How the media bungled the reporting of sinking Solomon Islands

First reported in the Guardian.

Links between climate change and the sinking of five islands in the Pacific Ocean have been exaggerated, the author of a widely reported new study has said.

The report, published on Friday, tracked the shapeshifting of 33 reef islands in the Solomon Islands between 1947 and 2014. It found that five had been washed away completely and six more had been severely eroded. The study blamed the loss on a combination of sea-level rise and high wave energy.

Many media outlets, including the Guardian, jumped to the conclusion that the islands were lost to climate change. But this largely misinterprets the science, according to the study’s author, Dr Simon Albert.

“All these headlines are certainly pushing things a bit towards the ‘climate change has made islands vanish’ angle. I would prefer slightly more moderate titles that focus on sea-level rise being the driver rather than simply ‘climate change’,” Albert told the Guardian.

The major misunderstanding stems from the conflation of sea-level rise with climate change. As a scientifically robust and potentially destructive articulation of climate change, sea-level rise has become almost synonymous with the warming of the planet.

However, as Albert’s paper points out, the ocean has been rising in the Solomon Islands at 7mm per year, more than double the global average. Since the 1990s, trade winds in the Pacific have been particularly intense. This has been driven partly by global warming and partly by climatic cycles – in particular the Pacific Decadal Oscillation.

“These trade winds have basically pushed water up into western Pacific and have driven these exceptionally high rates of [sea-level rise] in the Solomons,” said Albert. “The trade winds are partly a natural cycle but also the recent intensification is related to atmospheric warming.”

The proportion of the extra rise driven by climate change was not considered by Albert’s study.

Areas of the Pacific where seas are rising at closer to the global average have not yet experienced the same loss of land as the Solomon Islands. A few studies, based on comparing aerial photos of islands from world war two with current satellite images, have thus far have been inconclusive. There is even a suggestion that atolls in the central Pacific are getting bigger.

The loss of land in the Pacific is a totemic image of climate change. Residents of low-lying nations see incursions of the sea where it did not use to be and blame the burning of fossil fuels. This study shows that the issue is more complex than this. But it also contains a dire warning.

By the second half of this century the sea-level rise across the Pacific will be close to the rate observed in the Solomon Islands in recent decades. Albert’s team also observed a disturbing trend of wave energy increasing along with local sea-level rise, meaning islands exposed to high seas were trounced into oblivion.

In this respect, the drowning of these lands is a window into the future. For the first time, we can see clearly that the amount of sea-level rise we expect from climate change will overwhelm entire landscapes.

“The key aspect I stand by is that these observations from the Solomons are a warning of things to come irrespective of if climate change alone caused it or a range of factors,” said Albert.

It appears that in some cases journalists did not contact the researchers and instead quoted from a comment piece the authors wrote on The Conversation website.

“This is the first scientific evidence,” said the authors, “that confirms the numerous anecdotal accounts from across the Pacific of the dramatic impacts of climate change on coastlines and people.”

This was used to justify erroneous headlines. Albert told the Guardian: “I understand why these more dramatic titles are used and it does help bring attention to the issue that I firmly believe will become a major issue for the islands in the second half if this century from climate change.”

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Refugee mothers on Nauru speak on Mothers Day

Refugee mothers on Nauru have marked Mother’s Day with a plea to the Australian immigration department to let their kids resettle in Australia.

WARNING: contains graphic images of young Iranian man who set himself alight on the 27 of April.

Controlled invasive species advertised on eBay and Amazon to UK

Some listings have now been removed, original screen grabs below.

Ebay.co.uk:

  • A seller in Yorkshire selling bags of 20 floating pennywort strands (Hydrocotyle ranunculoides).
  • An Australian seller offering to ship water fern (Azolla filiculoides) anywhere in the world, including the UK.
  • One Polish vendor who has sold 53 clumps of parrot’s feather (Myriophyllum aquaticum), a water plant. The advertised shipping region was “worldwide”.

