Issue 224 of SOCIALIST REVIEW
Published November 1998
Copyright © Socialist Review
Seeds of discontent
John Parrington's arguments about the biotechnology industry (October SR) received support this month from senior figures in the world of agricultural research. New Scientist reports that Hans Herren, director of the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology in Nairobi, and Jules Pretty, director of the Centre for Environment and Society at the University of Essex, have attacked the rush to promote biotechnology as a solution to the world's food problems.
Herren and Pretty describe how UN and private agencies have switched their funding from traditional agricultural research to the currently fashionable genetic field. They accuse the agencies of bowing to the commercial pressures of biotechnology firms like Monsanto.
Herren made his name ten years ago when he developed a biological control for the mealy bug which was threatening the cassava crop and the livelihood of up to 200 million Africans. He discovered a wasp which preyed on the bug. The wasp was released in Africa and the problem was largely eradicated, at no cost to the individual farmers. Such biological controls can be dangerous in themselves. Releasing new organisms into an environment can have drastic and unforeseen consequences. However, these techniques, if used cautiously, are vastly superior to the methods promoted by the huge biotechnology firms like Monsanto.
Monsanto isn't interested in biological controls because there are no profits to be made. it would prefer to develop seeds resistant to infestation. These seeds can then be sold at a profit to the African farmers.
The last word should go to Pretty: 'There may be occasions when biotechnology is the only way of solving a problem, but there are much simpler solutions to most of the developing world's food problems. Scientists who believe biotechnology will banish hunger are being naive. Most people are hungry because they are poor, not because they lack technology.'
Storm clouds gather
I have followed with interest the coverage of the current economic crisis in Socialist Review. As I write, Eddie George, governor of the Bank of England, warns us that another economic crisis like that affecting Japan or Russia will push the British economy into recession.
It's clear that this will have major political consequences. What little money the Blair government has put aside for public services is based on predictions of economic growth which will not be met if recession does hit Britain, rising unemployment and falling income from taxation will push public finances into the red, forcing the government to cut funding for public services.
I work in social services providing support for the elderly, and people with disabilities and mental health problems. Even now choices are made between paying for half an hour's visit to help someone get up in the morning or a similar call to help someone else use the toilet. Decisions are made on the basis of what is the cheapest option rather than what will improve people's quality of life.
Increasingly the Labour council I work for in Derbyshire, faced with the government's spending limits, is looking for ways to cut its wages bill. Last year we had a strike by school meals workers against the imposition of new contracts and cuts in hours. This year home helps are boycotting a new system for checking their whereabouts.
In other parts of the country workers in social services are becoming increasingly disillusioned with the Labour government and some are resorting to industrial action. The Tameside Care Group. dismissed 197 employees this summer when they walked out in protest at reduced holidays, abolition of sick pay, lower rates for weekends and bank holidays, and the third pay cut since privatisation. And in Glasgow 1,900 social services staff walked out on unofficial strike after management suspended two Unison members involved in a dispute over a reorganisation of the home help service.
Government and union leaders are likely to find it hard to ignore the mounting opposition from workers as any hope of increased spending is dashed by New Labour.
Mundane or extraordinary
'Why would anyone want to spend half an hour on a Monday evening watching the idiosyncrasies of The Royle Family?' asked Beccy Reese (October SR). I think this is a bit negative as socialists should welcome the programme.
Yes, I cringed a bit when the BBC put out trailers for the show. It looked like a typical piece of anti working class propaganda presenting the Royle family as farting couch potatoes. And the programme has a bit of an obsession with bodily functions. But there's more to it than that. The socialist playwright Bertolt Brecht struggled to write work that would make the extraordinary seem mundane and the mundanethe daily reality of life under capitalism--extraordinary. The Royle Family is attempting something similar.
The Royles live a claustrophobic and narrow existence. We see them almost exclusively in the living room or kitchen. Their conversation revolves around meals, alcohol and domestic crises. Yet, as the series has progressed, the characters have emerged as more rounded figures with sharp wits and individual skills and talents. There is a real sense of (ill-tempered) solidarity between them. The dialogue also reflects more general experiences of working class life. Denise's boyfriend, a remover, notes that it's his richer customers that are the tightest. And lines like 'can you lend me £5 so that I can buy you a birthday drink?' will have a familiar ring. The Royles are massively alienated, yet they are survivors. That's not the most progressive thing to say about the working class, but it's not a bad place to start.
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