Essay 1: Ideological Rubbish

If you live in North London, the unexpected knock at the door and the little black box could soon be immanent symbols that Big Brother is watching your every move. Drop that wine bottle, or the old Yellow Pages into your wheelie bin, and the waste police – sorry, ‘recycling assistants’ – will be at your door to rummage through your box, first to warn, then to issue notices, and finally to fine (tax) you 1,000 pounds. They are out to make you feel good while taking your cash. The authoritarian puritans are at the garden gate and they mean business. It sure is grim up North London. But don’t scoff – it could be Bolton or Banff next.Yet, much recycling is sheer ideological rubbish, a monumental waste of effort. And this is not just the view of free market economists who see such socialised systems of residual management (rubbish collection to you and me) as market distortions. Valfrid Paulsson, Green guru and former director-general of Sweden’s environmental protection agency, and Soren Norrby, former campaign manager for ‘Keep Sweden Tidy’, both argue that collecting sorted household garbage is a mistake. They observe that “protection of the environment can mean economic sacrifices, but to maintain the credibility of environmental politics the environmental gains must be worth the sacrifice.” Quite.

Used bottles and glass cost twice as much as the raw materials, while recycling plastics is not only uneconomic, especially when oil prices are low, but often impossible, plastics coming in many different chemical guises. Even paper recycling uses energy and chemicals, with a strict limit on the number of times fibres can be recycled. 

This is thus a highly dubious tax on our time, not to mention on our pockets. It carries high opportunity costs for families. We carry out the unpaid work of sorting, and initially cleaning, material, some of which, e.g. junk mail, we never wanted. You will notice that the policy places the cost and effort on our shoulders, the unwitting consumer, who already forks out income tax, vat, council tax, and a wide range of other tax-fines and duties. What is more, from now on, if we get it wrong, we will be punished. We don’t ask for the Yellow Pages to be pushed through our door in a plastic bag. We don’t want all that packaging at the supermarket. And why should we spend ages trying to work out how to recycle batteries and water filters when the manufacturers don’t bother to inform us? Above all, the impact nationally of domestic waste – our waste – is minuscule relative to that from other sources.

UK waste amounts to over 400 million tonnes per year, 93% of which comes from agriculture, industry, commerce, construction, dredging, and mining. Only 28 million tonnes derives from households, and only a small proportion of this has a market for the recycled product. How many of us religiously wash out that green wine bottle and place it in the box; or worse, travel up to ten miles by car to our nearest recycling centre, with all the environmental downsides associated with such short journeys, to find that the green holes are full to overflowing with sticky, half-smashed bottles. Even more gallingly, did you know that the UK has a green glass mountain? Despite trying to use this in road building, some 80,000 tonnes of crushed green cullet has to be exported to places like South America to avoid being dumped – great news for the ‘global warming’ faithful.

So what should we do about the puritanical waste police and their ‘command-and-control’ EU recycling targets? First, you should find out precisely what happens to all the so-called recyclable material, from aluminium to zinc. Secondly, ask for a detailed costing, including hidden savings on landfill tax, subsidies, your fines, and true collection costs. You will discover that these can top 17 pounds per household. Seek comparative costs over time for incineration and combined waste-and-power schemes. Build in the costs for employees. One Scandinavian study shows that recycling schemes may cause respiratory tract problems in refuse operatives. Moreover, does recycling replace all the jobs involved in virgin production, especially in less-developed countries? And then, why are we doing the work and paying the tax while nobody addresses the fundamental question: “Who is responsible for waste production?” Finally, ask the basic questions. Does this particular material require recycling? Is there a market for the product? Who says landfill is bad? And why don’t bottles go back to manufacturers anymore?

It’s time to dump the ideological rubbish and to put punitive, moralistic schemes back in the Green sack.

[Loosely adapted from my ‘Comment’ first published in The Times in 2004]

Essay 2: The English ‘Ague’

We have a new strategy for dealing with coastal retreat, ‘managed realignment’. This involves allowing seawater to flood farmland to form ‘artificial’ salt marshes that, it is hoped, will then dissipate the energy of the incoming tides and waves. The first experiment has been at Freiston Shore, in Lincolnshire, where a flood-defence bank has been deliberately breached with three 50 metre cuts permitting seawater from the Wash to pour onto 193 acres (78 hectares) of land owned by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. The latter is, of course, twittering with joy over the scheme, which it sees as a wonderful example of ‘sustainable development’ bringing back all the marsh-loving birds and plants that have been supposedly lost since we (some might think wisely) drained the salt marshes, making them healthier.Unfortunately, one of the keystone species of this coastal biodiversity is the mosquito, and mosquitoes everywhere are polishing up their proboscises for a return to the glory days.

