Preview: Jonathan Sacks on religious lessons for the "big society"

"Philanthropy alone cannot fill the gap left by government cutbacks."

In this week's New Statesman, the Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, argues that society can learn a lot from faith communities.

To read the piece in full, pick up the magazine on news-stands from tomorrow. In the meantime, here are some highlights.

Looking at new research by the Harvard sociologist Robert Puttnam, Sacks writes that places of worship still bring people together in "mutual responsibility":

The evidence shows that religious people -- defined by regular attendance at a place of worship -- actually do make better neighbours.

The research shows that this willingness to give time to volunteering is directly tied to the frequency with which they attend a place of worship. Sacks suggests a reason for this:

Religion creates community, community creates altruism and altruism turns us away from self and towards the common good... There is something about the tenor of relationships within a religious community that makes it the best tutorial in citizenship and good neighbourliness.

"If we're searching for the big society, this is where we will find it," writes Sacks. However, he is not romantic about this, and expresses some reservations about the big society agenda:

Does this mean that we are about to become more religious as a society, or that charity is an adequate substitute for government spending, or that faith communities are our only source of altruism? No. Britain, relative to the US, is a highly secular society. Philanthropy alone cannot fill the gap left by government cutbacks. And the sources of altruism go deep into our evolutionary past.

To read the piece in full, pick up a copy of the magazine on news-stands in London from today or subscribe.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Why Prince Charles and Princess Anne are both wrong on GM foods

The latest tiff between toffs gives plenty of food for thought.

I don’t have siblings, so I was weirdly curious as a kid about friends who did, especially when they argued (which was often). One thing I noticed was the importance of superlatives: of being the best child, the most right, and the first to have been wronged. And it turns out things are no different for the Royals.

You might think selective breeding would be a subject on which Prince Charles and Princess Anne would share common ground, but when it comes to genetically modified crops they have very different opinions.

According to Princess Anne, the UK should ditch its concerns about GM and give the technology the green light. In an interview to be broadcast on Radio 4’s Farming Today, she said would be keen to raise both modified crops and livestock on her own land.

“Most of us would argue we have been genetically modifying food since man started to be agrarian,” she said (rallying the old first-is-best argument to her cause). She also argued that the practice can help reduce the price of our food and improve the lives of animals - and “suspects” that there are not many downsides.

Unfortunately for Princess Anne, her Royal “us” does not include her brother Charles, who thinks that GM is The Worst.

In 2008, he warned that genetically engineered food “will be guaranteed to cause the biggest disaster environmentally of all time.”  Supporting such a path would risk handing control of our food-chain to giant corporations, he warned -  leading to “absolute disaster” and “unmentionable awfulness” and “the absolute destruction of everything”.

Normally such a spat could be written off as a toff-tiff. But with Brexit looming, a change to our present ban on growing GM crops commercially looks ever more likely.

In this light, the need to swap rhetoric for reason is urgent. And the most useful anti-GM argument might instead be that offered by the United Nations’ cold, hard data on crop yields.

Analysis by the New York Times shows that, in comparison to Europe, the United States and Canada have “gained no discernible advantages” from their use of GM (in terms of food per acre). Not only this, but herbicide use in the US has increased rather than fallen.

In sum: let's swap superlatives and speculation for sense.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.