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Invisible children – the ‘rescue’

You won’t find many references to it in the media in the West, but over the past 23 years, the government of Uganda and a rebel group called the Lords Resistance Army (LRA), led by Joseph Kony and based in the north of the country, have been engaged in a civil war in which the LRA has abducted children as young as nine years old and then forced them to fight as front-line troops. These children – perhaps as many as 30,000 in number – have been kidnapped and then trained to be soldiers involved in actions which include torching villages, killing villagers and abducting other children. The stories of LRA atrocities are hard to stomach. The knock-on effects are enormous. Every day, literally thousands of children in Uganda leave their homes and walk (often many kilometres) to the nearest town to find sanctuary in the hope that they will avoid the fate of their LRA contemporaries. They sleep in the corridors of hospitals or schools, hidden away to avoid being kidnapped. They are the invisible children.

This weekend (25-26 April), The Invisible Children campaign organized a protest action in over 100 cities throughout the world. The idea was simple. For just one day, people involved in the protest would pretend to be ‘abducted’. Then they would be ‘rescued’ by a mogul and, having spent a single night in discomfort would go back to their homes, hopefully having achieved a degree of media exposure and sufficient motivation to spread the word that the kidnapping of children with the aim of training them to be soldiers is a moral outrage which the authorities should place at the top of their political agendas.

Yes, we may have problems in our own back yard. But surely not on this scale. In Uganda (and other neighbouring countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo), thousands, if not millions of young lives are being blighted. This protest was an attempt to cast light on this.

In Australia, ‘The Rescue’ (as the campaign was called) was held in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Perth. Since those of us living in Adelaide did not have a Rescue of our own, we chose to travel to Melbourne and join theirs. Two buses were chartered and over 70 of us gathered at 5 am in preparation for the 10-hour trip to Federation Square in Melbourne. As we drove, the storm clouds gathered and though there was no rain en route, sure enough, it started to pelt down the moment we arrived. Fair enough, we thought. It’s nothing compared to being kidnapped and your family murdered. And it was only for one night, after all.

We walked to Royal Park, attached to a rope, in single file. There were no armed guards, just a biting wind – which reminded you that there’s a significant difference between plain discomfort and discomfort contorted with fear. On arrival, we pitched our tents or covered our bags with tarpaulins and made our way to the meeting place. We were asked to write letters to Kevin Rudd and Steven Smith and heard inspiring speeches from, amongst others, a Congolese father whose son had been abducted and then forced to fight against his will. People banged drums and danced in solidarity with the invisible children. There was a festival atmosphere.

Just a few hours later, we found out that Brisbane had been ‘rescued’ and then us (Melborne/Adelaide). First, someone from the UN, then a Federal MP. They said the right things. They said they would use all their influence to bring the issue to the attention of those who had the power. People cheered and whooped at what they said. Soon afterwards, we found out that Perth and finally Sydney had also been ‘rescued’ by their moguls.

So, all was good. But was it?

The media didn’t turn up until the next morning. In Melbourne, Saturday night was bitterly cold and windy. Perhaps the journos (as they call them here) didn’t fancy a gale-swept Royal Park after dark. By the time they turned up the next morning (well after the main event was over), many supporters had left, so the impression wasn’t so great.

Also, although the same kind of protest happened in over 100 cities throughout the world on the same day, there wasn’t blanket media coverage by any means. There was no mention of the event in the Brisbane Times or the Melbourne Age, for example, both cities which played host to Rescues. And no mention either in the UK’s Guardian newspaper which prides itself on following the fortunes of a Ugandan village – Katine – on a daily basis. You would have thought that if the newspaper sees development in Uganda important enough to give daily coverage that it might have found space somewhere to talk about the atrocities taking place in the same country.

