Sometimes the most extraordinary nature stories and scientific revelations lie in plain sight. So familiar that unique stories of survival are overlooked. Rock Pool is an eye-opening, enchanting journey into the miniature worlds of rock pools with a new author who will change the way you view even the most ordinary creatures – from crabs to barnacles, blennies to anemones – forever.
Educator and award-winning blogger, Heather Buttivant kindly took some time out of her rock pooling schedule to answer our questions about her new book.
Your passion for the marine environment shines throughout Rock Pool, where did your passion stem from?
Like most children growing up by the sea, I liked to pick up seashells, but for me it became an obsession. Back then I couldn’t name everything, but the variety of shapes and textures and the vibrant colours fascinated me. The longer I looked into rock pools, the further I was reeled in. It’s a passion I have no intention of out-growing: no matter how much I know, there is always more to learn.
What was the original inspiration behind your book?
It has always seemed a shame to me that there is so little nature writing available about our incredible intertidal wildlife. When I created a website as part of my MA in professional writing with Falmouth University, I struggled to imagine why anyone would be interested in my ideas for a novel, but the thought of opening up the little-known world of the rock pools filled me with excitement. My Cornish Rock Pools site took off faster than I expected and when the site won the BBC Wildlife Magazine Blog of the Year Award, it came to the attention of the lovely people at September Publishing and this was the perfect opportunity to bring my love for nature writing and for seashore together as a book.
You’ve selected a fascinating range of marine creatures; how did you choose them from such a biodiverse environment?
My identification guides to the seashore contain thousands of species, so narrowing this down to just 24 animals felt like a near-impossible task. Most of the animals I’ve selected can be found all around the UK and Ireland and together they tell an incredible story of survival. I have aimed to convey the experience of animals living in different zones of the shore and in the range of different environments from mud-flats to seagrass beds. Some of the creatures, like barnacles and limpets, are familiar yet have remarkable abilities that are unimaginable to us land-dwellers. Others, like corals, sharks and cephalopods, are animals that most people assume can only be seen by divers but with luck and perseverance they may be seen by rock poolers too.
Rock Pool is full of exciting encounters you have had at the seashore, but which was your most surprising?
I find something new almost every time I visit the shore, but one day, whilst dangling my feet in a pool, with all my attention focused on a tiny sea slug in a petri dish on the rock beside me, I noticed movement in the water. When I glanced down I realised that a substantial lobster was inching towards my toes! I nearly dropped my camera. ‘Bob’, as I now know him, has become quite a legend in our family and his location is a secret that is closely guarded by all those who have met him.
Do you have any tips for a successful rock pooling session?
My top tip is to join a rock pooling event where you can learn and explore with the experts. This is a great way to see amazing animals and to find out how to keep yourself and the wildlife safe on the shore. The key to spotting creatures is to slow right down and take the time to look closely at the small things. Most rock pool animals are masters at hiding in plain sight. A single rock may be densely packed with keel worms, sea squirts, sponges and crustaceans, but at a quick glance you’d think there was nothing there. Always check the tide times first and leave everything as you found it – gently replacing stones the right way up.
Finally, do you plan to write any more books in the future?
Our rock pools are so incredibly diverse that I might never run out of material for more books. However, I’m also passionate about the importance of giving people, especially children, better opportunities to connect with the natural world. We protect and care about the things that we love, so it’s vital that we all feel that we are a part of the ecosystems on which we depend. Perhaps that will be my next writing project?
A limited number of signed copies are available at NHBS, order now to avoid disappointment!
If you want to attract more bees, birds, frogs and hedgehogs into your garden, look no further than Wildlife Gardening for Everyone and Everything. Award-winning author and journalist, Kate Bradbury offers tips on feeding your neighbourhood wildlife and explains how you can create the perfect habitats for species you’d like to welcome into your garden.
Kate kindly took some time out to answer our wildlife gardening questions, to help us get our gardens wildlife-friendly for summer!
Can you tell us a little about your background and how you got interested in the natural world?
I grew up in a house with half an acre of garden out the back. I spend my early years out there, grubbing around in the soil looking for worms, watching the birds. I started gardening from a very young age and the natural world has always been a part of that, for me.
What interests you about gardening for wildlife?
I’ve always been a softie and I’ve always championed the underdog. I love garden wildlife but I’m also passionate about looking after it, and can see the potential our gardens have for saving so many species. Wildlife gardening is all about the power of the individual. There are so many things going on in the world we might feel powerless to change, but simply by planting flowers and caterpillar foodplants we can make a difference for local wildlife species.
I get particularly excited if I find a slow worm in the garden. What animal gives you the most pleasure if you see it visiting, or making a home in your garden?
I couldn’t pick just one! In my new garden I’m desperate to see a toad. They’re so rarely seen these days – I’d be honoured if they found their way to my garden. I’m lucky enough to have hedgehogs so I love seeing them. And a grass snake would be pretty special!
If you could pick just a single thing or activity anyone could implement in their garden that would benefit wildlife, what would it be?
Grow a few native plants. Just one native tree can support hundreds of different species – providing flowers for pollinators, leaves for caterpillars and then seeds or fruit for birds in autumn. Not to mention shelter! Non-natives have a great role in gardens – especially for pollinating insects. But it’s the natives that attract the leaf munchers – the caterpillars, leaf miners, things that need leaves to breed. And, being at the bottom of the foodchain, these are hugely important to anything from hedgehogs to frogs, toads, newts, birds and bats.
What can cause the greatest harm or damage to wildlife living in, or wanting to live in your garden?
Erecting new fences and walls. If wildlife can’t get in to your garden, you’re closing off feeding and breeding habitat to them and potentially blocking off more gardens, too. Make sure wildlife can access your garden and chat with your neighbours so they know this too. Hedgehogs need just a four inch gap beneath or cut into a fence.
If your outdoor space is very small, what are the best ways to make even a tiny outdoor space a home to wildlife?
Grow a mix of nectar- and pollen-rich plants for pollinators, plus native plants for caterpillars. In a small garden you might have room for only one tree – try a Silver Birch or standard Hawthorn, which are great for wildlife. In courtyard gardens and balconies grow forget-me-not, primroses and foxgloves. These provide nectar and pollen for pollinators but also leaves for caterpillars to eat.
Do you have any new projects in the pipeline that you’d like to tell us about?
I’ve got an exciting project coming up that I can’t talk about yet – you’ll have to wait and see!
Kate Bradbury has authored many popular gardening books and the wonderful The Bumblebee Flies Anyway. See below for a list of her books available at NHBS.
With handy charts tailored to the needs of every size and style of garden, this easy-to-use book also includes practical projects such as making bee hotels or creating wildlife ponds, compost corners and wildflower meadows, as well as fact files for the UK’s most common garden species.
