Time for a compromise on GMO labelling

It is not often, in these polarised political times, that the US Senate comes up with a reasonable compromise. But this looks likely to happen on one of the most divisive and contested issues of all- GMO labelling – that is if Congress can move forward quickly enough to enact legislation proposed in the Senate this week.

On July 6, the Senate voted 65-32 to move forward with a “national bioengineered food disclosure standard,” a piece of bipartisan legislation proposed by Senators Pat Roberts (Republican-Kansas) and Debbie Stabenow (Democrat-Michigan). The bill mandates either a text disclosure or a QR code that consumers will be able to scan to access information about the bioengineered content of foods. The USDA has two years to decide on the details. soupandygmostudy

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Why I’m sad to see the European Greens persisting with anti-GMO myths

I have become something of a fan of the Greens recently. Although my party membership lapsed years ago, here in the UK our Green Party MP Caroline Lucas has been an eloquent and passionate defender of pan-European values of tolerance and diversty in the post-Brexit political chaos.

That’s why it’s so sad to see the Greens in the European Parliament making fools of themselves by persisting with a policy on GMOs that is based on ludicrous misinformation and internet myths. Here’s a Twitter exchange I had with them this morning:

I was gratified to see a quick reply and wanted to take the opportunity to flesh out my concerns in more than 140 characters. There’s too much trading of soundbites and rhetoric on this issue. Possibly – hopefully – we’ll find out we have #moreincommon that we originally thought!

The Greens’ document is titled “6 reasons to ban GM plant cultivation in the EU” and you can read it here. Let’s go through the six reasons one by one, and see how much bearing they have on reality.

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A plea to Greenpeace

Dear Greenpeace,

You will no doubt have seen the letter signed by 100 Nobel laureates asking you to end your opposition to genetically modified organisms. I hope you realise what this means: a great number of the most prestigious and decorated scientists in the world are asking you to bring to a halt your decades-long war against biotechnology.

I know you will be seriously considering their words. However deeply entrenched anti-GMO attitudes may be in your organisation, you cannot lightly dismiss the considered opinion of such a distinguished group of scientists as are 107 winners of Nobel Prizes. You should add to these individual voices the opinions of the National Academy of Sciences, which recently issued a landmark report on GMOs, and of numerous other scientific and academic institutions around the world from the AAAS to the Royal Society to the African Academy of Sciences.

I’m sure most of you realise privately that this is a good opportunity for a rethink. Every day you continue to maintain a position that is in outright contradiction with the scientific community on GMOs, you align yourselves morally with climate change sceptics, anti-vaccination activists and others who deny the overwhelming scientific opinion on important issues. This obstinacy is doing great damage not only to your brand as an organisation that campaigns on behalf of humanity and the planet, but to your other campaigns which you need to position as science-based and evidence-led – on forests, on fishing, on biodiversity, on oceans and on climate. (I strongly support these other campaigns by the way.)

It’s okay to make mistakes. I have done so myself in fact! We have both engaged in vandalism against GMO crops and test sites in the past. You don’t have to make a public apology, as I did for my own activism a few years back. You don’t even have to draw media attention to your hopefully upcoming decision to drop the anti-GMO campaign. You can do it quietly, which is more or less what has already happened at Greenpeace UK. But drop it you must, or risk losing the moral and scientific integrity of everything else you stand for.

This does not mean that you must abandon all concerns about GMOs. There are very legitimate discussions to be had about who controls the technology, and in whose interests it is deployed in different countries and contexts. But, as with anything, the solution lies in ensuring it is deployed in the interests of poorer farmers, and of the enviroment – not of seeking a total indefinite ban on the basis of myths and misinformation that scientists find either baffling or outright laughable.

By the way, I think it is premature of the Nobel laureates to imply that Greenpeace might be guilty of a “crime against humanity” in its campaign of opposition to Golden Rice. As we know, Golden Rice is not yet ready for deployment, so we cannot yet be sure of how effective it would be in saving the lives and sight of the millions of children who are affected by vitamin A deficiency. But at the very least, Greenpeace must get out of the way of Golden Rice’s deployment when the time comes, or risk facing just such a judgement of history.

I still believe that Greenpeace does much good in the world. Indeed, facing combined global environmental crises as we do, we need effective Greenpeaces today more than we ever have before. We desperately need the voices and actions of dedicated, passionate, informed activists who will stand up to powerful interests both in government and business when they damage the environment and the futures of our children.

But Greenpeace cannot do this job if it rejects evidence, and stands against the scientific consensus in key areas of environmental concern. In the current era of post-truth politics, Greenpeace cannot afford to be a post-truth environmental campaign group. If we reject science we have nothing but emotion, prejudice and supposition. Greenpeace – I beg of you – must do better.

I’m writing this from the UK, where the progressive political community has been deeply traumatised by the disastrous referendum decision on Brexit. Now more than ever we need progressives to stick together, against the march of the far Right – whether Le Pen in France, Trump in the United States or Farage in Britain. We have so much in common – the defence of tolerance, humanitarian values, and a passionate belief in social and environmental justice.

One of our most important values of all is a defence of science. I know this is a value that Greenpeace shares, but it is one that is constantly undermined by your ongoing campaign against GMOs. Now, more than ever, I plead for a reconsideration, before more damage is done – not just to Greenpeace, but to the wider progressive community, and to the global environment.

Yours in solidarity,


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Sorry but we can’t have a second referendum – here’s what we can do instead

Every minute the crisis engulfing the United Kingdom worsens. There is no leadership and no plan, with both the major political parties in disarray. When the markets re-open on Monday, all hell will likely break loose now that it has become clear just how bad things are likely to get.

Many Remain campaigners – of whom I was one – are in outright denial. A petition for a second referendum has garnered over three million signatures. An anti-Brexit march is planned for London on 9 July. But both these efforts are fatally flawed – we cannot base a campaign on overturning the expressed will of the majority of the British voters.

Yes, holding a referendum was an utterly stupid move, and one that will indeed put David Cameron down as one of the worst prime ministers in history. For short-term party political gain he gambled and lost an entire country. Neville Chamberlain looks like a wise sage in comparison. But we all went along with it and voted. We can’t change the rules post-facto now, because we don’t like the result.

The anti-Brexit event page says:

We almost prevented the Iraqi war by getting out on the streets. Now it is the populous vote that we need to take issue with. … The power is still with the people and we can change things if we are organised and passionate in our response. Let’s unite the Remain voters and those who regret their vote to leave, to turn this on its head. (my emphasis)

I’m sorry, but I can’t support that. That isn’t democracy – it’s explicitly anti-democratic in aiming to overturn the popular vote on the basis of people turning up physically in London for a rally. That way leads to mob rule. (I’d be in favour of a rally, by the way, but on different principles outlined below.)

The people have spoken, and the verdict was ‘Leave’. Yes, they were lied to about the NHS and immigration. But the people are sovereign and their vote must stand. We are leaving the EU. Now we need to focus on what comes next.

Here’s some ideas for what a progressive strategy might look like:

  • We must accept the referendum result and move forward with triggering Article 50. What’s done is done. Other EU countries have made clear that they want shot of Britain as quickly as possible.
  • We must accept that Scotland will now leave the UK. I opposed the first referendum on independence but I would support another now in order for the democratic wish of Scots to Remain in the EU to be respected.
  • A new England-Wales-EU association agreement should include freedom of movement. Otherwise logically there must be a hard border north of Hadrian’s Wall following Scottish secession, which is unthinkable.
  • A united Ireland makes more sense now than for nearly a century, as Northern Ireland also voted Remain, but not at the price of renewed conflict. Keeping UK-EU freedom of movement would reduce some of the tension here – otherwise the NI/Republic of Ireland border would have to be re-fortified.
  • We must demonstrate solidarity with EU citizens of other nations who are currently in the United Kingdom. Whatever happens they will permanently have the right to remain in the UK with all the rights of other British citizens. They should not feel insecure or unwanted.
  • Keeping freedom of movement means we will not be “stopping immigration”, which was a major concern of many who voted Leave. Urgent ways must be found to reduce the social inequality which has driven this division so ably exploited by Farage et al and which are equally behind the rise of the far right everywhere.
  • Boris Johnson must accept that he has no mandate to become prime minister, and if he seeks the premiership it will be in the teeth of opposition from most of the political class, who now detest him for the damage he has done.
  • Whoever takes over the premiership from the humiliated Cameron must quickly call a general election, and ideally something more profound, like a constitutional assembly to work out the future of the UK’s political system.
  • To the extent that we can, we should aim to shore up the European Union so that other member states do not make the same mistake. The EU is the most important peace project in history, and exists for a reason.
  • We are suddenly plunged into a crucial period of history-making. Many subsequent generations will be affected by the decisions we make over the next few days. Let’s not get it wrong by allowing progressive politics to be permanently sidelined by the opportunistic liars who have got us into this mess.

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    David MacKay – last interview and tribute

    I had the honour of recording David MacKay’s last interview, on 3 April 2016. The idea was to present him with the Breakthrough Paradigm award because due to his illness he was unlikely to be able to travel to the awards ceremony in June 2016. However, we talked about a lot of different things, and together with David’s wife Ramesh I wanted this video and tribute to appear beforehand in full and unedited. David obviously knew he didn’t have long, and was consequently more forthright than he had perhaps been in previous interviews. Please do not quote him out of context or sensationalise what he said.

    David died soon aftewards. You can read my personal thoughts about David in this blogpost, read David’s own final blogposts here, and also find the obituary I wrote for him in the Guardian newspaper. You’ll see he also mentions the Global Calculator, which you can find here. My thanks go to Davin Yap, who did the cameras, and Robert Stone, who put the different feeds together and stitched it into a remarkable piece of film and I hope a fitting tribute to David MacKay. Thanks are also due, as you will see, to The Proclaimers.


    See you in 500 Miles!

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