Opposing environment-friendly rice with higher yields

The MIT Technology Review reports that scientists have produced a genetically modified rice strain that emits far less methane than traditional varieties.  It emits one thirtieth as much in summer and half as much in winter.  It does this because a single gene from barley has been inserted to make the plant yield 43% more grain per plant, so less carbon goes into the roots and the soil to be converted by microbes into methane.

Despite its enhanced yield and lower greenhouse gas emission, it is estimated that it could be 10-20 years before it becomes available to farmers.  This is because scientists will have to use traditional breeding methods to produce a rice that is scientifically the same, including the same gene.  As Chuanxin Sun, the report’s senior author, puts it: 

“Right now of course it’s a GMO issue, and we cannot deliver this variety directly to farmers. We have to use traditional breeding methods and breed the new, society-acceptable variety for farmers.”

It is thanks to completely unwarranted scare stories from environmental groups that progress in genetic modification has been held back.  Millions of children have suffered blindness or death because of opposition to ‘golden rice’ modified to biosynthesize beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A, to combat a shortage of dietary vitamin A in some areas.

Millions more live at precarious subsistence levels because they are denied access to GM crops with enhanced yield or greater saline or drought resistance.  Innumerable field tests have failed to show adverse effects on humans, yet many in the environmental lobby campaign for all GMOs to be rejected.  They do not hesitate to trample down experimental crops planted with the support of democratically elected governments.

Many of the NGOs will undoubtedly oppose the new rice, despite its hugely increased yield and smaller environmental footprint.  Scare stories are what they do, and they keep the subscriptions and donations rolling in.

It was the Yanks wot won it

This isn’t the result we usually think of. It’s more likely that we’ll think that the terrible loss of life by the Soviets, or perhaps plucky little Britain, fighting on alone, is really what won the battle against the Nazis. but the wisdom of the crowds has it right again:

As the world celebrates the 70th anniversary of Allied victory in Europe, millions in the UK will honour the role played by British forces in the defeating Nazi Germany.

According to a new poll, however, most other countries look to the United States as the country that did the most to vanquish Adolf Hitler.

A YouGov survey asked respondents from the US, Britain, and several European countries who they thought was most essential to defeating Germany in the Second World War and the US was the top choice in all but the UK and Norway.

Modern war isn’t won by battles. It’s won by winning the war. And that’s more a matter of logistics than anything else. And it’s at that point that America becomes so important. The vast productive capacity of the American economy meant that Germany was going to be defeated, whatever else happened, in the end. Once, that is, that the United States had come into the war on the side against Germany.

We can talk a lot about tactics, battles, who suffered most (that has an easy answer, those inbetween Germany and Russia, those in the Bloodlands) but the eventual outcome was never really in doubt. Not once the American economy entered on the one side.

The Lord’s Digital Agenda

On Tuesday the House of Lords Select Committee on Digital Skills released the 144-page report ‘Make or Break: The UK’s Digital Future’. It’s a typical government report, calling for ‘immediate and extensive action’ in something or other — and in this case, unifying government’s current, disjointed digital initiatives with the launch of a grand ‘Digital Agenda’. (This masterplan includes such fabulous ideas as the middle-aged men in central government ‘future-proofing our young people’ through things like bolting-on a digital element to all apprenticeship schemes.)

One of the report’s most newsworthy findings was London’s poor broadband speed, comparative to other European capitals. In a ranking of their average download speed London came 26th — nestled between Warsaw & Minsk —whilst the likes of Bucharest, Paris and Stockholm topped the chart. London also came 38th in a rating of the UK’s cities’ speeds (although it’s worth noting that Bolton, the UK’s fastest city, would make the European capital ranking’s Top 10). The Lord’s report is also concerned with the persistence of internet ‘not spots’ in urban areas, universal internet coverage and the rollout of superfast broadband. In response, it calls on the government to classify the internet as a utility service, with the desirable goal of universal online access.

It goes without saying how vital digital connectivity is to the modern economy, as well as the importance of staying internationally competitive. However, a new, centrally-dictated ‘Digital Agenda’ is probably quite an ineffectual and expensive way of boosting the digital economy.

