution.
4. "a given gene is not in exclusive control of an inherited trait." This statement generalizes way too much. Genes differ in what traditionally has been called "expressivity"-- the extent to which an individual with the gene expresses its trait. Some genes have extremely high expressivity. Other genes do not, and instead contribute to quantitative traits. Obviously, genetic engineers work with the former type.
5. Prions do not replicate directly. One prion can change the conformation of another protein to convert it into a prion, but a gene is still necessary for the formation of the target protein in first place.
6. Given that the arguments against the Central Dogma are themselves flawed, the author has done nothing to disprove the Central Dogma.
7. The existing data base of existing transgenic plants makes it clear that lack of co-evolution of transproteins and protein folding machinery. The "numerous experimental failures" have more to do with gene copy number and gene silencing--thus for every transgenes, there are successfully expressed events along with events which are not successful. I am not aware of any genes which have never been successful.
8. "by genetic defects that occur even when the gene is successfully transferred" The author is going to have to come up with some examples, as I am not aware of any genetic defects. Interestingly enough, the cellular machinery that translates genes into proteins is not universal, and genes may have to be codon-optimized prior to transformation. No insurmountable problem here.
9. "Thus, a recent study has shown that in transgenic bacteria the new host's code-repair system fails to correct the faulty replication of the alien gene, a necessary repair process that does occur in the original host. This means that in the new transgenic host, random uncorrected errors in gene replication can persist, giving rise to unforeseeable genetic changes." I have no idea which study he was talking about. Perhaps a DNA repair-deficient mutant? In the end, DNA is DNA-- it doesn't matter where the enzymes come from. DNA repair does not discriminate between DNA of different species.
10. Lack of GFP expression in monkeys. The author is mixing up expression with genetic defects. In the case of plants, multiple transgenics are screened for to identify those with stable expression. Multiple field trials are conducted between the time the original transgenic plant is recovered, all the intervening breeding process, and the final variety release.
11. "The degree to which such disruptions do occur in genetically modified crops is not known at present, for the biotechnology industry is not required to provide even the most basic information about the actual composition of the transgenic plants to the regulatory agencies." Outright false.
12. "in the case of corn plants that carry a bacterial gene for a specific insecticidal protein, no tests are required to show that the plant actually produces a protein with the same amino acid sequence as the original bacterial protein" So this guy feels a company would market a protein that may or not work? The ultimate parameter is that the protein must be safe, and it must be functional.
13. "Moreover, there are no reported studies to investigate the long-term, multi-generational consequences of the gene transfer. This would require, for example, detailed analysis of the molecular structure and biochemical activity of the alien gene's protein product not only in laboratory test plants, but in the transgenic commercial crop as well." There are many examples where wide gene transfer has been used in plant breeding over the decades, and thus far, there is no indication such tranfers lead to problems. I cannot see what can possibly be gained by "analysis of the molecular structure and biochemical activity of the alien gene's protein"
14. "Since some unexpected effects may appear in only a fraction of the commercial crop plants" These unexpected effects are equally, if not more, likely to arise from traditional breeding. Yet, the probability has been so low that society has not considered it worth its while.
15. "The genetically engineered crops now being grown represent a huge uncontrolled experiment; its outcome is inherently unpredictable. Our project is designed to help develop effective public understanding of the dangerous implications of this critical predicament." When conventional breeding is done, new toxin pathways may be activated; transposons may be unleashed, etc. In essence, each of the varieties bred over the past century represents "a huge uncontrolled experiment" but its outcome is inherently *predictable*.
Bio-Scope, corrected version
(Because of a small change in the EBR link (still under discussion for various reasons) Klaus Amman has asked me to re-post this revised version..CSP)
Biology as a science has evolved into a powerful instrument, giving birth to Biotechnology with all its rapidly developing fields of specialisation. A growing part of the population starts to realize that Biotechnology will affect many sectors of their own life. No wonder that the debate is of growing public interest.