Finding herself in a new home in Brighton, Kate Bradbury sets about transforming her decked, barren backyard into a beautiful wildlife garden. She documents the unbuttoning of the earth and the rebirth of the garden, the rewilding of a tiny urban space.
The exciting environment of the rocky shore receives a space in the limelight with this new volume. The authors guide the reader through all aspects of the rocky shore including geology, ecology and natural history. It would make a fantastic addition to any naturalist’s book shelf.
John Archer-Thomson and Julian Cremona have spent their lives in environmental education and conservation. They are a former deputy head and head respectively of the Field Studies Council’s Dale Fort Field Centre in Pembrokeshire. John is now a freelance coastal ecologist, photographer, writer and tutor, while Julian is the author of several books on exploration, nature and photography.
To introduce the authors and their book, we took the opportunity to talk to them about their inspiration for this volume and ask for tips for how we can get involved with rocky shores. Both authors will be signing copies which are available to pre-order on the NHBS website.
What drew you both to this habitat and inspired the production of this fascinating book?
As we say in Chapter 1, we were both born near the coast and grew up loving the sea and so were always drawn to the intertidal, especially as many of the inhabitants are quite weird. From the earliest days with the Dorset Wildlife Trust John enjoyed communicating his love of the shore and the importance of its conservation and the need to respect the natural world. As a child Julian collected all manner of natural material from the shore and after graduation taught seashore ecology in Dorset. We see Rocky Shores as an extension of this mission.
How did you even begin to write this book on such a wide-ranging topic?Forty years of running inter-tidal field courses tends to focus attention on making shores accessible to newcomers, we approached the book from a similar standpoint. John particularly likes molluscs, seaweeds and lichens; Julian, all types of invertebrates especially insects, and as ecologists we love the way the component parts of the system interact, John is also particularly interested in how humans are affecting the shore while Julian has spent much of his life travelling the coast of the British Isles. Thus certain chapters suggested themselves!
What was your most exciting find on a rocky shore that people should look out for in the future?
For John it has to be echinoderms in general and Julian likes the more microscopic life living amongst seaweeds in rock pools. We don’t quite know why, but the little pseudoscorpion called Neobisium maritimum always causes excitement for both of us. They are tiny, only a few millimetres long, quite uncommon and may be found by observing the Black Lichen Lichina pygmaea in which they sometimes hide.
I recommend this book as a fantastic in-depth overview, but what would you suggest readers do to further their rocky shore learning?
John runs a “Rocky shore invertebrates” course for the Field Studies Council at Dale Fort Field Centre. This looks at the ecology of the shore, zonation patterns, adaptations of organisms to this extreme environment and of course the ‘plant’ (and planktonic) life that supports this biodiversity: come on this. Alternatively, there are fold out (FSC) keys for a more do-it-yourself approach, in fact, two of these have been produced by Julian’s daughter Clare Cremona including the Rocky Shore Trail. In 2014 Julian produced a large book called Seashores: an Ecological Guide, which has a huge number of photos to help with the identification of commonly found species and explains how they interact on the shore. A Complete guide to British Coastal Wildlife by Collins and the excellent A student’s guide to the seashore by Fish & Fish. For a more academic, but still very readable, account try The Biology of Rocky Shores by Little et al, Oxford Press.
Although adaptable, rocky shore inhabitants are not invincible, what do you think is the biggest threat to the rocky shore ecosystem and are some species more at risk than others?
That’s easy: us. There are too many human beings gobbling up habitat, consuming resources, changing the climate, raising sea levels, acidifying the ocean, over-fishing, polluting with plastic, agricultural and industrial chemicals and so on. Stressed ecosystems tend to be species poor but there are often large numbers of a few fast growing, tolerant species that do well. Northern, cold water species are already suffering range contractions as the climate warms, whereas the opposite is true of southern, high temperature tolerant forms, including invasive species from warmer climes.
Staying on the theme of the future, what is next for you both – another book perhaps?
For John this would be intertidal and sublittoral monitoring and photography. Running courses for the FSC. Talks for local natural history groups. Magazine articles and an update of “Photographing Pembrokeshire” by John & Sally Archer-Thomson, Apple iBooks. Julian has a trio of specialist photography books being published by Crowood press. The first two on extreme close-up photography have already appeared and the third will be published at the beginning of April. He continues to develop new ways to photograph wildlife, especially the “very small”. Coupled with this 2019 includes running further workshops, lecturing and travel – for the wildlife!
Standing a metre tall, with a wingspan approaching three metres, the Steller’s Sea Eagle is a magnificent and impressive bird.
Published in November, Richard Sale’s new book is the first English-language study of this bird of prey. A translation of an earlier Russian book written by Masterov and Romanov, the English version benefits from significant updates and a wealth of new photographs.
We recently chatted with Richard about the Steller’s Sea Eagle, his passion for birds and his love of the Arctic.
In your author biography you are described as a physicist with a PhD in astrophysics. Is physics still a part of your life or do you now devote all of your time to your writing and natural history studies?
Physics will always be a part of my life. I started out as a working physicist, at first as a glaciologist in Switzerland because they paid me to stay in the mountains where I could climb on my days off. Then I moved back to the UK to work. After a few years I left full-time employment and started a consultancy which allowed me to share physics with my love of birds and of snow and ice.
You obviously have a huge passion for birds, and you also spend much of your time studying Arctic ecology. Where did these twin passions come from?
The love of birds started with my father who was a birdwatcher. Our holidays were geared around the breeding season and we went to the moors rather than the beach. He taught me to really watch birds, not just to be able to name them but to able to understand their habits. My other love as a kid was climbing; at first rock faces, then mountains. The love of snow and ice and birds led naturally to wanting to visit the Arctic. After the first trip I really didn’t want to go anywhere else, especially as I am no lover of hot weather.
How did the collaboration for Steller’s Sea Eagle come about? Were you approached to work on the English version of the book or is it something that you yourself instigated?
I had visited Kamchatka in summer and winter and been in the field with Yevgeni Lobkov, one the experts on Kamchatka’s Steller’s. I subsequently went to Hokkaido several times to see the eagles on the sea ice. Then I found the Russian book and corresponded with Michael Romanov. That led to the idea of translating it into English, so I obtained the English rights from the Russian publisher. At first the idea was just to translate the Russian book, but by questioning Michael and Vladimir about sections of text, and then suggesting that we include my work on flight characteristics, the two of them suggested I should be co-author as the book was now looking substantially different from the original.
Can you describe your first sighting of a Steller’s Sea Eagle? How did it make you feel?
I mentioned Yevgeni Lobkov above. He and I took a trip along the Zupanova River in a Zodiac and I remember the first time a Steller’s came over us. It was low down and seemed to blot out the light because of its size. No one who sees a Steller’s can avoid being impressed and I was immediately enraptured.