Furthermore, whilst it was great to see such strong support in Adelaide and Melbourne (and all the other cities) for people in a country far away and thus an abstract problem rather than a human one to many (if not most) people, I felt it was significant that, of the 70 or so people who made the effort to travel to Melbourne the only children under 16 were my two daughters and my friend’s two daughters. And there were only four people (myself included) over the age of 40. The vast majority were people in their late teens and twenties. And good on them for turning up. But given that the issue is about children being abducted and then used as front-line soldiers, I would have expected more parents to be concerned and involved. Perhaps that’s the fault of the organization. Or perhaps it reflects the apathy of those in the 30-50 age group.Whatever your age, I urge to take a look at the Invisible Children website and to see for yourself just what damage is being done to a whole generation of children in Uganda and neighbouring countries. The Invisible Children campaign may not be as great or as successful as it purports to be, but the issues it raises are worthy of your serious consideration. The link is:   http://www.invisiblechildren.com/home.php

Small is not necessarily beautiful

For the past couple of years in Australia, environmentalists have focused a large part of their energy on the campaign against the introduction of genetically modified (GM) crops. Although this campaign was successful in some states, the state governments in Victoria and New South Wales have both agreed to the commercial production of GM canola, meaning that the GM genie is very much out of the bottle (sadly GM pollen doesn’t recognize state boundaries). The campaign against GM in Australia continues, of course, with the focus now on the (lack of) labelling on food products containing GM ingredients, but there is little sign of movement at state or federal level. As in all Western countries, corporate power continues to hold sway, regardless of the economic climate.

While researching the implications of the introduction of GM food into Australia, I began to consider the implications of nanotechnology in the context of food.

Nanotechnology is a branch of science that deals with particles 1-100 nanometres in size. A nanometre is a unit of length in the metric system equal to one billionth of a metre. What is important about these tiny particles is that they don’t behave in the ways that larger particles do. Take gold, for example. Its very value is based on the fact that, in its normal (large particle) form it is inert. Yet, particles of gold a few nanometres in diameter are highly reactive. Steve O’Connor of the UK’s Independent newspaper explains it as follows:

‘Nanoparticles have a much bigger surface area-to-volume ratio than microparticles a thousand times bigger. It is like trying to compare the surface area of a basketball with the combined surface area of pea-sized balls with the same total weight of the single basketball. The pea-sized balls have a surface area thousands of times bigger than the basketball, and this allows them to interact more easily with the environment. It is this increased interactivity that can change their functionality.’ (13 November 2008)

The discovery that nanoparticles behave differently from bigger particles explains why they are of interest to the scientific and corporate community. Already, nanoparticles are used in cosmetics and sunscreens, to make coats more waterproof or stain resistant and to strengthen tennis racquets and bicycles (to name but a few applications). Indeed, nanotechnology is a branch of science that might – or could – bring significant benefits:

‘Developments in nanotechnology could help provide clean, safe and inexpensive drinking water for everyone… Nanofiltration membranes (polymer filters) are already widely used to remove salts and micro pollutants. This works by the membranes selectively rejecting substances which remove harmful pollutants, while retaining nutrients. Nanotechnology is expected to improve membrane technology which will drive down costs of desalination.’ (Independent, 22 April 2008)

Whilst the idea of my coat being slightly more waterproof owing to nanotechnology doesn’t particularly bother me, the idea that millions of people could benefit from nanotechnology by having access to drinkable water is exciting – though not very realistic if social and political factors are added to the equation.

So, I am not arguing against nanotechnology per se. I can see that it may bring benefits. But I am concerned about the application of nanotechnology when it comes to food. According to the Helmut Kaiser Consultancy, which describes itself as having been ‘a leading researcher and strategist for companies and ministries in future technology markets worldwide for over 20 years’:

‘There are now over 600 nanofood products available on the market worldwide. These exciting achievements have encouraged a large increase of R&D investments in nanofood. Today, nanotechnology is no longer an empty buzzword, but an indispensable reality in the food industry.’

What this means in reality is that significant changes are being made to the way in which many people’s food is being produced and presented, without them knowing anything about it. For example, did you know that nanotechnology is being used for ‘interactive packaging’, where the food takes in chemicals from the packet as it sits on the shelf? Or that it is being used in the production of synthetic food colourings and frying oil preservatives and much more?

