Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org : May 17, 2005
* Genetics, Not Cannibalism
* Report: Biotech Corn In Africa Can Relieve Hunger
* Cotton yield in Gujarat - Ramifications?
* (Having Solved All Its Other Problems) Zambia Builds High-Tech Lab
to Detect GM Food Imports
* ... Alex Avery Comments.. First World Activists Blocking GM to Third World
* UK: Fresh Effort to Promote GM Crops
* Donating Scientific Journals
* Need Help with Survey: Brain Drain in Europe
* If Wishes Were Horses, This Would Be the Kentucky Derby
* This Must be the Biggest Bung in The History of The Universe
Genetics, Not Cannibalism
- Vivian Moses, News and Star (UK), May 16, 2005 http://www.newsandstar.co.uk/
Suzanne Greenhill used the word 'cannibalism' in her letter (News &
Star, May 7) about genetically modified rice containing the gene for
a human liver enzyme. Did that make any sense?
What exactly constitutes cannibalism? A nice juicy human steak or a
boiled missionary would, to most people, be clear examples. But this
case is rather different; the only human aspect of the proposal is
the use of human-derived information.
The physical gene itself (the appropriate stretch of DNA) can be
obtained from a single human hair or from a cheek swab. It is then
multiplied billions of times in the test tube; the original bit that
came from a person would long since have been diluted and effectively
vanished in the mass of material synthesized in the laboratory.
Moreover, we already use such human genetic material for medical
purposes without anybody seeming to worry: most, if not all, insulin
for treating diabetic patients is manufactured by micro-organisms
carrying the human insulin gene. Is that being cannibalistic?
Whilst the combination and collective interactive functioning of our
genes makes us uniquely human, the individual genes themselves do
not. Around 98 per cent of our genes are similar to those in
chimpanzees, some 95 per cent to pigs, 90 per cent or so to mice and
so on down the evolutionary tree.
Genetically, we probably overlap 30-40 per cent with bananas, with
which we share a good deal of basic biochemistry. Yet nobody suggests
that we are being cannibals when we eat a pork chop or a banana. So
why might it smack of cannibalism for us to eat that rice?
Ms Greenhill wondered why we need to "pollute what the world has left
of agricultural land for the profits of the bio-tech companies". She
might like to know that GM crops grown in China are developed by the
Chinese, with no profit for the biotech companies.
She went on: "We have the technology and ability to develop further
the varieties of crops already available."
We do indeed, and gene technology is one of the ways we do it.
Professor Vivian Moses is chairman of CropGen
Report: Biotech Corn In Africa Can Relieve Hunger
- Phillip Brasher, Des Moines Register, May 15, 2005
For years, the proponents of biotechnology have been telling us that
genetically engineered crops could relieve hunger around the world.
Now comes some evidence that biotech crops really could make a
difference, at least in southern Africa.
Corn is a staple crop throughout the region, including countries like
Zambia and Zimbabwe, where production has been steadily declining. In
some countries, people rely on corn for up to 60 percent of their
diet. But corn yields are terrible by world standards, not to mention
U.S. standards. The lack of commercial fertilizer is part of the
problem, but so is the lack of pesticides to control the
stalk-destroying insect larvae so familiar to U.S. growers.
Farmers in South Africa have started using Bt corn, bioengineered to
kill corn borers, and it is making a meaningful difference for both
large, commercial farms and small-scale growers, according to a
report by economists at the Agriculture Department and Rutgers, the
State University of New Jersey.
Yields on large farms have increased about 11 percent. Small-scale
farmers also benefit, often more so. Yields for small farms shot up
as much as 56 percent in two areas of the country, the report found.
Increases in four other regions varied from 7 percent to 47 percent.
To put this in perspective, the average corn yield in South Africa,
which has the region's most productive farmers by far, is less than 3
tons per hectare, or well under 50 bushels per acre.
Biotech corn only started to take off in South Africa in 2001 and
2002. Last year, farmers planted about a million acres of the crop,
or about 15 percent of their production, according to Monsanto Co.
half of Iowa's corn acreage last year was biotech.)
Theoretically, these increased yields should be good news to farmers
in other southern African nations. In some countries, in fact, the
USDA-Rutgers study says Bt corn could reduce food shortages
significantly. In Lesotho, for example, where the average corn yield
is about one-third of South Africa's, Bt corn could increase food
consumption by 16 percent. And that's if Bt corn only boosted yields
by 11 percent, the
increase reported by South Africa's large farms. Angola, Malawi,
Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe also could see significant impacts.
Bt corn "can benefit Africa because it can substantially increase
crop yields and reduce pesticide use," the report concluded.
Trouble is, farmers there aren't likely to be planting biotech seeds
for a long time. South Africa is struggling with how to get the seeds
in the hands of small-scale farmers. Many simply can't afford the
cost. It's tough for companies to cut their seed prices because of
the cost of dealing with the thousands of small farms, the report
In South Africa, every farmer who buys biotech corn seed must sign a
contract identifying where they are growing the crop and spelling out
how they will comply with planting restrictions intended to prevent
insects from becoming resistant to the plant's toxin.
The problems facing farmers in other countries are more basic. Some
of the countries don't want to grow biotech corn for fear they will
never be able to sell their crops to Europe, where opposition to
biotechnology is strong. Zambia, Zimbabwe and Angola have either
refused to take donated U.S. corn or insisted that it be milled
first. Other countries have yet to take any steps toward allowing the
cultivation of biotech crops.
In east Africa, Kenya is testing biotech corn and other crops. In
west Africa, Burkina Faso and Mali are moving toward production of Bt
cotton. Resistance to genetically modified seeds will ease as farmers
hear about the growers' experience in South Africa and China, said
Calestous Juma, a native Kenyan who is an expert on biotechnology and
international development at Harvard University. "You can't
underestimate the power of a good example," he said.
Cotton yield in Gujarat
- Bob MacGregor
The note on increases in cotton yield in Gujarat reminded me of an
unresolved discussion from a year or so back.
Has anyone on the list seen analysis of the world cotton price impact
of increased production in India, China, etc. as Bt varieties
spread? I don't know what the demand elasticity of the world cotton
market is, but (as is the case with pretty much all agricultural
commodity markets) I would expect that a sudden supply increase (and
remember that India has the largest cotton crop area in the world,
but low yields) would cause a more than proportional fall in prices.
By getting on this treadmill, cotton farmers may become the victims
of their own success within a few years. Of course, NOT getting on
the technology treadmill is even worse, since prices will drift
downward and the non-adopters will suffer the low prices without
productivity gains to partially offset the falling prices.
Meanwhile, the falling prices will put pressure on governments to help out.
I am thinking here in particular of the US government, which isn't
likely be deaf to the cries of its cotton producers from California
to Georgia when their bottom line starts to suffer from foreign
competition and plunging world prices.
I'm also mulling over the idea that the antis might try to blame
falling prices (and the hardships for LDC farmers that come from
that) on GM technology -- in the same sense that fewer weeds in a
canola or sugar beet field has been portrayed as an evil side-effect
of GM technology.
Some members may want to argue against this scenario, but I think the
history of technological advance in agriculture (and certainly of the
contortions and distortions of Greenpeace, et.al.) affirms this is a
likely future. While I welcome reasoned objections, what I am more
interested in at this stage is some market intelligence on the pace
and intensity of these price changes as world (particularly Indian)
cotton production ramps upover the next few years. Off the top of my
head (and given the apparent pace of Bt cotton adoption in India), I
expect this price impact to start to unfold within 3 to 5 years-- but
cotton isn't may area of expertise, by a long shot!!
Any informed feedback would be appreciated.
Zambia Builds High-Tech Lab to Detect GM Food Imports
- Talent Ngandwe, Science and Development Network, May 13, 2005
'Despite Zambia's drought, the country is refusing GM food such as maize'
Zambia has begun building a modern molecular biology laboratory to
detect genetically modified (GM) organisms entering the country. The
National Institute for Scientific and Industrial Research (NISIR)
began the project last month. It is expected to finish by December.
The Norwegian government has donated US$330,000 for buying equipment
and training scientists.
Despite Zambia experiencing its third severe drought since 2000, the
government is sticking to its decision to ban GM food imports (see As
drought takes hold, Zambia's door stays shut to GM). Michelle Nganga,
head of research and development at NISIR told Times of Zambia last
week (6 May) the new laboratory is being built to safeguard Zambians'
health and maintain a sustainable environment.
In 2003 the Zambian government launched a five-year strategy for
national biosafety and biotechnology. As part of this, the Zambian
government drafted biosafety legislation to increase its
technological infrastructure to 'protect' people from consuming GM
Director of NISIR, Mwananyanda Lewanika, told SciDev.Net that the new
laboratory would be responsible for identifying GM organisms, since
the virology laboratory at the University Teaching Hospital (UTH) has
no molecular biology facility.
The goal is to have the new facility accredited as a regional and
national referral laboratory that will provide research and training
in collaboration with the University of Zambia and the Norwegian
Institute of Gene Ecology. The University of Zambia will arrange for
student placements in GM research, while the Norwegian Institute of
Gene ecology will use scientist exchange programmes to help in
training and research.
Alex Avery Comments:
Norwegian Institute of Gene Ecology is helping Zambia set up a lab to
"protect" the country and its citizens from unauthorized GM crops and
seeds. Here's a prime example of First World activists working to
block GM into developing countries.
On their website it states that "GenØk is part of a national and
international co-operative network. The network encompasses Norwegian
research institutions as well as internationally recognised research
environments and independent NGO’s. Our closest co-operating partners
are NZIGE (New Zealand Institute of Gene Ecology), TWN (Third World
Network), UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) and the
University of Tromsø."
Shameful. And UN money is helping!]
- Alex Avery
UK: Fresh Effort to Promote GM Crops
- Julian Gairdner, Farmer's Weekly, May 13, 2005
Members of the American Soybean Association have flown into the UK in
an attempt to combat negative reports about genetically modified
Unveiling their pro-GM report, Dispelling the Myths, the ASA members
described its contents as the "real facts" about GM crops. It is
designed to promote the benefits of GM soya specifically and biotech
crops more generally and it will be taken to countries across the EU.
The ASA's UK visit also took in briefings to the British Retail
Consortium, the Food Standards Agency, the National Farmers' Union
and the British Society of Plant Breeders.
Speaking at the report launch Liberal Democrat peer and pro-GM author
Dick Taverne said: "One of the most disgraceful aspects of science in
this country is the way we discuss GM crops. "You hardly get the
impression in this country that GM is one of the most successful
technologies in the world. An area three times the size of the UK is
now cultivated with GM crops."
Key messages in the report were the environmental credentials of GM
soya, the ASA's Kimball Nill said. "We've seen a doubling of the
fraction of GM soya planted to conservation [no-till] tillage.
Mechanical cultivations have been replaced by [benign] herbicides
resulting in lower fuel use and reductions in carbon release [from
the soil], leading to an 88% reduction in emissions of greenhouse
gases to the environment." Better weed control allowed closer plant
row spacing because inter-row mechanical weeding was no longer
necessary, reducing soil erosion and herbicide run-off, he said.
The report was important to addressing the GM issue in the UK, Lord
Taverne said. "After the GM Nation exercise, another study found 40%
of the public were against buying GM, 20% were happy to buy, and 40%
didn't know enough."
But he doubted whether the report would be enough to change the tide
of opinion. "My own view is that the public don't really care about
the environmental benefits. Opinion will swing when a product
provides direct benefits to the consumer, but the environmental
benefits will have an effect - resistance to GM may be weakening."
Donating Scientific Journals
- Susan Andarmani; email@example.com; Phone: 408-215-4576;
Sunnyvale, CA 94085
Our company has a large collection of recent (2001-present) medical
and scientific journals, in mint condition, that we would like to
donate to Afghaninstan, Iraq, or other country for university,
corporate, hospital, etc. use.
Please advise asap as we are moving to a new building soon and want
these journals to go where they are most needed.
If your organization cannot accept them, can you put us in touch with
one that can?
- Thanks, Susan Andarmani
Need Help with Survey: Brain Drain in Europe
- Kim Meulenbroeks
The Young European Biotech Network (YEBN) has launched a
questionnaire on European Job Migration. Our aim is to bring the key
problems encountered by Europe's young researchers, scientists and
technicians to light and to identify the major stumbling blocks for
those considering a future in biotech research and development.
With the questionnaire we want to have an indication about how
relevant the 'Brain Drain' problem is at this moment. We would like
to ask you to circulate the message below about the questionnaire to
as many the young researchers in Life Sciences as possible (mailing
list of ANBI Biotecnologi Italiani).
YEBN launches biotechnology job migration survey
Help the YEBN to fight the European Brain Drain by giving your input
to their questionnaire. Contribute and you might WIN a personal
subscription of a journal of the nature publishing group of your
The Young European Biotechnology Network (YEBN), an organisation
representing young biotech researchers in Europe, has launched the
European job migration project and is calling for relevant
individuals to complete a short survey.
The project is designed to highlight some of the key obstacles faced
by young researchers and technicians considering a biotechnology
career in Europe, and to identify areas for action by European policy
YEBN hopes to survey over 1,000 young biotechnology researchers in
either full time study or work, and from all areas of specialisation.
To find out more and complete the survey, please consult the
following web address:
If Wishes Were Horses, This Would Be the Kentucky Derby
- Henry I. Miller and Gregory Conko, May 17, 2005, www.TechCentralStation.com
GENEVA, Switzerland -- The 58th World Health Assembly (the World
Health Organization's policy-making body) under way here brings to
mind the cliché about the contestants in the Miss America pageant
who, when asked what would be their one wish if anything would be
granted, all gave the same vapid answer, "World peace." Dozens of
presentations and scores of pamphlets and documents here outline
grandiose, wholly unachievable goals for the improvement of public
health around the world.
For example, by 2015, they expect immunization to "reduce child
mortality by two-thirds," "improve maternal health by reducing the
maternal mortality rate by three-quarters, and "combat HIV/AIDS,
malaria and other major diseases."
But wishing for it doesn't make it so.
Ironically, several UN policies and programs -- even some sponsored
by WHO itself -- erect obstacles against the availability of safe,
effective new technologies that could make some of the elusive public
health goals more approachable.
For example, the UN's involvement in the excessive, unscientific
regulation of biotechnology -- also known as gene-splicing, or
genetic modification (GM) -- slows agricultural and pharmaceutical
research and development and promotes environmental damage.
Ultimately, it could prolong famine and water shortages for millions
in less developed countries, and even obstruct and increase
development costs for vaccines incorporated into edible fruits and
vegetables. By eliminating the need for refrigeration and needles and
syringes, to say nothing of elaborate manufacturing facilities, such
vaccines can be produced inexpensively and require far less
distribution infrastructure than similar products made with
conventional technology. In fact, these techniques might be the only
realistic alternative for producing sufficient influenza vaccine for
all regions affected in the event of the expected pandemic.
During the past decade, delegates to the UN-sponsored Convention on
Biological Diversity negotiated a "biosafety protocol" to regulate
the international movement of gene-spliced organisms. A travesty of
sound science, it is based on the bogus "precautionary principle"
which dictates that every new product or technology -- including, in
this case, an improvement over less precise technologies -- must be
proven completely safe before it can be used.
An ounce of prevention is certainly desirable, but because nothing
can be proved totally safe -- at least, not to the standard demanded
by many activists and regulators -- the precautionary principle has
become a self-defeating impediment to the development of new
products. Precautionary regulation shifts the burden of proof from
the regulator, who previously had to demonstrate that a new
technology was likely to cause some harm, to the innovator, who now
must demonstrate that the technology will not cause harm under any
This shift is ominous, because it frees regulatory bodies to require
any amount and kind of testing that they wish. Rather than creating a
uniform, predictable, and scientifically sound framework for
effectively managing legitimate risks, the UN's biosafety protocol
establishes an ill-defined global regulatory process that encourages
overly risk-averse, incompetent, or corrupt regulators to hide behind
the precautionary principle in delaying or deferring approvals.
Other UN agencies have gotten into the act. In 2003 the Codex
Alimentarius Commission, the joint food standards program of the UN's
WHO and its Food and Agriculture Organization, singled out only food
products made with gene-splicing techniques for Draconian and bizarre
regulatory procedures and restrictions -- regulatory requirements
that cannot be met by conventionally-produced foods, which are made
with less precise and predictable technology.
Overly burdensome standards for gene-spliced foods are ominous not
only because of their direct effects on research and development, but
also because they will keep beneficial new crop plants out of the
hands of the resource-poor farmers in less developed countries who
need them most. Scientists worldwide agree that gene-splicing is
merely a refinement, or improvement, over less precise and
predictable genetic techniques that have been used for centuries, an
exquisite tool that can help to develop plants with higher yields and
innovative traits. Thousands of greenhouse and field studies, as well
as widespread commercialization in a half-dozen advanced countries,
have documented that the risks of gene-spliced plants and foods are
minimal, their benefits palpable, and their future potential
extraordinary. Globally, the adoption of gene-spliced crops annually
reduces pesticide use by tens of millions of pounds and saves
millions of tons of topsoil from erosion.
In less developed countries like China and South Africa, the few
available gene-spliced plant varieties have increased crop yields,
raised the incomes of resource-poor farmers, and reduced occupational
exposure to chemical pesticides. Wider adoption and diffusion of
gene-spliced crops could improve human nutrition, reduce the amount
of land and water needed to produce food, and spare ecosystems from
fragmentation and development. But these advances are being
drastically limited by the unscientific, hugely burdensome UN-based
Even Miss America contestants should be able to understand that the
precautionary principle-driven standards and regulations the UN
defends actually harm the environment and public health, stifling the
development of environmentally friendly innovations that can increase
agricultural productivity, help clean up toxic wastes, conserve
water, supplant agricultural chemicals, and reduce the contamination
of grain by fungal toxins.
Many UN experts themselves warn that the greatest single threat to
the planet's environment comes from the world's burgeoning population
and its demand that ever more land be devoted to food production. But
the regulatory regimes promoted by various UN agencies and projects
deny less developed countries precisely the kind of technology they
Another policy that has visited untold harm on the poor in tropical
climates is the heinous 2001 United Nations Persistent Organic
Pollutants Convention, which stigmatizes DDT as one of the world's
"dirty dozen" worst pollutants, and makes it exceedingly difficult
for developing countries -- many of which are plagued by malaria,
West Nile virus infections and other insect-borne diseases -- to use
In 1972, on the basis of data on toxicity to fish and migrating birds
(but not to humans), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned
virtually all uses of the pesticide DDT, an inexpensive and effective
pesticide once widely deployed to kill disease-carrying insects.
Similar bans spread around the world. The absurdity of the ban on DDT
is illustrated by the fact that regulators banned it largely because
of toxicity to birds: Now it's unavailable to combat West Nile virus
infections, a mosquito-borne viral disease that is killing birds by
Not only did government regulators minimize scientific evidence of
the effectiveness and relative safety of DDT, they also failed to
appreciate the distinction between its large-scale use in agriculture
and more limited application for controlling carriers of human
disease. Although DDT is a (modestly) toxic substance, there is a big
difference between applying large amounts of it in the environment --
as farmers did before it was banned -- and applying it carefully and
sparingly to fight mosquitoes and other disease-carrying insects. A
basic principle of toxicology is that the dose makes the poison.
Regulators who have stigmatized and banned DDT also failed to take
into consideration the inadequacy of alternatives. Because it
persists after spraying, DDT works far better than many pesticides
now in use, some of which are toxic to fish and other aquatic
organisms. Also, the need to spray other insecticides repeatedly --
especially in marshlands and forests, where mosquito-breeding areas
are large -- drives up costs and depletes public coffers. Pyrethroid
pesticides, the most common alternative to DDT, are inactivated
within an hour or two.
How do such travesties of regulation arise? Through a kind of
"Emperor's New Clothes" process at meetings such as the one currently
under way in Geneva, in which self-interested and not terribly astute
participants move a flawed proposal through the approval procedures,
all the while pretending that it makes sense: a triumph of
bureaucratic process over substance.
But although the process appears to be transparent, it is corrupt.
The UN uses coercion to induce countries to sign on to agreements to
regulate gene-splicing excessively, such as the Cartagena Protocol
and the Codex standards. For example, the United Nations Environment
Program (UNEP) has distributed scores of millions of dollars to help
developing countries set up infrastructure for "building capacity for
assessing risks, establishing adequate information systems and
developing expert human resources in the field of biosafety."
But as Harvard's Calestous Juma has said, creating gratuitous
regulatory infrastructure without supporting technology development
is like offering swimming lessons to inhabitants of the Sahara
Desert. The UNEP program's "capacity building" applies only to the
regulation of gene-spliced products, and many of the countries for
which the project is intended lack virtually any regulation of
acknowledged high-risk activities, such as public transport and
dangerous occupations, and their expenditures on public health are
woefully inadequate. It is not unusual in poor tropical countries,
for example, to observe pre-teens performing welding or using
dangerous machinery, with no protective gear and wearing only shorts
or a loincloth. Malaria, schistosomiasis, and bacterial and viral
diseases that have been all but eradicated from industrialized
countries remain epidemic in many underdeveloped nations. Surely the
UN's largesse would be spent much more productively if it were
allocated to address any of these more important problems.
The UNEP's cynical offers of bribes to get countries to ratify its
regulations offer Faustian bargains to less developed nations. They
receive small grants up front, but in the long term, unscientific,
excessive regulation of this promising new technology -- and the
resulting uncertainty among innovators about their ability to conduct
research and market products -- ensures that the biotechnology
revolution all but passes them by. Such strategies -- on which the UN
bureaucrats publicly congratulate themselves -- are outrageous.
Perhaps the most bizarre agenda item at this World Health Assembly
is a proposal to require prominent warnings that pathogenic
microorganisms are present in infant formula. Yes, infant formula.
The supporters of such labeling claim that the use of infant formula
can lead to malnutrition and respiratory infections leading to death
-- which is, of course sheer nonsense. These attacks are
scientifically unfounded and misguided; similar to other food
products, infant formula manufacturers must assure that it is neither
adulterated nor misbranded. In plain English, the product may not be
harmful or labeled inaccurately. But like the tomatoes, potatoes,
yogurt and milk we buy at the supermarket, preparations of formula
are "clean" but not sterile. They may contain harmless microorganisms
(as does the air we breathe), while by contrast, drugs like
injectable vaccines and intravenous fluids are completely sterile.
The infant formula initiative is the opening salvo in an ideological
campaign to smear a safe and useful product. If the activists are
successful at banning or severely restricting it, the consequences
could be dire.
The participants in elaborate but pathetic exercises like this World
Health Assembly are long on self-congratulation and grand
pronouncements but short on critical thinking. There is no
recognition that any inroads will require the creation of
ever-greater wealth, which depends on continuing innovation and the
adoption of new technology -- which, in turn, depends on free
markets, protection of intellectual property and reasonable,
science-based oversight of research and development.
UN agencies find themselves in the same predicament as the lost
tourist who asks a local how to get to his destination. The fellow
answers, "Well, first of all, I wouldn't start from here." Given the
absence at the UN of a meritocracy, sound judgment and
accountability, we don't see how they'll get where they say they'd
like to go.
Henry Miller, a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution,
was an official at the US FDA from 1979-1994. Gregory Conko is
Director of Food Safety Policy at the Competitive Enterprise
Institute in Washington, D.C. Their book, "The Frankenfood Myth: How
Protest and Politics Threaten the Biotech Revolution," was selected
by Barron's as one of the 25 Best Books of 2004.
This Must be the Biggest Bung in The History of The Universe
- Adam Nicolson, Telegraph (UK), May 17, 2005
From today, farmers will be paid a subsidy for owning their land. It
is as strange and straightforward as that. They will not have to do
anything explicitly "environmental" to get the cash, which will vary
from £60 to £100 an acre. If they want to do something
"environmental", such as not ploughing up the edges of their arable
fields, or putting in beetle banks, or planting new hedges, they will
get extra money for that.
No, this new money from the Common Agriculture Policy is nothing but
a reward for ownership. The only condition is that fields must not be
let to go to wrack and ruin. Farmers will have to keep them a little
tidy, but they certainly don't have to grow anything on them. As long
as they look nice when the government inspector comes round - and the
costs of that to the taxpayer are not yet entirely clear - the cheque
will be in the post.