Mankind has already started thousands of years ago to change the course of evolution. In particular, genetic engineering will speed up this process. Wisely used, it will enhance food production and medicine. We need to be well informed about the risks and benefits of the new technologies and we should refrain from rejecting prematurely promising developments – but at the same time we must be able to take informed decisions about risk management related to all kinds of agricultural strategies. This all melts down to a better information management, so that in the end we will make better use of the new technologies and ultimately integrate them into traditional farming. Agriculture must contribute to the conservation of biodiversity in multiple ways – last but not least it must intensify production by keeping up the important goals of sustainability and equitability.
This is why we think that Bio-Scope will fulfil an important mission: We want to give the internet community the chance to have easy access to scientific information on all levels, from the lay people to the highly educated experts. In order to achieve this we offer in Bio-Scope a variety of electronic instruments, such as an infobase which can be accessed by people with various degrees of education on biotechnology and agriculture. The infobase can answer questions on various levels of scientific understanding with carefully selected keywords and with simple or sophisticated query logistics. It will also offer material for science writers and teachers, who want to give science based information on modern agriculture to their students and readers. Abstracts of many scientific and important newspaper articles will be available in English, but also in German and French, in order to facilitate access of lay people, who are not familiar with scientific English.
We also offer with Bio-Scope the possibility for experts and others to e.g. exchange views and plan concerted actions. It will also be a place where everybody can learn about important meetings on biotechnology and – last but not least, get an unbiased and daily updated account on important publications from newspapers to scientific publications.
Bio-Scope will also be a place where experts are ready to answer questions addressed to them, you can look for an expert all over the globe in a specific knowledge sector, address your question to him and get an answer from somebody who really knows whats going on in his own field of specialisation. These experts have also a genuine interest in being involved in the scientific and public debate on biotechnology and Agriculture. An easily accessible infobase and an expert group on biotechnology are both ready to answer your questions about environmental impact and food safety in modern agriculture from genetic engineering to integrated and organic farming.
For the time coming we hope to enhance with Bio-Scope as a whole and on all levels in risk and knowledge management on the subject of green gene technology.
A link to the new journal ENVIRONMENTAL BIOSAFETY RESEARCH (no updated website available) is still under discussion for various reasons.
AgBioView......Selection from the Past....
'Hard Choices for the Environmental Movement'
- Patrick Moore, Co-Founder of Greenpeace
(Reprinted with permission from the March 2000 issue of the Oregon Wheat magazine. Originally forwarded by Klaus Ammann )
OWGL: Environmental Extremism
More than twenty years ago I was one of a dozen or so activists who founded Greenpeace in the basement of the Unitarian Church in Vancouver. The Vietnam war was raging and nuclear holocaust seemed closer every day. We linked peace, ecology, and a talent for media communications and went on to build the world's largest environmental activist organization. By 1986 Greenpeace was established in 26 countries and had an income of over $100 million per year. In 1986 the mainstream of western society was busy adopting the environmental agenda that was considered radical only fifteen years earlier. By 1989 the combined impact of Chernobyl, the Exxon Valdez, the threat of global warming and the ozone hole clinched the debate. All but a handful of reactionaries joined the call for sustainable development and environmental protection. Whereas previously the leaders of the environmental movement found themselves on the outside railing at the gates of power, they were now invited to the table in boardrooms and caucuses
For me, Greenpeace is about ringing an ecological fire alarm, waking mass consciousness to the true dimensions of our global predicament, pointing out the problems and defining their nature. Greenpeace doesn't necessarily have the solutions to those problems and certainly isn't equipped to put them into practice. That requires the combined efforts of governments, corporations, public institutions and environmentalists. This demands a high degree of cooperation and collaboration. The politics of blame and shame must be replaced with the politics of working together and win-win.
Collaboration versus Confrontation
It was no coincidence that the round-table, consensus-based negotiation process was adopted by thousands of environmental leaders. It is the logical tool for working in the new spirit of green cooperation. It may not be a perfect system for decision-making, but like Churchill said about democracy, "It's the worst form of government except for all the others". A collaborative approach promises to give environmental issues their fair consideration in relation to the traditional economic and social priorities.