‘Chocolate-flavoured chewing gum, milk that tells you when it’s off… An American company has claimed to have created ‘the Holy Grail of chewing-gum design’ – chewing gum with real chocolate in it… Samsung has fridges on the market in Asia and America that use nano-silver to kill bacteria. Already in use in brewing and dairy production are nano-filters – screens so small they can filter out micro-organisms and even viruses. In lab experiments, the colour has been removed from beetroot juice, leaving the flavour; and red wine turned into white. Lactose can now be filtered from milk, and replaced with another sugar… Also available in American supermarkets is cooking oil that, in theory, can be kept fresh and soluble forever – thanks to nano-ceramic particles that enable clustering of dirt molecules… Nano-encapsulation means no more bribing your kids to eat fruit and oily fish: vitamin C-enriched cooking oil and omega-3 fish oil-carrying juices are already available. In Australia, you can buy a bread – Tip-Top – that contains undetectable nano-capsules of omega-3.’ (Guardian, UK, 13 December 2007)

All the above could be construed as good news. But, consider this. Many people thought that the introduction of asbestos was beneficial until they learned that it can cause cancer from accumulation in the body. So where is the scientific research concerned with the possible dangers of nanotechnology?

There simply isn’t anything on a large scale.

It is the same with GM. Large-scale scientific studies are not funded. As Judy Carman, an expert in this field, has often pointed out regarding the health implications of the ingestion of GM food, long-term, large-scale scientific studies on people have simply not been performed because of the corporate imperative.

Can we take the chance with nanofoods? And, besides, shouldn’t we be given the option whether or not we want to take the risk? As things currently stand, there may, for example, be a nanoscale coating on the chocolate bar that you eat and you wouldn’t know because there is no reason for the producers to tell you it was there. If there were regulations forcing producers to make it clear what they were doing, then consumers would have a choice. But, so far, governments haven’t been pressurized into making producers give us that choice.

It is time for nanotechnological applications in the food industry to be regulated and the only way in which that will happen is if we, the consumers, demand it.

Too much hot air

Beware of cows sign in Australia

Photo: Mr Toaster

According to the Australian Government’s population clock, as I write these words Australia has a population of 21,495,596. By the time you finish reading this piece, however, the figure will have grown (unless you are a very fast reader) since there is: ‘one birth every 1 minute and 51 seconds, one death every 3 minutes and 48 seconds, a net gain of one international migrant every 2 minutes and 55 seconds leading to an overall total population increase of one person every 1 minute and 37 seconds’. So, unlike in some Western countries, the population of Australia is slowly increasing. And it is set to increase further. Government projections suggest that, by 2056, the population will have reached at least 30.9 million and, possibly, 42.5 million, whilst, by 2101 it will have reached at least 33.7 million and, possibly, 62.2 million. It is hard enough to imagine a sustainable future in Australia for a population of 21.5 million people never mind 62 million, however, because, as things stand, Australians are, collectively, some of the worst greenhouse gas emitters in the world.

One reason for this is that the electricity in most Australian homes and businesses is generated by coal-fired power stations (only 8% of electricity comes from renewable sources). A second and, perhaps, less obvious reason is that national emission levels are boosted alarmingly by the breeding of livestock. It came as a surprise to me to discover that the human population in Australia is considerably outnumbered by that of cattle. In June 2006 (the latest available figures), there were 28.8 million cows in Australia. And cows, as most people know, emit a considerable amount of methane – in Australia around 500 litres a day (making a total of well over 14 million litres a day at 2006 population levels). Given that methane is a greenhouse gas which is over 20 times more effective in trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, the Vegetarian/Vegan Society of Queensland chose well to use the slogan: ‘Think you can be a meat-eating environmentalist? Think again!’

