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16 July 2001

How to show you love the planet

Green issue - GM foods, a warming world, threatened trees. Which green issues should worry

By Zac Goldsmith


The issue. This is the quintessential green issue, combining the spectre of vast, sometimes invisible, corporations and the building blocks of life itself.

GM (genetically modified) crops, their supporters argue, will feed the hungry of the world, reduce the need for chemical inputs and improve productivity. But almost all GM field test sites are for crops that are engineered to be resistant to pesticides and will therefore increase, not decrease, their use. Exhaustive trials have shown that small-scale organic mixed agriculture is often many times more productive than chemical-intensive monoculture. That is certainly the view of the African delegates to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation who, with one exception, signed a declaration distancing themselves emphatically from Monsanto advertisements claiming the contrary.

Now the industry focuses more on “miracle” spin-offs, such as cures for cancer, for strange new illnesses and even for pollution. These arguments are often little more than public relations exercises designed to boost share prices and trigger popular excitement. The industry’s biggest “success” to date is GM insulin, which has been shown to have serious adverse consequences for more than 20 per cent of patients, including loss of warning symptoms and even the onset of comas.

The industry is at pains to persuade us that there is no difference between GM and non-GM. Yet although it tries to prevent non-GM producers from labelling their products as such, it still wants to patent its own products as unique.

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Only last year, scientists discovered that pollen from GM rape could cross the species barrier. They did so by positively identifying contamination in bacteria from the guts of honey bees; the implications for organic farmers are obvious.

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The argument comes down to the precautionary principle, where new products are assumed to be guilty until proven innocent. If we had followed this principle in the past, we would have avoided many of the problems we’ve seen with dangerous chemicals such as DDT.

The villains. The World Trade Organisation (WTO) regards attempts to regulate GM foods as unfair barriers to trade. The European Union provides heavy subsidies and a great deal of support to the industry. While its citizens are overwhelmingly anti-GM, the EU is trying desperately to replace the current moratorium with draft regulations to “manage” the approval and release of at least 12 new products. And our own Tony Blair wrote recently in an overseas newspaper that he intends to support fully the “giants of British biotechnology” that have come to “dominate the Continent”. In the US before last year’s presidential election, Monsanto wrote to its shareholders that, regardless of the outcome of that election, they could be sure of having a friend in the White House.

The heroes. Japan, which has tried to introduce tough regulations on GM foods. Thailand, Sri Lanka and many eastern European countries, which are toying with the idea of banning GM products outright. Greenpeace’s Lord (Peter) Melchett, who was very publicly arrested, tried and acquitted after “decontaminating” GM crops last year.

Celebrity campaigners. George Michael, Trudie Styler (Sting’s wife), Elle Macpherson, Sadie Frost, Jude Law, the Prince of Wales and John Humphrys, the author of The Great Food Gamble.


1. Visit the following sites:

2. Check out to find information about the best action you can take, as well as details of all the 96 government-approved test sites (double last year’s number), which, if you’re feeling energetic, you might want to visit with your friends.

3. Keep up the pressure on supermarkets, some of which responded positively to the consumer backlash by promising not to stock GM products (


The issue. Urban sprawl and overzealous development are increasing problems for our already crowded land. Britain has roughly half an acre of arable and half an acre of pasture land per person. Although it is amazing what can be grown on small areas, it is vital that we protect what little is left.

Yet the government has given the go-ahead for more than 40,000 new homes to be built each year for five years, a total of 215,000, of which 80,000 will be on good farmland. The colonies will become yet more out-of-town commuter zones, serviced by mega-malls, disconnected from the environment and designed purely and simply to accommodate current trends of family breakdown and the atomisation of society. They will not provide local jobs for the newly housed; they will serve as bases for people living and working in very different places, thus increasing the volume of commuting. Meanwhile, our cities are full of vacant property and wastelands that could be restored.

The heroes. The Council for the Protection of Rural England and Friends of the Earth have both campaigned tirelessly.

Celebrity campaigners. Tracy Worcester and Prunella Scales.


1. Visit the following sites:;;

2. Join both the Council for the Protection of Rural England and Friends of the Earth.

3. Voice your concerns to Stephen Byers, the Secretary of State for Transport, in letters and, if you’re energetic, with protests.

Food and farming

The issue. The British rural economy is in deep crisis. Farm incomes have plummeted to an average of £5,000 a year. Farmers are committing suicide at a rate of one a week. During the past decade, one-fifth of all agricultural jobs in the UK were lost. By the end of the 1990s, 42 per cent of rural parishes had no shop, 43 per cent had no post office, 83 per cent had no doctor, 49 per cent had no school and 75 per cent had no daily bus service.