I was intrigued to read that you have worked with a captive Steller’s Sea Eagle here in the UK. Can you tell us more about this experience?
Once in the Arctic, on Bylot Island, I was watching a Gyrfalcon hunting Arctic Ground Squirrels and because of the terrain, a narrow valley, I could see the falcon was not stooping in a straight line. That led to investigating the physiology of falcon eyes, and to designing a small unit with gps, tri-axial accelerometers, magnetometers and gyros (and other bits) to fly on falconry birds to study how they fly. I managed to get the weight down to a few grams – though that hardly mattered when I found someone flying a captive Steller’s in England as it weighed 5kg. It was flying the units on that bird that is in the new book. Atlas, the eagle, was flown in demonstrations for the public and allowed me to investigate wing beat frequencies, speed etc. It was great fun as he was such a docile bird, a real gentle giant, and being allowed to get so close to him was marvellous.
It seems that two of the main pressures on the Steller’s Sea Eagle are fossil fuel exploration from humans and predation from brown bears. Are there currently any population estimates for the species, and are you hopeful for their future survival?
The situation is not good. The company drilling for oil and gas have been helpful in taking enormous care over onshore works near breeding sites and are to be commended for that. But the fact is that, as human activities of all sorts have expanded close to Steller’s habitats (most of which are well away from the oil/gas exploration sites), the population has gone into decline. We can overcome bear predation by fitting anti-bear devices to trees. We can erect artificial nest and roost sites. But despite all of this, at the moment the population numbers are slowly coming down, probably as a result of global warming, though we are not yet definite about that. Hopefully the population will stabilise but only time will tell if our efforts have been sufficient.
Within a given year, how much time do you spend travelling and how much writing? Do you enjoy each part of the process equally?
Age is catching up with me now and so I spend less time in the Arctic than I did (when I could be there for many weeks during the breeding season). But I still get into the field regularly – particularly at the moment with my units flying on falconry birds and with studies on Merlins in Iceland, Scotland and Hobbies in England and Wales. But I also spend a lot of time in the library reading about birds and, sadly, the damage we are causing them through industrialisation and climate change. As everyone knows, there is hardly any money to be made nowadays as a writer of books on natural history and related topics, but I also enjoy the process of writing and preparing books for publication.
Another of your books, The Arctic, is due for publication in December. What’s next for you? Do you have another project in the pipeline?
That book is an updated, but shortened, version of one I produced some years ago with new photographs by myself and a Norwegian photographer I bumped into one winter out on the sea ice of Svalbard. We have made several journeys together since and stay in close touch as we share a love of the Arctic. The next will likely be an updated and expanded version of the one I produced on the Merlin. Merlins are my favourite raptor. Falcons are, in general, warm-weather birds. The exceptions are the Gyrfalcons, which are the largest falcons, the Peregrine (which lives more or less everywhere) and is also large, and the tiny Merlin. I am as entranced by these little birds making a living in the harshest climates as I am by the huge Steller’s.
Richard Sale is a physicist with a PhD in astrophysics, who now devotes his time to studying Arctic ecology and the flight dynamics of raptors. With Eugene Potapov he co-authored The Gyrfalcon monograph which won the US Wildlife Society Book of the Year in 2006. His other books include The Snowy Owl, Wildlife of the Arctic and the New Naturalist title Falcons.
Landfill is the story of gulls. Often derided as ‘bin chickens’ these complex birds are a surprising success story, exploiting and enjoying a niche created by our own waste-making behaviours.
In Landfill, Tim Dee has written an honest, funny and intelligent ode to these inquisitive, resourceful and daring birds. Their story is interwoven with our own – it is a nature book for our times.
We asked Tim a few questions regarding his fascination with gulls and his thoughts about these ubiquitous and canny survivors.
Why did you choose to write about Gulls?
I’ve been a birdwatcher for fifty years and grew up in a simpler world of gulls. They were mostly still ‘seagulls’ then – marine species – and there were only a handful regularly occurring in Britain. Thirty years ago – but without me fully clocking it at the time – gulls in Britain got more obvious and more interesting. Gulls became urban birds then, like never before – moving to breed in our cities and feeding on our rubbish dumps and stealing our chips – and they were also taxonomically reappraised so that the few species I thought I knew became a dozen or more species to search for and to learn to identify. These changes and the ways the birds have continued to live as often the wildest creature closest to our contemporary lives made them interesting to me, troubling even, and I started trying to work out what was going on.
J.A. Baker, the author of Peregrine and perhaps the founder of nature writing once wrote ‘science can never be enough; emotion and sentiment will always rule.’ Public perceptions of gulls range from dislike all the way to loathing. Is there anything that might make us more accepting of gulls and their place among us?
I think they hold a mirror up to us. They have flown in our slipstream in the last 100 years, coming ashore first to feed on fish guts, then following ploughs, and more recently finding life in our leftovers on city streets and rubbish dumps. They have found a way to live alongside us. Most birds have gone in the opposite direction. Instead of admiring the gulls for getting good at various human-like activities (surviving in the jostle of cities, shifting to new places where opportunities arise, making do in strapped times) we have derided them. I think we fear them with a dark loathing and, in an atavistic way, other animals that we see as succeeding. This is quite wrong. We have made the world the gulls have adapted to and we should look to our own debased and wasteful existence before hating other species for getting on with their lives. They might teach us about ourselves if we could learn how to know them properly. The gullers in Landfill know this and I have tried to write the book for the gulls as much as about them.
Gulls have proved to be adaptable, especially regarding human interaction; what changes have they already accomplished and what do you envisage for them in the next fifty or even one hundred years?
There has been a gull moment and it looks like it is coming to an end. Urban gulls – living in cities and eating our food waste on dumps – are a product of urbanising humanity and the throwaway decades of the 1960s-1990s. Nowadays the large species (herring and lesser black-backed above all) have two largely separate populations – one urban and one still marine. The seaside gulls are threatened species now and not doing well. At the moment the urban birds are still expanding their range and populations (there is remarkably little traffic between the two populations). But food waste recycling is increasingly efficient in the UK and little or no putrifiable waste is soon meant to be arriving on dumps. The food source is ending for the gulls. We don’t yet know what will happen. It seems likely that the numbers of the birds (100,000 pairs of urban herring and lesser black-backed gulls in Britain it is thought) cannot be sustained without this food source. It is good for us to be recyclers and to be less wasteful but the gulls may well not be so pleased.
With their increased visibility in towns and cities, what might be their impact on the urban wildlife that is already established there?
