Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Chernobyl and the "superstitious distrust of genetic modification"


This is the last time World Report will appear as a segment on Nelson Before Nine. I was getting ready to commemorate the anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster (April 26, 1986), when one of my correspondents in the Midnight Research Network mailed me an article from The Economist which he called “The looming global food crisis.”

For those who may not be familiar with it, The Economist is a rich person's Time magazine that's produced in the UK.

Several decades ago, when I still had a day job and was even then searching for an unbiased publication on international affairs, I subscribed to The Economist for several years.

It presents a lot of good information in a lively writing style. It's also a megaphone for what eventually became known alternately as neoliberal globalization or the Washington consensus or market fundamentalism.

I like to think I am more mature now and better able to hold up to such arm-twisting while I still get the information I am looking for. Nevertheless, The Economist was so ideologically encumbered that I finally let my subscription lapse even though I could still afford it.

So I was surprised when this article's anonymous author claimed that “the food crisis of 2008 has revealed market failures at every link of the food chain.”

Hardcore market fundamentalists believe that markets are self-correcting which is why they should be left alone—laissez-faire etc. The concept of “market failure” is an oxymoron. It makes no sense, to believers in the “invisible hand of the market,” an image Adam Smith only used once or twice, but which is frequently used among capitalism's extremists.

Two sentences on, The Economist judges that “In general, governments ought to liberalise markets, not intervene in them further.” So their market fundamentalism returns after an all too brief exile. Market failure evidently has a special meaning when it's used in The Economist.

The article explains, “Food is riddled with state intervention at every turn, from subsidies to millers for cheap bread to bribes for farmers to leave land fallow. The upshot of such quotas, subsidies and controls is to dump all the imbalances that in another business might be smoothed out through small adjustments onto the one unregulated part of the food chain: the international market.”

Still, over the last few decades, The bandwagon corporate globalization and trade has had a bumpy ride. Post-Soviet Russia was nearly destroyed by a western notion of freedom that some have described as a corporate bill of rights. Argentina, Mexico, and Japan took enough of a beating that China has decided, with considerable success, to buy into the market economy on its own terms, not those of neoliberals.

By the end of the article, it was clear The Economist was squirming.

“There is an occasional exception to the rule that governments should keep out of agriculture.”

Keep in mind, these are "rules" that, when the occasion suits, are presented as if they were rules of the universe the way gravity and electromagnetism follow an inverse square rule. Are there exceptions to gravity or electromagnetism? Are we meant to believe that food is some remote cosmic construct like a quark or a black hole that doesn't quite fit the principles of Newtonian mechanics? Who decides these exceptions? God or The Economist?

More likely, the exceptions occur when they are convenient to buttress a failing theory, a theory that always was intended to guarantee the profits and privileges of a few at the expense of the rest.

Governments, The Economist's self-appointed rule-maker allows, “can provide basic technology: executing capital-intensive irrigation projects too large for poor individual farmers to undertake, or paying for basic science that helps produce higher-yielding seeds. But be careful” The Economist commands.

“Too often,” it says, “as in Europe, where superstitious distrust of genetic modification is slowing take-up of the technology—governments hinder rather than help such advances” (Economist The silent tsunami Apr 17 08).

It was that bit about the “superstitious distrust of genetic modification” that brought me back to my original subject: Chernobyl.

Back in the night of April 25 and the morning of the 26th, 1986, the operating crew of reactor number 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in what is now Ukraine planned a test to find out if the generators could produce enough energy to keep the coolant pumps running in the event of a loss of power until the emergency diesel generator was activated.

Operators deliberately switched off the safety systems in order to keep the test run from being interrupted. For the test, they powered the reactor down to 25 per cent of its capacity.

In the words of the Chernobyl dot info website maintained by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation as an international platform on the longterm consequences of the Chernobyl disaster “This procedure did not go according to plan: for unknown reasons, the reactor power level fell to less than 1 per cent. The power therefore had to be slowly increased. But 30 seconds after the start of the test, there was a sudden and unexpected power surge. The reactor's emergency shutdown (which should have halted the chain reaction) failed.

Within fractions of a second, the power level and temperature rose many times over. The reactor went out of control. There was a violent explosion. The 1000-tonne sealing cap on the reactor building was blown off. At temperatures of over 2000°C, the fuel rods melted. The graphite covering of the reactor then ignited. In the ensuing inferno, the radioactive fission products released during the core meltdown were sucked up into the atmosphere. (3.7; 22.3)

The fire burned and radioactive emissions continued out of control for 11 full days with disastrous consequences for workers and members of the local community. A flood of information is available from numerous sources, each representing its own interests. "Even more serious is the effect that this situation has had on aid programmes: many major organisations and key countries have been reluctant to act because they do not have reliable information...." (

Chernobyl was not an isolated incident. As a nuclear accident, it helped to dim the public's memory of Three Mile Island, a reactor in Harrisburg, Pennasylvania where a similar accident had been narrowly averted 7 years before in 1979. (March 28). The town of Harrisburg had been evacuated. Nuclear scientists said the Chernobyl reactor was a bad design, nothing at all like American designs or the CANDU. It did turn out the Hanford N-reactor was nearly identical to Chernobyl No. 4 except that it had been designed to produce plutonium for bombs instead of electricity.

In those days Chernobyl—and Three Mile Island--were just the most recent in a growing chain of environmental disasters initially concealed and then disputed by both interested governments and corporations. The Love Canal, the Mobro garbage barge that wandered the Caribbean for months seeking a place to dump its load--also the Khian Sea. The Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Cuyahoga River near Cleveland that burst into flames. The list goes on. The sinking of the Kursk, the death of the Aral Sea.

Five years before Chernobyl, on Dec 2-3, 1984, a toxic gas leak in Bhopal, India had killed some 10,000 people overnight. Bhopal survivors are still trying to reach a settlement that would deliver compensation to what remains of their families.

Meanwhile, Chernobyl, Bhopal, and Three Mile Island had brought back memories of Thalidomide. Thalidomide was first made available to patients as a prescription for morning sickness and sleeplessness on October 1, 1957. It became available in "sample tablet form" in Canada late in 1959 and was licensed for prescription use on April 1, 1961.

Taken during pregnancy, it caused startling birth malformations, and death to thousands of babies. Birth defects included: deafness, blindness, disfigurement, cleft palate, many other internal disabilities, and the disabilities most associated with Thalidomide known as phocomelia.

Around the world, victims of the drug Thalidomide and their families entered into or threatened legal actions and were eventually awarded settlements. However, in Canada no case ever reached a trial verdict. Families were forced to settle out-of-court with gag orders imposed on them not to discuss the amounts of their settlements.

From where I sit, what The Economist likes to call a “superstitious distrust of genetic modification,” looks more like a rational caution based on decades of miserable experience with denial and deceit from both government and corporate sources. It's true that the case against genetically modified crops has a lot of gaps and speculation. But that isn't the point.

Chernobyl, Bhopal, and Thalidomide symbolize something profoundly wrong with the relation between government, industry, innovation and the public. This isn't news. Post-World War II organizations like the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Physicians for Social Responsibilty, and Union of Concerned Scientists are well aware and actively provide much needed leadership. It may be we are on the threshhold of an era when publications like The Economist, amusing themselves with the public's “superstitious distrust of genetic modification,” will find their own patronizing attitude blowing back in their faces. Where have they been for the last sixty years?
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