Some environmentalists didn't see it that way. Indeed, there had always been a minority of extremists who took a "No Compromise in Defense of Mother Nature" position. They were the monkey-wrenchers, tree-spikers and boat scuttlers of the Earth First! and Paul Watson variety. Considered totally uncool by the largely pacifist, intellectual mainstream of the movement, they were a colorful but renegade element.
Since its founding in the late 60's the modern environmental movement had created a vision that was international in scope and had room for people of all political persuasions. We prided ourselves in subscribing to a philosophy that was "trans-political, trans-ideological, and trans-national" in character. For Greenpeace, the Cree legend "Warriors of the Rainbow" referred to people of all colors and creeds, working together for a greener planet. The traditional sharp division between left and right was rendered meaningless by the common desire to protect our life support systems. Violence against people and property were the only taboos. Nonviolent direct action and peaceful civil disobedience were the hallmarks of the movement. Truth mattered and science was respected for the knowledge it brought to the debate.
Now this broad-based vision is challenged by a new philosophy of radical environmentalism. In the name of "deep ecology" many environmentalists have taken a sharp turn to the ultra-left, ushering in a mood of extremism and intolerance. As a clear signal of this new agenda, in 1990 Greenpeace called for a "grassroots revolution against pragmatism and compromise".
As an environmentalist in the political center I now find myself branded a traitor and a sellout by this new breed of saviors. My name appears in Greenpeace's "Guide to Anti-Environmental organizations". Even fellow Greenpeace founder and campaign comrade, Bob Hunter, refers to me as the "eco-Judas". Yes, I am trying to help the Canadian forest industry improve its performance so we might be proud of it again. As chair of the Forest Practices Committee of the Forest Alliance of B.C. I have lead the process of drafting and implementing the Principles of Sustainable Forestry that have been adopted by a majority of the industry. These Principles establish goals for environmental protection, forest management and public involvement. They are providing a framework for dialogue and action towards improvements in forest practices.
Why shouldn't I make a contribution to environmental reform in the industry my grandfather and father have worked in for over 90 years? It's not that I don't think the environment is in deep trouble. The hole in the ozone is real and we are overpopulating and overexploiting many of the earth's most productive ecosystems. I believe this is all the more reason to hang on to ideas like freedom, democracy, internationalism, and one-human-family. Our species is probably in for a pretty rough ride during the coming decades. It would be nice to think we could maintain a semblance of civilization while we work through these difficult times.
The Rise of Eco-Extremism
Two profound events triggered the split between those advocating a pragmatic or "liberal" approach to ecology and the new "zero-tolerance" attitude of the extremists. The first event, mentioned previously, was the widespread adoption of the environmental agenda by the mainstream of business and government. This left environmentalists with the choice of either being drawn into collaboration with their former "enemies" or of taking ever more extreme positions. Many environmentalists chose the latter route. They rejected the concept of "sustainable development" and took a strong "anti-development" stance.Surprisingly enough the second event that caused the environmental movement to veer to the left was the fall of the Berlin Wall. Suddenly the international peace movement had a lot less to do. Pro-Soviet groups in the West were discredited. Many of their members moved into the environmental movement bringing with them their eco-Marxism and pro-Sandinista sentiments.