I’ve seen them eating a starling chick, others have seen them eating human hair outside a barber shop. The slum avifauna as it has been called is a dynamic one. Urban human life drives change in the leftover wildlife that can survive in the hectic built up world. Gulls take pigeons. And rats. But it is tough times for all species in these environments. On the rubbish dumps I have visited to ring gulls a super bold landfill red fox will take black-headed gulls if we are not careful to throw the ringed birds back into the air. Marginal living is hard for all. And in these shifting landscapes in states of permanent rebuild no one can tell who is going win out.
During your research for Landfill can you think of one stand-out surprising fact or discovery that you didn’t previously know?
Cities are warmer and safer and more nutritious for gulls than their original habitats; lesser black-backed gulls used to be migratory birds in Britain but seem to be evolving into sedentary birds; Caspian gulls are storming out of Eastern Europe, but are running out of their own species to mate with so are hybridising with others: nothing sits still for long in nature. Evolution is relentless, and the gulls are telling us how it is.
Are there plans for, or are you currently embarking on any new writing projects?
A nicer book in some ways I hope – I am writing about the spring in Europe following migratory birds north from south of the Sahara to the top of Arctic Scandinavia. Spring moves at about walking pace north and it is my favourite time of year. I have tried to walk the season from south to north in time with swallows and wheatears and nightjars and redstarts. And not many gulls, though I love them now too of course.
Climate Change and British Wildlife is the sixth installment of the popular British Wildlife Collection. In this timely text, Trevor Beebee takes advantage of our long history of wildlife monitoring to examine the effects that climate change has played so far on British species and their ecosystems. He also considers what the future may hold for them in a constantly warming environment.
Trevor Beebee is Emeritus Professor of Evolution, Behaviour and Environment at the University of Sussex, Trustee of the Herpetological Conservation and Amphibian Conservation Research Trusts and President of the British Herpetological Society. He is also author of the Amphibians and Reptiles Naturalists’ Handbook and co-author of the Amphibian Habitat Management Handbook.
Last week, Trevor visited NHBS to sign copies of Climate Change and British Wildlife (signed copies are exclusively available from NHBS). We also took the opportunity to chat him about the background behind the book, his thoughts on conservation and his hopes for the future of British wildlife. Read the full conversation below.
Where did the impetus and inspiration for this book come from? Is it a subject that you have been wanting to write about for some time?
It started in the garden some 40 years ago. For me, first arrivals of newts in the ponds were a welcome indicator that spring was on the way and I logged the dates year on year. It gradually dawned on me that the differences were not random but that arrivals were becoming increasingly early. Climate change seemed the obvious cause, and as evidence accumulated from so many diverse studies, it seemed like a good subject to write about.
The research required to cover so many taxonomic groups so comprehensively must have been immense. How long did you work on this book, including research, writing and editing?
The book took about a year to write. Electronic access to scientific journals made the research much easier and quicker than it would have been 20 years ago. Editing also took quite a while, greatly assisted by the perceptive advice of Katy Roper (my Bloomsbury editor).
The book covers plants, invertebrates, vertebrates, fungi, lichens and microbes as well as communities and individual ecosystems. Are there any of these that you feel are particularly at risk? Or conversely, are there any that you feel are more robust and are likely to better weather the effects of continued climate change?
It became evident as I researched that cold-adapted species including Arctic-alpine plants and fish such as the Vendace are in trouble, and that worrying trend is likely to generate declines or even extinctions in the coming decades. The ecology of the North Sea is also undergoing dramatic changes, some of which have precipitated seabird declines, especially of species such as Kittiwakes that rely heavily on sand eels. At the other extreme, mature woodland seems relatively resilient to climate change.
We have a rich history of wildlife monitoring and recording in the UK, much of which is undertaken by volunteers. Why do you think this is?
I believe that the media can take much of the credit for stimulating these activities. The end of the second world war was followed by the publication of a plethora of natural history books, from the I-Spy series (I still have a copy of ‘Ponds and Streams’), through the Observer series to the flagship New Naturalists. Then came television, with pioneers such as Peter Scott and David Attenborough in the 1950s. We’ve never looked back, with Springwatch today regularly attracting two million or more viewers. Brilliant!
Do you think that a thorough understanding of long-term monitoring and datasets can and should inform our decisions about where to focus conservation efforts?
Yes indeed, and fortunately such datasets are steadily increasing. The recent State of Nature reports have relied heavily on them, and they provide solid evidence that decision-makers can hardly ignore. One proviso though. For some species, especially rare ones, it is still difficult to obtain the necessary information. It would be a great mistake to ignore the plight of plants or animals clearly in difficulty simply because we don’t have robust monitoring data.
How did you feel after writing this book? Are you optimistic or despondent about the future for British wildlife?
Relieved! Sadly, though, not at all optimistic. There are some well-publicised success stories, such as the resurgence of several raptors, but more than fifty percent of Britain’s wildlife species are in continuous decline and there’s no sign of an end to that. Climate change is a problem for some, but it’s not the main one. Postwar agricultural intensification is the major villain, and it carries on regardless.
What single policy change would you like to see to alter the future of conservation in the UK?
A serious commitment to change farming practices into ones that sustain our rich wildlife heritage. Research shows that this is possible without dramatic impacts on food production, despite the claims of the agrochemical industry. With a human population the size of that in the UK it will never be possible to provide enough food without imports and it’s about time that was accepted by farmers and politicians alike.
Finally, what’s next for you? Do you have another book in the pipeline?
The book I would like to write is one on the impact of overpopulation on British wildlife. It’s a sensitive subject but one clearly recognised by naturalists of the calibre of David Attenborough, Jane Goodall and Chris Packham, among others. The most serious issues, including intensive farming practices, relate directly to the number of people dependent on them.
After her incredibly successful book The Unfeathered Bird, Katrina van Grouw has recently finished Unnatural Selection, a beautiful combination of art, science and history. In this book, she celebrates the rapid changes breeders can bring about in domesticated animals. This was a topic of great interest to Charles Darwin, and it is no coincidence that Unnatural Selection is published on the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s book The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication.
In this post we talk with Katrina about her background, the work that goes into making a book and plans for the future
On your website, you write that you always had an interest in natural history, but that your talent in drawing made your teachers push you to pursue an art career, rather than studying biology. Did you ever consider a career as a scientific illustrator, something for which there must have been more of a market back then than there is now? If not, when and how did you decide to start combining your passion for biology with your talent as an artist?
No, I didn’t. There are several reasons for this; some a result of indoctrination, and others, decisions of my own.
There were two revelatory moments which brought art and science together for me and set the path for what was to come. Once when I’d rejected art and was sliding down a greasy pole into oblivion. And another, when I was an art student seeking direction. The first was at a zoo, and the second at a museum, and both were as vivid as a flash of light from the sky.
