Birthday 2012

One reckless owner. Bodywork in need of attention, could use a respray. Good mileage, but refuses to start when cold. Will need a lot of work done on the suspension.

I’ll be darned if I’ll write anything today. It’s my birthday! I will sit around ruminating on fantastically old I am. And yet, how still very unfinished.

I didn’t plan anything much. Last time, you might remember, I took a walk in the Burren, but I’m not trying to impress anyone this year. I’d already had dinner a couple of days ago with a dear friend who couldn’t be here today, so I just met up with one of my bestest buddies and went out for a non-drink. She’s being healthy too, so she drank rice milk while I had what I’ve come to call artificial beer, or Toybräu. I tried to drink so much and so fast that it would give me a sort of simulated sensation of getting out of it, but I can’t honestly say that it worked. Then I was so busy talking I only managed four pints of the stuff. What’s happened to me? There were times when I would have had four pints – of actual beer – before breakfast.

Not good times, no. But times. Anyway, good night!

Return Of The Gene Genie

You take two days off and they try to pull a fast one on you. On Thursday the green light was given by the Environmental Protection Agency for an experimental GM crop to be grown outdoors in Ireland. This is a Bad Thing.

Why? Not because genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are necessarily dangerous. You cannot absolutely guarantee that engineered genes will be risk free, genomes are extremely complex things, but the likelihood of unforeseen harm must be very low. They may introduce us to a world where corporate lawyers sue gardeners for patent infringement, but that’s a matter of law and politics not technology and science.

I freely admit that they may, possibly, reap huge benefits. The trial is well-intentioned I believe. It is being done by Teagasc, a respected national research agency, without any direct involvement by agribusiness interests. It has been designed to test the long-term effects on the environment of a specific and potentially very useful engineered organism, a more blight-resistant potato. We have to carry out the experiment, promoters say, in order to know if the crop will do any harm.

No we don’t. Because we know that carrying out the experiment will in itself cause harm. Reputational harm. If those genes escape into the wild, harm from which our reputation will never recover. And they will escape.

There may be a lot of money in GM organisms, but they can and will be grown anywhere in the world. Indeed, in places you never could grow crops before. There will also however be a lot of money in GM-free organisms. Very many people will never trust food that has been tampered with on such a fundamental level. They may be right or they may be wrong, we can suspend judgement on that. What is beyond question is that they will be willing to pay more for food that they consider better, greener, more natural. And to grow that you need… an island.

We are never going to be a leading nation in GMO research. Of course we can do it, of course we can be good at it, but we’re simply not big enough to be world leaders at it. It will only ever be a relatively minor contributor to the national bottom line. Non-GM however is something we could really excel at. Being surrounded by a barrier that pollen-carrying insects cannot easily cross, the island of Ireland is better placed than most to be a specialist producer of GM-free food. Further, it fits with the image we enjoy (rightly or wrongly) of more natural agriculture, and with other key industries like tourism. It’s not a matter of projecting ourselves as bucolic or atavistic, merely as less adulterated. Keep GMOs off the island and we have a brand that could be of immense value. Let them escape into the wild from where they can cross into food crops, and that opportunity is gone. Unlike with an oil spill or industrial accident, there will be no feasible way to clean up the genetic environment.

And if one day it turns out that nobody cares anymore if their food is GM-free or not, we can always join that party. We will have the choice. If we embrace GM incautiously now though, all choice is gone for good. We will have squandered one of the greatest opportunities ever presented to this country’s food industry, irretrievably.

Just Like Mamma Used To Buy

Two varieties of ginger as sold in Haikou, Hai...
It's not even like there's only one kind of ginger

I had a sudden flash of insight into why some children are such finicky eaters. It’s consistency. Modern food is too consistent.

Kids are dubious about new tastes. For good reason – they are born into a world that consists mostly of things you shouldn’t put in your mouth. The corollary though is that once they’ve tried something a few times and found it to be safe, they become keen on that.