It comes as a surprise to many to learn that the last cases of the mosquito-borne English ‘ague’ were recorded as late as the 1950s in North Kent. We now believe that this ‘ague’ was malaria spread by indigenous mosquitoes transmitting temperate forms of the malaria plasmodium, most probablyPlasmodium vivax, but also possibly Plasmodium falciparum, the culprit in the tropics. Until the late-19th century, the disease was rampant throughout lowland Britain, but especially in the malodorous marshes of North Kent, Essex, East Anglia, and Lincolnshire. Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) described the curse as the ‘Essex ague’, which “our London men of pleasure…find a heavier load than the fowls they have shot” after hunting expeditions to the unreclaimed wetlands. And the high and mighty were not spared. The Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell, the physician, William Harvey, and the diarist, Samuel Pepys, all suffered from the malady, Cromwell dying of a ‘tertian ague’ – meaning a fever that returned every other day – in September 1658.

According to Paul Reiter of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Puerto Rico, the prime cause of our success in eradicating this English malaria was the draining and reclamation of the salt marshes, in which the indigenous malarial vector, a brackish water mosquito known as Anopheles atroparvus, breeds. Salt marsh is today one of the UK’s rarest habitats, with only 110,000 acres (44,500 hectares). Moreover, winter fodder from root crops, such as turnips, enabled farmers to graze more animals, thus diverting the pests from their human prey, while rural populations declined and building materials improved. With better medical attention and the falling cost of quinine, the plague of the East Coast estuaries was defeated, and the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared Europe, as a whole, to be free from malaria in 1975. Our present-day high and mighty, Tony Blair, Lord Winston, and Edwina Currie, can sleep peacefully abed, knowing that they are unlikely to share the unpleasant ‘shakes’ of their forefathers.

But can they? In the context of a globalising world, one concern should cause us all to scratch around for bites. 

A mosquito-communicated virus, which has recently killed 188 people in the United States, may have arrived in the UK. And birds are the main reservoir for this virus. West Nile virus (WNv) is normally transmitted by mosquitoes that suck the blood of infected birds and then go on to feed on humans. Worryingly, researchers at the Oxford-based Centre for Ecology and Hydrology have discovered the antibodies of this virus in non-migratory birds, which suggests that the virus is now part of the indigenous scene. Doctors have already been warned to be on the look-out for patients presenting with suspicious symptoms, while Government officials are currently considering the widespread emergency use of pesticides and insect repellents should the disease be identified in humans. The Department of Health has further asked researchers at the University of Durham to examine the distribution of mosquito species across central and southern England, while the testing of dead birds is to be increased. 

West Nile is a nasty flavivirus, such as yellow fever and St. Louis encephalitis. Previously, it was only known from Africa – it was first described in the West Nile district of Uganda in 1937 – and West Asia, but outbreaks have been reported recently from France, Israel, and Romania, and, in 1999, the virus appeared in New York and, by 2000, it had reached Pennsylvania. It is currently recorded from no fewer than 38 states. The symptoms are similar to those of encephalitis and viral meningitis.

In the US, there has been considerable panic. In 2000, areas of New York were sprayed with insecticide, and the New York Philharmonic had to cancel an open-air concert while Central Park received a preventative dousing. In lakeside Chicago, there were over 200 cases in one year and the city has had to resort in certain instances to spraying with synthetic sumithrin-based pesticides. There has even been a call for the re-instatement of DDT.

Nearer to home, the 1996 outbreak in the Romanian capital, Bucharest, proved serious, with 393 patients confirmed as having West Nile virus following blood and spinal fluid sampling. 13% of these went into a coma, while 3% died. Experts, however, believe that the figures are probably an underestimate. Writing in The Lancet, Dr. Ted Tsai declared this to be “the first important outbreak” in Europe.  It appears that birds migrating out of Africa may have carried the virus to European birds, which then passed it on to European mosquitoes, and finally to humans. The outbreak was especially bad in lowlands and in housing subject to flooding.