Even with art and natural history combined in my work, however, it was always in a fine art sense and never as an illustrator. I still don’t really identify with the term. Being an illustrator usually involves working to someone else’s brief and taking instructions from a non-illustrator about how the work should be done. I’m too self-obsessed for that! I lack imagination when it comes to commissioned work and can’t seem to generate much passion for other people’s projects, though I have the greatest respect for people who can do these things. I’m basically just no good at it!
You worked as curator of the bird skin collection of the London Natural History Museum. How did you end up there after an art degree?
How I ended up there is quite a long story. I do have a degree in art (two actually) but I also spent many years gaining valuable skills in practical ornithology that were precisely what the NHM needed; a combination of skills that was lacking in all the other applicants for the post.
I’d taught myself to prepare study skins and was good at it. I knew my way around the inside of a bird and had written a Masters’ thesis on bird anatomy (albeit aimed at artists). I was a qualified ringer who’d held an A class ringing permit for many years, which meant that I could age and sex birds accurately and knew how to take precise measurements consistent with other field workers. I’d taken part in ornithological expeditions in Africa and South America, so I had some first-hand experience of non-European birds. I’d worked in other museums. And I was a birder.
It’s a sad fact that one’s education often defines how a person is categorised for the remainder of their life, but self-taught skills, and hands-on experience can be worth far, far more. People often assume that artists can only ‘do art’ and nothing more, and that only people with a science degree are able to ‘do science’. A great many people are able to do both (though fewer questions are raised when it’s a qualified scientist who turns his/her hand to art!)
Your previous book, The Unfeathered Bird, took some 25 years from conception to publication, mostly as you found it very difficult to find a publisher. How did you manage to convince Princeton University Press to publish this book after so many rejections?
The quick answer is, because Princeton University Press is a publisher of vision and wisdom! (And no, they didn’t pay me to say that).
The full story is that the majority of publishers I approached had entrenched preconceptions about what an anatomy book should be and were unable to envisage anything that wasn’t a highly academic technical manual aimed at a niche audience. The book I had in mind was geared toward a much broader spectrum of bird lovers, including and especially bird artists. Additionally, I wanted it to be beautifully produced and aesthetically pleasing. So it wasn’t so much a problem of not being able to find a publisher, but not being able to find a publisher willing to think outside of the box. To answer the question: I didn’t actually need to convince Princeton –a fortuitous meeting lead to a great collaboration.
Your response to critics of breeding has been to counter their objection by saying “look at what nature has done to the sword-billed hummingbird!” which I thought was a sharp response. However, an animal welfare advocate might counter this argument by pointing out that natural selection can only push sword-billed hummingbirds so far. If this adaptation – the extension of the bill to retrieve nectar from ever deeper flower corollas – becomes maladaptive it will be selected against. Breeders, however, can select for traits that are maladaptive, because these animals grow up in an artificial environment where they are relieved of the pressures of natural selection. The shortened snouts and breathing problems of short-nosed dog breeds such as boxers come to mind. Obviously, if these traits become too extreme, the animals will not survive until reproductive age, but we can push them into a zone of discomfort and suffering through artificial breeding. What would your response to this be?
I’m an animal welfare advocate too. It’s difficult not to be when you keep animals and care for them every day. I too will freely admit that there are exhibition breeds in which artificial selection appears to have gone too far, resulting in health problems or discomfort. I can also appreciate that these problems might have their roots deeply embedded in history and culture and might be difficult to rectify without tearing down systems that would have devastating consequences to the entire fancy.
(Incidentally, the suffering of poultry selectively bred for the commercial meat industry is on a scale many thousands of times greater than the relatively low numbers of extreme pedigree breeds.)
The process of selecting out these physical defects will be a slow one and I think it’s important to support the work of breeders in this task. We can support them by trying to understand more about their world and by ceasing to attack them in gutter-press fashion with pseudo-scientific terms we don’t fully understand.
My book Unnatural Selection isn’t intended to voice personal opinions about animal welfare however. As the title suggests, it’s a book about evolution, based on and elaborating on the analogy that Darwin made between natural and artificial selection. For that reason I’ve discussed selective breeding solely within this evolutionary and historical context. It’s not that I was deliberately avoiding welfare issues; they simply weren’t relevant to the points I was discussing.
You write that the work on Unnatural Selection took six years of full-time work, around the clock. How long do you typically take to complete an illustration? And how do you manage to support yourself during this period, do you have freelance illustrations assignments on the side?
If I’m in-practice I can usually complete a full-page illustration in two or three days. There are 425 illustrations in Unnatural Selection, not forgetting the 84,000 words of text (somehow people always forget the text…). Not to mention thousands of hours’ research and background reading. Working like this is all-consuming, and definitely very unhealthy.
The fact is that non-fiction books taking so long to produce will never, ever, pay for themselves. Luckily Husband works full time, so we don’t actually starve, though I’d prefer to be able to contribute more financially to the household.
I would love to supplement my books with a part time job, but it certainly wouldn’t be illustrating! I dislike illustrating for other authors. I actually get far more pleasure from writing and I’m equally good at it, though this side of me is unfortunately often eclipsed by the artwork.
People talk in airy-fairy terms about the freedom and personal reward of being an artist transcending material gain, but it’s not like that at all. It’s not the actual poverty that’s damaging, but the feeling of inadequacy you get from working so hard, with such integrity, for so long, yet making no money.
The things that make it worthwhile are making those books exist at the end of it all, and having people tell me how grateful they are.
With two books now published by Princeton University Press, you seem to have started a very successful collaboration. How has the reception of this book been so far? Have you received nominations for prizes?
Boy, I’d love to win a prize! It’s still early days yet, so I’m ever-hopeful. To be honest though, I suspect I’m not the sort of person who wins prizes. Prizes seem to be dished out to academics and people whose career has been rather more conventional than mine. Like my books, I rather defy taxonomy and, even though we communicate science exceedingly well, few institutions would be brave enough to award a science writing prize to a self-taught scientist.
That’s not to say that we’re unpopular; quite the opposite. I’m proud to say that The Unfeathered Bird was embraced by a huge range of people: birders, naturalists, painters, sculptors, taxidermists, poets, mask makers, puppeteers, aviators, falconers, bibliophiles, palaeontologists, zookeepers, creature-designers and animatronics-people, academic biologists and vets! The pictures have been used in a trendy Berlin cocktail bar, on Diesel t-shirts, and tattooed onto several people’s bodies, and I get very genuine letters of thanks from all manner of people, from university professors and 12-year old boys and girls.
Unnatural Selection is a far better book than The Unfeathered Bird. It has better art and better science and, unlike The Unfeathered Bird in which the images take the lead, Unnatural Selection is very much led by good scientific and historical text, with the images serving solely to illuminate and enhance what’s being said. Everyone who’s seen it so far says it’s stunning, and the reviews have all been excellent. I hope the scientific community will take it seriously and not dismiss it as merely a quaint and witty book with good pictures. It’s so much more than that.