These factors have contributed to a new variant of the environmental movement that is so extreme that many people, including myself, believe its agenda is a greater threat to the global environment than that posed by mainstream society.Some of the features of eco-extremism are:
It is antihuman. The human species is characterized as a "cancer" on the face of the earth. The extremists perpetuate the belief that all human activity is negative whereas the rest of nature is good. This results in alienation from nature and subverts the most important lesson of ecology; that we are all part of nature and interdependent with it. This aspect of environmental extremism leads to disdain and disrespect for fellow humans and the belief that it would be "good" if a disease such as AIDS were to wipe out most of the population. It is antitechnology and anti-science. Eco-extremists dream of returning to some kind of technologically primitive society. Horse-logging is the only kind of forestry they can fully support. All large machines are seen as inherently destructive and "unnatural'. The Sierra Club's recent book, "Clear-cut: the Tragedy of Industrial Forestry", is an excellent example of this perspective. "Western industrial society" is rejected in its entirety as is nearly every known forestry
Environmental extremists tend to expect the whole world to adopt anarchism as the model for individual behavior. This is expressed in their dislike of national governments, multinational corporations, and large institutions of all kinds. It would seem that this critique applies to all organizations except the environmental movement itself. Corporations are criticized for taking profits made in one country and investing them in other countries, this being proof that they have no "allegiance" to local communities. Where is the international environmental movements allegiance to local communities? How much of the money raised in the name of aboriginal peoples has been distributed to them? How much is dedicated to helping loggers thrown out of work by environmental campaigns? How much to research silvicultural systems that are environmentally and economically superior?
It is anti-trade.
Eco-extremists are not only opposed to "free trade" but to international trade in general. This is based on the belief that each "bioregion" should be self-sufficient in all its material needs. If it's too cold to grow bananas - too bad. Certainly anyone who studies ecology comes to realize the importance of natural geographic units such as watersheds, islands, and estuaries. As foolish as it is to ignore ecosystems it is absurd to put fences around them as if they were independent of their neighbors. In its extreme version, bioregionalism is just another form of ultranationalism and gives rise to the same excesses of intolerance and xenophobia. It is anti-free enterprise. Despite the fact that communism and state socialism has failed, eco-extremists are basically antibusiness. They dislike "competition" and are definitely opposed to profits. Anyone engaging in private business, particularly if they are successful, is characterized as greedy and lacking in morality. The extremists do not seem to find it nec
It is antidemocratic.
This is perhaps the most dangerous aspect of radical environmentalism. The very foundation of our society, liberal representative democracy, is rejected as being too human-centered". In the name of "speaking for the trees and other species" we are faced with a movement that would usher in an era of eco-fascism. The "planetary police" would "answer to no one but Mother Earth herself".
It is basically anti-civilization.
In its essence, eco-extremism rejects virtually everything about modern life. We are told that nothing short of returning to primitive tribal society can save the earth from ecological collapse. No more cities, no more airplanes, no more polyester suits. It is a naive vision of a return to the Garden of Eden. As a result of the rise of environmental extremism it has become difficult for the public, government agencies and industry to determine which demands are reasonable and which are not. It's almost as if the person or group that makes the most outrageous accusations and demands is automatically called "the environmentalist" in the news story. Industry, no matter how sincere in its efforts to satisfy legitimate environmental concerns, is branded "the threat to the environment".
Let me give you a few brief examples.
The Brent Spar In 1995, Shell Oil was granted permission by the British Environment Ministry to dispose of the oil rig Brent Spar in deep water in the North Sea. Greenpeace immediately accused Shell of using the sea as a "dustbin". Greenpeace campaigners maintained that there were hundreds of tones of petroleum wastes on board the Brent Spar and that some of these were radioactive.They organized a consumer boycott of Shell service stations, costing the company millions in sales. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl denounced the British government's decision to allow the dumping. Caught completely off guard, Shell ordered the tug that was already towing the rig to its burial site to turn back. They then announced they had abandoned the plan for deep-sea disposal. This angered British Prime Minister, John Major.
The Brent Spar was towed into a Norwegian fjord where it remains to this day. Independent investigation revealed that the rig had been properly cleaned and did not contain the toxic and radioactive waste claimed by Greenpeace. Greenpeace wrote to Shell apologizing for the factual error. But they did not change their position on deep-sea disposal despite the fact that on-land disposal will cause far greater environmental impact.
During all the public outrage directed against Shell for daring to sink a large piece of steel and concrete it was never noted that Greenpeace had purposely sunk its own ship off the coast of New Zealand in 1986. When the French government bombed and sunk the Rainbow Warrior in Auckland Harbour in 1985, the vessel was permanently disabled. It was later refloated, patched up, cleaned and towed to a marine park where it was sunk in shallow water as a dive site. Greenpeace said the ship would be an artificial reef and would support increased marine life.
The Brent Spar and the Rainbow Warrior are in no way fundamentally different from one another. The sinking of the Brent Spar could also be rationalized as providing habitat for marine creatures. It's just that the public relations people at Shell are not as clever as those at Greenpeace. And in this case Greenpeace got away with using misinformation even though they had to admit their error after the fact.
WWF and Species Extinction
In March, 1996, the International Panel on Forests of the United Nations held its first meeting in Geneva. The media paid little attention to what appeared to be one more ponderous assemblage of delegates speaking in unintelligible UN-ese. As it turned out, the big story to emerge from the meeting had nothing to do with the Panel on Forests itself. In what has become a common practice, The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) chose to use the occasion of the UN meeting as a platform for its own news release.
The WWF news release, which was widely picked up by the international media, made three basic points. They claimed that species were going extinct at a faster rate now than at any time since the dinosaurs disappeared 65 million years ago. They said that 50,000 species were now becoming extinct each year due to human activity. But of most significance to the subject of forests, WWF claimed that the main cause of species extinction was "commercial logging", that is, the forest industry. They provided absolutely no evidence for this so-called fact about logging and the media asked no hard questions. The next day newspapers around the world proclaimed the forest industry to be the main destroyer of species.
Since that announcement I have asked on numerous occasions for the name of a single species that has been rendered extinct due to forestry, particularly in my home country, Canada. Not one Latin name has been provided. It is widely known that human activity has been responsible for the extinction of many species down through history. These extinctions have been caused by hunting, the conversion of forest and grassland to farming and human settlement, and the introduction of exotic diseases and predators. Today, the main cause of species extinction is deforestation, over 90% of which is caused by agriculture and urban development. Why is WWF telling the public that logging is the main cause of species extinction?
While I do not wish to guess at the WWF's motivation, it is instructional to consider the question from a different angle. That is, if forestry does not generally cause species extinction, what other compelling reason is there to be against it? Surely the fact that logging is unsightly for a few years after the trees are cut is not sufficient reason to curtail Canada's most important industry.
Despite the WWF's failure to support its accusations, the myth that forestry causes widespread species extinction lives on. How can a largely urban public be convinced that this is not the case? The challenge is a daunting one for an industry that has been cast in the role of Darth Vadar when it should be recognized for growing trees and providing wood, the most renewable material used in human civilization.
Chlorine in Manufacturing
I don't mean to pick on Greenpeace but they are close to my heart and have strayed farther from the truth than I can tolerate. In this case the issue is chlorine, an element that is used in a wide variety of industrial, medical, and agricultural applications. In 1985 Greenpeace took up the campaign to eliminate chlorine from all industrial processes, to essentially remove it from human use despite its enormous benefits to society. The basis of the campaign was the discovery that the use of chlorine as a bleaching agent in the pulp and paper industry resulted in the production of minute quantities of dioxin, some of which ended up in waste water. The industry responded quickly and within five years of the discovery had virtually eliminated dioxins by switching to a different form of chlorine or eliminating chlorine altogether. The addition of secondary treatment resulted in further improvements.
Independent scientists demonstrated that after these measures were taken, pulp mills using chlorine had no more environmental impact than those that used no chlorine. Did Greenpeace accept the science? No, they tried to discredit the scientists and to this day continue a campaign that is based more on fear than fact. Its as if chlorine should be banned from the periodic table of elements altogether so future generations won't know it exists.
This critique of radical environmentalism is nowhere more appropriate than in the present debate over managing our forests and manufacturing forest products. Human management of forests is portrayed as somehow "unnatural". As mentioned before, horse-logging appeals to the extremists because it uses less technology. My response to this idea is that it would make more sense for the city people to use horses to get their 150 pound bodies to work in the morning and let the loggers have the engines from their cars so they can move the heavy loads in the forest. I suppose this is a result of my twisted country perspective.