It is not just the amount of methane emitted during the production of beef which is environmentally hazardous. As Professor Ian Lowe, former President of the Australian Conservation Foundation has pointed out: ‘Producing meat turns vegetable protein very inefficiently into animal protein, using large amounts of energy and water in the process.’

Regarding the use of energy, a study by David Pimentel of Cornell University’s Ecology Department has shown that the production of animal protein demands the expenditure of about eight times as much fossil-fuel energy as a comparable amount of plant protein.

Pimentel has also calculated that that it takes 500 litres of water to produce 1 kilo of potatoes, 900 litres per kilo of wheat, 3,500 litres per kilo of digestible chicken flesh and a massive 100,000 litres for 1 kilo of beef. Given that Australasia is the driest continent, Australia can ill afford agricultural practices which overuse water. Yet, this is clearly what is happening.

And it is not just the meat industry which is the culprit. The dairy industry also requires considerable water use. According to CSIRO (Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Research Organization) expansion of the dairy industry in the Murray Darling Basin between 1990 and 2000 resulted in an increase in water use from 2,400 billion litres to 4,200 billion litres, contributing significantly to the water crisis which has been dominating news here over the past two years.

Then there is the problem of land clearance. Between 1990 and 2004, the cattle industry in Australia cleared around 400,000 hectares a year in what has been described as ‘one of the most devastating attacks on biodiversity in our country’s history – a higher per capita rate of clearing than in the Amazon’.

Oh. And did I mention the problem of disposing of the waste produced by 28.8 million cows?

All in all, it does not make sense environmentally to have a population of cows which exceeds the human population. But it does make sense economically. In 2006, 26 million of these cows were bred for meat whilst just 2.8 million were bred for milk. And the main reason why so many cows were bred for meat was to feed the export market. In 2006-07, the three main buyers were Japan, the USA and South Korea. Together, these three countries bought nearly 1 million tons of Australian beef and veal. This illustrates both the globalized nature of the meat industry and the complex nature of the task facing those of us who have ethical and/or environmental objections to it.

Campaigning within national boundaries and making individual lifestyle choices can and will make an impact in the long term. But, by then, it will probably be too late. What is needed is an (enforceable) international agreement to curb or end the production of and trade in animal products. As outlined above, the environmental arguments in favour of this are compelling and so, I believe, are the ethical arguments. There are even some signs that the tide is turning this way. Recently, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization admitted that livestock contribute more to global warming than transport and, earlier this year, Rajendra Pachauri, Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) said in January 2008: ‘Please eat less meat – meat is a very carbon intensive commodity…This is something the IPCC was afraid to say earlier, but now we have said it.’ These are fine words, but, unless they are accompanied by action, they will simply amount to hot air. And, as we know, there is already too much hot air in the world. That is the problem.

‘Francanola’ threatens Aussies

Polls show that a huge majority of Australians – up to 90 per cent – support the ban on genetically modified (GM) crops. But this did not stop John Brumby, State Premier of Victoria, bowing to pressure from big agribusiness and announcing in November that he would not renew the current moratorium.

He and his counterpart in New South Wales (NSW), which also plans to end the ban in early 2008, argue that farmers have been missing out on export opportunities to the US and Canada because of their failure to adopt GM canola (oilseed rape) and that the volte-face will bring higher profits. It will ‘put farmers on a level playing field with their overseas counterparts for the first time’, claims one minister.

Anti-GM campaigners are appalled by the u-turn, which will mean that Australia as a whole will lose its GM-free status. Brumby’s deeply unpopular decision was taken without consultation with MPs. The majority of Australian farmers are anti-GM, and even Goodman Fielder, Australia’s largest food company, supports the ban, as do a further 250 food companies. The Network of Concerned Farmers has a very different take from Brumby on what the economic outcome of ending the ban will be: a loss of over A$65 million (US$55 million) a year for non-GM farmers.

But never fear! Over 25,000 protest cards have been sent to the NSW Government, and activists are dusting off their green gloves and pledging to rip up the so-called Frankenstein crops wherever they are planted.