Will you continue to work on more books in the future? And are you already willing to reveal what you are working on next?
In answer to your first question: definitely—though if you’d asked me that toward the end of The Unfeathered Bird I would probably have said no. That book was supposed to have been a one-off, and I’d been looking forward to resuming work as an artist afterwards. However, when the time came I found that I’d moved on. Producing pictures for their own sake no longer ‘did it for me’. Books, on the other hand tick all the boxes: creatively, intellectually; at every level.
It’s important to understand that these are not ‘art books’—they’re not collections of artwork made into a book. The book itself is the work of art, not the individual illustrations. They’re science books nevertheless. For me the challenge is communicating science in the best possible way and finding just the right unique angle for each book. I’m especially proud of Unnatural Selection which I think is the finest and most original thing I’ve ever created.
Unfortunately, large illustrated books take many years to produce so I probably won’t have sufficient time left to bring more than two or maybe three more into existence. After all, I’m no spring chicken.
I’ve already signed a contract with Princeton and begun work on a greatly expanded second edition of The Unfeathered Bird. The new book will have 400 pages (that’s 96 more than the first edition) and will include a lot of new material on bird evolution from feathered dinosaurs (which of course will be unfeathered feathered dinosaurs, if you see what I mean). There’ll be lots of new and replacement illustrations and the text will be completely re-written. The science will be better, but the book will still accessible to anyone and devoid of jargon. However, this shouldn’t put people off buying the original version—the new edition will be virtually a different book.
I’m also intending to write an autobiography/memoir type book focusing on the relationship between art, science, and illustration, and will be looking for a publisher for that. This won’t be illustrated though, so it would be a comparatively quick one!
Unnatural Selection has been published in June 2018 and is currently on offer for £26.99 (RRP £34.99).
In Vaquita: Science, Politics, and Crime in the Sea of Cortez, author Brooke Bessesen takes us on a journey to Mexico’s Upper Gulf region to uncover the story behind the world’s most endangered marine mammal. Through interviews with townspeople, fishermen, scientists, and activists, she teases apart a complex story filled with villains and heroes, a story whose outcome is unclear.
In this post we chat with Brooke about her investigations in Mexico, local and international efforts to save the vaquita and the current status of this diminutive porpoise.
The vaquita entered the collective imagination (or at least, my imagination) when it became world news somewhere in 2017 and there was talk of trying to catch the last remaining individuals, something which you describe at the end of your story. Going back to the beginning though, how did you cross the path of this little porpoise?
I first heard about vaquita during a visit to CEDO, an educational research station in Puerto Peñasco, Mexico. I was enchanted to discover this beautiful little porpoise was endemic to the Upper Gulf of California, mere hours south of my home, yet saddened to learn it was already critically endangered. I still have the t-shirt I bought that day to support vaquita conservation. That was 2008 when the population estimate was 245.
The last update I could find was an interview in March 2018 on Mongabay with Andrea Crosta, director of the international wildlife trade watchdog group Elephant Action League. He mentioned there might be only a dozen vaquita left. Do you know what the situation is like now?
The last official population estimate was <30, but that was from 2016. With an annual rate of decline upwards of 50 percent, the number is surely much lower. If only we were able to watch the numbers go down in real time, we would all be forced to emotionally experience this sickening loss. But I think there is a (legitimate) fear that if an updated estimate revealed the number to be in or near single digits, key institutions might announce the species a lost cause and pull up stakes. If pecuniary support disappears, it’s game-over. Vaquita has graced the planet for millions of years—we cannot give up the battle to prevent its extinction so long as any number remain.
Once your investigation on the ground in Mexico gets going, tensions quickly run high. This is where conservation clashes with the hard reality of humans trying to make a living. Corruption, intimidation and threats are not uncommon. Was there ever a point that you were close to pulling out because the situation became too dangerous?
Truth told, my nerves were prickling from start to finish. The emotional fatigue was intense. But having witnessed the gruesome death of Ps2 [the designation given one of the Vaquita carcasses that washed up, ed.], I simply could not turn back. Then as the humanitarian crisis became clear and I was meeting families struggling to raise children in the fray, I was even more committed to telling this story. When courage wavered, I only had to remind myself of the host of social scientists, biologists, activists, and law-abiding fishermen working so bravely for the cause.
You describe a widespread indifference to the vaquita. I have the feeling a lot of this is cultural. Do you think a change in attitude can ever be effected? Or is the combination of poverty and the need to make a living completely at loggerheads with this?
I see two main obstacles to solving the vaquita crisis: corruption and poverty. In that order, because until local citizens can trust their military and police officers to rightfully enforce law, and until Pesca [Mexico’s National Fisheries Institute and its National Commission of Aquaculture and Fisheries, ed.] authorizes legal, sustainable fishing methods instead of providing loopholes for poachers, there will be no economic stability in the region. Money is pouring into the pockets of crime bosses while upstanding folks barely get by. Focused on either greed or survival, nobody has much capacity to care about porpoise conservation. That said, I do believe change can be effected. Several NGOs are already connecting with the communities in meaningful ways, and mind-sets are slowly shifting. If Mexico’s president-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who goes by the nickname Amlo, manages to abolish corruption as he has promised to do, civic finances will balance out and efforts to care for vaquita will find better footing.
As the story progresses, more and more foreign interests enter this story. Sea Shepherd starts patrolling the waters, and Leonardo DiCaprio also gets involved, signing a memorandum of understanding with the Mexican president to try and turn the tide. What was the reaction of Mexicans on the ground to this kind of foreign involvement? Are we seen as sentimental, spoiled, rich Westerners who can afford unrealistic attitudes?
Since the majority of environmentalists working in the Upper Gulf are Mexican, and even Leonardo DiCaprio had the alliance of Carlos Slim, the socio-political divide does not seem to be so much between nationalists and foreigners as between fishermen and environmentalists. Fishermen who openly expressed distain for “outsiders” disrupting business meant Sea Shepherd, for sure, but they also meant scientists and conservationists from places like Mexico City, Ensenada, and La Paz. Some of the locals I spoke with or followed on Facebook did seem troubled by the amount of resources being spent on vaquita while their own human families suffered. They felt the environmentalists were not appreciating the strain and fear of their jobless circumstances. Then again, a good percentage voiced gratitude for the efforts being made to protect vaquita as a national treasure and seemed to feel part of an important crusade for their country and their community.
Related to this, the West has outsourced the production of many things to countries overseas and so many of us are far removed from the harmful impact that our desire for food and stuff has on the environment. Deforestation in the Amazon to graze livestock for hamburgers is one such long-distance connection that comes to mind. The vaquita has also suffered from the impact of shrimp trawlers. No doubt many who shed tears over the vaquita will happily gorge themselves on said shrimps without ever making the link. Do you think that globalisation has in that regard served to polarise the debate where wildlife and nature conservation is concerned?
Yes, this is a really important point. It’s easy to point fingers, but we are all complicit in the destruction of ocean life. Anyone who eats fish or shrimp caught in gillnets—or trawls, or longlines—is funding the slaughter of cetaceans and sea turtles and myriad other animals. It’s a painful truth. The root of the problem is that most of us don’t know, and don’t care to ask, where the seafood on our dinner plate came from. This is not intended to be accusatory, as I, too, am finding my way in this era of culinary disconnect. I just know the first step is to quit pretending we are bystanders.
One side of the story I found missing from your book was that of the demand for totoaba swim bladders in China. I imagine it might have been too dangerous or time-consuming (or both) to expand your investigation to China as well. How important and how feasible do you think it is to tackle the problem from that side? Without a demand for totoaba bladders, the vaquita wouldn’t face the threats of gillnets after all.
I think it’s imperative to attack the totoaba trade from the consumer side, with the goal of systematically eliminating the demand for swim bladders. As for feasibility, I’m less confident. Time and distance prevented me from effectively researching the situation in China, but from what I’ve read, the cultural, political, and economic trappings there are just as complicated as they are in Mexico. I’m pleased to know efforts are underway. It also must be said, though, that ending the totoaba trade is not a sure-fire resolution for vaquita because fishermen in the Upper Gulf traditionally use gillnets for a range of legal fish.
With the book now written, are you still involved in efforts to protect the vaquita?
Knowing what I know now, it’s unthinkable to walk away from vaquita. I was down in San Felipe last month, exchanging summer c-pods and catching up on the latest news. Everyone is nurturing the flicker of hope that Amlo will take action to save his national marine mammal by cleaning up the corruption that has stymied vaquita conservation.
Faith has coined the word ‘kleidophobia’ to mean ‘a fear of keys’, and it surely applies to many enthusiasts who would like to become more proficient at identifying plants, but are put off by the complexity of the customary botanical system of keys. So she has developed new ways of approaching ID that keep those daunting keys to a minimum.
To mark her new book and to encourage more people to discover the botanical wonders around them, we asked Faith a few questions about her writing and her life-long passion for botany.
What makes your books different from the usual field guides?
My books are not field guides at all. A field guide gives you a list of plant names, with pictures and descriptions, sometimes with a brief introduction. My books are all introduction: to field botany in general, to plant families and to grasses (maybe sedges and rushes next year . . .). A beginner armed only with a field guide has either to work their way from scratch through complicated keys, or to play snap: plant in one hand, book in the other; turn the pages until you find a picture that matches – ‘snap!’ By contrast, my books lead you into plant identification by logical routes, showing you where to look and what to look for. Their aim is to show you how to do ID for yourself.
What field guides would you recommend to use with your own guides?
My personal favourite for beginners and improvers is the Collins Wildflower Guide (2016). This covers the whole range of wild plants including grasses, sedges and so on. It has keys that are well-organised and relatively easy to follow, and the ‘pics and scrips’ are accurate and helpful. Of course, Stace (3rd edition) is the botanists’ bible but it is rather daunting for beginners. I am also a great fan of Marjorie Blamey’s paintings in, for example, Wild Flowers of Britain & Ireland. For more detailed help with grasses & co, Francis Rose’s Colour Identification Guide has excellent keys and illustrations, suitable for most levels of experience.
What would be your best advice to anybody wishing to take their first steps towards identifying plants?
If you possibly can, go on a workshop for a day, a weekend or even a whole week. Having a real live person giving enthusiastic teaching, someone to answer all your questions and fresh plants to study is the best thing you can do. Look for a local botany or natural history group you can join, and go on their field meetings. When you get even a little more serious about your study, join Plantlife and/or the Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland. Identiplant is a very good online course but it is not really suitable for absolute beginners. Be a bit careful with apps and websites: some are incredibly complex, some seem to be aimed at five-year-olds, others are just inaccurate and misleading. The best ID websites I am aware of are run by the BSBI, the Natural History Museum and The Open University.
What are the easiest mistakes a beginner can make when trying to identify plants?
The most common mistake is to look only at the ‘flower’ – the showy bit with colourful petals – to try and identify it. To really pin it down, you need to study the whole plant: how the flowers are arranged, characteristics of the leaves and stem, how and where the plant is growing, and even what time of year it is. So long as there is plenty, please don’t be afraid to pick some to take home and study. The general rule on public land is: if there are 20 of the plant in question you can pick one, if 40, two and so on. Try to take the complete plant from ground level up – but don’t uproot it: that’s how the Victorians brought so many species to their knees. Photographs can be a big help, but remember to take several: whole plant, close-up of the flower, details of a leaf and so on.
What is the main threat to the diversity of wild flowers and grasses and what can be done to mitigate any decline?
The main threat is not people picking a few to study, or even simply to enjoy at home. Climate change is, of course, a threat in one sense, but I believe we shouldn’t necessarily dread the rise of ‘aliens’ from warmer climates which are now able to establish themselves here. Every plant in Britain was once an alien, after the last Ice Age ended, and I would rather learn to live with change than blindly try to turn the clock back. There may be a few exceptions like Japanese Knotweed, but their evils are often exaggerated and some natives like bracken can be equally invasive. The real problem we face is habitat loss: to house-building and industry, land drainage, vast monocultural fields without headlands, destruction of ancient forests and so on. And this is an area where watchfulness and action really can make a difference.
Have you ever had any bad or unusual experiences while out identifying plants?
Well, I nearly drowned once. I was botanising on my own in Glen Lyon, beside the rushing ‘white water’ of the River Lyon. There were plenty of large rocks above the water level that I thought I could use as stepping stones across the river. But I lost my footing on a slippery rock and was instantly immersed in the icy torrent. Luckily I was obeying the three-holds rule and my two hands were still clinging firmly to rocks. I quickly realised that, with heavy boots on, if I didn’t get up on a rock fairly soon I was likely to be swept to my doom. No good screaming either: the roar of the water would make that a fruitless exercise. Twice I heaved on my arms and failed to get clear of the water, but on the third try I managed to haul myself out and eventually get back to the bank. The first thing I examined was the sodden notebook in my waterlogged pocket, but my botanical notes were still legible, so it was a happy ending!
We have been domesticating crops for millennia, and you write that radiation is an accepted method to induce genetic mutations. Such plants can even be labelled “organic”. Effectively, there is a continuum from very crude tools (domestication) to more precise ones nowadays to achieve the same end goal: plants with traits that we desire. Why has recombinant DNA technology been singled out by activists?
