Venezuela in Chaos

Venezuela has enormous oil reserves, it has been selling oil for nearly a hundred years, and its people are impoverished. So what went wrong? Some say it is a fine example of the failings of socialism, but in fact it was plutocratic capitalism that set the rot in place.

Venezuela was possibly the richest country in South America before it struck oil. Because there was so much of it, foreign oil companies poured in, as did their money. This caused the local currency to increase wildly. The oil companies paid locals huge salaries or wages, and the growth was so pronounced that any reasonable contractor worked in the oil industry. That meant that people left agriculture and manufacturing by locals was squeezed for capital.

Worse, when the politicians become corrupt, which is easily done when law and order is weak and there is money flowing like water, the average person was overlooked and they slid into poverty. At first the plutocrats simply walked off with the profits but by 1950 the government reformed the industry and required half the profits to go to the state. This had the effect of making the government essentially totally dependent on oil money. For Venezuela the effect has been so dramatic that oil now accounts for about 98% of its exports, and up to 50% of its GDP. In the 1970s, the Venezuelan government received huge incomes, which led to rampant mismanagement and embezzlement. In the 1980s oil prices plummeted and Venezuela sustained rampant inflation and massive debts, in part due to government investments offshore that were not exactly wise. The IMF gave its usual recipe: austerity, and there were major riots. Austerity hurts the poor, while the rich remain unscathed, which may be why the bankers of the IMF favour it.

In 1998, Hugo Chavez was elected President on a socialist pledge, and while he did significantly improve the lot of the average Venezuelan, he also badly mismanaged the oil industry and the economy in general. Chavez also bailed out Cuba by supplying it with oil, and also managed to greatly increase national debt. His government was authoritarian, and when he was replaced by Maduro, the latter has probably become more authoritarian.

Maduro inherited a mess, and he was not gifted with luck. Between 2014 – 2016, oil prices slumped by a factor of three. The government gets out of its debt problems by inflating the currency, which may be running at a million per cent now. The effect of this is the impoverishment of the middle classes. The very rich get richer by picking up assets at a huge discount in forced sales. Currently, 90% live in poverty.

There are various opinions on what should have been done. The most obvious one is to have strong law and order and fiscal responsibility. The second is to ensure the wealth is controlled. A good example of this is Norway, where oil contributes 80% of its exports, but only 22% of its GDP, and huge reserves are being held for the future. Another good example where I have lived was Calgary. The state government poured money into health care, which was extremely cheap when I was there, and they had excellent roads and general infrastructure. My opinion is that such resource-rich economies must invest a large amount of the income in broadening the economy. In Venezuela’s case, there has been economic broadening, although agriculture contributes only 3% of GDP. It is largely a food importer, for no good reason. Nevertheless, while exports total $32 billion, imports only total $17.75 billion. The problem is with government finance. It has income of almost $93 billion, and expenses roughly twice that.

Maduro replaced Chávez in 2013 and narrowly won an election. There was a recent election that Maduro also won, but which the opposition boycotted. There are accusations that the elections would be rigged, and since then there are accusations that they were, but if there were no opposition candidates that seems somewhat moot. It is one thing to complain that elections were rigged; an entirely different matter to assert they were going to be rigged. Two weeks later, Juan Guaidó, leader of the legislature, declared himself acting President. The US government has declared support for Guaidó and refuses to recognize Maduro, and threatens that if he does not step down, they will make him. They declare the election was illegitimate, but do not cite any grounds. Exactly how Guaidó declaring himself President is more legal eludes me. If the opposition did not stand, it is hard to see how Maduro could not win, and if simply boycotting an election was sufficient to overturn an election, why Mr Trump could consider what would happen if Hillary had boycotted their election. The US claims the majority prefer Guaidó, but arguably the majority voted for Hillary, and I don’t see Trump stepping down. Nor should he, at least on that ground. The rules are the rules. Trump has even hinted at military intervention. Other countries have backed Guaidó. Macron has argued he should note the protests on the street. So should Macron. Hypocrisy runs strong when politicians have a deep problem and they can divert attention from their own failings.