Ebay.it:

  • The same plant on offer in Germany to anywhere in the EU. This advertisement notes customs restrictions outside the EU, but not in the UK.

Amazon.co.uk:

  • Latvian seller advertising sale of parrot’s feather into UK.
  • UK seller advertising parrot’s feather (currently unavailable) for sale from warehouse in England.

The relevant UK legislation is the Wildlife and Conservation Act 1981, Section 14AZ.

 

Tasmania’s bushfires: a human-made calamity on par with the razing of Palmyra’s temples

First published on the Guardian

It is a three-hour, thigh-torturing climb to reach Tasmania’s high central plateau. Ancient myrtle rainforests flank the slopes. In years gone by, springs and streams gushed from the soaked highlands above, feeding the ferns and tall, old trees. The track passes Norm’s spring, from which local legend holds it is good luck to drink. But in these parts the luck has run dry.

Last year Tasmania suffered its driest and hottest spring. At the nearby Miena dam, October’s rainfall was just 10.2mm, a record 65mm below average. The second driest November followed.

For the world heritage-listed ecosystem above, these normally sodden forests are a fortification against the fires that perennially torch the lowlands. But their fluorescent mosses turned a circumspect pastel green in the heat. By the time December and January broke summer heat records, they were just waiting for a spark.

On 13 January a huge, dry electrical storm set more than 70 fires rampaging across the island. Within days the flames tore through the dried-out defences and into the world heritage area above. For more than a month, fire has rolled back and forth across the fragile plains.

At the lip of the plateau a spectacular field of cushion plants once marked the northern edge of Tasmania’s vast world heritage area. These fragile plant communities build on the skeletal wood of their ancestors. As the centuries pass they construct huge, alien-green mounds that bulge from the peat. Today they look like a tray of burnt sponge cakes.

A long glacial valley stretches out below, devoid of colour, filled only with twisted black branches and burned stones; a monument to entropy. The rocks still radiate heat even though a fortuitous cloudburst put out the flames weeks before. At every step the normally spongy soil bursts into puffs of dust. The torched bark of thousand-year-old pencil pines shines iridescent black.

Only in tiny pockets has some life survived. Due to some inherent extra wetness, a protecting rock or a random swirl of the wind, here and there a few square metres of peat still shout forth little fantasias of sphagnum moss, pineapple grass, honey richea and cushion plants. Like funeral photos of a young life cut short, these still-glorious toeholds only accentuate the bitter, irredeemable tragedy of the surrounding acres of ash.

When vandals of Islamic State blew up the temples of Palmyra, the sickened world responded with appropriate and universal rage. The director general of Unesco, the UN body that oversees world heritage sites, called it a “war crime”.

As the burning of Tasmania enters its sixth week, Unesco remains silent. But if the dire warnings of forest scientists are correct, this summer heralds a new era of decline for this great Gondwana ecosystem. Unlike eucalyptus forests, these plants have not evolved to cope with regular bushfires. Once burned, they die. In a region that has rarely experienced fire, the blackened trunks of millennial trees will burn again and again. Some fire-resistant species will remain but the change will be absolute.

The beginning of its end is a theft from us all. Two-thirds of the plant species on the plateau exist nowhere else on earth but Tasmania. According to one estimate, 4% of the world’s remaining pencil pines – among the longest living of all trees – have been lost in these blazes.

The British explorer Gertrude Bell once wondered of Palmyra’s temples whether “the wide world presents a more singular landscape”. For the pilgrims who visit Tasmania’s wild sanctuary, there is only one answer. They come, from both near and far, to worship a different articulation of the divine. Or, as one local bushwalker puts it: “This is where we go to have fun.”

Away to the west, fires still burn. Tasmania’s fire service says they are contained. Thankfully, the weather failed to produce the dire northerly buster that would have sent the fires deep into the wilderness. Damage has been limited to 22,000 hectares of the vast 1.5m-hectare park. The Tasmanian government has been at pains to point out that the great majority remains intact. Rather than the final cataclysm, the ruined valleys at the northern edge are a premonition of a warmer, less wonderful world.

