Zac Goldsmith

Diary - 10 May 2003

The Sugar Association isn't sweet on the WHO and are we fudging nanotechnology

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I found myself twice debating with Ottilia Saxl, director of the Institute of Nanotechnology, on the radio last week. She assured listeners that I was quite wrong to imply that big business was behind the technology. Governments, she soothed, not corporations, are providing the grants. So what? Governments make bad decisions every day, and most of their grants constitute subsidies to big business in any case. But it's not true. This year alone, multinationals, including arms manufacturers, have already invested more than $1 billion in nanotechnology. Bill Joy, chief scientist and co-founder of Sun Microsystems and top of America's technological pecking order, told the Ecologist magazine recently, 'We are opening Pandora's most terrifying box, yet people have barely begun to take notice. We are designing technologies that might literally consume ecosystems.' If that is the message of countless nano-experts, it doesn't seem extravagant to ask for a pause while we assess the potential dangers of a technology that makes genetic engineering look as though it belongs in the Stone Age.

I am an amateur farmer. That is to say, I live on a farm and when I'm not otherwise engaged I try very hard to contribute. If you have livestock, it goes without saying that you can't farm part-time, so my farm is managed by Peter Daw, a man of many talents. Peter has a natural affinity with animals of every sort. He can walk through a herd of strapping South Devon cows and negotiate directly with the bull – a terrifying creature at the best of times, with rippling muscles and two very deliberate horns. My bull joined the herd when he was stranded during the foot-and-mouth crisis, and since then I've taken a few tentative steps towards befriending him. Unfortunately, he's less interested, though I blame that not on my own urban background but on that of my two dogs, neither of which, until they accompanied me to Devon, had ever seen a cow, let alone bitten one. It's become something of a ritual; I approach the bull, my dogs annoy him, he rightly turns on them, and they run to me for protection. The effect is that I find myself more often than not leaping over hedgerows with an agility that would embarrass Sadler's Wells. Until two weeks ago, it seemed hopeless. But then, to my mock disappointment, one of the fiercer of my cows dropped dead. It was blood-poisoning, I'm told, from a thorn, and she left behind her a four-day-old calf. So now, before dipping into my computer every morning, I visit her with a bucket of milk and my three-year-old girl, who's named her Poppy. She's put three of my fingers out of business, but in Poppy I can see a key to the herd's heart. Bless that little thorn.

Mr Blair is worried that failure to announce early British membership of the euro might be seen as the outcome of 'political shenanigans'. But what else could it be? When I asked a member of a pro-euro lobby group if he believed in Gordon Brown's five-tests theory, I was met with a coy grin. There is one test, and that, simply, is a political one: will the pro-euro lobby win over the public? Given the political war that engulfed Europe in the run-up to the real thing in Iraq, the answer has got to be 'no'. And, speaking of shenanigans, I wouldn't bank one penny on Gordon Brown's apparent reluctance to back the euro. Britain has never been keen on the euro, and were Blair to lose in a referendum on the issue, there would be huge embarrassment. He's going to try every trick in the book to avoid that happening. How ideal, then, if the 'hostile' Chancellor were to perform a dramatic last-minute U-turn in favour of joining. 'Well,' the fence-sitters among us will nod, 'if it's good enough for the cautious Chancellor, it's good enough for me.'

The powerful Sugar Association is furious that new World Health Organisation guidelines recommend we eat less sugar. It has promised to bring the organisation to its knees unless it capitulates. 'If necessary,' it wrote, 'we will encourage new laws which require future WHO funding to be provided only if the organisation accepts that all reports must be supported by the preponderance of science.' But what constitutes good science? Sugar is known to contribute to, if not cause, diabetes, heart disease, pancreatic cancer, obesity, tooth decay and psychological disorders.

Are we supposed simply to accept the verdict of groups such as the International Life Sciences Institute, which was founded by Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola, General Foods, Kraft and Procter and Gamble? Or the American Dietetic Association, which defends sugar and fast foods in 'Nutrition Fact Sheets' underwritten by McDonald's, and co-authored by a scientific adviser to the Canadian Sugar Institute? Both describe themselves as 'independent'. For years the food industry has been buying up the regulatory establishment, and we've reached a point where science itself is a mere commodity, available in any form or conclusion to the highest bidder. The WHO is a fat bureaucracy, but for once it has acted responsibly. And that may well be its downfall.

You would have thought that the Bush administration would have bent over backwards to avoid accusations of vested interest over the Iraq war. Not a bit of it. Virtually every member of Bush's team, it appears, will gain directly from the massive contracts being handed out to their own firms. Some already have. Governments used to pretend they were clean. Now it's almost as if the Bush administration no longer cares about appearances; as if it has outgrown public opinion. By the way, what was the World Trade Organisation up to when the reconstruction contracts were offered to US firms only, in breach of its own laws? No doubt busy chasing puny protections for fledgling Third World businesses.

While the British government is engaged in a 'grand debate' on genetic engineering, the EU seems to have made up its mind already. In a letter to the US House of Representatives, which some crafty campaigner mailed to the Ecologist, the EU ambassador to the US provides an assurance that 'approvals of new GMOs could occur as early as mid-2003'. He concludes by urging America not to fight the EU's position via the World Trade Organisation, and says that 'not only would such an action create a significant setback as far as consumer confidence is concerned, it might lead to a more general backlash by European consumers...'. It's good to know we're not wasting our time, then.

The author is editor of the Ecologist.