October 2012

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Dr Jonathan Bell from the Department of History wonders why the race to the White House is still too close to call…

‘There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what,’ commented Mitt Romney in a video clip recorded at a fundraiser in September.

This was one of the most controversial moments in the current US presidential campaign so far and, despite the fact that Romney recently disavowed the statement and impressed in the first tv debate, should have done irreparable damage to the challenger’s campaign.

With Romney’s further comments that ‘forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax,’ and that his role ‘is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives,’ it seems staggering that with under two weeks left until the election, the race to the White House is still too close to call.

So what’s Obama done wrong?

Romney’s attempt in the video to lay out in sharp relief the fundamental gulf between his political worldview and that of President Obama, reveals much about the highly charged debate raging in the United States over the future direction of the country. The fact that in making such a statement Romney did not deliver a self knockout blow demonstrates how powerful notions of individualism and freedom from state control remain despite the economic cataclysm of 2008.

The 2012 election is a referendum on how far government can be trusted to nurture a fairer society, a debate that has been raging for at least a hundred years but which has now reached fever pitch.

In response to a similarly devastating economic depression in the 1930s President Roosevelt set up the modern American social welfare system with the Social Security Act, and won a second term by a landslide despite failing to end the Great Depression. That welfare system expanded gradually through the 1950s and 1960s, notably with the creation of Medicare and Medicaid, and Republican Ronald Reagan was unable to curtail government programmes as much as he wanted.

Yet America’s relationship with Big Government remained uneasy and tentative, and notions of the ‘undeserving poor’ were powerful weapons in the Republican arsenal when they took control of Congress in the 1990s. The economic crisis of recent years has only heightened conservative attacks on government, as they see attempts to spend stimulus money or make the state an arbiter of health care provision as reckless extravagant schemes that risk wrecking the US economy on the shoals of fiscal ruin.

But if FDR was able to win a second term despite opponents’ cries of socialism and in spite of the lingering misery of economic crisis, why is Obama having such difficulty painting Romney as uncaring and aloof, happy to cut taxes on the rich while millions of Americans suffer unemployment and job insecurity?

The problem lies in the very success of the New Deal mission over the last eighty years. Most Americans benefit from government aid: through a bewildering array of tax breaks, old age pensions, health care for the elderly and for a majority of mothers and children, farm subsidies, to name a few examples.

But the majority don’t consider themselves part of Romney’s 47 percent. They don’t see their own tax breaks or health care as a handout, but are susceptible to appeals that Democrats want to extend the social safety net to the underserving.

Obama has failed to get across the message that Romney was wrong not because the 47% figure was too high, but because it was too low: corporate America also depends on government, the middle class depend on government, and the poor in many ways get the least from government.

The persistence of the myth, a myth Obama himself cannot quite dare to explode,  that all but undeserving shirkers gain economic security purely from their own efforts, is making it easier to attack Obama than it should be and could lead him passing on the Oval Office keys to Governor Romney.

Dr Jonathan Bell is Head of the Department of History and is interested in the political history of the United States since the Great Depression, in particular the relationship between political ideas and social change. He works mainly on the politics of the post-1945 era, looking at ways in which the theory and practice of liberalism and conservatism changed in the three decades since 1929.

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Dr Julie Hawkins from the School of Biological Sciences discusses recent research which aims to revitalise the hunt for new plant-based medicines.

The earliest medicines were derived from plants, and the first doctors were trained in botany. Today, many societies rely directly on plants and plant knowledge for the health of their people, and a large proportion of pharmaceutical medicines are derived from plants. These pharmaceuticals are often used in ways which reflect traditional use of the species from which they have been derived.

Despite the importance of plants to health, however, there is some controversy as to whether new drugs could be derived from them. Recent developments in drug discovery have made use of robotic screening of compound libraries, whist bioprospecting based on traditional knowledge of plant use has fallen out of favour. Some have argued that useful pharmaceuticals are unlikely to be discovered amongst the ‘riches of the rainforests’. There are issues surrounding recognising the intellectual property of the people discovering and using these plants, which is seen as politically complex, and this discourages investment. In addition, collecting traditionally used plants for screening is time consuming and relies on expertise in botany and ethnobotany. Furthermore, some have argued that plant use may not be indicative of bioactivity, so screening plants used by traditional healers may not yield valuable insights.

Research I have been involved in has recently looked at a novel way of evaluating plants used by traditional healers to address this. We considered the phylogenies, or ‘family trees’ of the plants found in three global biodiversity hotspots. By using DNA sequences to work out how plants in these regions were related, we were able to see whether plants usedby traditonal healers in different regions were closely related to each other. The geographic regions we selected for the study were ones unlikely to have exchanged knowledge about traditional plants – Nepal, New Zealand and South Africa. We found that in these regions the same closely-related plants were used by traditional healers, and interestingly were used to treat the same conditions. 

The fact that evolutionarily related plants are used in different regions, even though the same species are not present, strongly suggests an independent discovery of plants which share the same or similar health properties.  This new finding could revitalise the search for valuable plant medicines. Targeted screening of plants with a high potential for having health benefits would reduce the time investment in collecting species, and also make it easier to negotiate fair and equitable distribution of benefits with the originators of the knowledge.

Dr Julie Hawkins works in the School of Biological Sciences and is interested in the application of molecular marker data to determine identity, parentage and provenance of economically important plant species. This research has recently been published in PNAS: Haris Saslis-Lagoudakis, Vincent Savolainen, Elizabeth M. Williamson, Félix Forest, Steven J. Wagstaff, Sushim R. Baral, Mark F. Watson, Colin A. Pendry & Julie A. Hawkins. ‘Phylogenies reveal predictive power of traditional medicine in bioprospecting’ PNAS (2012). doi:10.1073/pnas.1202242109.

 

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On world food day Professor Richard Tiffin from the University’s Centre for Food Security discusses the challenges faced when meeting the global demand for food.

The present debate around how best to meet the global demand for food has a tendency to polarise into two camps.  First there are those who argue that the food system is broken and what is required is a return to more ‘traditional’ ways in which food is produced on labour intensive small farms and distributed locally.  In the opposite corner are technologists who argue that the only way that we will be able to meet the predicted increase in demand for food of between fifty and one hundred per cent, is to continue the process of intensification that characterised the development of agriculture during the twentieth century.  Instead of this polarisation however perhaps some cross fertilisation is necessary.

A return to a more traditional agriculture has some appeal.  There is no denying that small scale production gives a better looking countryside and increased rural employment.  Its diversified products also provide a nice contrast to the commoditised food products that dominate the supermarket shelves.  In a more subtle way the greater diversity of the farming system employed on these units may provide us with a greater degree of resilience in the face of increased risk of extreme weather events which climate change brings.  

This is all logical but the problems arise when attempts are made to scale the approach up to meet a much larger part of our food needs.  Increased labour intensity demands more labour and we have to ask where this will come from.  ‘New-lifers’ can only go so far, farms will need to reverse the reality of the labour market in which non-agricultural jobs have better conditions and therefore draw people out of the sector.  It is sometimes overlooked that farm employment is often dangerous, cold, wet, depressing and poorly paid. 

The argument becomes much more dangerous, however, when we apply it to developing countries.  Here the small scale sector is often vital in ensuring short term food security, but to argue that it should remain so risks consigning these countries to a permanently less developed state.  The process of agricultural intensification must be seen as one component of the process of economic development.  Blocking agricultural development will stop the release of labour (and other resources) from agriculture which drives growth in other sectors of the economy.  Without this, growing populations may or may not have enough food, but they will be without the services that are necessary to support their inevitably more urban lifestyles.

So, we are left with a situation in which ‘intensification’ must continue, but we must also learn from the practitioners of ‘traditional’ agriculture.  These farmers are acutely aware of the fact that food production is not an industrial process.  Food is, at least in part, a product of nature.  This is a fact that seems not have escaped the food consumer, where all the evidence points to the fact that ‘natural’ food is valued.  The implication is that we cannot divorce our food production from the ecosystem which supports it.  Changes in our farming system have implications for the other things which our ecosystem gives us, for example biodiversity and carbon cycling.  Equally changes in the ecosystem, for example reductions in the population of pollinators, have implications for food production.

There are some encouraging signs that a middle way may become our focus.

The concept of sustainable intensification is on the agenda.  This recognises that we must not stop the search for new ways of producing food but that we should do so in ways which work with nature rather than in a box apart from it.  We should learn from our traditions but not harp back to them.  By 2050 there will be 2bn more people in the world, 1.9bn of whom will be in developing countries.  We owe it to them.

Professor Richard Tiffin is Director for the Centre for Food Security at the University of Reading. Richard is an Agricultural Economist and his current research is focused on diet and health policy, in particular the impacts of fiscal policies with the objective of improving dietary health, such as so-called ‘fat tax’.

 

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