Unesco says it is “not in a position to speculate about the extent to which global warming is responsible for this particular fire”. Earlier this month the Tasmanian premier, Will Hodgman, attacked “activists” for “almost gleefully capitalising” on the fires, which he said were “naturally caused”.

But this ignores the unnatural rarity of these particular fires and the circumstances that preceded them. If they had been lit by arsonists, says David Bowman, a forest ecologist from the University of Tasmania, “that would be bad, but you would understand that that was preventable”.

Instead the rising background of climate change combined with a huge El Niño to create conditions in which peat bogs were dry enough to burn for the first time in perhaps a thousand years. Tasmania’s rainfall has been decreasing since the 1970s, accompanied by a rise in annual average temperature of half a degree. Last week research confirmedthat even with an El Niño in effect, the occurrence of Australia’s three hottest-recorded springs in the past three years was “almost certainly” caused by greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Climate scientists have also predicted that lightning strikes will happen 12% more frequently with every degree of warming.

“It’s a historically significant event,” Bowman says.

Deep in the valley, a tiny grove of pines is still green. From afar the trees (which look to be about 500 years old – young by pencil pine standards) appear to have been protected from the fire by a rocky slope. But closer inspection reveals that the peat burned right up to their bases. Licking flames singed the bark at the bottom of their trunks. Then, inexplicably, the fire turned away. Perhaps this was the moment the rain came to douse the flames. The chubby needles of the pines remain soft and lively. But if these trees are going to ride luck like this their end cannot be far away.

The parents of these young trees may have been young themselves when the citizens of Palmyra still walked their desert streets. The razing of these old treasures are two points on the wide spectrum of human failure. Along with the fractured temple of Baalshamin, Isis have broken the statues of Hatra in Iraq. In Afghanistan, the Taliban blasted the great Buddhas of Bamiyan. All of these places carried the aegis of world heritage. This week news comes that the violence of climate change has turned towards another Unesco wonder, the Great Barrier Reef.

At the edge of the central plateau, a half-torched wooden signpost bears Unesco’s world heritage symbol, signifying the interdependence of nature and human ingenuity. Nothing within eyeshot is now worthy of such lofty recognition. Amid the blackened clumps of the cushion plants, the icon is a travesty.

Keystone XL: how Obama’s iconoclasm signals the turning of the climate tide

First published in the Guardian

The symbolism was everything. Standing before a portrait of Teddy Roosevelt, the conservationist president who 104 years ago busted the Standard Oil monopoly, Barack Obama made his own tilt at an environmental legacy.

The proposed 1,179-mile Keystone XL pipeline, which Obama rejected on Friday, would have borne more than 800,000 barrels of exceptionally high-carbon oil from Canada’s tar sands fields in Alberta to refineries on the US gulf coast each day.

It should have been a shoo-in for presidential approval. Conservatives and many labour unions loved it. According to a State Department report in 2014, environmentalists’ claims that it would reduce emissions from tar sands were unfounded. Keystone XL is just one of many pipelines being built across North America. If it was not built, the Canadians would simply ship it from elsewhere.

So how did Obama come down on the side of a coalition of students environmentalists, farmers and indigenous nations who admit that when they started this fight seven years ago, they had no hope of winning?

“America is now a global leader when it comes to taking serious action to fight climate change. And frankly, approving this project would have undercut that global leadership,” said the president on Friday in an address to the nation.

It is here that the iconoclasm of Obama’s decision reveals itself. Climate change has become such an overwhelmingly mainstream political and diplomatic imperative that it overrides traditionally unbeatable domestic interests.

The president said he had weighed the familiar arguments – jobs, gas prices, energy security – and had been swayed by none.