The Venezuelan military is at this moment behind Maduro, and while that is the case, short of a massive US invasion, he is likely to stay there, and the Venezuelans are likely to stay poor. US sanctions are not helping, but US sanctions have been there for quite a long time and are not recent, although the recent freezing of oil money will hurt the poor even more. The history of US intervention is not good, the worst example being, in my opinion, the removal of Allende in Chile, which occurred because (a) he was a socialist, and (b) US corporations could control the copper. The fact that Pinochet murdered a large number of Allende supporters bothers not the US conscience. I heard one speech where it was stated that control of the oil industry would make things better for Venezuela and the US. So at least someone in Washington thinks US corporations should have the Venezuelan oil.

So how do they get out of this mess? Who knows? The economists say Venezuela must diversify its economy and do a number of other things, but the problem is with most of the population impoverished, they cannot start much. One thing I have learned while running my own business is that if you have no money, you are screwed. So what will happen, other than the poor becoming poorer? Who knows?

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Brexit – Where is the Logic?

Governance is an interesting problem, and since I write novels, a number of them are about this. In my Dreams Defiled, one of the characters is given responsibilities on the highest governing body, and what she finds is that while some, as expected, oppose what she wants to do, others, who are supposed to be working for her are busy undermining her. If that sounds like what is happening to Theresa May, it is of course accidental because the novel was published well before this Brexit debacle, but had she read my novel, just maybe she would have taken some of the advice I had given to my character (who ignored it, of course) and would not be in this mess. Of course she could well be in a different mess.

Why logic? Logic may seem a funny requirement to some, but it is a means of reaching conclusions from a given set of premises in an orderly fashion, and it requires you to state the complete set of required facts, which include your objectives, then clearly identify the premises to be used.

In this context, the opportunities for Britain are to remain in the EU, exit with a deal, or exit with no deal. A deal involves both parties, and the EU has stated clearly that the deal Theresa May put to parliament is the onlydeal they will accept, there are precisely three possibilities. Corbyn has voted down the deal, he has stated that no deal must be voted down, which leaves only remain. Except he has not got the courage to say so. He has now proposed that there be a second referendum, except he also refuses to say whether he believes this to be the proper way to go. Brexit has been plagued with leaders who have behaved illogically, starting with Cameron. If you are happy with where you are, it is illogical to offer change. Cameron, satisfied that the people would vote to remain, offered the referendum to silence some vocal members of his party. Risking the country’s future to address a personal deficiency is not “top of the class material”.

If you set out on a journey, logic suggests you should have decided where you are going. It helps to point you in the right direction. Accordingly, before issuing the leave notice to the EU, the British politicians should have decided what they were trying to achieve. Of course they would not get all they wanted, but they most certainly would not get what they failed to request.

The first requirement in any negotiation is you should have a line below which you say, “No deal”. Each side usually starts with a position that is most desirable from their point of view. Each side then decides what from the other’s position they can accommodate, what they cannot give up, and how badly they want the deal. This last part is important, because the more you want it, the more you have to concede. However, the final result must not be too one-sided, because if it is, the losing side will then set about doing whatever to undermine it. However, one of the more bizarre facts of this situation is that the UK politicians are finally realizing they will have to accept some of what they do not want.

For the Europeans, they have several objectives, but one of the main ones is to protect the integrity of the EU. If a leaving country were to get the same advantages as a member, the EU would disintegrate, so the UK has to realize it has to give up something. I believe the major thing the UK values is the free movement of goods and people going into the EU, but what it does not like includes the free movement of people tothe UK, the imposition of Brussels rules, and the concession of sovereignty to the European Court of Justice. There are other issues, such as the potential for a European army, and the trend towards downstream political unity. They are not ready for the United States of Europe. 

If the UK leaves, they can do nothing about the free movement of goods and people to the EU, as the EU determines these. On the other hand, the EU should see advantages in keeping an association with the UK, so reciprocal rights come into play. The fear of sales declining is probably unwarranted. The UK has a trade deficitwith the EU, so the EU has an interest in keeping trade going. The UK is Germany’s biggest market for cars, and the UK could easily purchase vehicles from elsewhere, or even go back and make them, given electric vehicles offer a great start-up opportunity. Of course there have are advantages in being in the EU and these have to be given up, but a trade deal is not imperative. New Zealand has no such deal, and we trade quite harmoniously. Yes, there are limits to how much we can sell, but that is one of the facts of life. There is the rest of the world.

