Letters: Organic farming

In a world running out of oil, we must rely on organic farming
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Sir: How right Rob Johnston ("The great organic myths", 1 May) is to point out that organic farmers, along with all farmers across the globe, are operating within a new world order of climate change and apparent food shortage.

For some time the apparent "killer question" to organic farmers, researchers and evangelists has been: can organic farming feed the world? The other key element of the new order of food production is the shrinking availability and rocketing price of oil. Conventional agriculture is essentially a rather complex method of eating oil via the refinery, fertiliser and pesticide plant, through cultivation, harvest, processing and distribution.

Despite Rob Johnston's extensive list of doubts over the angelic status of organic farming, there is one major certainty. Organic agriculture is the only option left in our looming energy crisis, when oil becomes too expensive and scarce for farming use. It is time to move on from sterile debates about GM food verses organic, about the relative killing power of organic and synthetic pesticides and whether an outdoor pig is happier than his concrete-dwelling cousin.

We're running out of oil and we're running out of food. Proper organic farming allied to local food economies has minimal reliance on fossil fuels and must play a central part in future, sustainable solutions to feeding our hungry planet.

Richard Sanders

The Organic Research Centre, Newbury, Berkshire

Sir: Rob Johnston's article overstates the position with regard to organic farming and pesticides. There is no evidence that organic food is packed with pesticides on a systematic basis. Research has shown that pesticide residue levels are consistently lower in organic food than in conventionally produced food. Indeed the Food Standards Agency recommends that "eating organic food is one way to reduce consumption of pesticide residues and additives."

Moreover, a recent article in the scientific literature reports: "Comparison of specific residues on specific crops found that residue concentrations in organic samples were consistently lower than in the other two [non-organic] categories."

David Buffin

Research Fellow, Professor Tim Lang, Centre for Food Policy, City University, London EC1

Jews need honest debate about Israel

Sir: With Israel's 60th birthday coming up, I welcomed Johann Hari's brave article "Israel is suppressing a secret it must face" (28 April). I am a middle-of-the-road, Israel-supporting British Jew, but am increasingly preoccupied by Israel's loss of moral compass and the humanitarian values it used to espouse.

There is genuine debate in Israel about "the situation", but within British Jewry, from Rabbi Sacks downwards, there is almost complete stifling of debate. Any criticism of Israel's actions is immediately deemed disloyalty, capitulation to supposed anti-semites and, finally, the utterance of a "self-hating Jew".

Because of intense fears which Jews have about Israel's survival, many well-founded, and the fact that the Holocaust continues to reverberate loudly for Jews, honest discussion of Israel's actions often generates existential fears around the survival of the Jewish people.

When looking at Israel, Jews simply do not see a nuclear power bristling with arms and backed 200 per cent by the US. Nor do they see an occupying army whose behaviour is no better than any other occupying army, supporting a group of thuggish settlers who are holding the country to ransom. What they see is a tiny state fighting to survive amidst a sea of implacable hostility. All this is further fuelled by vitriolic rhetoric from the Jewish religious right, who are becoming more influential among British Jews.

Our reluctance to acknowledge the situation of the Palestinians is an Achilles heel. British Jews are intellectually paralysed and we are therefore playing our part in allowing Israel to drift away from any possibility of the peace we want so much.

Dr Sandra Oelbaum


Sir: Johann Hari is selective in his use of academic sources. Benny Morris can find no evidence of Plan Dalit being a political blueprint for the expulsion of the Palestinian Arabs. He states: "It was governed by military considerations . . . But, given the nature of the war and the admixture of populations, securing the interior of the Jewish State and its borders in practice meant the depopulation and destruction of the villages that hosted the hostile militias."

And Ben-Gurion's comment in 1937 about making the Arabs go is not evidence of an actual policy of ethnic cleansing. There was much similar discussion at the time in the light of the 1937 Peel Commission's partition recommendation, which included the transfer of Arabs out of the Jewish areas.

Richard Millett

London NW4

Sir: David Kravitz (letter, 29 April) claims that no Israelis of Palestinian origin are threatened with eviction or death. The Bedouin of the Naqab desert are Israeli citizens. They are continually subjected to house demolitions and eviction from land that they have owned for generations. Two years ago, I visited a Bedouin family whose house had been demolished – on Holocaust Memorial Day.

Last year I visited a Bedouin village through which runs an open stream of sewage from the illegal settlement of Kyryat Arba in Hebron. Only 13 per cent of toxic waste in the Naqab reaches the regional waste disposal unit, the rest is allowed to contaminate the Bedouin land.

The American Jewish National Fund is targeting the Naqab for 500,000 immigrants by 2010. They can only be accommodated on land occupied by the Bedouin. When will the people of Israel wake up to what is being done in their name?

Robert Shearer

Winsham, Somerset

Search for an HIV vaccine goes on

Sir: Despite the recent setbacks in HIV vaccine clinical trials, the efforts to develop a safe and effective vaccine must continue (report, 24 April). It is heartening to see that the majority of scientists in your survey strongly supported continued investment in HIV-vaccine research. Those at risk of HIV are likely to say the same, although the majority of these, who are in the developing world, are not in a position to be heard.

The history of infectious diseases such as polio and smallpox has taught us that vaccines are the most effective strategy for stopping the spread of a virus. But history has also taught us that the development of vaccines is not quick or easy, and that the scientific journey is never a continuous series of successes but rather incremental advances built on many false starts and failures.