That’s not a problem with home-made food. Even cooked to the same recipe by the same person, even when prepared by an expert chef, flavour varies. Personally I’ve never cooked the same meal twice. Hell, my spaghetti sauce rarely comes out the same colour. Not so with prepared foods. To encourage customer loyalty, the inevitable inconsistencies of the natural flavours are drowned out by simpler artificial ones. The only remarkable change in the taste of branded food for the last few decades was when US bottlers of soft drinks switched from cane to corn syrup, and merely swapping between minor variants on the theme of pure sugar almost caused war.

The upshot is that more and more now kids don’t develop a tolerance for variation, and so a broader flavour palette. Instead they become convinced that only certain tightly-defined tastes are tolerable.

This occurred to me today because I bought a ginger cake. It’s a nice ginger cake. You can really taste ginger, which is good in my book. It’s moist and sweet and very traditional. By most objective criteria, I’d be willing to claim that this was an excellent – even an ideal – ginger cake.

But it ain’t a McVitie’s Jamaica Ginger Cake.

Reader, I was that child.

Just Like Mamma Used To Buy

Two varieties of ginger as sold in Haikou, Hai...
It's not even like there's only one kind of ginger

I had a sudden flash of insight into why some children are such finicky eaters. It’s consistency. Modern food is too consistent.

Kids are dubious about new tastes. For good reason – they are born into a world that consists mostly of things you shouldn’t put in your mouth. The corollary though is that once they’ve tried something a few times and found it to be safe, they become keen on that.

That’s not a problem with home-made food. Even cooked to the same recipe by the same person, even when prepared by an expert chef, flavour varies. Personally I’ve never cooked the same meal twice. Hell, my spaghetti sauce rarely comes out the same colour. Not so with prepared foods. To encourage customer loyalty, the inevitable inconsistencies of the natural flavours are drowned out by simpler artificial ones. The only remarkable change in the taste of branded food for the last few decades was when US bottlers of soft drinks switched from cane to corn syrup, and merely swapping between minor variants on the theme of pure sugar almost caused war.

The upshot is that more and more now kids don’t develop a tolerance for variation, and so a broader flavour palette. Instead they become convinced that only certain tightly-defined tastes are tolerable.

This occurred to me today because I bought a ginger cake. It’s a nice ginger cake. You can really taste ginger, which is good in my book. It’s moist and sweet and very traditional. By most objective criteria, I’d be willing to claim that this was an excellent – even an ideal – ginger cake.

But it ain’t a McVitie’s Jamaica Ginger Cake.

Reader, I was that child.

Name Your Poison

Taken in an Irish Pub located in Madrid, Spain...
This beer is completely unknown in Ireland

Wondrous news! Galway is about to get its first “craft beer”. For those unfamiliar with the concept, it’s pretty easily explained. Most of the beer we get in this country is made by giant brewers like Diageo and Heineken. There’s this thing about giant brewers. Basically it’s hard to tell their products from defrosted mammoth urine.

Some countries really make beer. The Czech Republic I have raved about before; even their mass-produced brews are among the best in the world. Staropramen, Budvar, Gambrinus and Pilsner Urquell are widely available, cheap, and delicious. The sad exception is Krusovice, a good beer that travels so badly it is best drunk from the vat with a short straw.

Perhaps because their French neighbours make such an unwarranted fuss over their wines, the Belgians outdo the world in the variety, audacity and of course sheer freaking alcohol content of their beers. If you want to drink a stout that’s double the strength of Guinness, try a Gaulois. Their legendary Bush beer is, at 12 per cent, stronger than many wines. It should be approached with caution and terminated with extreme prejudice. They also produce a wide variety of fruit-flavoured grain beverages, considered by many to be on the very leading edge of hangover technology.

Germany of course is famous for the purity of its beers. And whatever you think of the idea of hand-pumps and pre-refrigerator temperatures, it must be said that England provides an enormous variety of ales and bitters, many of them with remarkably silly names.

But Ireland? As far as the rest of the world is concerned, we make a beer. Other native or semi-native products like Harp have rightfully achieved a state of almost total global obscurity. “Irish Reds” have had some success abroad, no doubt based at least in part on the mistaken assumption that we actually drink the crap here. For the most part our choice is between locally-brewed editions of the world’s biggest brand-name lagers. Or, to give them their technically correct name, swill.