Building the pipeline would have done little to benefit the US, he said. More oil from Canada was not going to make pump prices cheaper or help the US cut its reliance on foreign oil. That has already happened thanks to the fracking boom. Since 2008, the US has increased the yield of its domestic oil fields by a massive 173%.

“There’s no shortage of oil and gas here, so it seems particularly crazy to be importing crap when we have lots of our own fossil fuels,” said professor Daniel Kammen, co-director of the Berkeley Institute of the Environment.

On jobs, Obama said the pipeline was insignificant and that his mooted infrastructure plan would create 30 times more jobs. But jobs are jobs and the US’s major construction union called the Keystone decision “shameful”, adding that defining jobs as insignificant just because they are temporary amounted to throwing workers “under the bus”.

Professor Robert Stavins, the director of Harvard University’s environmental economics program, told the Guardian he was not aware of any reliable assessment of the project’s employment impact. But he added that “Keystone would have created a relatively small number of jobs, and only during its construction phase.”

Obama also had some harsh words for those in the environmental camp. The pipeline was not “the express lane to climate disaster” they had proclaimed. Canada’s tar sands are undeniably dirty. They come to the surface in the form of a sticky and impure mixture of clay, sand, water and bitumen. These are expensive and carbon-intensive to refine.

Now, with a chronic oversupply and low prices, tar sands have become less attractive. Oil major Royal Dutch Shell has recently pulled out of two projects in oil-rich Alberta, writing off billions of dollars worth of initial investment.

Environmentalists argued oil producers would not be able to pay the extra costs of shipping by train or truck, meaning crude that would have run through Keystone XL will now stay safely under the soil. But Stavins said this argument relied rather too much on the unknowable future wanderings of the oil price.

“It may mean less CO2 emissions in the long term, but we don’t really know,” he said. “When oil prices were higher last year, Keystone would not have made any difference, because the oil would have been developed and sent to refineries with or without Keystone. But that is less clear with the much lower oil prices we now have. In any event, this is a long-term and uncertain consequence.”

Obama had opened his remarks by pouring scorn on the totemic importance the pipeline has attained.

“Now, for years, the Keystone pipeline has occupied what I, frankly, consider an over-inflated role in our political discourse. It became a symbol too often used as a campaign cudgel by both parties rather than a serious policy matter,” he said.

And yet the president was engaging in his own signification, standing in front of Theodore Roosevelt, killing Keystone because of how it would look to the rest of the world.

“We’re going to have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground rather than burn them and release more dangerous pollution into the sky,” he said.

Cynics have pointed out that Obama could have made his brave stand four years ago, instead of kicking the pipeline into the bureaucratic long grass and ensuring it was no impediment to his second election. But leading Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have already stated their opposition to Keystone XL, indicating it may no longer be a poisoned chalice.

Suddenly, environmentalists believe they are winning. The Democratic senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who has long fought against Keystone in Congress, said he “wasn’t really sure it could get much better” on Thursday, after the New York attorney general launched a potentially era-defining investigation into ExxonMobil’s climate denial. “And then today’s news came”.

Whitehouse, who represents Rhode Island, likened Obama’s decision to the Battle of Gettysburg, where the American civil war swung in favour of the union. “The town of Gettysburg itself was not the point,” he said.

“The tide has turned,” 350.org’s Bill McKibben told journalists on a press call. “Just in the last 36 hours we’ve had the New York attorney general subpoena the largest, richest, most powerful fossil fuel company on earth. Now we’ve had the first rejection of a major fossil fuel infrastructure project that I can think of. That is a sign that we are moving into a new era.”

Linking the decision to the upcoming United Nations climate negotiations in Paris, Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune said the decision “will reverberate from Washington, to Ottawa, to Paris and beyond”.

“Keystone is such a touchstone issue because it flies in the face of the new United States position being a climate leader,” said Kammen. With the rejection, he said, Obama was “backing words with actions”.

Obama has increasingly pinned his legacy to the outcome of those talks, striking emissions deals with China and the G7 and forcing through the strongest-ever domestic cuts to US power emissions.

Uncharacteristically commenting on a member country’s internal politics, the UN’s climate chief, Christiana Figures, also tied the Keystone decision to the Paris talks, tweeting: “Just in the last 24 hours Exxon subpoenaed, Keystone rejected. We may finally have understood the risk of inaction on climate. Now to action.”

“The symbolic value is significant because it will position the United States in a more favourable light with those countries and those activists who favour strong action on climate change,” said Harvard professor Stavins. The boost to US credibility would allow it to drive through a more effective deal in Paris.

On Friday, Republicans called for back-up to mount a challenge to the rejection of Keystone in the Senate. TransCanada, the company behind the pipeline, tried to staunch its bleeding share price by saying it would “review all of its options”.

However these amount to reapplying for a new presidential permit – a costly process that will most probably depend on whether a Republican or Democrat takes over the White House in 2016.

But even if the project is somehow resurrected, it will face infinitely stronger opposition. Environmentalists, who once thought taking on Keystone XL was an unwinnable fight, will now know for sure that it is only a pipeline.

 

 

Freeing refugees from detention will not protect women like Abyan

Originally published in Crikey

I spent the night of Christmas 2014 in a tiny room in a refugee camp on Nauru, surrounded by a scared group of 11 Somali women. I don’t know if the refugee known as Abyan was among them, although I suspect she was. These women crowded around, each desperate to tell her story of fear and abuse.

Beatings and attempted rapes had been reported to police and ignored. Local men had taken to creeping around the back of their guarded camp at night and banging on their windows. They told me they slept in their jeans.

Earlier that night, a photographer and I had easily slipped past the sleeping guard who was meant to protect the camp from such invasions. It was the same guard, said Majma, who had broken into her room and beaten her for moving a fridge.

“Even if you complain, this is our home country, this is Nauru,” he told her.

The Somali women are a separate high-risk class of refugee on the island — single women. Unlike the many Iranian families we met, all of them travelled from Somalia to Australia alone.

They spent a year and a half in detention centres in the middle of the island before being released into the Nauruan community, with only each other for protection.

They all said that, as bad as detention was, living in the community was worse and they wanted to return to the unsafe safety of their former prison. One told me she had made a formal request to the Australian Immigration Department to return to detention. The request was refused.

Two of them have since reported they have been raped, and on Tuesday the UN’s peak  human rights body found it necessary to intervene to protect these women under joint Australian and Nauruan care. In doing so, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) highlighted the reason refugees become even more exposed once released.

“Impunity for such serious crimes increases the risk they will be repeated,” said a spokesman for the OHCHR, which was created under a convention of which Australia is a founding member. “Women are also less likely to speak out if they fear reprisals and see little to no chance of justice being done.”

The spokesman said the UN body was “disturbed” by the rising trend of uninvestigated and unsolved allegations of rape on Nauru.

The Moss report has painted a picture of the hell refugees were exposed to as they waited in detention for their their asylum claims to be processed. Yet at least in detention there was the possibility of an independent inquiry. There will be no such investigation of abuses that occur under Nauruan jurisdiction.

The Nauruan government’s recent announcement that it intends to empty the detentions centres will move 600 more refugees from a situation in which they are abused with limited recourse, to one where there is no recourse at all.

History tells us that abuse flourishes within self-regulating communities. The Nauruan community is bound by familial and clan ties. These allegiances complicate the Western-style rule of law, represented by the island’s police force and government. Refugees have no place within these cultural protections.

When it comes to violence against women, the Nauruan nation has its own demons. By Nauru’s own admission, women in Nauru are increasingly subjected to violence from men.

“The majority of cases reported to police are withdrawn, and only a few get to have a day in court,” according to a government report to the UN.

It is in this context that Abyan’s traumatised distrust of Australian and Nauruan authorities appears clear and rational.

The UN spokesman said that the OHCHR had spoken with Abyan, whose desire to terminate her pregnancy in Australia was curtailed by a sudden and secretive deportation back to Nauru.

“She has refused to give information to the Nauru police about her attacker because she is understandably afraid of reprisals. She does not feel safe, given that her alleged attacker lives on Nauru,” he said.

The UN also cited the Nauruan government’s release to the Australian media of the identity of another Somali woman who complained of being raped by two men in September. In a situation where rapists know they will not be punished, this was not only a breach of her privacy, but also her security.

It is vital here to be sensitive to the Nauruan perspective. There is no excusing rape or rapists, nor police who appear more interested in protecting the perpetrators. But the original fault lies with Australia’s revival of the Pacific Solution.

The introduction of a proportionately vast foreign underclass, including women on their own, to a country of just 10,000 people was bound to have a hugely destabilising impact on Nauruan society. There was no way, without an overwhelming breach of Nauruan sovereignty, that Australia could oversee the protection of these refugees. As such it was inevitable that a system of institutionalised abuse would emerge.

This may reek of hindsight. But consider this. Eleven Somali women saw it coming last year, told the Australian government, and we turned them away.

All names have been changed to protect the identity of refugees.

Stories from inside Nauru

First published in the Guardian

“I didn’t want to live in this world any more. I don’t want to be alive the next day. I didn’t want to get up. I didn’t want to open my eyes. No hope. Disappointed.”

Refugees who have been settled on the Pacific island of Nauru under Australia’s offshore asylum policy have told the Guardian in covert interviews of their deep sense of helplessness, and fear of Nauruans who resent their presence.

Since May, more than 400 people who were detained after trying to arrive in Australia by boat have been found to be refugees and released into an island population of less than 10,000. Their arrival has convulsed Nauruan society and there is growing antipathy towards them.

They live in several guarded camps dotted around the island. Their cramped quarters provide the basics, but little more. In the following interviews they describe a monotonous and unsafe existence devoid of hope. Many are escaping through a heavy regimen of sleeping pills. Depression is ubiquitous.

The refugees’ future is uncertain. The Nauruan government has given them five-year visas; Australia has said they will never be allowed to settle there.

Tony Abbott’s government has pursued the policy vigorously, but the Australian stance is essentially bipartisan. It was the former Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd who made the announcement that still defines Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers: “Arriving in Australia by boat will no longer mean settlement in Australia,” he said before the 2013 election (in which Abbott eventually trounced him). Rudd’s policy drew criticism from the UN’s refugee agency who warned the policy was likely to harm the “physical and psycho-social wellbeing of transferees”.

The date Rudd made his speech, 19 July, 2013, has become notorious among asylum seekers – an arbitrary marker of the capricious immigration politics that has left them in limbo. Many have family or friends who left Indonesia days before them and are now settled in Australia.

The policy achieved its goals. The boats to Australia have (mostly) stopped. But not without a cost.

The following interviews were conducted in the refugees’ accommodation on Nauru while local security guards slept outside. Nauru has effectively banned foreign journalists, making it difficult for refugees to explain their plight, or for the Australian public to scrutinise the consequences of its government’s immigration policy.

All names have been changed to protect the refugees. The refugees pictured have covered their faces for safety, not for religious reasons.

Read on at the Guardian.

Kiribati and the Marshall Islands: Lives strangled by climate change

“We are suffering in this part of the world from what those people in the rich world are working with gases. And its consequences fell on us in the Pacific. They have been selfish, thinking of what they can achieve with gas. What can we do? We just live with that dying feeling in our hearts. Our voice is nothing to them.”

My investigation of a changing, threatened life from the heart if the Pacific. Read on at the Guardian. 

Videos and photos by Remi Chauvin.

GM: “the entire socio-ecological world in which it is currently embedded has to be made anew”

This piece of feedback from a Maywa Montenegro, a food systems scientist, is not only very flattering. It also expands on what I think is the key misrepresentation that makes GM less of a debate and more of a shouting match between people in seperate soundproof booths.

Worth a read.

Dear Mr. Mathiesen,

Hello, from across the pond in California. As a graduate student in food system studies at the University of California-Berkeley, I greatly enjoyed your fine column, “Is a ban on GM crops more harmful than growing them?” Rare is the journalist who pushes back against scientific ‘expertise’ with such an incisive observation: “Defining the GM debate as a contest between objective science and irrational belief allows scientists to ignore a wider definition of risk and to frame opponents as fundamentalists.”

I cheered aloud when reading that line – and immediately sent the piece to some 400 researchers affiliated with the UC Berkeley Diversified Farming Systems Center, and the globally-scattered New World Agriculture and Environment (NWAEG) group. We are a polyglot array of social and natural scientists who work in agroecology, plant biology, agronomy, and conservation biology (amongst the natural sciences), geography, development, rural sociology, political economy, public policy, and science & technology studies (amongst the social). But many of us find those silos unhelpful and define ourselves as interdisciplinarians.

What unites our work is an interest in food justice and agroecology. For many of us, this means farming and food systems that are based largely on incorporating biodiversity into agricultural landscapes, rather than stripping farmland of its people and nature on the idea that some land should grow food – and other parts “spared” for conservation. We push back at the idea that “feeding the 9 billion” is a problem of productivity, given vastly productive farming today, amidst persistent hunger and malnutrition.

Genetically modified crops may or may not be antithetical to an agroecological approach – in theory, it could happen. So far, however, as so poignantly put by Marco Contiero in your piece – the benefits of GM have largely accrued to oligopsony interests. For me personally, in order for GM to “work,” the entire socio-ecological world in which it is currently embedded has to be made anew.

What you captured so well in just a few short lines was the more complex terrain of thinking that should accompany GM crop evaluation. The GM question hinges not on science versus belief, but upon the boundaries of science in question, whose knowledge is considered a legitimate part of the conversation (are farmers given room at the table?), and a deeper inquiry into whether the ‘science’ that is deemed objective and truthful isn’t itself always mediated by ideology, cultural habits, social norms, and political power. Researchers’ cannot help but mature in their thinking as individuals, and as communities of scientists, in a world where all these forces come to bear. Thus, the kinds of questions they ask – as importantly, the kinds of questions they don’t ask –  are deeply rooted in these social structures and experiences.

This was illustrated in your piece where Jones declares that the GM potato could have saved millions: “Blight costs UK potato farmers around £60m every year in losses and the massive use of chemical sprays. Each hectare has £500 worth of fungicide dumped on it each season.” Similar stories pertain to pest-resistant cabbages and broccoli as well as yellow-rust resistant wheat. “These are examples where in a rational world we’d be just getting on with [them].”

What is rational to Jones is a binary: between GM crops (saving the environment and untold millions) and a regime of fungicide and pesticide dumping. This is a false choice, of course, since there are many other ways of growing food – agroecology, for example – that offer viable alternatives.

But enough. I only want to close by offering a few resources that you may find useful in your future reporting. The first is a petition signed by 67 academics and researchers that my colleagues and I submitted in October to the National Academies of Science, which is currently conducting a review of GE Crops in the United States. We felt that the composition of the panel that will be undertaking the review was insufficient to the scope of the task; our letter includes a fuller explanation. Perhaps of interest to you will be the list of signatories on this petition.  These are professors, post-docs, and leading researchers at non-governmental organizations who would all give you informed – and scientific – critique of GM in a broader social/ecological context.

The second is a Scientist Support Letter that was submitted to the FAO in November, in advance of the International Symposium on Agroecology for Food Security and Nutrition. As the name suggests, the letter was signed by a number of prominent academics who could potentially provide you with “a wider definition of risk” and a vision for feasible alternatives, such as agroecology and food sovereignty.

Best regards,

Maywa Montenegro