We also hear statement that there will be chaos with “No Deal”. This reminds me that chaos sufficient to bring the industrial world to its knees would occur on January 1, 2000, through the so-called millennial bug. I seem to recall waking and finding things going on more or less as expected. Unless politicians do something very silly, I expect the UK citizens will wake up on March 30 and feel more or less fine.

If you ask, what do border inspections achieve, you will conclude there is no need for a hard border, or border inspections. What would they achieve? Leaving aside the fact they cannot be put in place in time, tariffs do not need to be collected at the border. Sales of all goods have a VAT tax. That can be modified to collect tariffs at the same time. If the objective is to keep out people, why? If they are simply coming to spend money, who cares? If the objective is to stop illegal immigrants from working, then you do that through the tax system. They have to register to get a tax identification number. Sure, they could break such laws, but the simplest way of stopping that is to make it very expensive for the employer. The employer now becomes your immigration officers while you sort out these border issues. The prevention of criminals entering, or agricultural pests or viruses would be dealt with the same way as now. There is no reason why March 30 should be particularly different from March 28. So the EU might block things. That you cannot help; all the UK can do is make things sane where it controls them.Just to add to the complications, the Irish backstop is claimed to be necessary because of the Good Friday accord. As I argue above, the absence of border controls is not insurmountable, butthe recent terrorist attack by the New IRA may be making that accord lose value and harden attitudes. It will be interesting to see what the Republic does about such activities. In the meantime, good luck, UK. The current efforts suggest it might be needed.

Leaders failing.

Leadership is an interesting concept, and I have tried to make it the centrepiece of some of my novels, without being too obvious. The leader may appear to be obvious, but recall just because someone is in front and there are a lot behind does not mean the one in front is leading. The others could be queuing up for a backstab! And the bigger the problem, the easier it is for a leader to fail. Brexit is a clear failure of leadership. In the first place, Britain was comfortable in Europe. There were the inevitable politicians who wanted out, but there was no pressing issue requiring an immediate vote. The politicians who called it really wanted to stay in, so first, why did they call it, and second, if they felt they had to call the vote, why did they not wait until they had mounted a campaign that made it much more likely they would succeed? Having called it, they then should have campaigned hard to maximise their chances of winning. Instead, they went through the motions, and seemed like stunned mullets when they lost. They then accused the other side’s campaign of being full of lies. That might make them feel better, but if it were true, why did they not point out the lies during the campaign? Did it not occur to them that when the voters voted the way they did, just maybe what the politicians and their rich friends wanted was not representing what the voters wanted?

As for how to go about it, there are at least two pieces of advice from Sun Tzu that should have gone to the top of the list: first, know thyself, and second, know the adversary. The second one is a little more difficult but the first should be mandatory. Accordingly, the first step must be to decide whether to leave, i.e.whether to honour the referendum, and whatever you decide must be final. At first sight it might look like they did that, but nevertheless a lot of the politicians have been hoping some reason will arise whereby they can flag the whole thing away and stay. What I think Theresa May should have done was to individually make each member of her own party pledge to honour the referendum, and to work for the betterment of Britain, or resign. If they refused to do either, then she needed to call an election, and ensure those who refused to go by the decision of the party were prevented from standing for the party. That could effectively be a second referendum, but it is pointless to continue when about a third of your team are busily trying to undermine you. In any case, she called an election without anything to do with Brexit, and that was not a fortunate result for her. Had she got her party to commit, when she went to Europe she could say Brexit is going to happen, no matter what. What we are now discussing is what our relations will be then.

