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January 1, 2001


Humankind: Heel!; Fueling the Fire


Every kind of specialist has a tendency to tell us that his specialty
tells us about humanity, the world and the future. In this case we
have a prize example of the arrogance of the historian, not only
overemphasizing his specialty but prognosticating beyond it in areas
in which he is surely ignorant. In


Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, who teaches in the faculty of modern history
at Oxford University and is the author of 10 books, including Millennium:
A History of Our Last Thousand Years tells us
>Humankind: Heel! It is arrogance to assume humanity can destroy nature
> -- it still has us on a short leash, says

Fernandez-Armesto supports this proposition by telling a little about
humanity's role in transferring various species from one continent to
another. That's only a part of what humanity has done and can do to
transform the planet.

1. Humanity really has put a lot of CO2 into the atmosphere and will
put in a lot more in this century. Whether this will be good or bad
or unimportant remains to be seen. Panic is not warranted by present

2. A really hard fought nuclear war could really wipe out a lot of
life on the planet including most of humanity. Fortunately, the
prospects of such a war are substantially diminished.

3. Present and future technology, especially biotechnology, can permit
world-wide prosperity as fast as the nations of the world can bring
themselves to adopt it. See my

4. In recent years the earth sciences have told us about numerous past
catastrophes leading to substantial extinctions and to the decline of
various human civilizations. Science has advanced to the point where
these catastrophes can be predicted in time to develop the engineering
needed to prevent them. Even asteroid strikes and ice ages can be
prevented with the likely amount of warning.

5. The biggest danger to humanity is ideological instability leading
to irrational actions by whole nations. The past has shown us
religious wars, dynastic wars and wars instigated by would-be
conquerors. This is something historians should be able to tell us

6. Although as a computer scientist I have no special competence in
the matter, I fear that the current wave of doom-saying and
anti-science might come to dominate the world and bring in new Dark
Ages. Specifically, I fear the rise of a green Hitler, capable of
using the world-wide media to gain world-wide power. Can historians
tell us something about whether this is at all likely?



Fueling the Fire: How the Net Has Driven the GM Food Debate

Author: just-food.com editorial team 29 Dec 2000 (from Agnet)

The web is a valuable resource in providing information to a mass
global audience, and as Drew Smith argues its role has been crucial
in airing the real issues in the GM food debate.

Two respected but not widely known scientists from the US
Environmental Protection Agency threw another spanner in the works of
the great GM food debate in the days leading up to Christmas. Genetic
engineering and selective breeding may not have the same long-term
effects, they argued. Though published in an obscure but respected
journal, normally read by thousands, the story subsequently found
itself on the Net and has been picked up by millions. In the early
days of the Net publishers were busying grabbing GM stories for their
publications because they knew it would boost the hit rates of their
web sites.

Without the Internet the GM war would in all probability be done and
dusted by now. The Internet afforded small groups the chance to take
on corporations and mobilise forces, and also to carry out research
in areas they might not have researched before. Most importantly, the
Internet facilitated communication. It was only after the event that
US citizens discovered that 60% of their diet had been infiltrated by
GM foods. The same applies to the Australian diet.

Writing in the journal Science, LL Wolfenbarger and PR Phifer said:
"As more economically useful and health-related genes are identified
and isolated, it appears that the variety of genetically engineered
organisms will increase dramatically. This increase may collectively
represent an environmental risk.

"The quality of modifications and modified products may also differ
from those available through selective breeding. Traditional breeding
is limited by the available genetic variability in the target
organism or its relatives. The great potential, as well as risk, of
genetic engineering is that it removes those limits."

Wolfenbarger and Phifer concluded that risk management needed to be
re-assessed. And for any food manufacturer or retailer, risk
management means business management. It is comic to read in
newspapers of protesters running amok in a field of GM corn in
Scotland, when more sophisticated protesters are using the Internet
to launch Excocet missiles at company share prices and swapping
outrageously scandalous attacks on corporate giants. The Internet is
after all interactive in a way that television and the press are not.

