Saturday, 15 March 2014

GM, Ukraine... real life isn't as simple as a two-way choice

Reaction to my piece last week on genetically modified foods has been interestingly mixed.
Mostly the responses have come either from people who think GM is a threat to life as we know it, or those who declare themselves “all for it”.
Both points of view miss the essential thing I was trying to say. Which was that the term covers some very good things, some very bad, and some the jury is still out on.
This ought to be a pretty easy idea to grasp, even if it does leave room for a rather large grey area. But it seems people like to see every issue in simple black and white terms.
They are either “for” or “against” GM, in favour of immigration or passionately opposed, God-fearing or atheist, vegetarian or carnivorous.
Real grown-up life is more complex than that – but who wants real life when you can have the cartoon version?
People like to have heroes they can cheer and villains they can hiss. They don’t want characters, or situations, that demand more sophisticated analysis. Or which leave you harbouring honest unresolved doubts.
Take events currently unfolding in Ukraine – the gravest crisis in Europe since the end of the Cold War, we’re told.
That description seems to me to under-estimate with hindsight the horrors and perils of the ethnic conflicts that tore the former Yugoslavia into seven parts in the 1990s. But of course we don’t know yet how the Ukraine story will unfold.
 To most people here, including all the major political parties and pretty much all of the media, Russia is the bad guy. With Vladimir Putin a conveniently preposterous cut-out villain.
And that must mean that the government of Ukraine – a government, remember, which came into being less than three weeks ago – are the goodies.
Nobody here seems to pause and consider that on this occasion Putin might actually have some justification for his actions.
To hear an American Secretary of State, or a British Foreign Minister, exclaiming in horror at one country “invading” another is frankly breathtaking. Can they not see how hypocritical that makes them sound to most of the world?
Since 1945, US forces have invaded a staggering 69 different countries, nearly always with Britain cheerleading on the sidelines. And it’s seldom been as bloodless as Putin’s incursion into Ukraine has been so far.
Of course, just because they’re hypocritical doesn’t make them wrong on this occasion.
Putin’s claim that he is defending the Russian-speaking majority in the Crimea does sound uncomfortably like the excuse used by Hitler for his invasions of Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland. And there are chilling echoes too of the rumble of Soviet tanks into Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia (again) in 1968.
But Ukraine as it now exists is an invented country – invented as a part of the old Soviet Union. When the Crimea was added to it in 1954, it was merely an administrative decision in Moscow. No one then could have imagined it would have any consequences 60 years down the line in a republic that had become independent.
Historically, Ukraine is part of Russia – its very name is Russian for Border-land – and its eastern region, largely Russian-speaking, has a long history of industrial importance for Russia.
Considering all this, it’s by no means clear that Russia is entirely the bad guy.
And it’s even less obvious that the new regime in Kiev is composed of good guys. It is, as they say, complicated.
The fall of bad leaders in Egypt and Libya in 2011 didn’t mean the new men were all good.
Our politicians and press were eager to pin sheriff’s stars on the rebels, though – especially in Libya, where Colonel Gaddafi was such a satisfying pantomime baddie.
There has been the same simplistic tendency over the ghastly situation in Syria. The fact that President al-Assad is a nasty piece of work doesn’t make all his opponents paragons of virtue or beacons of hope.
It’s not just more complicated than that, it’s tragically much, much more complicated.
Some of this, no doubt, you know. But the urge to allocate black hats and white hats, to simplify every story into one in which you can take sides, is irrepressible.
To be fair, a couple of readers were more nuanced in their reactions to my remarks on GM, and my support for the Norwich-created blight-resistant potato.
Matthew Caton drew my attention to a Welsh-bred, non-GM blight-resistant spud.
“I grew a variety called Sarpo Mira last year on my allotment,” he told me. “They are very nice indeed, as well as being very versatile.
Thank you, Matthew, I might try those.
Meanwhile, my brother Clive points out that I may have been too eager to simplify matters myself.
“One blight-resistant variety is just one new variety,” he says. “Unless it replaces every other variety, it’s not going to make much difference at all. And if it replaces every other variety, we’re into a different problem – loss of crop diversity.”
Like I said: real life is complex.

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