Letters: GM farming

'Zombie' seeds will punish farmers and worsen global food crises
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The Independent Online

Sir: As someone who works with poor farmers in Latin America, I find it deeply ironic that UK ministers will be attending this week's food crisis talks in Rome while at the same time the EU and, by implication, British taxpayers are contributing to the development of a new GM "terminator" technology that would put the livelihoods of 1.4 billion of the world's poorest farmers at risk.

The EU is developing what are known as "Zombie" seeds – sterile seeds that can be brought back to life with the application of a chemical. This puts at risk the traditional practice of saving and re-sowing seeds, which is how many families survive here in Ecuador. With Zombie seeds, farmers would have to buy chemicals each year in order to restore seeds' fertility. The large companies that control the $19bn global seed market would be the only beneficiaries.

While the UK and EU are contributing to the development of this technology through a £3.4m EU research project, groups such as the national seed-saving network, in Ecuador, are fighting to protect their native seeds and biodiversity.

Poor farmers in Ecuador don't want to be forced into a long-term cycle of dependency on large seed companies.

If world leaders are genuinely committed to tackling world hunger, they need to support agricultural practices that promote self-sufficiency and autonomy of poor farmers, not invest in Zombie technology that will make the global food crises worse.

Michelle Lowe

Development Worker,progressio,Quito, Ecuador

Myths about bias in Oxford selection

Sir: As one of the tutors who did not select Laura Spence in 2000 to read medicine at Oxford, I'm saddened by Gerry Murphy (letters, 31 May) denouncing us as "intellectual snobs". He should remember that in the year that Gordon Brown attacked us, 60 per cent of our intake came from state schools, but we only had five places for medicine and Laura came 10th out of 20 applicants. Had she applied for biochemistry, for which she was accepted at Harvard, she would probably have got a place at Oxford. Two of our choices that year, both from state schools, came first and second out of the whole University in the medical exams, and one has already written a very influential scientific paper. Our selection system attempts to select the very best whatever their caste, creed or income.

I personally am particularly upset by the way these allegations continue, based on Gordon Brown's headline attack and ignoring our reasoned defence. I have spent much of my life in university education and research trying to improve the chances of everybody with talent, particularly dyslexics, having access to the best educational opportunities. Perpetuating false myths about our selection bias does nothing to improve the education of so many intelligent children in disadvantaged schools, whom we would love to take if their performance justified it.

Professor John Stein FRCP

Magdalen College Oxford

Sir: I am sure I am not the only teacher from a comprehensive school who would like to take issue with Lord Patten about who is to blame for Oxford's failure to meet targets when it comes to admitting more pupils from non-fee-paying schools (report, 29 May). Oxford does not need to, as Lord Patten says, "meet these problems by lowering standards" – it just needs to meet the students with the high standards who apply.

Last year an outstanding student from my school applied to Oxford and did not even get an interview. As we predicted, she got three "A" grades at A-level. In one of these, she gained full marks in all her papers and in another, we had a letter from the examination board to inform us that her marks put her in the top 10 of candidates in the country.

And Lord Patten has the cheek to accuse state-school teachers of having low aspirations! What I would like Lord Patten to do is to look closely at his University's admissions policy and find out why suitable comprehensive-school students do not even get an interview. While he is at it, he might investigate why, when we wrote to the Admissions Officer asking what else we could do to get Oxford to take our applications more seriously, we did not even receive an acknowledgement.

Peter Wood


The difficult choice to end a pregnancy

Sir: I am writing on behalf of the independent charity ARC (Antenatal Results and Choices) in response to Dominic Lawson (Opinion, 27 May). ARC is the only UK charity providing non-directive information and support to parents undergoing antenatal testing and its consequences.

On our helpline, we speak to parents every day who are struggling with difficult decisions, including whether or not to have an invasive diagnostic test such as amniocentesis. In our experience, their health professionals are aware that this is a very real dilemma because of the small but significant risk of miscarrying due to the procedure. They encourage parents to work out how important it is for them to have a definite result regarding a chromosomal disorder such as Down's syndrome.

We are not aware of parents being made to agree to a termination before having the test. Indeed, it is often impossible for parents to make hard and fast decisions about the future of the pregnancy before the result is confirmed and they start to consider fully the implications within their individual circumstances.

We cannot underestimate the impact of a confirmed prenatal diagnosis whenever it occurs in a pregnancy. Suddenly, parents have to shift their expectations from the baby they had been anticipating and in a state of great distress work out how to proceed. The Down's Syndrome Association is an excellent source of information on what living with the condition may mean, and all parents are given their contact details in an NHS booklet they are provided with before embarking on tests.

After 20 years of providing support to women and couples, we can safely say that no parent makes the decision to end a wanted pregnancy lightly, as they recognise that they will have to live with the choice they make.

We fully respect the choices Dominic Lawson has made and would ask him to view compassionately those who make a different choice.

Jane Fisher

ARC (Antenatal Results and Choices), London W1

Three cheers for falling house prices

Sir: On 30 May you report the "bad news" that house prices are falling and petrol prices are rising. So there is good inflation – house prices. And there is bad inflation – everything else.

Every 15 years or so, the housing market gets so far out of kilter that there is a swing back to sensible prices, causing collateral damage, mainly to investors and the buy-to-let brigade. By the time the crash occurs, ordinary people on ordinary earnings have all but withdrawn from the housing market. Far from being a bad thing, a big fall in house prices drives out the speculators and gives badly paid but essential workers a rare opportunity to get a place of their own.