That leaves the question of negotiation. I have done a little of this with a multinational company that lead to two joint ventures, so I have some knowledge of what is required. The very first step is to meet with your own team and get agreement on what the bottom lines are going to be. These are the things that if you do not get them, you walk away from the negotiations. It is important that these are extremely important, and there must not be many of them. These are NOT to be used to gain an advantage over the opposition, and they are not to try to force the other side to give something up. They are simply the things that make walking inevitable. For the Brexit negotiations, one of those required bottom lines might be the question of Ireland; whatever the outcome, Northern Ireland must continue to be treated the same way as the rest of the UK. That they never recognised this until apparently now meant that they have got themselves into a position where it is difficult to see how they can progress the way they wish to progress. If you tell the opposition that something is a bottom line, and it is a reasonable one, then they will accept it and try to work around it if they want to negotiate.

Which gets to the next point: each side has to see an advantage in the end position. To some extent, Europe cannot help but see Brexit as a negative, so the emphasis has to be to determine what advantages there are for Europe for what the UK wants. That means there have to be concessions, and here the UK have made many. However, there also has to be a clear point at which if the opposition wants too much, you have to be able to say no and walk. And one of the most important points is that when you represent your team, the other side must believe that all the team will stand behind you. Of course there are also times when you must say, “I must consult my team,” over something. The leader must never wing it, other than for minor issues.

The EU leaders have also failed. They have done their best to get everything they could, which is all very well, but if they demand so much that the whole becomes unpalatable, they too end up with nothing. What they have failed to recognise is the person fronting for Britain was not really leading. So far Britain has made quite a lot of future concessions regarding payments of this and that. No deal means all those billions of pounds are lost to the EU. The EU can also lose, and the tragedy is, the various failures of the leaders have most likely ended with a lose-lose scenario.

To change the subject entirely, Christmas is near, so I wish you all a very Merry Christmas, and all the best for 2019. This will be my last post for the year, and I shall resume mid January.

The Art of International Negotiations

The methodology of engaging international relations seems to be breaking down. Two issues that come to mind are the US attitude to the International Criminal Court, and Brexit.

Regarding the ICC, on September 10, John Bolton, the US National Security Advisor, announced that Washington would “use any means necessary” to push back against the influence of the ICC. The ICC was established in 2002, and has succeeded in convicting a number of war criminals from Africa and former Yugoslavia, although one can question exactly the nature of the sovereignty of the broken laws. Thus a senior military man could be prosecuted for the actions actually carried out by more junior soldiers, even in the absence of clear evidence of such orders. Obviously, people carrying out, or even worse, ordering murder, torture, etc, need punishing, but there also needs to be some sort of sovereignty, the reason being that, in my mind anyway, justice needs to be blind to the origin or nature of the perpetrators. If it is only the losing side that gets prosecuted, it is essentially victor’s justice, which is usually little better than revenge. Given that the US, Israel, China and Saudi Arabia have refused to ratify the founding document, on the basis that it had unacceptable consequences to national sovereignty, the concept of “international” is clearly questionable.

Now, as far as I know, no US citizen has ever been indicted, probably because it would be futile, but apparently there has been agitation regarding US soldiers in Afghanistan, particularly regarding alleged torture of detainees. Now, the argument then is, if the crime took place in Afghanistan, the fact that the US has not ratified the court is irrelevant, and any perpetrator of a crime against a ratified member can be prosecuted, irrespective of the nationality, or at least that is the view of the ICC. Of course, arresting such a person is another matter. Here, however, there is a further issue. Some of what is alleged, e.g. waterboarding and indefinite detention without due process, apparently occurred with the permission of very senior US officials and politicians, and apparently the President. This raises the question, exactly how does such an organization decide whether the President of the United States has ordered or permitted something that is illegal? But if the United States is exempt, why are lesser countries susceptible to prosecution? Is it a case of might makes right?

In any case, Bolton’s statement that the US would ban any such members of the ICC from entering the US, and it would sanction their funds and prevent them from using the US financial system is certainly a shot across the bow. The question then is, is this the way of going about negotiations? Or does the US feel there is no alternative? It is certainly acting as if the rest of the world is some sort of unfortunate added extra. In terms of international relations, the United States, through President Trump’s recent speech at the UN, has effectively declared it feels it wishes to separate its interests from those of the rest of the world. America first! I for one agree that all is not right with the UN, but I do not believe that attitude helps.

