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Saturday 23 February 2019

Beware of jargon and agendas when dealing with 'sound science'

Picture; Gerry Mooney
Picture; Gerry Mooney

John Heney

Around this time of the winter, I usually get that "glass half-empty" feeling when I look at my rapidly shrinking silage pit.

However, in spite of the recent cold snap, I have a nice cover of early grass on some of my farm to fall back on if things do go wrong this spring, so I definitely have a "glass half-full" feeling now as far as silage is concerned.

In spite of all this early growth, I still don't plan to let out any cattle until about mid-March. Hopefully, this will allow sufficient time for my old-pasture paddocks to recover should the weather turn cold.

This winter's fine weather also meant I was able to get my fences and hedges cut back from my electric fence.

Unfortunately, I didn't get around to spreading any lime, but as land is still relatively sound, I am hopeful that I'll get it done in time for spring. Meanwhile, we continue to move ever-closer to the edge of the Brexit precipice.

Every day brings more speculation about what might happen if there is a no-deal Brexit. There was a real thunderbolt for farming recently in the form of a report published by The Lancet, one of the world's oldest and most prestigious medical journals.

In conjunction with an organisation called 'EAT', the report states that the pressures of climate change will require drastic dietary changes, including a 90pc reduction in red meat and milk consumption, a 70pc reduction in chicken, as well as substantial reduction in the consumption of potatoes and some other vegetables.

Even allowing for my obvious bias in this debate, this is pretty heavy stuff so I decided to research the EAT organisation.

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On its website, EAT describes itself simply as a "science-based global platform for food system transformation… a non-profit start-up dedicated to transforming our global food system through sound science, impatient disruption and novel partnership".

Of course, we are all in favour of sound science but over the decades, science has been repeatedly shown to be far from infallible in relation to food-production systems and the environment.

How many times have scientists assured us of how "safe" various chemical sprays were, only to find out years later that they had been withdrawn from the market because of the dangers they posed to human health?

When I was a mature student, I spent a few years studying the concept of Sustainable Development.

One thing I learned was that the use of jargon such as "impatient disruption and novel partnership" as well as the repeated use of the much-abused term "sustainability" without an accompanying explanation was usually an indication of questionable motives.

We have often heard it said that "you can judge a person by the company they keep" so who do the people in EAT associate with?

EAT has close connections with large transnational financial, tax and investment companies and also has close ties with some biotech research facilities such as MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology).

One of EAT's financial partners states that "biotechnology firms have a critical role to play in developing new antimicrobials".

A week or so after the food consumption report, The Lancet published a report based on 'The Lancet Commission on Obesity'. This report contains extraordinary suggestions including a call for a reduction in "unhealthy" food consumption through taxes and the redirecting of farming subsidies away from dairy and beef farming to what it calls "sustainable farming for healthful foods".

To me, this report reflects what's happening in the high-stakes battle where primary food producers are caught in the crossfire between the global food industry and the global biotech industry for control of the global food market.

GM crops

For decades, multinational biotech companies have claimed we need to use their genetically modified crops if we are to "feed the world". They have, however, been deeply frustrated by an ongoing consumer resistance to GM food.

In his book, So Shall We Reap, renowned biologist Colin Tudge has countered the pro-GM arguments and explains how "without resorting to GM crops, we can take back control from the corporate barons, feed the world and, ultimately ensure the survival of humanity".

Another of EAT's claims is that CO2 emissions can be reduced by switching to plant-based food. I find this claim highly suspect as it would involve ploughing wide areas of permanent grassland. It is generally accepted that ploughing humus-rich grasslands, which we have in abundance in Ireland, leads to a massive release of CO2 into the atmosphere.

Research by the University of Wisconsin has shown how the ploughing of Minnesota's prairies is dramatically increasing carbon in the atmosphere. According to this research, newly ploughed land in Minnesota released 1.86 million US tons of carbon into the atmosphere each year between 2008 and 2012.

This concurs with research undertaken by Don Hofstrand, Professor Emeritus of Iowa State University.

He claims that as "soil is a huge storehouse of carbon, theoretically, American soils could soak up more than 100 million tons of carbon annually by actually returning cropland to permanent grass or trees".

To me that reads a lot more like sound science than the vague sentiments of the EAT organisation's mission statement.

John Heney farms in Kilfeackle, Co Tipperary. Email: heney.john@gmail.com

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