Across the globe, stories crackle down the electronic wires. Opinions
vary widely from country to country. In New Zealand there are
increasing fears of up and coming trade embargoes being imposed on
the back of perceived infiltration of GM crops. In Kenya the mood is
bullish with meetings organised by the US trade delegation and
speakers talking of poverty and starvation being more important than
environmental concerns.

The GM sweet potato has just had its first harvest. It is said yields
are up 60% because of pest resistance. In Iowa it is said that GM
corn is responsible for wiping out the state population of
butterflies. In the US it has become the ethical issue of the hour.
In South America with the coffee plantations in disarray, the future
of the rain forests is an environmental issue in which the GM tree is
portrayed either as a miracle saviour or the death forest.

And all the while technological advances seep out. Toyota is
allegedly investing in GM trees. In Israel it is claimed GM poplar
trees can grow so fast they could counteract global warming. And the
US$400bn wood pulping business is already concerned that it will not
be able to meet demand in the next decade without GM help. GM grass
that can be any colour you want is on its way to garden centres.

From the laboratory, meanwhile, come rumours of tomatoes that can
fight cancer and beans that won't give you wind (although there is a
non GM bean grown on the Isle of Wight that can do that anyway).
Monsanto is trying to give away its so called Golden Rice, which is
enriched with vitamin A, as a weapon against third world poverty or
colonisation of the paddy fields depending on your perspective.

Not all of this information is necessarily true. Genetically modified
foods will be the number one issue for ethical investors in North
America next year, according to a new survey of 350 account managers
at the First Affirmative Financial Network. I have no way of
verifying whether that story is true or not or even who the First
Affirmative Financial Network might be or where they live but the
story is carried quite happily on a news feed from an organic web
site to people who are unlikely to be too much in favour of genetic
modification of anything. The myth grows.

Researchers looking at how Starlink corn got into taco chips leading
to major withdrawals in the US in September are still unsure if
people really were allergic or were just reacting emotionally to
stories they had read that the Cry9C allergen it contained just might
possibly not work its way through the human digestive tract as
quickly as had been claimed.

On the same day came the news of a contrite press conference from GM
pioneer Monsanto promising that in the future it would act honourably
and listen to concerns. It had acted arrogantly it admitted in its
enthusiasm for this scientific breakthrough. It could not help
itself. More humble its new chief executive Heinrich Verfaillie,
could not have been as he announced his new five point charter and to
terminate the research in so called terminator gene stocks. Elsewhere
Monsanto executives were happily announcing the arrival of the GM
potato and the GM rice grain in India.

"Sweet, isn't it?," replied a spokesman from the environmental
pressure group Friends of the Earth which seems to have a full time
press office available for a quote against any story doing the
electronic rounds. "Here's a company with its back to the wall and
its technology going down the tube. We welcome its pledges but it
must face up to the fact that people do not want its food."

If Monsanto executives wanted to listen all they would have to do is
send out a spider on the net and the concerns are there from New
Zealand to Nagasaki. I am quoting from a single hour's snapshots:
bakers say no risks from GM foods; protesters halt GM shipment;
Japanese develop GM crops tracking device; labelling would not have
affected recalls of GM crops. A few hours later they will be replaced
with another set of stories charting the exponential growth in debate
and development around the globe.

This is a debate of speed and complexity. And of course, it being
broadcast on the Internet means there is no clear line or decision,
just a rampant wild argument in which neither side is really
listening to the other. But if it were not for the Internet it would
be impossible for any other medium to monitor the worldwide arrival
of what is one of the greatest ethical issues of our time. Net heads
for sure have a view on GM foods.

Any food manufacturer or retailer that embarks on a plan to use GM
foods is going to find an organised and vociferous opposition ready
in waiting and able to manipulate the Internet with vicious tools,
particular in attacks on share prices and through board meetings. But
on the other hand the forces at work are so ambitious for GM foods
that transparently they are hoping we as consumers will all get bored
with the subject and let these invisible substances into our diet.
Politicians it must be said are conspicuously absent from the
discussion, except that is of course for Bill Clinton who has been a
major advocate in his presidency. Or perhaps the industry is just
waiting for the one GM crop that might turn the tide of public
opinion. For the moment GM crops need to carry another health
warning: beware may contain substances that can damage your brand.

By Drew Smith