The Brexit negotiations are more confusing. The EU rules meant that when Britain elected to leave, there was a two-year period to sort out all the consequences, but at least the last six months of that appeared to be required to put the agreement in place, which left 18 months to reach the agreement. That has almost expired. The EU has decided that the UK has been “dawdling”, and trying to present the EU with a deal that would have to be agreed at the last minute, or no deal. The problem with that approach is that “no deal” works both ways, and the assumption that the other side is desperate to have a deal may be misguided. However, there are issues on which the EU is quite obstinate. One is that if the UK wants access to the EU markets, Britain must accept the free movement of citizens, and stopping that is one of the reasons Britain elected to leave the EU. There are other demands by the EU: manufactured goods must be by the EU rulebook; the European Court of Justice will have overall jurisdiction; the UK must retain European labour and environmental laws. Now it is reasonable to require such things for goods that are shipped to the EU, but the EU should have no say on goods that do not touch the EU as it is none of their business.

Some seem to predict a total disaster for the UK if they leave with no deal, however we should note that the UK buys £318 billion from the EU, and exports £235.8 billion. So, if all trade stopped, the EU would suffer an extra £82 billion. But the situation is worse than that because Britain’s exports of manufactured goods to Europe include an extensive array of parts, etc. These days, large complicated objects are not made by one company, but rather they are assembled from parts supplied by a large number of different manufacturers. So trade will not stop, and it is in both sides’ interests to keep it going with as few hold-ups as possible.

The other major problem is the Northern Ireland border. Theresa May offered a tolerably straightforward solution, which would allow smooth crossing of the border provided certain “paperwork” (essentially electronic in this case) was properly completed. The EU have responded by saying Northern Ireland must remain fully within the customs union, which effectively means that Northern Ireland would become part of Eire in all but name. No UK prime minister could accept that. As a negotiating stance, President Macron of France has stated the British plan is unacceptable because “it does not respect the integrity of the single market.” Effectively that is saying, either be in the EU or do not trade with it. That is a fairly tough stance. President Macron went further and called some of the Brexiteers liars. Not exactly diplomatic.

There is fairly clear evidence the attitude towards the UK from Brussels has hardened, and they seem to be forcing Britain to opt for “no deal”. Mrs May, being pushed into a corner, has responded by saying that it was unacceptable for the EU to reject her plan and offer nothing in return except “no Brexit”. To succeed in negotiations, both sides need something, and in this case, both sides need trade to continue. Neither side does well out of a failure. But both sides also need reasonably good will, and a desire to reach an agreement. Not a lot of promise there. It is hard to get rid of entrenched pig-headedness.

Trump meets Kim.

Now the dust has settled and the media seems to have got bored with this meeting, what was achieved, and who, if anyone, came out ahead? Some of the comments about this meeting seem to me to verge on the ludicrous, but my answer to those questions, what was achieved was that the two countries at least started talking to each other, and nobody came out ahead.

The meeting led to a statement where the north agreed to “work towards complete denuclearisation” and the US committed to provide security guarantees to the North. Commentators have moaned that the statement left out “verifiable” and “irreversible”. Actually, the document gave no hint as to how this denuclearisation was to be achieved or what the terms mean, which is hardly surprising because such details need to be worked out, and that takes a long time. Equally, the US gave no clue as to how it was to provide security guarantees. This will be significantly more difficult because US Presidents have a habit of tearing up commitments made by previous Presidents. Ask Gaddafi, who gave a promise not to go after nuclear weapons in return for security. If I were Kim, I would expect this to be clarified well before I started to throw away what security I have.

Just to be clear, North Korea has adopted a porcupine strategy for security. The porcupine knows that in an all-out contest it will die. What it tries to do is to make it so obvious at the start that such a victory will come with a price that the predator will not wish to pay. Kim would know he cannot win an all-out fight with the US, but with nuclear weapons he can exact a very undesirable price. The reason they have been developed has been obvious too. George Bush invaded Iraq on a totally trumped up charge that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and then killed Saddam in an example of “victor’s justice”. He then put North Korea on a list of “the axis of evil”. The then Kim had to do something, and nuclear weapons were as good as any other option for a security guarantee.