You don't have to be poor to qualify, either. The Duke of Westminster
will be getting the money the same as everyone else in Europe, about
£34 billion in all, the biggest bung in the history of the universe
given to people for waking up in the morning. Farmers have become
"farmers", people whose main function in life is not to farm but to
own a farm. It's every schoolboy's dream: top grades for bunking off.
A Martian landing here this week would only scratch his head. The
working population of Europe, like their distant ancestors in Sumer
and Ur of the Chaldees, apparently believe that, for their own
wellbeing, they must give some of their hard-earned cash to a caste
of priests and functionaries, in whose survival, somehow, the
survival of society as a whole is bound up.
Or, if you don't like the anthropological line, perhaps it is more
like the government having decided that the entire population of
Europe should employ several million gardeners to keep the grass
down. We have entered the age of state-sponsored mowing. If you are
looking for an investment, there is a boom coming in grass-cutting
There are some very odd aspects to this. Take the price of
agricultural land. For all the woes of British farming over the past
few years, the people with money have continued to pour it into land.
The price of farmland has risen by 20 per cent over the past two
years. It will now cost you on average £4,000 an acre. And those new
acquirers of land are not farmers.
Over the country as a whole, half of the farmland that is bought each
year is now being acquired by what land agents call "lifestyle
buyers" - people for whom farming is not their real business, but who
like the idea that their lovely rural house should be surrounded by
lovely rural acres, not only for the view but because those rural
acres will be guaranteeing the value of the house.
From today, there is the extra bonus that the spreading acres will
also provide some pocket money. In some parts of the country,
particularly in the South-East, almost two thirds of farmland is now
being sold to "lifestyle buyers". And, because of the technicalities
of these new changes, about 13 per cent of the CAP money is now
moving from the poorer northern regions to those very southern and
eastern ones where the rich lifestyle buyer is king.
Can this really be what the tax system is for? Mariann Fischer Boel,
the EU Farm Commissioner, made a speech in Oslo last week which
contained the immortal words: "We will fight to make sure that
Europe's green fields, so beloved of our poets, will always be there.
There will also remain many goats, many olives, many mountain
farmers, even if they are not squarely 'profitable' in the market
The vision of many goats, many olives and many mountain farmers is
pure Rousseau. It is a scene by Watteau, a continent-wide Petit
Trianon, a reflection of a pastoral vision that has very little
connection with any reality, at least beyond the desire of urban
populations to imagine that there is a happy country out there,
somewhere beyond the desperate getting and spending of their own
commercial lives. The commissioner may speak of olives and goats; the
reality, in the south-east of England anyway, is new Range-Rovers and
subsidies for public school fees.
Is this all unfair? Are there no advantages to the general public
from the spending of money in this way? It has been widely argued
that, because the EU will no longer pay farmers simply to produce
food, the pressure on rural landscapes will ease.
Farmers won't spray as often, because they won't be looking for
enormous yields; they won't stock their land so densely, because they
won't be getting more money for every extra animal they own. At the
same time, it is said, they will now look to the market and produce
delicious cheeses and air-cured hams, because added value will bring
them the profit, not simply more pigs and more cows. This is all part
of the vision of the happy country.
That's as may be. But the real question is: why pay the subsidy at
all? Why couldn't the market mechanisms be allowed to work for real?
Why can't we bring ourselves to believe that a rural landscape that
really sustains itself, that really provides what people want, cannot
itself be a beautiful and fruitful thing? Not anxiously hanging on
the whims of political and bureaucratic decision-making, but thriving
on growing what people want to buy?
That straightforward organic connection is what is missing from the
CAP system. Take this from the Rural Payment Agency's list of
frequently asked questions: "I am completing the land use category
column G on the Single Payment Scheme Annex 5b Basic Field Data form.
What do I enter if the land use code is not listed in the crop codes
on pages 84 and 85 of the handbook, e.g. wheat, barley or oats?"
Every farmer I know hates it. It should go.
Adam Nicolson farms in the Weald