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Newsletter 9th February 2007

- Climate change: what are the facts and where is the balance? - Food production and the environment - GM animal produce to be labelled?

Climate change: what are the facts and where is the balance?
The IPPC’s Summary for Policymakers of the Working Group 1 report (physical basis of climate change) was formally launched on 2nd February in Paris. There were few changes from the widely-leaked draft, but a number of figures were added, bringing the total document length to a still-slim 21 pages. Rarely can quite so much global media attention have been focussed on such a short report. There was blanket coverage on the launch day itself and over the weekend, but the topic now seems to have receded to the background once more. Is this because people now really feel the whole thing – science and policy – is settled, or do editors think that their readers have simply lost interest?
 
Media balance seems, in most cases, to have been a case of having a comment from an environmentalist NGO alongside the official IPCC one. The quotes from Rajendra Pachauri, head of the IPCC, and Achim Steiner, director of the United Nations Environment Programme, were unequivocal, with no hint of uncertainty. In this country, David Miliband said "The debate over the science of climate change is well and truly over. The window of opportunity to avoid dangerous climate change is closing more quickly than previously thought." The only balance is seemingly provided by people who think the IPCC is being too conservative in its pronouncements.
 
It seems pretty certain that most people have heard the same messages so often that the (unproven) hypothesis of anthropogenic global warming is just something they now take for granted. This will surely be reinforced when DVDs of Al Gore’s cleverly but inaptly named “An Inconvenient Truth” are sent to all UK secondary schools. It is absolutely right that school pupils should have an opportunity to learn about climate change, but rather worrying that they will only hear one specific – albeit majority – point of view. The vogue in school science generally is for children to learn for themselves by doing experiments and looking at the evidence. In this case, they will be taught (via an overtly emotional film) the “facts” of climate change without having to bother with the evidence. Given the environmental zeitgeist, this will be applauded rather than criticised.
 
The IPCC – to its discredit – will not be publishing the full chapter on which the summary is based until May, to allow the text to be edited to be fully in line with the summary. Granted that few people will read the complete text, but the principle of working backwards from the summary to define the final version is an indefensible and dangerous precedent to set.
 
The full draft has been available to reviewers for some time, and is a full and careful analysis of the evidence available to date. However, the summary writers and approvers (a limited group of scientists and anonymous officials from the member governments of the IPCC) have, inevitably, introduced a degree of spin in the statements they have chosen to highlight. Nevertheless, the SPM is actually a more moderate document than its predecessor from the Third Assessment Report. But the changes are only obvious to those who know both documents. For example, the now discredited “hockey stick” curve has been omitted, with no comment or explanation.
 
And, of course, the messages from the summary are hyped up still further by the media. They look no further than the sound bites highlighting the apparent degree of certainty of the official messages. That is what gives David Miliband and others the creative freedom to say that things are “even worse than we thought”, a message which we have heard with great regularity over the past year.
 
Fortunately, there are cooler heads at work as well. Dr Ross McKitrick is the lead author of the Frazer Institute’s Independent Summary for Policymakers, published on 5th February (available at http://www.fraserinstitute.ca/shared/readmore.asp?sNav=pb&id=886). Dr McKitrick and co-authors (and reviewers) have made an honest and useful attempt to summarise the full draft chapter as objectively as possible. Although it has, unfortunately, had little media attention, we hope that people representing all views will take the time to read it and pause for thought.
 
Food production and the environment
Defra recently commissioned the Manchester Business School to assess the environmental impact of the whole food chain - food production and consumption. Their report was published in December, and is available for download at http://www.defra.gov.uk/science/project_data/DocumentLibrary/EV02007/EV0....
 
Inevitably, this is a heavy document, looking at detailed Life Cycle Analysis of a range of typical foodstuffs. However, many of the conclusions are interesting, not necessarily expected, and have not been widely reported. In particular, the first two conclusions are worth quoting verbatim:

    * “Organic” vs “conventionally-grown” foods: There is no doubt that, for many foods, the environmental impacts of organic agriculture are lower than for the equivalent conventionally-grown food. This would be especially the case if those impacts not well handled by LCA methods (eg biodiversity or landscape aesthetics) were to be taken into consideration. However, it is not true for all foods and appears seldom to be true for all classes of environmental impact. There is insufficient evidence available to state that organic agriculture overall would have less of an environmental impact than conventional agriculture. In particular, from the data we have identified, organic agriculture poses its own environmental problems in the production of some foods, either in terms of nutrient release to water or in terms of climate-change burdens. There is no clear-cut answer to the question: which “trolley” has a lower environmental impact – the organic one or the conventional one?
    * “Local” trolley vs “globally sourced” trolley: Evidence for a lower environmental impact of local preference in food supply and consumption overall is weak; the evidence for the environmental impact of bulk haulage is not decisive. Since there is wide variation in the agricultural impacts of food grown in different parts of the world (eg in the amounts of water consumed), global sourcing could be a better environmental option for particular foods.
 
The clear lesson is to look at the evidence rather than jump to easy conclusions about the benefits of organic farming and buying local.
 
GM animal produce to be labelled?
Greenpeace have handed over a petition to the European Commission signed by one million people, calling for the extension of GM labelling to meat, milk and eggs from livestock raised using GM feed, as most are. Commissioner Kyprianou will now institute a review. This is part of a long-running campaign to block the large-scale commercialisation of agricultural biotechnology in Europe. If the Commission were to decide that labelling was justified, the food chain would be faced with a clear choice: continue with current practices and label, or source alternative feed and see the price of their produce rise. It is difficult to see the majority of consumers in many member states willingly opting for higher food prices.
 
In similar vein, the organic movement is campaigning for a reduction in the threshold of traces of GM material allowed in their produce. Currently, the EU level of 0.9% applies to all food not labelled as GM., whether organic or not. This is already a low level compared with purity standards for agricultural produce generally. It offers consumers choice and would seem to give no coexistence problems as GM seeds gradually become more widely used in Europe. The level of 0.1% being demanded by some in the organic lobby, however, would cause enormous problems for both organic and conventional farmers, all for a point of principle rather than food safety. Let us hope that commonsense prevails in both these cases.