The government’s handling of foot-and-mouth added to the problems. The disease was always destined to spread, and the logical consequences of mass culling were necessarily the end for thousands of farms and a multibillion-pound bill. All this to “protect” our animals from a relatively mild disease, and to ensure the sale of our meat and dairy products abroad – a process that earns no more than £600m each year. In any case, we import as much poultry meat, pork and lamb as we export. So we could easily have relied on and supported our own farmers.

The villains. Who, or what, is killing the British countryside? New Labour is not the first government to apply destructive policies, but it is applying them more ruthlessly. Ministers favour large-scale industrial agribusinesses producing goods for export. So 80 per cent of farm subsidies are allocated to just 20 per cent of farmers, and while the “inefficiencies” of big production for export – the pollution of air, soil and water, degenerative disease, big transport infrastructures and global-warming emissions – are “externalised” (paid for by the taxpayer), small farmers receive no such help. The result is that the former appear to be vastly more efficient than they actually are, while small farmers producing for local consumption seem, by comparison, grossly uneconomic.

The other villains are the supermarkets, which drive down the prices paid to farmers for their produce. Today, 67 per cent of food in Britain is sold through just four chains of supermarkets. Between 1986 and 1996, the number of small grocers in the UK halved. For the climate, this is a disaster, as the distance travelled to shops rose by 14 per cent between 1990 and 1995.

The heroes. The International Society for Ecology and Culture (ISEC), the Green MEP Caroline Lucas and Friends of the Earth. Celebrity campaigners. Bryan Ferry, the Prince of Wales, Noel Edmonds.


1. Implement, if you can, a “buy local campaign” in your region. Urge people to buy local, preferably organic, food. Remember, in the current climate, British is local enough.

2. Pressure your supermarkets to buy from local suppliers. It is surprising what impact you can have as a consumer.

3. Support the ISEC and the other groups mentioned.

4. Learn more by reading the ISEC’s excellent Bringing the Food Economy Home (01803 868 650) and George Monbiot’s Captive State: the corporate takeover of Britain, for a good analysis of the effects of supermarkets.

5. Fight any planning applications by supermarkets in your area. The playing field is unlevel, but it is possible to succeed.

6. For more information, visit:


The issue. In the light of climate change, the protection of forests as a natural carbon “sink” should be a top priority. They also protect the soil’s capacity to absorb water, which is all the more important in view of the floods we have been seeing. Yet destruction continues at an unbelievable pace, with 64 acres of forest (roughly 37 football pitches) being destroyed every minute, mostly through industrial logging.

The EU claims that our own total forest cover is on the increase. In fact, much of this is attributable to monoculture plantations of eucalyptus and conifers. Neither is ecologically beneficial. Both destroy the mineral content and texture of the soil.

The villains. Logging companies, such as Asia Pulp and Paper (APP). Despite endless official warnings, APP continued to buy illegally felled timber from the lowland forests of the Sundra shelf. According to Science magazine, some of these forests, which are among the world’s richest, will be completely ruined in less than five years’ time. With the forests will disappear their wildlife, including the Sumatran tiger (fewer than 400 worldwide) and the Sumatran rhino (300 worldwide). And because of the chlorine used to bleach the paper, the people in nearby villages are no longer able to drink the area’s water, while fish has mostly disappeared from their diet.

Celebrity supporters. Peter Gabriel, Sting.


1. Write to Patricia Hewitt, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, urging her to implement appropriate standards for paper and wood. (If she responds, send your letter to the Ecologist!)

2. If you bank with NatWest or other banks that invest in logging companies, write strongly worded letters of complaint. Enough expression of customer discontent has yielded positive results in the past.

3. Recycle paper. Or shift from wood pulp to kenaf, hemp or flax, all of which are effective, good quality and becoming more economical by the day. Try to influence your office to do likewise.

4. If you visit a DIY store, ask pressing questions about the source of the wood.

5. Reduce the amount of packaging you use when you shop. Nearly half the world’s paper is wasted on often unnecessary packaging. In Austria a few years ago, a large number of women shoppers arranged to dump, on a given day, all unnecessary packaging outside the shops responsible.

6. For more information, visit:


The issue. Most scientists now agree that climate change is happening and that mankind is largely responsible. But while you can see the consequences of, say, giant oil spills or nuclear meltdowns, the impact of global warming is not so immediately obvious.

It is the insurance industry’s business, however, to look ahead, and it is alarmed by what it sees. The German insurance company Munich Re recently estimated that the cost of dealing with the effects of climate change will outstrip gross world product by 2065.

