Tuesday, June 22, 2010

READ ALL OF THIS! It's your life.

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a disaster. It is a disaster of unprecedented scale that has cost lives and livelihoods. The long term impact cannot be known either in terms of the environment or the economy of the region.

The full facts behind what caused the blast and where the blame lies has yet to be told, but in what has come out so far, the theme tends to be that safety was set aside for the sake of profit.  One such tale comes from Tyrone Benton.

It wouldn’t be the first disaster where safety was set aside for the sake of profit.  In 1984, an accident at the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal released Methyl Isocyanate and other toxins into the town affecting an estimated 500 000 residents. Estimates vary on the final death toll, but some put it as high as 15 000 people.

A 1982 safety audit identified 30 faults with the plant. Union Carbide rectified the faults at a sister plant in the US, but took no action in Bhopal.

15 000 people died.

The plant is still sealed off. It has never been decontaminated. Any remaining toxins are left to leach into the groundwater and get into the food chain.

Ten days after the accident, the Chairman and CEO of Union Carbide, Warren Anderson, addressed the US Congress, stressing the company's "commitment to safety" and promising to ensure that a similar accident "cannot happen again".

In the rhetoric over the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the phrase “cannot happen again” is oft repeated. The response of BP has been to stress their “commitment to safety”.

This doesn’t make me feel any better and I am thousands of miles from the pollution. I did not lose friends or relatives in the explosion. I have not lost my livelihood. I will not have to live with the after effects for decades.

I want to make sure that safety is not set aside for profit. I want to see actions by government that reinforce the message that they are serious about making sure that they are making sure that safety is so paramount that, regardless of the industry, such ecological disasters “cannot happen again”.

With pictures of the thick sludge lapping up against the shoreline of the Gulf of Mexico on every news bulletin and the stories of hardship and grief of residents, workers and relatives ringing in everybody’s ears, you would be forgiven if you thought that governments everywhere are being extra diligent in making sure that safety is not being set aside for the sake of profit.

You are wrong. Especially in the case of the US Supreme Court who yesterday decided to overturn the ban on Monsanto selling GM modified seeds BEFORE all the safety tests have been completed

Just in case you didn’t catch that last bit, I’ll repeat it. The US Supreme Court decided to let Monsanto sell Genetically Modified seeds to farmers BEFORE they have completed and analysed all the safety tests.

So, Monsanto can start to pull in their dollars BEFORE they have proved that their Genetic Modifications to alfalfa has no safety implications to the environment and to ecological systems.

BEFORE they prove that their Genetic Modifications cannot, under any circumstances, pass to other species.

BEFORE they prove that large scale and repeated use of the weed killer, Roundup, does not have long term environmental impacts – despite this weed killer never having been submitted for test by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

BEFORE they can prove beyond doubt that intensive farming that has huge fields that consist of a single species does not have a catastrophic effect on habitat and disrupts the food chain.

Genetically Modified crops will always raise an emotional debate between those who claim that man is playing god by the manipulation of DNA and those who point to the potential for GM crops to provide huge benefits in feeding ever growing populations. There will be scientists who argue on both sides and eventually scientific data will prove the point one way or the other.

BUT, in this case there is a fundamental difference. The Genetic Modification doesn’t increase yield or require less nutrients. It doesn’t reduce the amount of irrigation required. In this case, it means the crop will be resistant to a single brand of weed killer (which in a stunning case of corporate co-incidence is also produced by Monsanto).

Surely I cannot be alone in looking at this and thinking that somebody is setting aside safety for the sake of profit? Am I alone in failing to understand how selling these seeds BEFORE completing safety tests can demonstrate even the most basic “commitment to safety”? Can anyone explain to me how this decision by the US Supreme Court demonstrates that they wish to ensure that environmental catastrophe “cannot happen again”?


Anonymous said...

Let us not forget BPs track record on disasters caused by saving money! the Texas City Refinery explosion in 2005 was caused by focusing on employee saftey and not process saftey. 50 more hard hats are cheaper than keeping the emergency process equipment operational after all.

Simon said...

I fear you may have missed my point here. We are faced with conflicting messages coming from governments when it comes to safety.

Only yesterday, a judge ruled that the ban on deep water drilling was 'unconstitutional' see http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/10377836.stm

It seems that governments are sending out all the wrong messages. Businesses appear to being told that it is OK to play the percentages game with safety as if it is perfectly acceptable to play roulette with the environment and the future of the planet - and of course the human race.

Safety only becomes a concern when businesses play the game and lose. Then there is a lot of anger and recrimination - but in the light of these other decisions, how much of these reactions are actually real?

The GM crops is really worrying. It is so easy to see doomsday scenarios with these things.

Has the growth in GM crops had an impact on the honey-bee population? Is it GM crops that is killing off the hives of bees we rely on to polinate plants for food? If the bees all die, what will happen to the world?

Does the weed killer Roundup kill off the tadpoles of amphibeans? What would be the impact on the environment if all toads, frogs and newts died off?

Can the GM spread between species? What would happen if a particularly invasive weed became imune to Round Up, what horrible chemical would we be forced to use instead?

Without the weeds in the fields, what would certain species feed on? What would the specied that feed on them do for food?

Does the use of GM cause issues with those that eat the food? Is GM crops the new tobacco that will cause long term health issues?

What happens when Roundup gets into the groundwater? Does it just evaporate like a rainbow or does it linger and morph into something hazardous?

I would have hoped that there would have been sound scientific answers to all of these before the GM crops were let loose to farmers.

Maybe I have an overactive imagination, but I can see a doomsday scenario here if things go wrong.

On youTube, one of the most popular videos is Landrieu saying that deep water drilling is safe and she was proved horribly wrong. If Monsanto are horribly wrong the impact of the oil spill will pale into insignificance compared to what could happen with this GM alfalfa. Why isn't somebody making sure that these things are being addressed?

Anonymous said...

Surely the only way to answer those questions is to let them loose to farmers.

Inherently, I feel that 'Genetically Modified' is a scary term. I agree that perhaps it is hasty to allow a new crop to just grow, especially one that has been designed to be hard to kill. I do however side with Monsanto on the case of the GM products.

For one, 'Roundup Ready' alfalfa was already being grown back in 2005 and not only that but 'RR' alfalfa was reviewed by the Food and Drug Administration and was also approved by the USDA before it first went on the market in that year.

Then it was petitioned to be stopped in 2007 on the grounds that they had failed to fully consider public health. A mighty three years of environmental impact assessment later an appeal in the same courts that stopped it have let it loose again. I would imagine because to 'fully' consider public health, one has to have a time machine.

Furthermore GM crops have been with us now for a long time. Especially Monsanto's. Much of Monsanto's seed products are genetically modified, often to make them immune to Monsanto's "Round Up" herbicide. Farmers planted the first large-scale commercial biotech crop in the United States in 1996. and since that time the rape seed, soybeans and other crops haven't caused environmental chaos. I feel that it is unfair to imply that now 14 years later, 28 harvests later, something terrible will happen.

I do however agree with you. These questions must be asked and the situation monitored. If we let any cooperation loose without monitoring it as best we can then we see what happened with the oil spill fiasco.

I believe that deep sea oil drilling is still safe when performed responsibly, as are GM crops, when groundwater and herbicides are used responsibly.

The issue in my mind is what happens when companies are irresponsible, we cannot watch them all the time. Fortunately it seems, a witch hunt takes place. We can only hope that someone rich and powerful falls because of what happened, even if it is not necessarily that mans fault. We have to at least give the impression that there are consequences for irresponsible behavior when so much is on the line. We need to scare safety into these companies as much as possible so that maybe they might think less about all that money they could make.

Simon said...

You are right in saying that the term Genetically Modified is a scary term - and so it should be.

In essence it a procedure that allows scientists to pull bits of DNA from one species and apply them to another.

Whatever way you look at it, this is scary science. Characteristics of a species are not determined by a single gene, but by their combination. While it is realtively easy to prove that this combination provides the benefits that were set out for, testing for all possible side effects is much more difficult.

Letting this stuff loose to see what happens doesn't sound like a very sound approach.

Monsanto's Roundup doesn't get a clean bill of health. All over the world there are scientists and toxicologists who have concerns over this and other chemical weed killers - especially when they get into groundwater.

I forget who said it, but it was said that in the 20th century wars are fought for oil. In the 21st century, wars will be fought for water.

Yet we persist in spraying our land with chemicals and trying to sort out the mess later. If you doubt the folly of this approach, then I suggest you read up on the impacts of the miracle insecticide of its time, DDT.

One major worry must be the collapse of the populations of insect pollinators. Nobody knows exactly why this is, but it came to attention around 2006. (See http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/may/02/food-fear-mystery-beehives-collapse )

It is already been shown that GM crops can pass their modified genes onto other species as in the transfer from Soyabean to Johnson Grass. So even if we can be sure that the modified genetic makeup of the target species isn't going to have an impact, how can we be sure that when it transfers to other species we don't introduce other side-effects.

The idea that it is best to scare corperations with the threat of the clean up costs of their mistakes just doesn't hold water when it comes to GM crops. This GM alfalfa will be grown in great swathes across the world. Cleaning up after GM crops will be gigantuan task - even compared to the oil spill.

At least with the oil spill BP has taken some form of responsibility for it. What would happen if the GM crop comapnies decided to behave like Union carbide?

Daniel said...

this is a reminder that monsanto are snideley whiplash evil and have sued farmers into dust for patent violation because monsanto crops accidentally cross-pollinated the farmers' and that was his fault


if only viktor frankenstein had thought to hold off the pitchfork crew with a hurriedly fudged report and an entirely unrelated huge bag of money.