It’s no mystery why local brewing has never taken off in this country. (The term “effective duopoly” may be libellous, so I didn’t say it. OK?) The only surprise is that a handful do exist. I’ve not been alone in speculating why we didn’t have one here. Lord knows Galway beer consumption could support a brewery or six. But – sit down, this may come as a shock – some guys stopped talking about it and have actually done it.

You don’t see that every day.

They’re calling it an “Irish pale ale”, but the actual name of the brew will be up to you, its future imbibers. They’re holding a competition. The prize, naturally, will be beer. Check out “nameyourbeer.net”. They have a fun attitude.

There’s just one thing I hope. Not that this beer will be good – I know it will be good, compared to the liquid evils available now – but simply that they’re not going to charge a premium for it. Bad beer is already keeping me impoverished. Better could be fatal.

Gene Genie

When genetically modified crops first went on trial, one of the greatest worries was that their new genes might spread to wild plants, making them resistant to herbicide, poisonous to insects, or God knows what. The chemical companies developing them went to a lot of effort to allay these fears, paying for enormous public relations campaigns to assure us that this could in no way ever possibly happen.

It happened. Pollen from an experimental crop of oilseed rape plants in the UK has managed to fertilise their distant cousin, a weed known as charlock or wild mustard. Now a new strain, invulnerable to a common herbicide, has been found growing wild in the pleasant English county of Dorset. Not only does this show that the safeguards and assurances of GM developers are worthless, it is an ecological disaster in itself. If such a hybrid proves fertile it is inevitable that this gene will spread throughout the charlock population. Weed killer resistance is, to say the least, a beneficial trait for a weed.

If you haven’t heard of charlock this may be because it’s better known here as bráiste. It’s quite a pretty plant to my eyes, with its delicate yellow flowers. My mother disagrees – because she remembers the times before herbicides. Bráiste is a common weed of cereal crops, and back then it had to be picked out at time of harvest, by hand. The children were set to this backbreaking work, gathering it from the mown barley and carrying it to the side of the field. Under the sun, hour after hour. No wonder she can’t stand the sight of it.

If it becomes herbicide resistant, will our children be picking it out by hand once again? It is only immune to one chemical so far, but if they keep up these trials other genes for resistance are going to leak into the wild. These will accumulate in plants, creating a ‘superweed’ that will be nearly impossible to kill chemically. It has already happened in Canada, where they have a strain of oilseed rape invulnerable to major modern weed killers and are having to use ones previously banned for being damaging to the environment. Weren’t GM crops meant to be less harmful?

Government scientists overseeing the experiment thought that bráiste was too distantly related to oilseed rape for cross-fertilisation to take place. They were dead wrong, and now it has jumped one species gap it seems likely that the trait can spread to related plants. What is related? Cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, kohl rabi, turnips, spinach, radishes, swede, rutabaga, canola, Brussels sprouts, Chinese cabbage, mustard… In short, most vegetables in the human diet. We’ve polluted the genome of the brassicas, probably the single most useful group of plants known to mankind. Go us.

The companies that are promoting them claim they can make GM crops infertile. Out of environmental concern? Maybe – but more because they want to sell farmers new seed every year. (Indeed farmers who have attempted to save their own seed have been charged with intellectual property theft!) But they’re only fooling themselves. This infertility is in itself a genetic characteristic, and thus subject to mutation. There is nothing to stop occasional ‘sports’ deciding that actually they’ll be fruitful anyway, thank you very much. Genes are reproduction; attempting to fix them so that they do not reproduce is like commanding the tide to stay out.

We need to ban GM crops. It’s not just the balance of nature these superweeds endanger though, but food production itself. There are many grounds to criticise intensive agriculture in its current form, but without it food would not be anything like as plentiful. Right now famines only occur in places where people are too poor to import food; there’s no shortage of it in the world overall. If intensive agriculture were to collapse though, all that would change.

We’d be the poor.

And I’m in favour of genetic engineering. No, seriously I am. But we are not anything like ready. This research should be done in sealed labs down disused mine shafts, not in the natural environment. We simply have no idea what we are doing yet, and once a harmful trait escapes into the wild nothing will get the genie back into the bottle. At least, nothing short of dropping an atomic bomb on Dorset.