Although the Merck/NIH trial did not yield a successful vaccine, the HIV vaccine field is continuing to learn from the results of this trial, a trial that involved approximately 1,300 volunteers from four continents. In meetings since the trials were halted, there has been much discussion and debate about the best way forward. There is growing consensus that we must place greater emphasis on research that deepens our understanding of how HIV interacts with the human immune system and exploit that understanding to develop a safe and effective vaccine. At a workshop sponsored by the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise, scientists from around the world are gathering in New York to continue this discussion, looking beyond the results of a single trial to discuss the best way forward.

While disappointment is natural, calls to abandon HIV vaccine research are based on the misguided notion that lack of success to date proves it is not worth our continued efforts. Yet globally, 2.1 million people, equal to the combined populations of Liverpool, Leeds, Manchester and Bristol, died of Aids in 2007. Millions more were newly infected. Developing an HIV vaccine will not be quick or easy, but the stakes are too high to abandon our efforts.

Dr Alan Bernstein

Executive Director, Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise, New York, Dr Mark J Walport, Director, Wellcome Trust, London NW1

Why Ken bid for the Olympics

Sir: I think it is unreasonable of Adrian Hamilton to accuse Ken Livingstone of deceit in not revealing, when London bid for the Olympics, that his motive was to attract government money for regeneration in the East End.

If Mr Hamilton was under the impression that Ken bid for the Olympics because of a sudden fascination with the shot-put, he's in a minority of one. Cities want the Olympics for what they bring with them.

The vast majority of sports fans will get no nearer to the events than their TV screens; the games could be happening in London, Beijing or Easter Island. The attraction of the Olympics comes from the paraphernalia that surrounds them. (As the comic Kenny Boyle pointed out, "There are communities down there just crying out for a velodrome.") This is obvious enough to be left unsaid. Neglecting, when discussing the Pope, to mention that he is a Catholic hardly constitutes mendacity.

Tim Hinchliffe

Beckenham, Kent

Arab women have human rights too

Sir: Mary Dejevsky's article "Women's rights cannot be forced on Arab societies" (22 April) is an utterly typical, utterly depressing example of the "new left's" cowardliness and evasion on issues of basic human rights.

First, without argument or justification, it treats the subordination of woman as a matter of cultural preference; whereas racial subordination is treated simply as wrong. Where is the difference? Can one imagine a leftist commentator earnestly telling us that imposition of racial equality on apartheid South Africa would have amounted to saying "western ways rule"?

Second, it displays a constant equivocation between the assertion that change cannot be imposed (probably true) with the notion that it ought not to be.

Third, it is one of numerous slightly sickening examples of a western female commentator cheerfully consigning her brown sisters to being treated as semi-slaves or children (thus an objectively racist outcome) in the name of an "anti-racist" respect for other cultures – as if there was such a thing as a monolithic "Saudi" culture, and there are no Saudi or other Arab women bravely struggling for the basic human freedoms that your commentator takes so utterly for granted.

Professor Gavin Phillipson

Department of Law, University of Durham

Working animals sustain families

Sir: Terence Blacker (Opinion, 29 April) makes a number of important points, one of which is the interdependence between animals and people. There is no clearer evidence of this than with horses, donkeys and mules that work for some of the poorest communities in the world. Between six and 20 people may rely on the labour of a working animal to feed, clothe and educate an entire family.

The Brooke Hospital for Animals trains these people in good animal husbandry with a view to improving the lives of their animals, which, in turn, sustain livelihoods which can be lost if the animal dies or is injured. Over 3 million poverty-stricken people across the world rely on the animals that we help on a daily basis. Following the earthquake in Pakistan, the Brooke trained women in the region to ensure that they had healthy working animals to help rebuild and sustain the livelihoods shattered by the disaster. The impact has made a direct contribution to the recovery in the region, as recognised by the government of Pakistan.

Mike Baker

Chief Executive, The Brooke, London SW1


Macho clash

Sir: I suppose if they have to lock horns, it's a good thing that your six "mighty debating figures" are all men. ("The Great Debaters", 1 May) It's still a bit disappointing though.

Kate Francis

London NW8

Time to teach

Sir: Staff-pupil ratios, discipline and the breadth of curriculum offered are major reasons why parents continue to choose independent schools (report, 30 April). However, I believe that the increase in demand for children under five is also linked to the introduction of the Government's Early Years Foundation Stage Framework, which is statutory from September 2008. The new framework makes excessive and impractical demands on providers and it is predominantly independent schools that have the time and resources to devote to the youngest children so that they are taught rather than "observed" and "facilitated".

John Tranmer

Head, The Froebelian School, Leeds

Official scare

Sir: William Wells (letter, 1 May) thinks that it is valid for the Government to spend our money on scaring and distressing our children. The "fish-hook" anti-smoking advert was disgusting and the Government has no right frightening us or our children. The ASA decision is to be applauded. Smoking may be bad for you, but it is not as bad as a government that rules through fear.

Robert Tarbuck

London N19

Schools for privilege

Sir: While Mike Hockney is right to ponder why so many politicians come from a handful of educational institutions, sadly he makes the usual conflation of public schools with Oxbridge. There is one fundamental difference: entry to Oxbridge is dependent upon one's own merits, and not on the wealth and connections of one's parents. And it is, I suspect, precisely because the alumni of very ordinary comprehensive schools can be found at Oxbridge that organisations such as the exclusive (in its truest sense) 12-member Bullingdon Club continue to exist.

Steve Travis

West Bridgford, Nottinghamshire

All change

Sir: Tom Lubbock ("Full steam ahead", 30 April) states that The Railway Station by William Powell Frith shows St Pancras Station. That is not so. The station is Paddington. The picture is described in detail in the Royal Holloway College catalogue of paintings titled Victorian Taste, dated 1982.

Jack Waller

St Albans, Hertfordshire