Many commentators seem to think Trump gave away the shop and got nothing back. How? Apparently by talking to Kim, he promoted Kim to being an international figure. Well, I think that is the nearest to total rubbish that there is. Trump wanted Kim to give up nuclear weapons, his security blanket. How, short of all-out war, was this ever going to happen if he refused to talk to Kim? You can’t get anyone to do what you want without talking to them. Trump also said he would cancel future military exercises along the border. That is not much of a concession. The US military is very highly trained, and these exercises were more for show than anything else. Added to which, Trump claimed the cancellation saved the US a lot of money, so it was as much a gift to himself as to Kim. In the meantime, Kim has apparently destroyed a bomb-testing site and declared no more nuclear tests. In reality, he probably decided that he needed no more tests, and destruction of the site gave news, and stopped people from further investigating the site. He has also agreed to have US bodies from the Korean War repatriated to the US. Again, neither of these are big deals, but Kim has at least given them. Both sides made small concessions to the other that were not that meaningful, but they each gave something.

In my opinion, very little has actually happened, and the biggest gain is the two leaders have stopped prodding each other and started talking to each other. It is hard to know where this will end up, but I suspect that as long as Kim keeps a low profile and stays polite, the up-coming potential trade war will take up far more attention.

The Strange Case of Arkady Babchenko

They say truth is stranger than fiction, and I must say, I cannot conceive of any reasonable fiction writer coming up with a plot that included these rather bizarre events.

The first reports I heard were on the radio, where it was announced that the Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko, who had been a strong critic of Vladimir Putin and who had fled to Ukraine a year previously, had been shot in the back on a Kiev street, and had died on the way to hospital. There were strong protests from Ukraine and a number of other countries at the Russians for using murder as an act of revenge. The Kremlin denied any involvement. Of course, they would, wouldn’t they? My first thought was, since Ukraine is a bit anarchic, maybe we had better wait for more information. The next morning’s paper gave more details, and it looked bad. The story now changed to this murder had been pulled off outside their apartment, and his wife had phoned for the ambulance.

But the morning radio news had an even more bizarre twist. The Ukrainian police had given a press conference, and in the middle of it, in walked Arkady Babchenko. Yes, Putin was definitely innocent of his murder. It turned out the whole episode had been staged, which left open the question, why? The official statement was Arkady had had threats, and this was staged to “flush out the perpetrators” who were alleged to be Russian Intelligence. Even Arkady’s wife did not know this stunt had been pulled. My thought at the time was, he may not be dead yet, but when he gets home . . . But wait – his wife phoned for the ambulance?? A little short on self-consistency here. Well, there is worse to come.

Let’s think about this for a moment. You have been instructed to murder Arkady, then you hear on the news that he has been murdered? What do you do? Get flushed out? Or sit back and say to yourself, “Well, that was easy,” and have a glass or two of whatever beverage take your fancy? Even the highly suspicious agent (and note, this is Ukraine) might like to check out that there is indeed a funeral and see how sad the mourners are, but whatever, they are not going to jump up and down and be “flushed out.”

It seems these thoughts finally struck the Ukrainian authorities so the story changed. Now a hit-man had been hired and instead of doing it, he went to the police, and the Ukrainian intelligence services staged it so it looked as if it had been done, so the man who hired him would have to identify himself when he paid for the hit. The next question is, if so, why not wait a bit and let him identify himself. However, no need, because a day later, we knew who he was. The hit-man was an ultra-right wing priest who was known to be violently anti-Russian, and who liked to dress in military attire and take part in “exercises”. The man who hired him was Boris L. Herman, and he was alleged to have a list of some thirty others Moscow allegedly wanted eliminated. He is supposedly in custody for two months. Herman then claimed he hired the priest to kill Babchenko at the request of Ukrainian counterintelligence. Ukrainian counterintelligence denied this. Herman is reported as claiming that he hired the priest, on the basis that the priest would go straight to the SBU, Ukraine’s security service.