Yet we need not adopt a monklike existence in order to reduce the threat of global warming. Many of the changes necessary are both painless and essential for other reasons.


1. Every mouthful of food we eat in this country is an ecological disaster. Governments systematically subsidise the trade in basic goods, so that New Zealand butter, for instance, is cheaper in the UK than Devonshire butter. Today, the food we eat travels 50 per cent further from field to mouth than it did 20 years ago. The most important thing you can do is lobby for a change in these subsidies, so that the price tags on non-organic imports reflect the true costs, and local organic food becomes more affordable.

See and

2. Try to shop directly from producers. The UK went from having no farmers’ markets at all in the mid-1990s to having more than 270 at the end of the decade. It is also possible to join a “box scheme”, organised by the Soil Association, which allows you to order food directly from local farms. More than 40,000 families in the UK now get a veggie-box from a local farm. This reunion of producers and consumers automatically reduces our dependence on fuel, and benefits the local economy.

3. Use public transport wherever possible.

4. Invest in renewable energy sources. There is no doubt that there will be a clean-energy boom and that, unlike the bubble that characterised internet stocks, this boom will endure.

5. Join Bianca Jagger and others in boycotting the giant ExxonMobil corporation: see

6. More background: (all the latest science and information); (amusing information on George W Bush and cronies); (advice on what to do in your own home).

Indigenous people

The issue. Indigenous people, with established ways of life, are the worst affected by mad development projects.

The villains. Occidental Petroleum, which drills U’Wa land in Colombia for oil. The U’Wa say they will commit collective suicide. Rio Tinto mines uranium on Mirrar Aborigine land in Australia. BP Amoco wants to drill for oil on Inuit land in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Mongolian nomads will need to find a new home when PetroChina begins to develop gas fields. These are just a few examples.

The heroes. The Swiss campaigner Bruno Manser, who disappeared in the forests of Borneo, where he had been fighting on behalf of the Penan, the last remaining rainforest nomads of Borneo. They are being rendered destitute by the Sarawak timber industry. Manser was described by the Malaysian government as “public enemy number one”.

Celebrity campaigners. Anita Roddick, Sting.


Visit, Survival International’s website, for information and advice.


The issue. Labour plans to construct more than 100 new incineration plants. Burning household waste, particularly plastic and other products containing chlorine, releases dioxins into the environment. According to Ralph Ryder, the director of Communities Against Toxics: “Minuscule amounts of dioxin pose a very real threat to human health, particularly that of foetuses and the breast-fed child. Dioxin is a highly potent carcinogen and disrupter of the reproductive and immune systems in wildlife and humans.”

Studies confirm that a typical incinerator releases a cocktail of other toxic chemicals, including lead, cadmium, mercury and fine particles. New “improved” incinerators are only marginally cleaner. Many of the emissions are merely transferred from the site in the form of ash. They are then deposited in landfill sites, where they can leach into the water table.

The villains. Greenpeace has called Labour “the party of incineration”. Both the Tories and the Lib Dems want a moratorium.


1. Do all you can to reduce your own waste. Recycle and reuse as much as you can. The UK, with 8 per cent of its waste being recycled, is at the bottom of the European recycling league.

2. Oppose planning applications for incinerators.

3. Urge the government to phase out materials that cannot be safely recycled or composted, such as PVC plastic.

4. Get info from and


The issue. Most people think this issue is dead. In the US, for instance, no new plants have been commissioned for 25 years. But President Bush plans to build one new power plant each week for 20 years, and this will include nuclear power plants. In Britain, the industry wants to build seven nuclear stations to replace its ageing advanced gas-cooled reactors, the first of which is due to be closed down in 2011 and the last in 2025. The government is sympathetic.

Nuclear power is deadly. Two years ago, it was revealed that Aldermaston had experienced more than 100 emergencies. Experts believe only luck has prevented a major catastrophe. Sellafield, which is surrounded by a cancer cluster ten times the national average, came close to meltdown in January, when explosive gases were allowed to build up in tanks that store highly radioactive nuclear waste.

Nuclear power was launched on the basis that it was “clean, safe and too cheap to meter”. All those claims have been undermined. There is no known way to deal effectively with nuclear waste. Norman Askew, the chief executive of British Nuclear Fuels Limited, has said that “by storing waste in an inert condition above ground now we can keep it safe for 100 or 200 years until a more permanent solution is found”.


Support the Low Level Radiation Campaign ( and Greenpeace ( Let the government know that you strongly disapprove of your tax contributions being used to prop up a dangerous and uneconomic industry. Visit and for more information.

Zac Goldsmith is editor of the Ecologist. Stephanie Roth is news and campaigns editor of the Ecologist.