Home Page Link AgBioWorld Home Page
About AgBioWorld Donations Ag-Biotech News Declaration Supporting Agricultural Biotechnology Ag-biotech Info Experts on Agricultural Biotechnology Contact Links Subscribe to AgBioView Home Page

AgBioView Archives

A daily collection of news and commentaries on

Subscribe AgBioView Subscribe

Search AgBioWorld Search

AgBioView Archives





January 12, 2005


Ignorance vs. Progress; Lack of Logic; Scientist Dies in African Conflict; Diet and Genes; Collapse of Societies; Farmers' Markets? No Thanks


Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org : January 12, 2005

* Facing Biotech Foods Without the Fear Factor
* New Herbicide Tolerant Crop Gets Under Activist Radar
* Fields as Factories
* Tragic Loss of an Ag Scientist in an African Conflict
* Organic Ketchups Boost Fight Against Cancers
* ... But Biotech Can Do Better!
* Agricultural Reforms Best Help for Tsunami-Hit Countries
* Misconceptions About Biotech Crop Research in Poor Countries
* Diet and Genes
* Contemplating the Abyss - Jared Diamond's 'Collapse'
* Farmers' Markets? No Thanks. That's Sheer Snobbery

Facing Biotech Foods Without the Fear Factor

- Jane E. Brody, New York Times, January 10, 2005 http://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/11/health/11brod.html

Almost everywhere food is sold these days, you are likely to find products claiming to contain no genetically modified substances. But unless you are buying wild mushrooms, game, berries or fish, that statement is untrue.

Nearly every food we eat has been genetically modified, through centuries of crosses, both within and between species, and for most of the last century through mutations induced by bombarding seeds with chemicals or radiation. In each of these techniques, dozens, hundreds, even thousands of genes of unknown function are transferred or modified to produce new food varieties.

Most so-called organic foods are no exception. The claims of no genetic modification really refer to foods that contain no ingredients that are produced through the highly refined technique of gene splicing, in which one or a few genes are transferred to an organism. But alarmist warnings about the possible hazards of gene splicing have made the public extremely wary of this selective form of genetic modification.

Such warnings have so far been groundless. "Americans have consumed more than a trillion servings of foods that contain gene-spliced ingredients," said Dr. Henry I. Miller, a fellow at the Hoover Institution and author, with Gregory Conko, of "The Frankenfood Myth," a new book that questions the wisdom of current gene-splicing regulations.

"There hasn't been a single untoward event documented, not a single ecosystem disrupted or person made ill from these foods," he said in an interview. "That is not something that can be said about conventional foods, where imprecise methods of genetic modification actually have caused illnesses and deaths."

Ignorance vs. Progress
It is no secret that the public's understanding of science, and genetics in particular, is low. For example, in a telephone survey of 1,200 Americans released last October by the Food Policy Institute at Rutgers University, 43 percent thought, incorrectly, that ordinary tomatoes did not contain genes, while genetically modified tomatoes did. One-third thought, again incorrectly, that eating genetically modified fruit would change their own genes.

In another telephone survey, in which 1,000 American consumers were questioned last year in research for the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, 54 percent said they knew little or nothing about genetically modified foods. Still, 89 percent said that no such food should be allowed on the market until the Food and Drug Administration determined that it was safe.

What most respondents did not seem to know is that almost none of the foods people eat every day, which contain many introduced genes whose functions are unknown, have ever been subjected to premarketing approval or postmarketing surveillance.

Why should people object to the presence of a single new gene whose function is known when for centuries they have accepted foods containing hundreds of new genes of unknown function? A junior high school student in Idaho, Nathan Zohner, demonstrated in a 1997 science fair project how easy it was to hoodwink a scientifically uninformed public. As described in "The Frankenfood Myth," 86 percent of the 50 students he surveyed thought dihydrogen monoxide should be banned after they were told that prolonged exposure to its solid form caused severe tissue damage, that exposure to its gaseous form caused severe burns and that it had been found in tumors from terminal cancer patients. Only one student recognized the substance as water, H2O.

Without better public understanding and changes in the many arcane rules now thwarting development of new gene-spliced products, we will miss out on major improvements that can result in more healthful foods, a cleaner environment and a worldwide ability to produce more food on less land - using less water, fewer chemicals and less money.

The European Union has, in effect, banned imports of all foods produced through gene splicing, and it has kept many African nations, including those afflicted with widespread malnutrition, from accepting even donated gene-spliced foods and crops by threatening to cut off products they export because they might become contaminated with introduced genes. Even more puzzling, Uganda has prohibited the testing of a fungus-resistant banana created through gene splicing, even though the fungus is devastating that nation's most important crop.

A Continuum of Techniques
In a new report, "Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods," published by the National Academy of Sciences, an expert committee notes that any time genes are mutated or combined, as occurs in almost all breeding methods, there is a possibility of producing a new, potentially hazardous substance.

Citing a conventionally bred potato that turned out to contain an unintended toxin, the report says the hazard lies with the toxin's presence, not the breeding method. Among the foods developed through induced mutations are lettuce, beans, grapefruit, rice, oats and wheat. None had to undergo stringent testing and federal approval before reaching the market.

Only those foods produced by the specific introduction of one or more genes into the organism's DNA are subject to strict and prolonged premarketing regulations. But as the academy's report points out, gene splicing is only a process, not a product, a process on a continuum of genetic modification of foods that began more than 10,000 years ago when people first crossed two varieties of a crop to improve its characteristics.

In fact, gene splicing is the most refined, precise and predictable method of genetic modification because the function of the transferred gene or genes is known. It is also important to realize that genes are rarely unique to a given organism.

Regulate by Degree of Risk
All new crop varieties, whether produced through gene splicing or conventional techniques like cross-breeding or induced mutations, go through a series of tests before commercial introduction. After greenhouse testing for the look and perhaps taste of the crop, it is grown in a small, sequestered field trial and, if it passes that test, in a larger trial to check its commercial viability.

The potential risks associated with genetically modified foods result not so much from the method used to produce them but from the traits being introduced. With gene splicing, only one or two traits at a time are introduced, making it possible to assess beforehand how much testing is needed to assure safety. While such safety tests are important, it is possible to become fixated on hypothetical risks that can never be absolutely discounted.

Indeed, Dr. Miller, once director of the Office of Biotechnology for the Food and Drug Administration, argues that overly stringent regulations can needlessly raise public fears. "People naturally assume that something that is more highly regulated is more dangerous," he said, adding, "Government officials should have done less regulating and more educating."

A risk-based protocol for safety evaluation would greatly reduce the time and costs involved in developing most new gene-spliced crops, many of which could raise the standard of living worldwide and better protect the planet from chemical contamination.


New Herbicide Tolerant Crop Gets Under Activist Radar

- Chris Preston, Ph.D., University of Adelaide,  

Another herbicide tolerant crop has been quietly marketed in the US with no comment at all from environmental organisations. This crop is sunflowers. Herbicide tolerant sunflowers have been grown for two years now in the US with some success yet there has been no mobilisation of activists.

The centre of diversity for sunflowers is North America. Indeed, sunflowers are often grown in localities close to their progenitor wild sunflowers and close relatives. Sunflowers have modest rates of outcrossing and pollen flow between cultivated plants feral plants and wild sunflowers occurs readily. This is one of the problems for sunflower seed growers, who can have difficulty keeping their seed lines free of wild genes. Sunflowers can also cross with some close relatives, several of which are rare or endangered.

Greenpeace in a document titled "Centres of Diversity: Global Heritage of Crop Varieties Threatened by Genetic Pollution" published in 1999, listed sunflowers as one of the key crops under threat. Greenpeace and their allies frequently cite the environmental dangers of GM herbicide tolerant crops as a reason for them to be banned. These include, according to Greenpeace, cross-breeding with wild relatives, causing extinction of wild relatives through gene flow, genetic contamination of non-GM crops, using more herbicide, invasion of the environment and the creation of super weeds. Yet there have been no attempts to create legislation to ban the cultivation of herbicide tolerant sunflowers, no armies of boiler-suited activists in gas masks pulling up sunflower seeds, and no media pressure to frighten people about eating sunflowers and products from sunflowers. In fact there has not been a whimper from Greenpeace or any other environmental organisation. What has happened? How did this crop introduction get under their radar?

The answer is simple. The herbicide tolerant sunflowers were created through conventional breeding techniques by crossing the herbicide resistance gene in from a weed that had evolved resistance following herbicide use. You can read the story about how it was bred at http://www.ars.usda.gov/is/AR/archive/jan05/sunflower0105.htm. The Clearfield sunflowers are tolerant to the herbicide Beyond. The active ingredient in Beyond is imazmox, an imidazolinone herbicide.

Examining the claims made by some anti-GM organisations about the environmental threats of GM herbicide tolerant crops and comparing them with Clearfield sunflowers we get:

1. Cross-breeding with wild relatives - yes.
2. Gene movement to susceptible crops - yes.
3. Using more herbicide - no, but imazamox can persist in the soil, particularly in acid soils. Some herbicide labels have recommendations that susceptible crops should not be grown for 21 months after using the herbicide. In addition, herbicide resistance to the imidazolinone herbicides occurs rapidly, often with 4 or 5 uses of herbicide. This will then lead to an increase in herbicide use.
4. Invasion of the environment - yes, feral sunflowers are well known to be weedy. Not only that, feral sunflowers do not just appear along roads and field margins like canola, but also occur quite some distance away from sources of seed. Feral sunflowers also establish persistent populations in the wild.

In fact, from an environmental perspective one could argue that Clearfield sunflowers have almost nothing going for them, except they are not dangerous to humans - and they are not owned by Monsanto. If Clearfield sunflowers had to undergo the same regulatory scrutiny that GM herbicide tolerant crops do there would have been significant difficulties getting them to market.

So here we have it. Anti-GM groups almost foaming at the mouth about the environmental dangers of GM crops like Roundup Ready canola but totally ignoring Clearfield sunflowers. Yet when the two are compared it is clearly the sunflowers, which possess the greater potential for environmental impact. To me, this once again illustrates the lack of substance and logic in the environmental arguments used against GM crops as a whole. For some of these anti-GM groups the end is the only thing that is important. The potential dangers are blown well out of proportion and the same dangers of other forms of plant breeding ignored.

Another example. One anti-GM group in Australia, the Network of Concerned Farmers, is arguing that atrazine is safer than glyphosate (if you want to wade through it, you can read their claim at http://www.non-gm-farmers.com/news_details.asp?ID=1504).
Put simply, this claim is fear mongering with no substance. For comparable species, acute toxicity of atrazine is almost twice that of glyphosate (3090 mg/kg compared with 5600 mg/kg for rats). Subcronic toxicity is more than 500 times higher (NOEL of 10 mg/kg/day for atrazine compared with >5000 mg/kg/day for glyphosate). Chronic toxicity over 24 months is more than 500 times higher (NOEL of 0.7 mg/kg/day compared with 400 mg/kg/day) and teratogenicity is more than 40 times higher (NOEL of 25 mg/kg/day compared with 1000 mg/kg/day). The toxicity data are readily available, but of course get in the way of a good fear campaign.


Fields as Factories

- Patrick Park, Jan 8, 2005 http://bionuclearbunny.blogspot.com/

'Our future is Biotech and Nuclear. Embrace the change. Embrace the Bunny.'

In "Think of fields as factories" we read of the incredible potential of "pharming", using gene splicing techniques on plants to force them to produce quality, inexpensive drugs in large quantities. In some cases where the drug can be administered orally, if the part of the plant that accumulates the drug is edible, the plant can also be the vehicle for administering the drug. This can be a very important factor in the effort to get drugs such as vaccines to the poorest of the poor who have no access to the army of health care workers needed to administer the drugs intravenously.

Of course, to appear "balanced" Scott Canon, the Kansas City Star reporter who wrote this piece, must insert baseless accusations and fearmongering by special-interest food-nanny groups such as the Union of Concerned Scientists who think we need them to protect us. They "just don't think its worth the risk," but what about those who need these drugs and have to find a way to get them at $30,000 a gram!? (See reference to the production of lysozyme in the excerpt below).

Its unbelievable that Mr Canon can cite the Starlink fiasco without mentioning the CDC's follow-up study showing that there is no scientific reason to suspect that Starlink maize (a GM corn) caused allergic reactions in anyone.

Some excerpts from the Kansas City Star article about plant pharmaceutical "factories": Rice and barley could yield wonder drugs, transformed from dinner table staples to medical miracles by laboratory gene tinkering.

Scott Deeter, Ventria's president and chief operating officer, said the technology offers great promise that must overcome isolated and, he believes, unwarranted fears. 'We've got to make sure people understand the technology,' he said.

He emphasizes, for instance, that Ventria only works with self-pollinating crops such as rice and barley where wind or insects can't drift from pharmaceutical fields to contaminate ordinary crops. 'The fields will only be worked with equipment dedicated to those crops' not mixed in regular produce or commodity grains.

Ventria ... has been growing small-scale plots of crops that replace the plant's native proteins with lactoferrin and lysozyme, generating the same substances found in human tears, saliva and mother's milk. They can be used to fight stomach infections or suppress potentially lethal forms of diarrhea. They can currently be extracted from mother's milk at a cost of $30,000 a gram. Lysozyme can also be drawn from chicken eggs, but then it poses a danger of allergic reaction.


Tragic Loss of an Ag Scientist in an African Conflict

- A Tragic Loss http://www.cgiar.org/enews/december2004/story_04.html

In November, Africa lost a pioneering scientist, Dr. Robert J. Carsky, whose work will have lasting impact on hundreds of thousands of African farmers. At the time of his death, Bob was working as a cropping systems agronomist for The Africa Rice Center (WARDA) in Bouaké, Côte d'Ivoire. The entire CGIAR staff and families of The Africa Rice Center and IITA lost a colleague, mentor, and friend.

Bob devoted his life and all his scientific skill to those goals. At IITA he did seminal work in finding natural ways to enhance the fertility of soils so they would grow more food. In much of Africa, where farmers have little or no access to chemical fertilizers, the technologies Bob developed and tested offered real hope.

Bob is survived by his wife Rebecca and children Jasmine, Amado, and Julien. The impact of his work on so many African families will be his permanent legacy. He will be greatly missed.

Aid Worker Killed in Cote d’Ivoire had United Methodist links

- Elliott Wright, UMNS, Nov. 22, 2004 http://www.umc.org/interior.asp?ptid=2&mid=6111  

The news reports simply called him an "American aid worker" -- the lone civilian killed Nov. 5 when fighter planes of the government of Cote d’Ivoire bombed a French military peacekeeping post in the West African nation. Nine French soldiers also died.

Robert Carsky had been employed for six months in Cote d’Ivoire by the Africa Rice Development Agency, an international agricultural program. He previously had worked for another organization in Benin. He had been back in Cote d’Ivoire for three days after spending three weeks with his family. His wife, Rebecca, and their three children, ages 7, 16 and 17, were due to join him in December.

Robert Carsky, his widow told Gleaves, had given no indication of impending danger when she talked with him the day before the bombing. He and his fellow workers for the Africa Rice Development Agency had been gathered in a guesthouse. As the only American present in an area of rising tensions, he was to be evacuated the next day with other Americans.

The Africa Rice Center is Relocating (from CGIAR News)

The conflict in Côte d'Ivoire has exacted a heavy toll on the staff and families of The Africa Rice Center - WARDA. Even as the Africa Rice Center community were mourning the tragic death of Robert Carsky, the continuing strife required the evacuation of staff from Bouaké. Management, research and administrative staff will be relocated to Cotonu in Benin. Africa Rice Center staff normally located in Senegal and Nigeria will continue work as usual at those locations.

"We were greatly saddened that the hostilities cost the life of Bob Carsky, one of our leading scientists," said Kanayo Nwanze, Director General, The Africa Rice Center. "We are resolved to carry forward his legacy, and continue in our efforts to mobilize science for African development. We thank all members of the CGIAR family who have extended their most generous support to us during this severe crisis."


Organic Ketchups Boost Fight Against Cancers

- David Derbyshire, Daily Telegraph (UK), January 6, 2005

Organic tomato ketchup contains up to three times the levels of cancer-fighting compounds as traditional varieties, says new research. American scientists made the discovery after comparing brands of bottled sauces - including the purple and green ketchups in America.

If confirmed, the findings will provide the first hard evidence that organic vegetables can be healthier than conventional ones. Cooked tomatoes are a source of lycopene - a compound that makes the fruit red but which protects against breast, pancreatic, prostate and bowel cancer, especially when eaten with fatty foods. There is also evidence it can reduce heart attacks.

.... But Biotech Can Do Better!

- Tom DeGregori Analyzes and Ponders the Issue Further...

Go to a search engine and type in terms like Betty Ishida, Agricultural Research Service, and guess what comes up - articles like the one titled - Phytonutrients Take Center Stage http://www.ars.usda.gov/is/AR/archive/dec99/stage1299.htm .

Look what comes up in the middle of the article: "Tissue culture at the ARS Western Regional Research Center in Albany, California, is producing tomatoes with 10 times more lycopene than store-bought tomatoes. Betty K. Ishida and colleagues grow tomatoes in test tubes kept at cooler temperatures, which triggers certain genes to produce the enzymes that increase lycopene production, she says. She is searching for the specific genes responsible and other ways to activate them."