The SBU has conceded that he priest told them about this and they collaborated, but denied the matter had anything to do with Ukraine’s counterintelligence operations. That is like saying, “We did it, but it wasn’t us.” It then turns out that Herman is

the only private enterprise arms manufacturer in Ukraine, and was similarly right wing. Is this some sort of oligarch shakedown? They get his company and he lives if he cooperates? Whatever, who can believe anything out of Ukraine these days.

Meanwhile, a small commercial break. My ebook “Dreams Defiled”, the second in the first contact trilogy is 99c/99p from 7th – 14th. A story of a person gradually descending into being thoroughly evil, and the havoc he causes to everyone else. Also, why Mars can never be terraformed to be like Earth, and a different form of government.   https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01N24ATF7

Can We Feed an Expanded Population?

One argument you often see is that our farmland can easily feed even more people and that our technology will see that famines are a thing of the past. I am going to suggest that this may be an overenthusiastic view of our ability. First, the world is losing a surprising amount of good soil every year, to water and wind erosion. Seawater rising will remove a lot of prime agricultural land, but there is a much worse problem that needs attention. The 18th May edition of Science had some information that might give cause to rethink any optimistic view. Our high intensity agriculture depends on keeping pests, weeds and fungi at bay, and much of that currently depends on the heavy use of certain chemicals. The problem is what we are trying to keep at bay are gradually evolving resistance to our agents.

Looking at fungicides first, there are basically four classes of fungicides licensed for use, and some of these, such as the azoles, have a number of variations, but the variations tend to be those to differentiate the compounds from someone else’s, and to get around patents. The fundamental activity usually comes from one chemical group. As an example from antibiotics, there are a large number of variation on penicillin, but they all have beta lactams, and it is the beta lactams that give the functionality, so when bugs evolve that can tolerate beta lactams, the whole set of such penicillin-like drugs becomes ineffective. For fungi, the industrial scale production of single crops in some regions optimises the chance of a fungus developing a resistance, and there appears to be the possibility of gene transfer between fungi.

This has some other downstream issues. Thus medical advances lead to people having a much better chance of survival through cancer treatments, but they then become more susceptible to fungi. Apparently Candida auris is now resistant to all clinical antifungals, and is a worse threat in hospitals because it can survive most standard decontamination procedures. A number of other fungi are very threatening in clinical situations.

So what can be done about fungi? Obviously, seeking new antifungals is desirable, but this is a slow process because before letting such new chemicals out into the environment, we have to be confident that there will really be benefits and the chemicals are sufficiently effective under all circumstances, and we also need to know there are no unintended consequences.

Insecticides and herbicides (and following the article in Science, these will be collectively termed pesticides) have the same problem. It was estimated that even now the evolution of such resistance costs billions of dollars in the US. With regard to weeds, in 1996 plants were produced that were not harmed by glyphosate, and the effectiveness of this led to over 90% of US maize, soy and cotton being planted with such plants. (Some will recall the fact that some were bred so the plants did not produce viable seed, and further seed had to be purchased from the company that developed the plant.) Now there are at least forty serious weeds that have developed resistance to glyphosate. Plants have been engineered that are resistant to chemicals mimicking previous herbicides but the weeds are defeating that. Weed species have evolved to resist every known herbicide, and no herbicide has been developed with a new mode of action over the last thirty years.

In agriculture, it is easy to see how this situation could arise. When you spray a crop, not every part of every plant gets the same amount of spray. Some of what you don’t want will survive in places where the dose was less than enough. From the farmer’s point of view, this does not matter because enough of the pests have been dealt with that his return is not hurt by the few that survive. However, the fact that some always survive is just what evolution needs to develop life forms capable of resisting the chemicals.

So, what to do? Obviously, more effort is required, but here we meet some problems that might be intractable. Major companies have to invest large amounts of money to provide a possible solution, and they will only do so when there are likely to be guaranteed very large sales. However, to defeat resistance, it is most desirable to pulse agents, thus using agent A one year, agent B the next, and no repeat for a number of years. That maximises the chance of avoiding the generation of further resistance, but what company wants to participate in the sort of sales future? We could try natural procedures and live with the fact that yields are lower, but that implies we really do not want to eat that much more, which in turn suggests population growth needs to be curbed. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers.