G(eneral) M(oters) F(ood)

The debate on GM Foods is part of a broader debate on genetic engineering.

    The emotive term 'Frankenstein Foods' owed more to the Hammer Horror films than to a proper appreciation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Over a century and a half before it has become a fact she was predicting the biological economy. Even then the only healing nature untouched by human hand that Victor Frankenstein can find is that of the ice caps or glaciated wastes. Over 10 years before Marx's Thesis on Feuerbach it can be seen as a possible objection to Marx's view that the nature that we see before us is a humanised nature. Subsequently Marx patently wins the argument but not the potential for liberation that was implied. Rather we should now speak of a nature of inhumanity where no immunity can be sought even on the northern icecap for here the risk of melanoma is greatly increased because of ozone depletion.

   The story of Frankenstein comes from a pre-evolutionary age - but only just. However it can be read as a reflection on evolution. The monster has been manufactured: it has not come from an embryo with a history of trial and error going back millions of years. Like GM Foods the product had not even been tried and tested before it was unleashed on an unsuspecting world - though today we would say world market. It was made in a secret location free from prying eyes. But this clandestine laboratory of the damned, despite the baroque science that so easily lent itself to cinematic hyperbole, already contained today's bio-assembly line that will lead eventually to a mass manufactory: a new Fordism of designed and created human parts.

   Despite arousing in us an overwhelming pity as do laboratory chimera whether they are mice or monkeys, Frankenstein is not just rejected by mankind but by nature as well. One of the most pertinent objections to GM foods is also one of the most overlooked and yet also potentially the most telling. From an evolutionary perspective GM is creationist minus the accompanying biblical rhetoric however. Trans-genetic species have not been selected for which means they are not necessarily fitter. Apologists for GM foods forget this cornerstone of evolutionary theory. When people accuse genetic engineers of 'playing God' they would be on far surer grounds if they were to take god out of the debate and indict them on anti-evolutionary grounds instead. One of the best letters I have read on the subject is worth quoting in full.

   'Traditional breeding methods exchange genes between very closely-related species, which retain their natural order in the DNA. This is vital for the integrity of life since genes have evolved to exist and work in families.

  The movement of a single gene by the reductionist approach of genetic engineering between totally unrelated organisms (e.g. an 'anti freeze' gene from an Arctic fish into tomatoes to produce frost resistance) results in the uncontrolled random splicing of the foreign gene into the host DNA. This invariably disrupts, to a lesser or greater degree, natural genetic order and biochemical activity.

   The splicing of a piece of Spice Girls' music in the middle of a Mozart symphony (or vice versa) can hardly be called harmonious. Genetic engineering therefore clearly violates basic principles of genetic engineering.'

           Dr. Michael Antoniou ( senior lecturer in molecular pathology). Dec 20th 1997. The Guardian.

 (We will for the moment leave the naive remarks on music as being in any way consonant with 'genetic harmony'. It does however thumbnail the difficulties even enlightened scientists have in dealing with histories other than natural history)

    The health risks of GM foods have been largely ignored. GM foods are not covered by the American Food and Drug administration act. If they were the testing would have been far more rigorous. In fact there has been no testing whatsoever. The GM debate not only shows how big science calls the tune but also how it is controlled by big capital. Prenzias was hunted down by the vested interest of the scientific community including the Royal Society. Even 'Nature' published a disclaimer after featuring an article by him. The gagging orders were every bit as effective as those of Stalin when he gave his full support to Lysenko - only far more subtle.  Prenzias should be thankful he is living in a more 'civilised' society: all he has lost is his job not his life!

    However it is undoubtedly the food scares of the past few years particularly the BSE crises and then modern methods of animal husbandry that led to the devastating outbreak of Foot and Mouth disease that has resulted in the overwhelming rejection of GM foods in this country.

   But we would do well to recall that it was the fate of the Monarch butterflies nectaring on GM maize that first focussed the attention of the human species on the health risk. The Monarch has become the butterfly icon but the effect of GM foods on wild life was judged a safer option to study than to stoke fears of a likely health risk because it was now obvious reputations and jobs were at stake. The bio-capitalists were turning out to be a very nasty crew who will let nothing stand in their way. They are the Standard Oil men of the new century.

   The results of the field trials only served to confirm in the minds of a growing number of people that there is something intrinsically wrong with modern intensive agriculture. But the GM trials did more. Molecular biology, which genetic engineering is part of, is strictly for the experts and most people are instantly blinded by this highly specialist science. Or at least that is what 'they' want us to think. What then was 'our' re-action to the yard wide cordon sanitaire which supposedly would stop contamination of non GM crops' Knowing that a moth like the Convolvulus Hawk can easily travel 3000 miles in its lifetime and having fretted over advanced books on molecular biology my first thought was 'surely I must be mistaken - nobody could be that stupid'. I am now left wondering if the designers of these tests were just that. Or were they now so hyped up by isolation and the prospect of undreamed of wealth that they judged the rest of us to be complete morons even though an average ten year old could have faulted their experiments' The arrogance is stupendous. Either that or they are ignorant of the behaviour of pollinating insects - noisy, buzzing spiteful things that can sting and which will be excluded from genetic utopia. Proteus was a god that could assume any form and the protean trade of genetic engineering knows no limits.

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Further notes on the Hydrogen economy

   Research at Cal Tec has centred on the leakage rate of cars and hydrogen power plants. Spiralling leakage rates could contribute to ozone depletion and even global warming. Leaked hydrogen could end up in the stratosphere and react with hydroxyl radicals to form water vapour, helping to form longer-lasting clouds over the poles. This would provide a reaction site for halogens such as chlorine to deplete stratospheric ozone (Science, vol 300.p147).

    Hydroxyl radicals could be destroyed in the troposphere (15 kilometres from earth's surface}. OH is an environmental scrubber removing all manner of pollutants including methane.

    At present about 80 million tonnes of hydrogen goes into the atmosphere every year with 15 million tonnes coming from industrial uses and burning of fossil fuels. Cal Tec estimates that 10% to 20% of hydrogen could leak from fuel cells. That would increase industrial emissions by between 60 million to 120 million per year if the 1994 fleet of cars were converted to hydrogen use. Liquid hydrogen tanks will leak more than gas tanks which take up more space and therefore unsuitable for cars.

   Another potential source of problems is how the hydrogen is produced. If produced solely from coal gasification, world wide carbon dioxide emissions would increase by 5%. But make it from natural gas and CO2 emissions would fall while methane emissions would double. 'Hydrogen is not necessarily more benign ' it depends on how you produce it.'

    It is reckoned 77% of hydrogen from the troposphere is consumed by the soil (Nature, Vol: 424, p 918). It is not necessarily the case that uptake by the soil would remain proportional to the concentration of hydrogen in the atmosphere. But if the climate became wetter the soil would be less able to absorb hydrogen and hydrogen uptake shuts off. 'The wild card in the future is how, in the future, will the climate and the hydrogen sink change' (New Scientist 15th Nov 2003).

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THE BIO-ECONOMY

   Behind the very real threat of the 'privatisation of nature' (as opposed to what - its former 'nationalised' status') gene patenting especially (as defined by the GATT agreement on 'intellectual property rights' i.e. 'created' nature), there lies a far bigger question: the unprecedented quantification (valorization) of nature. Beginning with rough estimates on the monetary values of major natural history collections inspired to a considerable degree by the rising value of art auctions and in particular the blurring of the boundaries between  'art' and 'non-art' (like the Warhol estate running into hundreds of millions and hyped by  aesthetic/anti aesthetic valuers organised into legal consortia), it led with  a similar unintentional validity to asking such questions as what price air', what price clean water', what price eco-systems as public services'?

   However the people who put this kind of price on nature were almost wholly opposed to the privatisation of nature. By appealing to our wallets they believed they were acting in the public good, calling for greater state regulation, even, seeing that nature does not honour national boundaries, looking far beyond the nation state to a global state and thus linking up with a tendency that was especially manifest after World War Two in Europe and America and had even formed part of  the 3rd International particularly in the case of Bukharin. However the valuers of nature by applying the arithmetic of capitalism to nature were ultimately reducing, despite their 'good' intentions, all values to monetary values. By accepting the enemy's logic these false friends firmly put themselves on their terrain. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that their sums could in future add up to a cursory cost-benefit analysis, a ball-park figure that will be eagerly seized on by a venture capitalist. Rather than demonstrating the impossibility of providing a substitute - a synthetic eco system - it might do the reverse and act as a business opportunity.

    When Darwin used Malthusian terms to describe the workings of nature he was blindly opening himself up to misappropriation by ideologues. As we all know the theory of natural selection was loaded with terms borrowed from the lexicon of free market liberalism. Though it was not a ringing endorsement of the latter, it did serve in the hands of Darwin's many popularisers to justify it. Though Darwin used terms like the 'survival of the fittest' and 'competition' he did not put a price on natural selection: the bills of the Galapagos finches were itemised according to their fitness not according to price. Indeed the idea of doing so would have struck everyone then as absurd.

   Social Darwinism was an ideological misuse of Darwin whether seized on by imperialism or the 2nd International. The theory of natural selection did not even remotely anticipate an eventual enquiry into the political economy of nature though there were major discoveries around the same time that eventually would like those of Mendel and Pasteur. The fact that now mathematical balance sheets, economic metaphors and talk of privatisation abounds in treatise on nature means that a bio-economy is now a reality and all of nature is now up for grabs. It can take on a benign aspect that immediately captures our interest, like bluebells possibly holding a cure for TB. But it must not blind us to the ultimate purpose. (Scientists are looking at our native flora as a potential pharmacy just as they formerly looked at rain forests and chief amongst them is Robert Nash of the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research at Aberystwyth. He is also - NB - research director of a business called Molecular Nature).

   It is conceivable in the not too distant future that we shall recoil before nature as capital personified, just like a machine breaker before a machine. Imagine for example if GM crops were to be rammed down our throats by edict (and there is every possibility) and they were to turn out to be a major health hazard. How would we then look on the insect pollinators which we are still dependant on for two thirds of our food? We would unhesitatingly pull the wings off every butterfly we could get hold of and be thanked for it. For we would be nature saboteurs; the new Ludds of the bio-economy.

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GLOBAL WILDFIRES AND THE HYDROGEN ECONOMY

   A quick way out of carbon taxes and so remain in credit, is to plant more trees. However trees once alight produce huge amounts of CO2 but under Clinton and Al Gore - his so-called eco Vice President planting trees - looked good and saved them from even having to propose drastic measures.

   But wildfires came to the rescue and even this remedial gesture has gone up in smoke. The American House of Representatives has just passed the Healthy Forests Restoration Act (2003) cleverly presented as an anti-forest fire measure. This will lead to increased felling of old-growth trees. One of the major reasons wildfires swept through hills surrounding the San Bernardino Valley in October 2003 was because the burning of the chaparral, essential to the areas eco-system, had been prevented by the real estate enveloping the hills. It gives a new twist to the saying money to burn.

   The burning of rain forests is frequently presented as the work of mean-minded, irresponsible small farmers. The main aim is to make us, and people not that different to our selves, the guilty party. In fact those responsible for most of the damage are logging companies and ranchers.

    It is easy to flay the workers' movement for its short sightedness but the eco movement is, if anything, easier to manipulate. Much of the problem springs from its positivism and involvement in alternative strategies. It is working for a better future and the power of the negative is not part of its vocabulary.

   The increasing faith in a forthcoming hydrogen economy that will replace the present carbon economy shows the degree to which the movement is technicist. In fact even the 'Economist' praises the initiatives in fuel cell research and the amounts of money invested by the major car companies and BP and looks forward to the end of the oil based economy. The technicist utopianism of Jeremy Rifkin, the most vocal populariser of the hydrogen economy, in fact only weakens resistance to the carbon economy because, like the gradualism of the 2nd International, everything has been won in advance and all we have to do is lie back and wait for perfection to arrive.

   A hydrogen economy will not be pollution free. It can reduce CO2 emissions by up to 60% but more likely than not it will lead to increased energy use like far more cars on the road and thus increase greenhouse warming.

Further, further notes on the Hydrogen economy.

   The hydrogen fuel cell is the latest technological panacea for all our ills. This nature friendly futurism has arisen from the ashes of all other technological utopias. But with this difference: where all others have failed this one will succeed because it is heir to the revolutionary project. Indeed it is the revolution. But no technical innovation is inherently anti-capitalist. To claim otherwise is to substitute technique for social struggle.

  However the high profile advocates of the hydrogen economy avoid mentioning capitalism. The technology is of itself decentralist - or so they claim. There is no need of a Central Hydrogen Generating Board and hence no national grid.  Rather one has a grid powered and controlled by the consumers! We shall have a global grid of billions of producers paralleling that of the web (also fundamentally liberatory in the view of the hydrogen advocates). Every garage will be a hydrogen power station - a revealing touch because it implies the extension of car ownership but this time with a good conscience because it is now a non-polluting vehicle.

   But to trumpet such claims as the apostles of the hydrogen cell economy do is in one fundamental aspect, to dance to the tune of the militarists of the hydro-carbon economy now that oil production is nearing its peak and supplies have to be secured as never before, even if that means occupying every oil producing country. But salvation is at hand: it is within our hands in the shape of the hydrogen economy. Utopia will dawn without ever having to take to the streets. And what the messianics of the hydrogen economy want from us is total passivity just as Bush and Blair do. They share each others optimism of those they oppose and talk of impending catastrophe then becomes the failure of reason, a blinkered short term pessimism that needs to be addressed by the mind police.

A Few Facts:

    The EEC Commission is spending 2 billion on hydrogen research over the next two years.

    By 2010 the Japanese Ministry of the Economy, Trade and Industry wants to see 50,000 hydrogen vehicles on the road and 5 million by 2020. Even President Bush said in this year's (2003) State of the Union address that the first set of wheels for today's newborns would run on hydrogen.

     But it will probably be 15 to 20 years before fuel cell cars can even gain a toehold in the market. But fuel cell cars are the ultimate prize and have the largest potential market. However a hydrogen infrastructure of Hydrogen 'reformers' rather than transformers -  a telling word change if ever there was one  referring to the re-forming of natural gas to produce hydrogen. There is also the problem of finding a way to store and carry the fuel in cars.

    The hydrogen sopranos are a very vocal lot and have even got the ear of George Bush, but only in order to serve the ends of real politic and to disguise his real intentions, recuperating the language of an eco-economy for opposite ends. In fact Bush wants to cut research into renewables and energy efficiency by $86 million while putting in place $2 billion for clean coal technologies, plus a 62% increase to $62 million for research on ways to sequester CO2 from burning fossil fuels so that it cannot enter the atmosphere. There is also a 19% increase in funding for nuclear research as well as vast subsidies for a new generation of nuclear reactors.

    In Europe renewable energy's market share is about 6% about that of the U.S. Capacity is rising but so is energy demand therefore supply is constantly struggling to keep up with demand.

     Bush's energy plans at least have the merit of being realistic in the short term even as he encourages short termism in energy consumption as never before. There will be no quick shift away from hydro-carbons to either hydrogen or nuclear power though in any contest it will be the latter that will prove victorious in the immediate future. Coal is definitely set for a come back. At present we can only guess what form that will take in a country like Britain where miners' struggles have become legend. (Since writing this the coal industry in this country has received a £52 million subsidy and 300 further miners taken on - the first increase since the miners' strike of 20years ago)

    Hydrogen vehicles are already a practical possibility. There are fleets of buses powered by fuel cells in service right now - e.g. Madrid received the first fuel cell buses in May 2003 and 10 other European cities are set to by the end of 2003.

    Quote: 'Hydrogen may be more of a belief than a scientific issue. We can be very taken by the picture of power to the people. Hydrogen does not deliver a decentralised system on its own.' (D Baldock, Director of the Institute for European Environmental Policy, London.)

EL NINO: Current of Conformity or Current of Revolt?

    El Nino is the biggest climatic event in the world. The 1998 El Nino was the biggest on record causing crop failure in Southern Africa, storms in California, to failed monsoons in Asia. The Atlantic equivalent is the North Atlantic Oscillation (Gulf Stream).

   Increased understanding of these currents have been seized on as a natural explanation for global warning rather as sun spots - courtesy of Piers Corbyn - have been. However they could be under the control of the greenhouse effect particularly in the case of the NAO. The melting of the north polar icecap is likely to push the salt sink further south leading, in one model, to a cooling equivalent to Labrador.

                                                Old Indian Proverb (below)

    'When you drive nature out of a door with a broom she'll come back through the window with a pitchfork'

                                                       Fred Engels (below)

 'Let us not flatter ourselves for our victories over nature. For every such victory, it takes its revenge on us. We with flesh, blood and bones belong to nature and exist in its midst.'

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'Cars are dead' - subversive graffiti from 1968

'Cars are living' ' the biologisation of technology c.2000

    This selection of car adverts was taken at random from the pages of 'New Scientist'. At most they only cover a period of four years from 1998 to 2002 and in a concentrated form underline the extent of the greening of consumerism. In these ads nature and technology are blurred to a significantly greater degree than on TV where cars more generally are put through their paces in built-up environments stripped of nature. It indicates the degree to which the scientific community has changed, appealing, as these ads do, to a growing bad conscience, muted self-criticism and underlying unease. It also reflects a scientific Diaspora into the countryside ' a 'Tintern Abbey' of the laboratories merely in appearance where cars are drawn up on beaches, take to rough tracks, disperse dandelion seeds or become tin and glass four wheel drive pollinators. In one ad, Psyche, the secular goddess of Lepidoptera, now armed with a bow hi-jacked from Cupid distorts not only myth but the reality of the car turning it into the saviour of nature.

                    Possible captions

                       The scorpion car (a sting in its tail)

                       The seed dispensing car

                       The pollinating car

                       The body language car

                       The off-road car

                       The rocky-horror car

                        Beef import car

                        Noah's car

                        Rorsch test psycho-babble car

                        The miracle drives-on-water car

                        Drifting snow car

                        Psyche turned Cupid car

                        The Hydrogen ultimate car - to be looked at upside down because it is destined, like the fetishism of commodities, to be set right side up eventually.

                                                    To be continued... 2002    Mainly done by Stuart Wise