Other ARS articles use the words "genetic engineering" to describe the above process.

Question - why has the media ignored this story which has been around for some time now and now publicizes a study which uses a prepared product and not the tomatoes themselves and apparently does not look for anything else? There is always the possibility that the environmental factors (less well protected???) that would cause an increase in lycopene in tomatoes might also cause the expression of other compounds that are not beneficial? If one really wants lycopene - go GM
From Prakash: See also

'The Story of Lycopene' at http://whybiotech.ca/canada-english.asp?id=3727
'Tomato Packs More Cancer-Fighting Punch' at http://news.uns.purdue.edu/UNS/html4ever/020617.Handa.lycopene.html


Agricultural Reforms Best Help for Tsunami-Hit Countries

- Jim Lobe, OneWorld.net, Jan 11, 2005 http://news.yahoo.com/

With global attention focused on relief efforts in the wake of the devastating tsunamis that hit South Asia, two Washington-based international agencies argue that an important key to helping poor countries lies as much in agricultural reforms as in emergency assistance.

In a new report released here Monday, the World Bank called for both wealthy and middle-income nations to slash tariffs that shield their farmers from international competition as a sure way to boost incomes in poor countries, and lift tens of millions of the world's poorest people out of poverty.

At the same time, a second report released by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) called on all countries--including wealthy donor nations--to provide more resources for agricultural research in poor countries, particularly in the development of genetically modified (GM) crops which, it said, are key to reducing poverty.

Despite the general perception that multinational corporations are using GM crops to gain control of the world's food supply and agricultural production, the report asserts that developing countries are conducting most of the research in that area. The report--the first global assessment of the state of biotech crop research by publicly funded institutes in 15 developing countries--is published in the latest issue of 'Nature Biotechnology.'

"Our study debunks many misconceptions about biotech crop research," said Joel Cohen, an IFPRI fellow and the report's main author. "Many people assume that large multinational corporations control the global development of genetically modified foods, but the reality is that poor countries have vibrant programs of public biotech research. Often this research draws upon indigenous plant varieties to cultivate improved crops for local use by small-scale farmers," he said.

The crops being developed in these laboratories--whose funding is largely coordinated by a World Bank chaired consortium--are mainly designed to boost productivity in both key export crops, such as cotton, bananas, and rice, as well as staple foods in poor countries, such as sweet potatoes and maize in Africa; cabbage, potatoes, tropical fruits, and tomatoes in Asia; and maize, potatoes, and fruit in Latin America.

According to IFPRI, recent studies in Africa show that a ten percent increase in agricultural productivity can reduce the incidence of poverty by as much as 7.2 percent in the affected community. A similar increase in India can reduce poverty by four percent in the short run and 12 percent in the long run.

With media coverage of poverty- and development-related issues dominated in recent years by disasters--such as the recent tsunami and the HIV/AIDS crisis--and corruption, the role of agricultural reforms in promoting development has been largely neglected.

Yet, for most developing countries, agriculture has been the engine of economic growth and poverty reduction. Almost 70 percent of poor people in developing countries live in rural areas and are thus dependent either directly or indirectly on agriculture, according to the new Bank report.

In Africa, agriculture accounts for 70 percent of full time employment, one third of the continent's gross domestic product, and 40 percent of its total export earnings. In South Asia, 60 percent of the labor force is involved in agriculture, which contributes about 25 percent to the region's GDP. Even in Latin America, more than 30 percent of the labor force works in agriculture.

Misconceptions About Biotech Crop Research in Poor Countries


The good news: according to New Report Debunks Misconceptions About Biotech Crop Research in Poor Countries, the myth that AgBioTech is just another ploy by the Industrial/Government/Military complex of the USA to extend its hegemony of world domination is just that: a myth. Many countries have "vibrant programs of public biotech research," and some of these countries aren't rich and powerful either. They are not trying to "rule the world" with genetically modified "franken-food," they are just trying to invest in research that will better the lives of their people, many of whom are hungry and malnourished.

Poor countries don't have a lot of money to throw down the bottomless pit of social policies built on an unrealistic view of the world and human nature -- like we do in the rich and fat developed countries of the world. Like a family on a budget, they have to be ultra-realistic -- every dollar spent has to count. And apparently they've come to believe that AgBioTech is worth the investment.

But there's a problem: the rich, fat busy-bodies of the developed world are worried -- just worried to death! -- and, like all busy-bodies, they can't help but poke their noses in other peoples' business and try to tell them how to run their lives, because they just know better than everyone else.

Patronizing as this must appear to devloping nations, professional busy-bodies and worriers of the filthy-rich environmental and anti-globalization organizations have convinced many countries to raise the bar so high that it is making it difficult for those nations on a budget (a real budget) to get any of that great research out the door where it can do some good.

Of course, no one is advocating that anyone be allowed to release any old genetically modified plant willy-nilly; but then again, in the past we made massive changes to plant's genetics through "conventional" (ie, error-prone, trial and error, ham-fisted) breeding techniques, including the use of radiation and mutagenic chemicals, and no one ever whined that we were "polluting" the environment with dangerous "foreign" genes.

Testing requirements for AgBioTech should be science-based, not panty-wasting, "who knows what might happen" testing that stretches on forever, never reaching a reasonable conclusion of safety -- while every year, thousands upon thousands of desperate women and children die of malnutrion, hunger, and the endemic diseases of the under-nourished.


Diet and Genes

- Anne Underwood and Jerry Adler, Newsweek. Jan. 17; Full story at http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/6804082/site/newsweek/

'It isn't just what you eat that can kill you, and it isn't just your DNA that can save you˜it's how they interact'

Within a decade, though, doctors will be able to take genetic profiles of their patients, identify specific diseases for which they are at risk and create customized nutrition plans accordingly. Some people will be advised to eat broccoli, while others will be told to eat ... even more broccoli.

Maybe you have to be a nutritionist to appreciate the beauty of that scheme. The promise of nutritional genomics -- a field that barely existed five years ago -- is not to overturn a century's worth of dietary advice but to understand on the most basic level how health is determined by the interplay of nutrients and genes. The old paradigm was of a one-way process, in which "bad" foods gave you heart disease or cancer unless "good" genes intervened to protect you. New research suggests a continual interaction, in which certain foods enhance the action of protective (or harmful) genes, while others tend to suppress them.

This supports what we know from observation, that some individuals are better adapted than others to survive a morning commute past a dozen doughnut shops. Pima Indians in the Southwest get type 2 diabetes at eight times the rate of white Americans. Individuals have widely varying responses to high- or low-fat diets, wine, salt, even exercise. Overwhelmingly, though, researchers expect that conventional dietary wisdom will hold for most people. So keep that vegetable steamer handy.

..Nutritional genomics will create opportunities for drug companies to isolate, concentrate, synthesize and improve on the compounds in nature, which they've been doing for a hundred years. What Cole and his colleagues seek is to shed light on the mystery of how the human body has evolved the miraculous ability to overcome, once in a while, the threat posed by the consequences of its own appetites.


Contemplating the Abyss

'The Role of Environmental Degradation in the Collapse of Human Societies'

- William Rees, Nature 433, 15 - 16; Jan 6 2005 www.nature.com

"Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond; Viking/Allen Lane: 2005. 592 pp. $29.95/£20 "

Jared Diamond is a necessary antidote to Bjørn Lomborg (of The Skeptical Environmentalist fame) and other latter-day acolytes of Julian Simon who preach that environmental problems are largely bogus and that the human future is secure.

Consider the facts: industrial humans are the most voracious predators in the world's oceans and, simultaneously, the most successful terrestrial carnivore ever to have walked the Earth. As if to underscore the merits of our generalist evolutionary strategy, we are also the dominant herbivore in grasslands and forests all over the planet (especially if we consider the demands of our 'industrial metabolism'). In short, humans are the most ecologically significant macro-consumers in every major ecosystem type on Earth (with the notable exception of deep marine vent communities, which we have only just begun to explore), and we are literally consuming ecosystems from within. Meanwhile, Earth scientists say that human activity is the most powerful geological force altering the face of the planet, and the erosive pace is accelerating.

Nothing bogus here -- this is an ecological reality. Human behaviour towards the ecosphere has become dysfunctional and now arguably threatens our own long-term security. The real problem is that the modern world remains in the sway of a dangerously illusory cultural myth. Like Lomborg, most governments and international agencies seem to believe that the human enterprise is somehow 'decoupling' from the environment, and so is poised for unlimited expansion. Jared Diamond's new book, Collapse, confronts this contradiction head-on. It is essential reading for anyone who is unafraid to be disillusioned if it means they can walk into the future with their eyes open.

As suggested by its title, this book is about societal collapses -- past, present and future -- and the factors that cause human societies to fail. But it is also a history of success, of societies that were able to confront their problems and thrive, sometimes for millennia. Diamond reasons that, for all the trappings of modernity, the human past presages the human future, and thus provides "a rich database from which we can learn". His primary mission is to determine the ecological, political and cultural conditions that lead to collapse and to contrast these with the conditions that favour success.

Diamond defines collapse as "a drastic decrease in human population size and/or political/economic/social complexity, over a considerable area for an extended time". He founds his analysis on systematic consideration of five sets of causal mechanisms. Any of the first four sets -- damage that people inflict on their ecosystems, climate change, the actions of hostile neighbours, and loss of contact with trading partners (friendly neighbours) -- may or may not be relevant to any particular case. The fifth set, however -- how a society responds to the other classes of problems as they arise -- is always a determinant of that society's future.

Collapse is based on a series of detailed case studies. Diamond begins with an affectionate portrait of modern-day Montana, revealing many of the socio-political and environmental uncertainties that cloud the state's future. The main purpose here is actually to establish common themes for subsequent chapters on societies that have long since completed the cycle to collapse: cultures on Easter Island, Pitcairn Island and Henderson Island in the South Pacific; the native American culture of the Anasazi; the Maya; and the Norse Greenland culture. These tragic failures are followed by several uplifting cases of societal success, including Tikopia in the South Pacific, the New Guinea highlands, and Japan during the Tokugawa era.

Diamond then provides a fuller exploration of the many rich parallels between these historic cases and select modern societies. The latter include the contemporary malthusian disasters of Rwanda and Haiti; the success (by developing-world standards) of the Dominican Republic; an emerging developing-world giant, China, which is the scariest case because of the staggering scale of its problems and potential global impacts; and Australia, a developed-world society reeling from ecological degradation but beginning to respond creatively. (Tellingly, however, Diamond's most realistic scenario for Australia sees it falling into decline under the weight of accelerating environmental problems, perhaps just ahead of the rest of the developed world.) Curiously missing from this section is a detailed consideration of the United States, Diamond's own country and the one imposing the greatest ecological load on the planet.

What emerges most clearly from Diamond's analysis is the central role played by environmental decay in undermining human societies. Eight ecological processes familiar to environmentalists today also plagued earlier societies: habitat destruction (such as deforestation and desertification), soil degradation (erosion, water-logging and salination), water supply problems, over-hunting, over-fishing, the impacts of introduced species, population growth pressures, and rising per capita impacts. The relative significance of each of these processes varies greatly from case to case, but all the ancient societies examined put themselves at risk, sometimes fatally so, by inadvertently undermining the very ecosystems that supported them -- and modern societies have even more ecological spectres to banish.

Highlighting environmental degradation as a fundamental factor in societal collapse distinguishes Diamond's interpretation from that of Joseph Tainter in his 1988 book The Collapse of Complex Societies, which has long been the best-known book on the subject. Tainter developed a convincing argument that societies actually advance or 'complexify' as they respond creatively to major challenges. He therefore found it difficult to accept that any complex society with pre-developed administrative, organizational and technical coping skills would allow itself to succumb to emergent ecological problems. Instead, he placed the blame for collapse on socio-political instability resulting from diminishing returns to investment in problem solving -- that is, on excessive complexity. Diamond concedes that the implosion of a vulnerable society might be triggered by an overstretched economy, dissolute leadership or enemy invasion, say, but argues that the ultimate cause is usually fragility caused by ecological degradation.

In the book's final section, Diamond focuses on practical lessons. Why do societies sometimes make such disastrous decisions? What can we 'moderns' usefully learn from the responses of ancient societies to environmental crises? What is the appropriate role of the private sector, transnational corporations in particular? Which of today's environmental trends are the most threatening and how do they differ from those that sank previous societies? Anticipating resistance to his findings from perennial optimists, Diamond includes well reasoned ripostes to a dozen common 'one-liner' objections to the seriousness of environmental problems and to the relevance of previous collapses to techno-industrial society.

In the end, Diamond's painstaking toil in the deep mines of history rewards him with sufficient nuggets of hope that he emerges "cautiously optimistic" about the human prospect. Modern society's ecological and geopolitical problems may be daunting but, in theory, they can be solved if we take the right decisions to reduce our ecological footprints. And let's not forget that we are uniquely positioned to learn from the collapse of previous societies.

Regrettably, theory and example do not always translate into practice. The most important lesson to be drawn from Collapse is that resilient societies are nimble ones, capable of long-term planning and of abandoning deeply entrenched but ultimately destructive core values and beliefs. This, in turn, requires a well informed public, inspired leadership and the political will to take decisions that go against the established order of things. In this light, the astute observer of contemporary geopolitics and ecological decline might be excused a descent into quiet despair.
William Rees is professor of ecological planning in the School of Community and Regional Planning, University of British Columbia, 6333 Memorial Road, Vancouver V6T 1Z2, Canada.


Farmers' Markets? No Thanks. That's Sheer Snobbery

- Richard Tomkins, Financial Times, Jan 11, 2005

One of the oldest maxims in business is that scarcity sells. ("Buy now while stocks last!") It is just another expression of the law of supply and demand. So you have to hand it to those guys at the weekend farmers' markets that have become popular in the US, the UK and beyond. They may look like simple country folk trying to earn a few honest pennies from their back-breaking labour in the fields, but they need few lessons in how to separate urbanites from their money. Right now, my biggest sausage nightmare is that the implied scarcity of rare pig breeds will so increase their popularity that the delicious supermarket pig becomes an endangered species and I end up next Christmas having to pay 10 times the cost of the turkey for a tray of Tesco's pork cocktail sausages.

Then again, the farmers' market phenomenon is riddled with such paradoxes. An even bigger selling point than scarcity is the fake sense of authenticity these markets convey. Admittedly, there was a time in pre-industrial history when local markets were the most effective way of bringing people and produce together, but today, supermarkets maximise economies of scale and value for money. So what could be more inauthentic than the sight of dozens of farmers erecting stalls in city centre lots and selling produce to wealthy loft-dwellers who have driven half a mile from their homes in gas-guzzling 4x4s?

And why are even mundane foodstuffs such as vegetables labelled "traditional" or "original" as if these words automatically conferred some kind of product superiority?

Everything was better in the good old days, we are encouraged to believe. Yet here lies another paradox. Once, you paid extra if you wanted only the best quality vegetables, carefully trimmed, thoroughly washed and properly packaged. Now, you pay extra if you want your vegetables authentically bruised, rotten and misshapen, covered in clods of earth, stuck on stalks or sprouting fronds and packed in flimsy paper bags that burst the moment you have handed over your money.

Perhaps the height of absurdity on my visit came when I found a stall advertising so-called heritage potatoes such as Pink Fir Apple 1850 and Ratte 1872 at about five times the price of high-quality supermarket potatoes. For heaven's sake, I muttered: sometimes a potato is just a potato. But then, at last, I realised what lay behind the rare pig breed and heritage potato syndrome: sheer snobbery.

A few years ago, in his book Bobos in Paradise, David Brooks noted how today's educated elites, renouncing conspicuous consumption, had established a new set of codes that defined what kinds of spending were acceptable. Buying big limousines and power boats was crass, but it was virtuous to practice the perfectionism of small things - for example, devoting fanatical attention to the purchase of exactly the right kind of pasta strainer, a distinctive doorknob or an ingeniously designed corkscrew.

Similarly, for the new upper class, it is now far too vulgar to be seen buying caviar and champagne. It is, however, a sign of good taste if you are prepared to spend flabbergasting amounts of money on a bag of potatoes or a lump of pigmeat. Ideally, of course, these should be cooked in an oven fired with carefully selected pieces of heritage coal lovingly hand-mined from a rare seam near a hamlet in South Wales and transported to the city by horse and cart. Yes, it costs a fortune, but you would not believe how much it enhances your food's flavour, texture and goodness.

Returning, though, to my shopping saga, there is just one more chapter. When buying my pigmeat, I was reassured to learn that the bacon had been dry cured with salt, saltpetre and brown sugar, with no artificial colour or smoke. Later that day, however, I stumbled upon a web page that said saltpetre was a nitrate, that nitrates decayed into nitrites, that nitrites combined with some food chemicals to form nitrosamines and that nitrosamines were among the most carcinogenic substances on earth.

It made me wonder. How do you trust these farmers' markets? The food, with all its supposed authenticity, may look healthy, but how do you really know? And what comeback do you have against a no-name stallholder if his products poison your family?

What we need is for someone to establish a chain of markets under a brand name that would stand as an assurance of quality and reliability. The food could be prepared with convenience in mind but scale economies and self-service would keep prices low - and for the greater comfort of shoppers, the markets could be placed inside clean, modern buildings with large car parks. They could be called super farmers' markets, or supermarkets for short. And they could have my custom any day.