I think that if mutagenesis by radiation were invented tomorrow, Friends of the Earth would be up in arms. I suspect that it really is a matter of grandfathering with these kinds of technologies. The newer ones get opposed because they seem too new, for want of a better way of putting it, too innovative and too artificial, whereas we are comfortable with the older ones because they have always been there. As I say in the book, your pet dog is genetically modified from the original wolf, otherwise you would not let it anywhere near your children. But if a scientist in a labcoat were to propose to genetically modify a wolf directly in the laboratory, in order to give it a pug nose and make it unable to breathe properly, I am sure there would be all kinds of hullabaloo. So, it is about being comfortable with something that has become traditional, which maybe was innovative decades or centuries ago, but has become part of our established normality.
These things are socially constructed debates, they are not really a result of scientific innovation directly, they are a result of interest groups deciding that they are opposed to specific innovations for specific reasons. So, there has not been any significant opposition to the use of genetically modified bacteria or micro-organisms to produce insulin for diabetics, or rennet for cheese, or multiple other biotechnological applications. It is very much about opposition to some kind of perceived adulteration of the purity and authenticity of food, especially because food has got such powerful cultural and deeply political meaning.
I would include seeds in that as well. So, the concept of the seed is a very politically significant one. The idea that farmers must control seeds, that seeds are a kind of inherited genetic common property that have been enclosed and privatised by corporations – for people with particular political views these are very powerful concerns.
Effectively, we have been consuming GMOs for millennia, ever since we started eating domesticated plants, with no ill effect on our health. Has the health scare not wasted tremendous amounts of time and money in unnecessary research that, as we could have known beforehand, showed that there is no danger to consuming GMOs?
The health scare is something I was never involved in promoting. Looking back at the things I wrote, I alluded to it a couple of times, but it certainly was never a central concern.
As I explain the book, realising there was a scientific consensus on GMO safety which was equivalent to the consensus on climate change was a big part of why I changed my mind. While I do not claim that science can answer all of the political and economical questions, if we could all at least agree that this technique is as safe as any other, and probably safer in terms of changing crop genetics to be honest, then we can move on to talk about the other topics sensibly. But so long as you have got activists out there, particularly in developing countries, spreading rumours and myths about GMOs causing cancer and sterility then I think that that is so objectionable that it has to be opposed directly, just as we do with anti-vaccine campaigners which are out there doing real damage to public health.
So, do you think that the argument that we have been eating animals and plants that have been genetically modified through domestication with no ill harm is one that will resonate with activists?
No, because it is not about the facts. You can present evidence until you are blue in the face, but that hardly changes anybody’s minds. You have to look at why there is this opposition, and the reason it has persisted for so long is that is has become an article of faith for a lot of people with a particular ideological bias. And that is not just on the left. Yes, there is an anti-corporate aspect to this, but it is also found on the right. It has recently come to light that the Russians have been promoting anti-GMO memes as a way of undermining public trust and the integrity of Western science. And you can see it from the extreme right in France: Le Pen is anti-Monsanto and anti-GMO. The same goes for the far-right and the far-left in Italy. It has become a kind of populist rallying cry which can be put in the context of this wider loss of trust in elites and intellectual expertise generally, which is a story of our modern times. It saddens me that the environmental movement is part of this shift towards post-truth, at least in the GMO sense, but it just goes to show that it is not resulting from any singular political perspective
In the Q&A session of your 2013 talk at the Oxford Farming Conference, you mention that the opposition to GMOs is effectively a proxy war against modern agricultural methods. Why do people not make a distinction between the tool (genetic modification) and the wielder (in most discussions this ends up being big agricultural companies such as Monsanto)?
I am not even sure it is the business practices of Monsanto in any real sense. If you ask people what it is that Monsanto supposedly does, you will often get a lot of internet-generated myths. I included a whole chapter on Monsanto in the book, precisely because I felt that this was an elephant in the room that needed to be dealt with, and I needed to go through some of the anti-Monsanto memes out there and try and identify what was real and what was not. So, yes, I think there is a conflation between GMOs and modern agriculture in general with certain people in the West. This is quite an elite phenomenon; certain foodie types feel that the food system is failing them. It is kind of conflated with packaging, supermarkets and being disconnected from the local and the authentic. So, it is a kind of wider Romantic movement against what is perceived to be the dominance of technology in modern life. There is a nostalgic appeal to what the traditional farm was – with the farmer in overalls, chewing straw and getting his hands dirty – which is not there with the image of a modern farmer sitting high up in a cab of a combine harvester on Facebook while his machine is driven by GPS or even robotics. It does not have the same emotional appeal to it. So, I think there is this feeling of alienation with the modern food system in general, which I think has driven a lot of this opposition.
One reason I can think of why people oppose GMOs is a lack of understanding the science. How much are current high-school curricula paying attention to basic genetics, especially in the context of biotechnology in agriculture? Can we do more here and in the future see a new generation of better-informed citizens?
Well, that would be nice, but I do not think that it is essential any more than people need to understand immunology in order to have their children vaccinated. Yes, I am a passionate supporter of increasing science literacy, and I think it is important for a functioning democracy in a very general sense that we have a population who understands at least the basics. But it would not help – this is a political controversy. Even increasing science literacy does not help to diffuse it, because it is not really about the science. The scientists are not disagreeing on any of this. It is the same with climate change where people with different political viewpoints then claim to differ on the science. Presenting more scientific evidence does not help to resolve it, we have to make sure that the evidence is not steamrolled by emotional appeals by people who have an ideological interest in diminishing public understanding of science.
You seem intent on putting an end to the polarised discussion and the trench warfare as you call it. I believe this is a large part of why you wrote this book. With this book about to be published, what more can we expect to see from yourself and others to try and bring the two sides closer together?
As I say towards the end of the book, the first draft was an angry book about how evil the anti-GMO movement is and decrying all that. And then I threw that away and rewrote it because I did not want to deepen the polarisation. I wanted to make a more honest attempt to understand where people are coming from who still oppose this technology. I felt it was incumbent on me as a former activist myself to do that in as humble a way as possible. So, I went back and talked to people who are still activists who I used to work with back in the day and I tried to give them a fair hearing. I think it is important that we recognise what these concerns are and that they are genuinely held. It is very easy to characterise your opponent as being evil or corrupt. However, people who oppose GMOs think they are doing the right thing. You can say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but if we at least do each other the honour of recognising that we are all trying to make the world a better place, then maybe we can meet somewhere in the middle by respecting each other’s concerns and worldviews so we can try and figure out what we have in common.
I say this in learning from the experience of climate change where I have been guilty of this as much as anyone. Through shouting and fighting we have just polarised the situation, and I think it is further away from being solvable now than it probably was back in the late nineties when I started working on it.