Despite the House of Lords’ fears about the speed of superfast broadband rollout, coverage has increased from 55-60% of the UK in 2013, to 70-75% in 2014. And, whilst the report holds up Cape Town as an example of a city providing universal broadband, this won’t be ready until 2030. In the time it takes for the state to roll out the chosen digital infrastructure, it may already be out of date. Whilst many are still choosing between regular or fibre optic broadband,  landline-free 4G home broadband is the latest offering to hit London. At the same time, eyes are already on  5G, and the new capabilities it can bring.

Treating the internet as a public utility is also problematic from a free-market standpoint. Doing so could, for example, lead to calls for more government involvement in the deployment and update of internet infrastructure. However, a study by the Mercatus Centre looked at American municipal government investment in broadband networks across 80 cities, and found that for the billions of dollars of public money spent, there was little community or economic benefit.

It’s also the type of thinking which has led to America’s ‘Net Neutrality’ debate, where, on the behest of Obama, the Federal Communications Commission has proposed to regulate internet service providers as ‘common carriers’, and in doing so, subject the net to a 20th century public utility law originally devised to deal with the telephone monopoly. Ostensibly designed to protect consumers from the creation of ‘anti-competitive’ internet fast lanes for big content producers, Net Neutrality legislation threatens not only the speed, price and quality of internet provision, but the autonomy of ISPs and investment at the core of the net.

Whilst the Lord’s proposed ‘Digital Agenda’ might seem far-removed from such heavy-handed state activity, a government who considers it their duty to take online and ‘digitally educate’ every single citizen risks heading down an increasingly interventionist and expensive path.

Liberty League Freedom Forum 2015

Tickets to this year’s Liberty League Freedom Forum are now on sale. Now in its fifth year, LLFF is the UK’s largest gathering of the next generation of pro-liberty enthusiasts. 2015’s Freedom Forum takes place between Friday 27th – Sunday 29th March, at Guy’s Campus, KCL, London.

The weekend will feature seminars with leading academics, activists and professionals, including the ASI’s Sam Bowman on What’s wrong with social democracy. Other sessions include:

  • Introductions to classical liberal, objectivist, anarchist and left-libertarian thought,
  • Panels on free-market feminism, current threats to liberty, and digital surveillance,
  • Magna Carta: Birth of democracy or historical fantasy?
  • Laissez-faire monetary economics, Bioethics, Bitcoin and much, much more.

Practical workshops will cover skills from campaign training to journalism, with evening socials to share many a drink with like-minded attendees.

A ticket to Freedom Forum covers speaker sessions, food, drink, and evening socials, with a limited number of hostel accommodation spaces available. Tickets start at just £25, but book before 8pm tonight (Weds, 11th Feb) to get 25% off  the standard price.

Full information about the conference, speakers and the schedule can be found on the LLFF15 website, and on the Liberty League Facebook and Twitter. Liberty League is a network for pro-freedom students and young professionals, but all ages are welcome at Freedom Forum.

The death of the Marine and General Mutual

An interesting little story of the transience of corporate life here. The country’s oldest company is about to disappear:

An insurance firm that can claim to be the oldest registered British company still in existence is about to disappear, following a takeover by Scottish Friendly.

Marine & General Mutual was incorporated in 1852 as a life insurance provider for teetotallers – who were considered a bigger than average risk at the time, given the dangers of drinking Victorian tap water.

M&GM, whose early customers include several passengers on the Titanic, has the company registration number 00000006. The five firms that were registered with lower numbers than M&GM no longer exist.

It’s not entirely what it seems, in that there are businesses still extant that are older than this. It’s partly a function of how late it was that it was possible to incorporate without a specific Act of Parliament to allow you to do so.

But even so it’s a nice example of the transience of corporate life. Paul Ormerod has done interesting work on this (as have others in the US) pointing out that the giants of one generation tend not to be the corporate giants of the next. Companies fail, are eclipsed, merged, bought and generally just disappear over time. The image that some to our left have of corporate power being unbreakable simply isn’t true in any manner.