Comment posted to Philip Stott’s pro-biotech website (, now partially defunct),   15 Sept, 2001


Simon Batterbury, University of Melbourne, Australia


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Explanation: Philip Stott is a public commentator on environmental issues based in the UK, and a frequent correspondent on the internet (see also here) and in the media. He worked for many years as an academic geographer, based at SOAS, University of London. He established a reputation as a biogeographer and a specialist on in SE Asia, and taught several of my friends in the profession. By the 1990s he was also working on his own brand of  ‘political ecology’, as well as drawing on philosophies of science to explain variant public perceptions of biodiversity and species loss. Stott ascended to the rank of professor late in his career. I attended his professorial address in the late 1990s – my companion on the night, a well-known physical geographer, was speechless by the end of the talk, annoyed by the absence of scientific evidence concealed by a persuasive ‘fire and brimstone’ presentational style that Stott is well known for. By 1995 Stott was regularly taking on cosy terms like ‘sustainability’, lecturing widely (including to my wife, as it happens) on the fallacies of equilibrium concepts in ecology – but beginning to take this further, often working well outside his formal expertise, to accuse “environmentalists” and “greens” of gross errors of understanding.


In the late 1990s things seemed to change quite quickly. Events at SOAS (rumoured to be the failure to secure a hoped-for senior management post) prompted his retirement. Around this time, SOAS Geography Department was earmarked for closure, but several staff were taken on by or merged with the Geography Department at King’s College. Anyhow, once retired, Stott spent more time with his websites and other activities, and is still is a panellist on the BBC’s widely appreciated Home Planet radio show.


Unlike most academic geographers he has attracted public attention. He is now considered by his critics as a ‘climate skeptic’, a term he dislikes, i.e. unconcerned about the negative impacts of global warming,  and the internet is full of discussion about, and challenges to, his ideas on a variety of controversial topics.


Stott has embraced the internet from an early stage, beginning with his website, that offered instructive articles and commentaries on (mainly) ecological fallacies in research and the media. The site was suddenly replaced by pro.biotech, where Stott shifted much of the focus to biotechnology, supporting genetic modification of foods very strongly. Some pages on that site still work. That’s when I became disturbed and I submitted this comment to the guestbook, which at the time consisted mainly of supportive emails.


Strangely, the pro.biotech site was closed down the next day, reappearing later with a new format and without this comment, or indeed without the guestbook itself. In its next incarnation there was no way to lodge a comment.  So I suppose it hit home.



I review this material occasionally and ask my students to glance at Stott's book on Tropical Rainforests. I helped set up and run the MA in Environment and Development at LSE, and now work as a geographer at Univ. of Arizona. [2005 - now Melbourne].


Stott's critical analysis of myths and orthodoxies is valuable, and he gives a good fire-and-brimstone account of 'sustainability'. Much of the pseudo-science and science on the site is, however, open to debate or in some cases quite easy to refute - although the previous incarnation, '', was worse (one day it suddenly disappeared to be replaced by ‘pro-biotech’, without explanation).


I would point out that in the professional community of scientists and geographers working on these issues, Stott is in a tiny minority of those who believe human-induced global warming may be [easily] mitigated (or is actually unimportant in the climate record), that the sterling work of environmental activists has little value, that GM food is largely risk-free, that tropical rainforests are sufficiently protected, or that the capitalist motive of agro-food and energy companies somehow doesn't impose its own agenda on 'science' (which means we should question privately funded research, and be skeptical of claims based upon it, including sentiments at the recent pro-biotech conference in the UK).


One issue on which I can speak: As one respondent to this guestboard said, to justify the need for GM on some supposed 'population crisis' or 'productivity crisis' in developing countries is just plain wrong, and insults farmers who do a good job feeding their families - and I speak as someone with years of work with African farmers behind me. I have also worked in a plant breeding establishment, ICRISAT, in Niger and I run several initiatives bringing together scientists with policymakers and citizens. Millet breeding in Africa wasted millions of dollars - it has largely been abandoned in the CGIAR system that oversees it. Local varieties continue to outperform bred ones - and the latter require fertilizers which are unavailable to poor farmers. Social inequalities in villages distribute the seeds, and benefits, unequally.


Geographer Michael Mortimore, with 28 years of fieldwork in northern Nigeria behind him and author of a sterling account of agricultural intensification in Kenya (More People less Erosion, Wiley 1994 - see successfully argues the case for a vision of agriculture driven by human adaptability and population growth, fuelling investment (we term this a Boserupian view, after the  Danish economist). In this scenario, GM would probably not have a place because it won't be needed (see his Roots in the African Dust, CUP, 1998). Paul Richards’s work (Indigenous Agricultural Revolution, Longman 1985) describes local farming systems in tropical West Africa as so adaptive and responsive, that [laboratory] improved genotypes stand out as playing a minor role in local crop management decisions. His own involvement over many years has been with an NGO that helps facilitate genotype exchange - a useful way forward that again leaves out the need for GM crops. Stott's colleague, Dr. Kathy Baker, has written an excellent book (Indigenous Land Management in West Africa, Oxford, 2001) which describes the same processes and flatly contradicts the pro-biotech stance. No calls for massive fertilizer additions or super-productive GM crops are made, in its balanced assessments.


Of course moderate, environmentally conscious geographers like myself have their own political and personal agendas just like Stott - perhaps we should find the time to espouse them more openly.  People like Bill Adams (Cambridge), Tim O'Riordan (UEA), Andrew Warren (UCL), Carolyn Merchant (Berkeley), Diana Liverman (Arizona [Oxford] ),  Piers Blaikie (UEA), some of Stotts' own students Katrin Schrekenberg (ODI) and Tim Forsyth (LSE) and particularly the witty and intensely informed anti-biotech work of Margaret Fitzsimmons (Santa Cruz - grandaughter of pithy pro-farmer/anti-growth geographical legend, Carl Sauer) are just some of the beacons in this field, and people that readers may also consult. You will find points of agreement with Stott on matters of science - e.g. over the importance of understanding complex non equilibrium dynamics - but the policy recommendations they draw out from data and fieldwork differ radically. To summarise many papers and different studies :-


  • conserve what resources and genetic diversity we are losing;
  • in some cases FIGHT to do so, as environmentally conscious scientists and professionals;
  • politics matters in all agricultural decisions;
  • the world is an unequal place partly because of transnationals and politicians, partly because of innate social and gender inequalities that the GM industry cynically overlooks in its mission to 'meeting needs' (while making $$).


And can anybody really assign credibility to a company like Monsanto? Ask Prof. Glenn Stone (Anthropology, Washington University), a student of Indian agricultural policies in regions where Monsanto operates, and an observer of processes in GM labs in America.


Maybe there are just more of us in this intellectual grouping, so the minority has to speak louder and have a website - that is fair enough. But it might also be that a critical realist approach to science, and to environmental issues in general, offers a slightly less shrill voice, and certainly a more precautionary one, than the material presented to us here. And, given the imminent closure/merger of the SOAS Geography department by the university authorities (some staff will be redeployed, but nonetheless it is a tragedy for British geography and area studies that should never have been allowed to happen by those involved), I wonder what people closer to these debates in SOAS make of all of this? Their voices are strangely absent.


Some of these points may seem to academic and focussed, but one thing geography and environmental studies teaches us is to always set an argument, discourse, or narrative in context.