For Greenpeace the zero chlorine campaign was just the beginning. Now Greenpeace Germany is leading a campaign for a global ban on clear-cutting in any forest. They want lumber and paper manufacturers to use a label that states their product is "clear-cut-free". Canada has been chosen as the target for consumer boycotts because it uses clear-cutting in forestry. It doesn't matter that the world's most knowledgeable silviculturists believe that clear-cutting is the most appropriate form of harvesting in many types of forest. It doesn't matter that most forestry in Germany is by the clear-cut method, they want to boycott us anyway. What matters is that it makes a good fund-raising campaign in Europe.The public is unaware of the basic flaws in the Greenpeace campaign to end
clear-cutting worldwide. They do not realize that there is no clear definition of the term "clear-cutting" and that Greenpeace refuses to engage in a dialogue to determine the precise nature of what it is they are opposed to. It is also not widely realized that there is no such thing as a supply of pulp and paper that is "clear-cut-free". The practice of clear-cutting is so widespread that it would be impossible to obtain a supply of wood chips that came from forests where only single-tree selection forestry is practised.
Perhaps the most cynical aspect of the Greenpeace campaign is their assertion that forests are clear-cut in British Columbia to make tissue paper and toilet paper for Europeans. They use the slogan "When you blow your nose in Europe you are blowing away the ancient forests of Canada" to imply that Europeans could save Canadian forests if they would stop buying tissue made from Canadian pulp.Everyone who has studied Canadian forestry, including Greenpeace, knows that the pulp and paper industry in British Columbia is based entirely on the waste products of the sawmilling industry. The forests are harvested to supply high value solid wood for furniture, interior woodwork and construction. Only the wastes from making lumber and those logs that are unsuitable for sawmilling are made into pulp. If we did not make pulp from these wastes they would have to be burned or left to rot as was the case in the past.
Rather than promoting unilateral boycotts that are based on misinformation and coercion, organizations like Greenpeace should recognize the need for internationally accepted criteria for sustainable forestry and forest products manufacturing. Through dialogue and international cooperation it would be possible to achieve agreement and end the unfair practice of singling out an individual nation for sanctions. Unfortunately they have now joined in the effort to spoil an International Convention on Forests. Their reasons for opposing a convention are not valid and amount to a transparent front for a strong anti-forestry attitude.
It is not reasonable to expect the environmental movement to drop its extremist agenda overnight. The rise of extremism is a major feature of the movement's evolution and is now deeply embedded in its political structure. We can hope that as time passes the movement will be retaken by more politically centrist, science-based leaders and that the extreme wing will be marginalized. At the same time, we must remember that most of the larger environmental groups such as the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council etc. do have many members and campaign teams that are reasonable and based on good science. It's just that for the time being, major elements of their organizations have been hijacked by people who are politically motivated, lack science, and are often using the rhetoric of environmentalism to promote other causes such as class struggle and anti-corporatism.
The only way industry can successfully help to promote a more pragmatic and reasonable environmental movement is to prove that it is willing and able to avoid future damage to the environment and to correct past abuses. In other words, if your house is in order, there will be little or nothing for extremists to use as a reason for taking an essentially "anti-industry" position.
The challenge for environmental leaders is to resist the path of ever increasing extremism and to know when to talk rather than fight. To remain credible and effective they must reject the antihuman, anarchistic approach. This is made difficult by the fact that many individuals and their messengers, the media, are naturally attracted to confrontation and sensation. It isn't easy to get excited about a committee meeting when you could be bringing the state to its knees at a blockade.
The best approach to our present predicament is to recognize the validity of both the bioregional and the global visions for social and environmental sustainability. Issues such as overpopulation and sustainable forest practices require international agreements. Composting of food wastes and bicycle repairs are best accomplished locally. We must think and act both globally and locally, always cognizant of impacts at one level caused by actions at another. Extremism that rejects this approach will only bring disaster to all species, including humans.
For more information on this subject, please visit the author's web site at: http://www.greenspirit.com