Be­ware of jar­gon and agen­das when deal­ing with ‘sound sci­ence’

Irish Independent - Farming - - FARM OUR - JOHN HENEY

AROUND this time of the win­ter, I usu­ally get that “glass half-empty” feel­ing when I look at my rapidly shrink­ing silage pit.

How­ever, in spite of the re­cent cold snap, I have a nice cover of early grass on some of my farm to fall back on if things do go wrong this spring, so I def­i­nitely have a “glass half-full” feel­ing now as far as silage is con­cerned.

In spite of all this early growth, I still don’t plan to let out any cat­tle un­til about mid-March. Hope­fully, this will al­low suf­fi­cient time for my old-pas­ture pad­docks to re­cover should the weather turn cold.

This win­ter’s fine weather also meant I was able to get my fences and hedges cut back from my elec­tric fence.

Un­for­tu­nately, I didn’t get around to spread­ing any lime, but as land is still rel­a­tively sound, I am hope­ful that I’ll get it done in time for spring. Mean­while, we con­tinue to move ever-closer to the edge of the Brexit precipice. Ev­ery day brings more spec­u­la­tion about what might hap­pen if there is a no-deal Brexit. There was a real thun­der­bolt for farm­ing re­cently in the form of a re­port pub­lished by The Lancet, one of the world’s old­est and most pres­ti­gious med­i­cal jour­nals.

In con­junc­tion with an or­gan­i­sa­tion called ‘EAT’, the re­port states that the pres­sures of cli­mate change will re­quire dras­tic di­etary changes, in­clud­ing a 90pc re­duc­tion in red meat and milk con­sump­tion, a 70pc re­duc­tion in chicken, as well as sub­stan­tial re­duc­tion in the con­sump­tion of pota­toes and some other veg­eta­bles.

Even al­low­ing for my ob­vi­ous bias in this debate, this is pretty heavy stuff so I de­cided to re­search the EAT or­gan­i­sa­tion.

On its web­site, EAT de­scribes it­self sim­ply as a “sci­ence-based global plat­form for food sys­tem trans­for­ma­tion… a non-profit start-up ded­i­cated to trans­form­ing our global food sys- tem through sound sci­ence, im­pa­tient dis­rup­tion and novel part­ner­ship”.

Of course, we are all in favour of sound sci­ence but over the decades, sci­ence has been re­peat­edly shown to be far from in­fal­li­ble in re­la­tion to food-pro­duc­tion sys­tems and the en­vi­ron­ment.

How many times have sci­en­tists as­sured us of how “safe” var­i­ous chem­i­cal sprays were, only to find out years later that they had been with­drawn from the mar­ket be­cause of the dan­gers they posed to hu­man health?

When I was a ma­ture stu­dent, I spent a few years study­ing the con­cept of Sus­tain­able Devel­op­ment.

One thing I learned was that the use of jar­gon such as “im­pa­tient dis­rup­tion and novel part­ner­ship” as well as the re­peated use of the much­abused term “sus­tain­abil­ity” with­out an ac­com­pa­ny­ing ex­pla­na­tion was usu­ally an in­di­ca­tion of ques­tion­able mo­tives.

We have of­ten heard it said that “you can judge a per­son by the com­pany they keep” so who do the peo­ple in EAT as­so­ci­ate with?

EAT has close con­nec­tions with large transna­tional fi­nan­cial, tax and in­vest­ment com­pa­nies and also has close ties with some biotech re­search fa­cil­i­ties such as MIT (Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy).

One of EAT’s fi­nan­cial part­ners states that “biotech­nol­ogy firms have a crit­i­cal role to play in de­vel­op­ing new an­timi­cro­bials”.

A week or so af­ter the food con­sump­tion re­port, The Lancet pub­lished a re­port based on ‘ The Lancet Com­mis­sion on Obe­sity’. This re­port con­tains ex­tra­or­di­nary sug­ges­tions in­clud­ing a call for a re­duc­tion in “un­healthy” food con­sump­tion through taxes and the redi­rect­ing of farm­ing sub­si­dies away from dairy and beef farm­ing to what it calls “sus­tain­able farm­ing for health­ful foods”.

To me, this re­port re­flects what’s hap­pen­ing in the high­stakes bat­tle where pri­mary food pro­duc­ers are caught in the cross­fire be­tween the global food in­dus­try and the Bi­ol­o­gist Colin Tudge

global biotech in­dus­try for con­trol of the global food mar­ket.

GM crops

For decades, multi­na­tional biotech com­pa­nies have claimed we need to use their ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied crops if we are to “feed the world”. They have, how­ever, been deeply frus­trated by an on­go­ing con­sumer re­sis­tance to GM food.

In his book, So Shall We Reap, renowned bi­ol­o­gist Colin Tudge has coun­tered the pro-GM ar­gu­ments and ex­plains how “with­out re­sort­ing to GM crops, we can take back con­trol from the cor­po­rate barons, feed the world and, ul­ti­mately en­sure the sur­vival of hu­man­ity”.

An­other of EAT’s claims is that CO2 emis­sions can be re­duced by switch­ing to plant-based food. I find this claim highly sus­pect as it would in­volve plough­ing wide ar­eas of per­ma­nent grass­land. It is gen­er­ally ac­cepted that plough­ing hu­mus-rich grass­lands, which we have in abun­dance in Ire­land, leads to a mas­sive re­lease of CO2 into the at­mos­phere.

Re­search by the Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin has shown how the plough­ing of Min­nesota’s prairies is dra­mat­i­cally in­creas­ing car­bon in the at­mos­phere. Ac­cord­ing to this re­search, newly ploughed land in Min­nesota re­leased 1.86 mil­lion US tons of car­bon into the at­mos­phere each year be­tween 2008 and 2012.

This con­curs with re­search un­der­taken by Don Hof­s­trand, Pro­fes­sor Emer­i­tus of Iowa State Univer­sity.

He claims that as “soil is a huge store­house of car­bon, the­o­ret­i­cally, Amer­i­can soils could soak up more than 100 mil­lion tons of car­bon an­nu­ally by ac­tu­ally re­turn­ing crop­land to per­ma­nent grass or trees”.

To me that reads a lot more like sound sci­ence than the vague sen­ti­ments of the EAT or­gan­i­sa­tion’s mis­sion state­ment.


John Heney farms in Kil­feackle, Co Tip­per­ary.

Email: [email protected]

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