And now we are reinstating marshes, the key breeding grounds for potent vectors of such diseases. Conservation choices are never easy, but we too readily forget that ‘wilderness’ was cleared by our ancestors for sensible, reasons. They did not ‘destroy’ the countryside, as is so often cheaply asserted; they tamed it for more refined human habitation. The idea that ‘wilderness’ is always benign is naif and utopian. Here is a 17th century description of Upchurch on the estuary of the River Medway in Kent: the town “lies in a most unhealthy situation, close to marshe…the noxious vapours arising from which subject the inhabitants to continued intermittents.” 

And, with increased air-travel, globalisation, and wildlife traffic, who can foresee the medical dangers of the future? All over the globe, malaria itself is fighting back against our inadequate defences, and the ‘Jesuit’s Powder’ (quinine), derived from cinchona bark and introduced into England in 1660 by Robert Brady, would no longer prove an effective cure for King Charles II’s English ‘ague’.

We should never forget that pre-industrial Britain was a land of plague and death, not a paradise of hoe and harvest. On the Essex and Kent marshes in the 18th century, infant mortality was double that on the non-marsh land and the figures even approached those that so disfiguringly characterize malarial sub-Saharan Africa today. The marshland church of Cooling in North Kent, celebrated in Dickens’ Great Expectations for its little lozenge gravestones, and as the terrifying meeting place of Pip and the escaped convict, Magwitch, is also known for its churchyard full of ‘ague’ victims.

We should think twice about these new salt marshes. The anopheles mosquitoes are at the ready. Yet, even more alarmingly, a most likely mosquito vector for the West Nile virus, a special form of Culex pipiens, even stalks the tunnels of the London underground – time for a new Agatha Christie, Death on the Tube?

[Adapted from an article first published in Country Illustrated in 2003]

Essay 3: GM and the UK

The issue of genetically modified (GM) crops generates more heat and less light than any other topic in British farming, and what light is produced is terminally polarised. On the one hand, GM crops are presented by Green activists as a risk too far for the food chain, for organic agriculture, and for wildlife. On the other hand, biotechnology companies sell them as the new way forward for feeding the world and for keeping ahead of pests and diseases, climate change, and population growth. The hype on both sides of the debate has been unrelenting and larded with disinformation and ad hominem abuse.We need an urgent return to rationality and sound science. Neither a blanket ban nor a blanket acceptance of GM crops will serve British agriculture well. As with all innovations, some GM crops will prove valuable for the UK, others neutral, while some will turn out to be problematic.

I think that it was unhelpful in the febrile British political scene to lead a GM programme with herbicide-tolerant crops, such as spring-sown beet. This is not to say that such varieties will never prove to be of value, but that they are farmer-focused rather than consumer-focused, while both herbicide-tolerant and pest-resistant GM crops are intrinsically less suitable to much of the British farming environment than to either the wide expanses of North America and Argentina or, paradoxically, to the small-scale production of crops, such as GM cotton, in countries like China. However, I also believe that our false polarization between organic agriculture and GM crops is misguided. In a saner world, GM crops working within organic systems might well be thought to offer enormous potential for both agriculture and wildlife.

One thing we should remember about genetic modification is that it is not as new a phenomenon as we are led to believe. Indeed, the first major boon of biotechnology was human insulin, for the treatment of diabetes, created in 1982. The first biotech plant, a genetically-modified tobacco, appeared in 1983, followed by rice and maize in the late-1980s. The first biotech food agent, an enzyme employed in cheese making, was approved for use in the USA in 1990, and nearly all of us will have been eating such cheeses for some time. By 1994, the famous FLAVR SAVRTM tomato had arrived on supermarket shelves, while the first biotech soybean was achieved in 1995. In the UK, between 1996 and 1999, 1.8 million cans of fully-labelled biotech tomato puree were successfully sold by two major supermarkets at 20% cheaper than the conventional equivalent. So, it was only after this success that the great UK GM brouhaha exploded.

Yet, in Europe, there have been notable exceptions to the noisy demonstrations and crop vandalism. It comes as a surprise to many to learn that two varieties of GM maize have been grown commercially in Spain since March, 1998. This maize has been genetically-modified to contain a gene from a bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), which both occurs naturally in the soil and is employed in organic agriculture. The modification helps to control two species of highly-damaging corn borer, namely the Mediterranean corn borer (Sesamia nonagrioides) and the European corn borer (Ostrinia nubilalis). One Spanish Co-op of 500 members, who share 15,000 hectares in the Monegros region and who plant the GM maize, has recorded savings of 38 pounds per hectare on the pesticides used to control the corn borers and a significant reduction in the number of sprayings. The president of the managing committee offers an intriguingly different perspective from that current in the UK: “Sometimes you need to take a stance for the future, for progress and the new technology available, or face the risk of lagging behind your competitors. Introducing GM maize was definitely the way forward for us.”

And what can one say of the competition beyond Europe? Outside the EU, GM crops are now exhibiting one of the highest adoption rates ever recorded for any new crop technology. Since 1996, the average yearly increase in acreage has been over 10%. Commercial GM crops are today grown by around 6 million farmers. China has benefited the most from the highest year-on-year growth, with a 40% increase in its Bt cotton coverage, which in 2002 comprised more than half (51%) of the national cotton area of 4.1 million ha. 

I think we should be deeply worried in the UK. Although many of our concerns about GM crops are genuine, others are ludicrous, self-indulgent, and make no scientific sense. Three examples will suffice. I hear people talking about the dangers of cross-pollination from beet. The beet crop in question is a biennial and it is harvested in the first year; there is no pollen. Secondly, I have likewise been lectured that GM oilseed rape will contaminate organic crops. But we do not grow organic oilseed rape. And then there is the fatuous nonsense about so-called ‘superweeds’. A ‘superweed’ is Green-speak for a wild weed that has acquired a gene, or genes, from a genetically-modified plant, probably through hybridization. Nobody, however, suggests that GM plants are likely to lead to more promiscuous hybridizers, or spreaders, than those from conventional crops. And when did you last have trouble with raging wild wheat, or rape, or their hybrids, in your cottage garden? Indeed, there is some evidence that certain GM hybrids may be weaker than their conventional equivalents. After all, the gene only confers one highly particular advantage, say against a given herbicide; this single advantage may be a disadvantage in a non-agricultural environment.

We must work harder to keep things in perspective. What I am absolutely convinced of, however, is that none of our quite reasonable concerns merit the widespread vandalizing of legitimate crop experiments. Farmers and agricultural scientists have enough to put up with at the best of times, and these are not such times. According to one report, there were, between January 1999 and April 2003, at least 28 incidents of serious vandalism against basic crop trials and some 52 against the Government’s field-scale evaluations (FSEs) of GM crops. How sad it is to recall that, in 1990, the UK was a world leader in this field. Whatever one thinks about GM crops, this behaviour is unacceptable in our open society in which we are so lucky to have the vote, a free judiciary, and a relatively free media.

But my greatest concern is for British agriculture. I fear for its future, 10 to 15 years down the line. Very soon, biotechnology in agriculture will leap way beyond mere herbicide resistance and pest control to the production of biodegradable plastics and polyhydroxybutyrate (PHB), to the creation of novel, designer oils, to improved and more efficient biofuels, and to the ‘biopharming’ of medicines and edible vaccines. We have only just started to scratch the surface of the biotechnology furrow. Already a new soybean has been produced with a less saturated and more heat stable oil for cooking. Is this going to be yet another example, therefore, of Britain once leading the way and then losing the plot, precisely as the rest of the world grasps the commercial and social benefits of a new technology? I can assure you that developing countries like China will not hold back on the potential of GM, whatever we do; nor will many of the new states that have just joined, or may join in the future, the EU. Yet here, once more, we will have failed to revive the British countryside by farming it. 

Of course, we must be cautious; of course, not every GM development will be suitable or profitable for the UK; of course, GM will not in itself solve the inequitable distribution of food and wealth. Nevertheless, GM remains an important new tool in the agricultural tool box, to employ along with both conventional and organic agriculture. It will never be all or nothing, one or the other. As over the last 10,000 years, we shall survive and prosper as a species because of the increasing diversity of our agricultural tools. To reject such biodiversity as an entity would be the height of folly. We must not let this happen in the UK because we have temporarily lost our Enlightenment roots.

[Adapted from an article first published in Country Illustrated in 2003]

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