Best of all, every serious fall is the herald of a general economic upturn, because as house prices fall, so do mortgage payments and that releases funds for other uses. The crash in the early Eighties ushered in the Thatcher good times: the last crash in the mid-Nineties was the trigger for the 10 boom years of New Labour.

Rejoice, rejoice!

Chris Payne

Plesidy, France

The stalled Darfur peace agreement

Sir: I was taken aback by the emotionally charged attack on Sudan in your leading article of 27 May. You begin by saying that destruction of Abyei was perpetrated by militias "apparently loyal to the Sudanese president Omar Hassan al-Bashir". The carefully chosen word "apparently" disappears when we read: "If the regime gets away with destruction of this scale... " passing judgement and drawing a conclusion about the culprit!

Moreover, you refer to "what looked like an organised genocide was perpetrated in the Darfur region." The word genocide has not been used by the UN or African Union. According to your own Independent report (2 July, 2005), John Danforth (former US special envoy to Sudan) has stated that the word was used by the Bush administration as part of the campaign to please the religious right in the 2004 Presidential elections.

As far as the "collective conscience" is concerned, the UK has played a significant role in both the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and the Darfur Peace Agreement. The Evaluation Commission has stated that most of the protocols of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement have been implemented, Abyei is the exception and the two parties have already declared that they are determined to settle it peacefully. The Darfur Peace Agreement is stalled because the fractious rebels (never called terrorists!) refused to sign and are determined to escalate the conflict. Sabre-rattling editorials will encourage them.

Khalid Al Mubarak

Media counsellor, Sudan Embassy, London SW1

Electoral reform: we can't trust Labour

Sir: Steve Richards (29 May) seems to believe that if Gordon Brown came out in support of electoral reform and promised a referendum on it after the next election, people would be persuaded to trust and support him.

He forgets that this is exactly what we were promised in the 1997 Labour Manifesto which stated: "We are committed to a referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons. An independent commission on voting systems will be appointed early to recommend a proportional alternative to the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system".

Ten years ago, the Jenkins Commission recommended the proportional "AV plus" system and since then, despite report after report backing up the need for PR, Labour has ignored all the evidence, its own commission, and indeed its own manifesto pledge.

It's no great surprise that a few Labour ministers now support the Alternative Vote – this might well help Labour, but it is a flawed system which does little to address the many defects of FPTP. It is not proportional, fails to increase voter choice and, most importantly, fails to re-enfranchise voters outside marginal seats.

We were wrong to trust Labour on electoral reform 11 years ago, and we would be wrong again now.

Julian Tisi

Maidenhead, Berkshire

Sir: Steve Richards wants us to jump out of the frying pan into the fire. He applauds the fact that the government may offer us Alternative Vote as an option for change. It is well known that AV is even less proportional than our present outmoded system – that point was made by the Jenkins Commission, which added that AV would be likely to be unfair to the Conservative Party. If the Government – knowing that – is going to offer us only AV, that would be blatant political chicanery.

What we need is a system whereby the composition of Parliament broadly reflects the proportion of votes cast for each party. There are systems which do that – and it is the voters who should decide which alternative system we should have.

David Nice

Welwyn, Hertfordshire

Sir: I have never understood comments such as those from your correspondent Lesley Docksey (31 May) that "my only choices are to abstain from voting, or to spoil the ballot paper".

We are all presented with at least three candidates, often more, at election time, representing a range of views. While it is unlikely that we would agree with any one candidate or party on everything, it is inconceivable that we would disagree totally with all of them. Surely there is always somebody who is closer to her views than anyone else?

Alan Pavelin

Chislehurst, Kent

Sparrow spotting

Sir: Your correspondent (2 June) is in error in suspecting a public display of homosexuality by house sparrows (Passer domesticus) in the photograph accompanying the article on Bill Oddie's allegedly innuendo-laden comments. The birds in the photo are, in fact, tree sparrows (Passer montanus), the sexes of which are similar, and distinguishable from house sparrows by their chestnut crowns.

Simon Woolley


Lisbon Treaty vital

Sir: Adrian Hamilton ("If only the Irish would kill the Lisbon Treaty", 29 May) counsels despair. He has fallen victim to the Westminster conceit that the Treaty is not very important. He vastly over-simplifies the matter of reaching agreement on constitutional changes within the European Union of 27. He misses the point that the Union, being a treaty-based organisation, cannot really modernise itself unless it changes its foundation treaties. By wanting national parliaments to agree with each other, he ignores the key role – and threatens the democratic legitimacy – of the European Parliament.

Andrew Duff MEP

(Liberal Democrat, East of England), Brussels

Poetic licence

Sir: It was good to read Johann Hari's piece on the value of poetry ("As life flies on, don't let poetry pass you by", 2 June). And I am very much in sympathy with his critical comments on T S Eliot. I feel impelled to point out, though, that the lines he quotes approvingly at the end of his article ("For most of us, there is only the unattended/ Moment ...") and attributes to Emerson are in fact by, er, T S Eliot.

Michael Swan

Didcot, Oxfordshire

TV opt-out

Sir: Of the many thousands of businesses which I do not choose to patronise, TV Licensing is the only one that seeks to maintain a national database of its non-customers, compiled at our expense by way of 0844 telephone calls. One should not have to opt out of commercial decisions of this kind. Ignore the threatening letters; if they think you're breaking the law, the onus is on TVL to get the evidence.

Adam Sowan


Forced modesty

Sir: There is a small town in Wiltshire, near the Somerset/ Devon border, called Mere. I once met someone who taught at the school there. She told me she had strongly objected to wearing the badge which had been given out at a course she was attending. It said "Mere teacher".

John Boaler

Calne, Wiltshire