Sir: No one can doubt the need to address the problem of how to feed a rapidly expanding population from the fixed resource that is our planet ("GM crops needed in Britain, says minister", 19 June). What we are more acutely aware of today is the detrimental impact that we can have on planet through our own actions to produce the food required.
Given our predicament, it would be foolhardy to deny that GM crops can be part of the solution. It may be that through research we can develop crops that can capture more energy from the sun, and can extract more nutrients and water from the soil and therefore be more efficient users of natural resources. In this way, GM works in the planet's favour.
Any research should be done with positive involvement from environmentalists, and should balance progress with sustainability. The GM debate has suffered, though, because of the predictable nature of the companies involved in the Agricultural Biotechnology Council. If GM can ever recover from the negative press it has received, it may be part of the solution. Let the debate revolve around the reality of the need for more, sustainable food production and don't leave it to the agrochemical companies to lead the research.
Sir: We need to be mindful of the lessons of the past before rushing headlong to embrace genetically modified crops as the solution to rising food prices.
The evidence of field-based trials on GM crops previously proposed for commercial release in England demonstrates that they can have a detrimental indirect impact on farmland biodiversity. We clearly face a huge challenge in reconciling the surging global demand for food with the need to conserve and enhance our natural environment.
However, there is little evidence to date that the current generation of biotechnology products will help. The precautionary principle compels us to understand the full impact of each GM crop on a case-by-case basis before commercial release. GM crops can in no way be seen as a quick fix.
Sir Martin Doughty
Chair, Natural England, Sheffield
Degree marking is now too restrictive
Sir: Complaints about declining standards in university degrees are being addressed to the wrong people (report, 17 June). Universities are not run by academics; they are run by a hierarchy of bureaucrats posing as administrators. Academics occupy a much lower place in the pecking order. It is usually considered to be safe to ignore their views. Bureaucrats with academic titles are still bureaucrats.
Marking and assessment are not branches of precision engineering. Double marking, anonymous marking and on-line assessment appear to make the process more objective, but ultimately we have to rely on messy things like human judgement, skill and experience.
I teach a postgraduate course. Presented with a pile of coursework, I can put the scripts into five broad categories, from very poor to very good. Ask me to assign a mark and I will use the whole mark range and offer you from below 20 to 90+. Most will be in the interval 45 to 60.
But of course I am not allowed to do that. My university has set the pass mark at 50, a merit at 60 and a distinction at 70. Because of the problems created by marks close to grade boundaries, I am encouraged to award marks that are not close to these. In practice, that means using a mark interval of two or three – 52, 55, 58 etc. If I give some of the good and all the very good students marks above 70, the external examiners grumble because they see it as awarding too many students the equivalent of a first. They are not very keen on quantitative modules either, because students who get everything right in the final assessment will get 100 per cent.
The effect is to truncate marks into a narrow range. The full scale of marks, zero to 100 per cent, has become fewer than 10 scale points between "fail" and "first". I doubt that my university is unique. Mix into the brew the English penchant for snobbery and we have a system with which no one seems to be happy.
Dr Les May
Not all mothers can breast-feed
Sir: If only breast-feeding were as simple and straightforward for all mothers as Johann Hari likes to think (19 June). It is cruelly unfair to mothers and babies to demonise bottle-feeding, when for some it is the only option.
Only the most disengaged mother could fail to absorb the message that "breast is best"; the NHS shouts it loud and clear at every opportunity. The failure is with practical support after birth. While some lucky women find breast-feeding easy, this is not the case for all. And giving a hungry baby formula, while it may be second-best, is not tantamount to child abuse. There are many healthy, intelligent babies, children and adults who have been fed this way.
We are fortunate to live in a country where we can make a choice about how we feed our babies and where we have clean water to allow us to make safe bottles of formula if breast-feeding doesn't work.
Sir: Your article on breast-feeding reminded me of my own children some 60 years ago.
I had four children and breastfed them all for about five months. Perhaps it was remiss of me, but I didn't continue until they could write and order the next feed. However, before my marriage, I read agriculture at Cambridge University, where one of our lecturers conveniently gave us (400 men and two women in our year, as I recall) a recipe for "humanised cow's milk".
A confirmed dairy farming enthusiast, I remembered it and used it for all four children: one pint of milk, the cream from another and two dessert spoons of sugar, topped up to two pints with water. All four children have become leaders in their fields: one's a GP, two are leading consultants in the disabled people's movement, and one a data architect in a global business. Not bad for only five months' breastfeeding with the help of some humanised cow's milk...
Irish 'No' vote was a 'Yes' to democracy
Sir: Already, with 53 per cent of the Irish who voted giving a "No" verdict, moves are afoot to subvert the sovereign will of the Irish people. What was most disappointing about the "Yes" campaign was the lack of clear insight into what was truly at stake. They sought to jolly us along with faux-positivity about Europe: "Good for jobs, good for Ireland."
We may be heading into the economic equivalent of a perfect storm if oil prices continue their rise. Huge challenges face all the people of Europe, and the rest of the world will not stop while we indulge in pointless posturing and legalistic jousting over clauses, amendments, protocols, and annexes to sub-paragraphs.
My message to Europe: Ireland voted for openness, transparency, accountability and honesty, not the opaque and flawed treaty you offered us. Get over it.
