A guest post from a member of Science Unstained
This week, I went to a public lecture on ‘Food, Water, Energy, Climate’. The event aimed to unpick the complex interplay between these four issues, and discuss holistic approaches to how we might manage them in future. Hosted by debate promoters Intelligence2, it was held in the historic lecture hall of the Royal Institution, which had inexplicably shrunk since I last visited it on a school trip.
A word from our sponsors
Before the talk, I was vaguely aware it was sponsored by Shell, but had largely overlooked this fact. After all, oil companies seem to have their grubby logos on all sorts of things these days, from art galleries to science exhibits, but rarely seem to have any input on the content. So I was surprised by what I found when the evening began.
I took my seat in the auditorium, and found a feedback form tucked into the programme. After some unremarkable questions about how I enjoyed the event, I came across this gem of desperation:
I actually felt kind of sorry for the person who had the self-awareness of public perceptions about their employer to seriously include the final option, essentially asking “Have our past actions rendered us so irredeemably evil in your eyes that there is literally no way we could convince you we’re not utter bastards?”
A video then began playing, opening the proceedings. A sketched animation, kind of cutesy but kind of slick, that looked like an advert for Innocent smoothies. It had clearly been produced specially for tonight, structured around the inter-dependence of the ‘food / water / energy / climate’ strands. And it soon became clear that the producer had quite specific ideas about the solutions to these challenges: namely biofuels, eating less meat, and business efficiency.
At which point Shell enter the video, talking about their great work helping local businesses – in a town called Dawson’s Creek (which apparently is a real place in Canada), drawing peals of laughter from audience members who remember the 90s teen drama series of the same name. Having dipped its toe in the PR water, the rest of the video freely promoted Shell, their community work, and their general efforts to address climate change and related environmental and social issues.
This rather awkward infomercial backfired somewhat when Jay Rayner began his talk, announcing with obvious displeasure that although he’d known the event was sponsored by Shell, he – and other panellists – felt it was “a bit cheeky for Shell to be promoting their good deeds”. This comment was met with a large round of applause from the audience, and a bit of squirming from the chair.
Dr Gabrielle Walker was first up, saying some fairly uncontroversial stuff about the need for collaboration across borders and ‘systems-thinking’, to address global problems in a coordinated and effective way.
Jay Rayner was next, arguing that traditional green notions of food sustainability are flawed – that farmers’ markets and local food production aren’t a viable solution, but a luxury for the well-to-do. Instead we need the economies of scale offered by supermarkets and industrial (but sustainable) agriculture, in order to feed the (future) 9 billion. He supported GM crops, but only if they’re kept away from the likes of Monsanto and Dupont, who he saw as tarnishing GM’s otherwise good name.
Mark Lynas launched straight into an assault on the corners of the environmental movement that have demonised nuclear power and GMOs, asserting that the anti-GM have teamed up with pesticide companies to lobby governments. He pointed out that bug-resistant crops reduce pesticide use, bringing huge health benefits for unprotected farmers in developing countries.
Mark Lynas’ “robust” response
In the Q&A after his talk, someone in the audience asked about terminator genes. Lynas’s response was robust. “THANK YOU [rolling his eyes and wheeling round on his heels], for raising the single biggest MYTH, about GMOs. There are NNOOO sterile seeds, in AANY product in the world…” (This comment may be almost true on a technical level, but wilfully ignores a lot of stuff going on with GM… but anyway.)
I then asked a question – in reference to Rayner’s comment about the big agri companies, I asked how we might unlock the potential benefits of GM, whilst navigating the challenge that the objectives of Monsanto et al may not always align with the needs of communities. I pointed to the 300,000 Indian cotton farmers who reportedly commit suicide each year due to the pressure of owing huge debts to the seed companies. I don’t have strong views on GMOs, and deliberately chose the most neutral and ‘reasonable’ language possible to avoid the criticism I anticipated. It wasn’t enough.
“THANK YOU! For bringing up the SECOND biggest myth about GM…” He aggressively stated that suicides are in decline in India, and that rural suicide rates are comparable to those in urban areas. (As well as being completely fucking callous, this didn’t really address my point.) He said “Actually, GMOs REDUCE pesticide use, not INCREASE”, (which I’d never disputed), “Therefore IMPROVING health!” (Surely a different issue to suicides?) He then said that only a zealous ideologue, in collaboration with pesticide manufacturers, would ask such a question. Building to a climax, he advised me to be RATIONAL, and refer to SCIENCE, instead of INTERNET MYTHS, in order to DISPASSIONATELY assess the topic.
The rest of the panel
I was actually so angry and taken aback at the way Mark Lynas had shouted at me that I couldn’t concentrate on a single word the final speaker said (Dr Jeremy Woods). I was dimly aware of him arguing that local-scale biofuel production should be a key part of sustainable energy solutions.
I was disappointed to have missed it, because during the panel discussion at the end he came out with some very interesting bullshit. He criticised a point made earlier by Walker that agriculture accounts for 70% of all fresh water consumption, demanding incredulously, “If farming really used 70% of all the water, don’t you think all our crops would be pretty heavy???”
He also denied that biofuels compete with food crops for water in any way. Rayner however pointed to studies on the food price spike of 2008, estimating 12% – 75% of price increases were due to the impact of biofuel production. Woods replied, “Ah but that guy was misquoted, then realised his numbers were wrong anyway, and then retracted the article.” Rayner insisted that in fact many articles had come to the same conclusion. Woods just said “Well, yes OK. But loads of other articles disagreed.”
A plea from our sponsor
Despite my frustrations (which I’ve probably unfairly over-emphasised), I did rather enjoy some of the witty and engaging presentations, and lively discussion. Many questions from the floor at the end offered surprisingly critical perspectives. An author of a book on climate economics argued we need to ditch economic growth to conserve resources; someone else criticised supermarkets; another asked about the lessons from small-scale urban agriculture in Cuba. (“Well I certainly don’t want to live in Cuba, it’s an autocratic dictatorship!” replies Lynas. Er, yes, well spotted.)
After a few questions critical of large corporations and fossil fuels, someone queried whether Shell are part of the problem, or part of the solution. Walker warned against taking binary viewpoints, and urged all parties to collaborate as part of global solutions. At this point the chair jokingly pleaded in a rather strangulated voice, “Please, stop it, we need their funding for future events!”
Although this comment was clearly meant in jest, I do wonder what Shell will feel they gained from this event, and whether / how it will affect their future thinking on what activities they choose to sink their public engagement resources into. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.