Persaud's sentence deprives his patients
Sir: Dr Raj Persaud's recent entanglement with the General Medical Council was more than a little bizarre (report, 21 June).
At no time, as far as I am aware, was he accused of incompetence, negligence or putting his patients at risk. By his own admission, he keeps up with the latest research and incorporates it into his work with his patients.
The result of the inquiry by the GMC is that Dr Persaud's patients will be deprived of his expertise for three months. In effect, the GMC has placed the guarding of academic reputations above the interests of those in need of medical care.
Those who were offended by Dr Persaud's use of their research should have made their case against him in the civil courts and left him free to practise.
Trust comes from treating people well
Sir: Over the past week the honesty, or lack of it, of the British public has been highlighted by the story of Hacker's Fruit Farm, which has stopped people picking their own strawberries because customers were eating too much of the fruit without paying for it (report, 20 June).
In the early Seventies, my wife and I ran a small hotel in Kingsbridge. Not being able to afford a barman, I left a pad and pen on the bar, requesting that any visitor requiring a drink could help themselves and then make a note of what they had taken.
This serve-yourself bar was a huge success. One visitor said he would never rob us of a drink because we treated him in such an adult fashion. Another told us that he had more drinks than usual because he found it so much fun to go behind the bar to pour his own. Over the three years we ran the hotel, the bar never showed a loss.
Were we just lucky or do people respond to the way they are treated?
Balanced vegan diet benefits all children
Sir: Scare stories about the so-called dangers of a vegan diet are dangerous and misleading. Your article on how a mother feeding her daughter a vegan raw diet realised her child wasn't getting enough nutrients is typical sensationalism (Extra, 17 June).
Grazing on nuts and berries would obviously not provide sufficient calories for a growing child, but I would have thought the holes in her teeth were more likely due to poor choice of drinks (fruit juices rather than water). Protein deficiency is virtually unheard of in the West and you have to try pretty hard to suffer from it. A well-balanced vegan diet provides plenty of protein – the American Dietetic Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics agree that the diets of vegan children meet or exceed recommendations for most nutrients and vegan children have higher intakes of fibre and lower intakes of total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol than omnivorous children. So not only can vegan diets be adequate for children at all ages, but such diets may reduce the risk of some chronic diseases of adulthood that have their origins in childhood.
A raw vegan diet is a completely different thing to a vegan diet – it excludes soya (which, contrary to some reports, does contain all eight essential amino acids), bread, pasta and rice. We should be much more concerned with the fact that one in three UK children are overweight or obese. Parents feeding their children chicken nuggets, burgers, ice-cream, sweets, fizzy drinks and so on is the real problem that we need to address.
Dr Justine Butler
Vegetarian & Vegan Foundation, Bristol
MPs miss the real effects of inflation
Sir: Mervyn King, the governor of the Bank of England, informs the Chancellor, Alistair Darling, that inflation will rise to 4 per cent in the second half of the year. That worthy Mr Darling enlightens us with the thought that "to return now to inflationary settlements would undermine rather than raise people's living standards" (Jeremy Warner's Outlook, 19 June). Those poor people in Parliament are in for a rather undermining time when they vote themselves that inflation-busting £10,000 raise.
Sir: Is not one of the biggest disconnections between politicians and the electorate the fact that we are continually told the inflation rate is currently running at 3.3 per cent? Could somebody please produce even one single person whose personal or household inflation figure is equal to or below 3.3 per cent?
The right weight
Sir: Your offer of a portable digital luggage scale (advert, 21 June) is most opportune, given the many flower shows and fêtes this month. Its accuracy is beyond reproach, and around the villages it has proved most helpful in several "guess the weight of the cake" competitions.
Sir: Regarding Angus Fraser on Kevin Pietersen's switch-hitting (report, 18 June). I remember Harold Jarman, a bowler for Gloucestershire in the early 1960s, bowling a spell with the first three balls of an over right-handed and the final three left-handed. Apparently, he could bowl equally well with either hand and was used extensively in the nets in this way. The reason for informing the umpire before switching, he said, was to ensure the sight-screens were in place.
Smacking can be loving
Sir: Mike Lim says that "smacking is lazy parenting" (letter, 18 June). I have five children, seven grandchildren and six great-grandchildren under the age of seven, so I should know vaguely what I am talking about. Attitudes like Mr Lim's have done years of untold harm to the younger generation. To a few children you can "explain" their naughty behaviour, provided the family unit is small and the child is open. On the whole, I am defending as a loving parent a smack on the behind, which is not a brutal attack.
R T Parker
We want to be happy
Sir: Tom Harris, the junior transport minister, says too many of us are "so bloody miserable" (leader, 21 June). I bet a lot more people would be happy if, for instance, they, like MPs, decided their annual pay rise and were able to claim a range of allowances from their employers, included mortgage interest.
THETFORD, NorfolkNo credo
Sir: Atheism is not a complex belief system like those of the "great religions" of your recent series of booklets but simply a refusal to believe in something for which there is not a shred of evidence. So, the proposal by Mike Battman (letter, 21 June) for a series on atheism, offered in the interests of balance, would no doubt end up being an incredibly short one.
Sir: In contrast to Mike Battman, I look forward to the complete absence of a booklet on atheism to sit alongside the guides to major religions. This seems more in keeping.