Food for the Future

Great minds thinking alike, or fools seldom differing? That’s me and the production team of BBC Radio 4’s Farming Today programme.

You see, we both were inspired by what Boris Johnson said when he arrived in Downing Street after being made Prime Minister (namely: “Let’s start now [ie, after we leave the EU] to liberate the UK’s extraordinary bioscience sector from anti genetic modification rules and let’s develop the blight-resistant crops that will feed the world”) to re-visit the subject of GM (genetically modified) crops and food.

Farming Today broadcast the results of their endeavours last week, including a round-up programme on Saturday: podcast: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0008pdl stream: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m0008pdl

Me, well, I took as my (kind-of) inspiration one of the ‘alternative’ descriptions of GM crops – “Frankenfoods” – and did a Frankenstein (ie brought back from the dead) some stuff on GM food (also known as Genetically Engineered, or Transgenic) that I picked up more than 20 years ago, at an exhibition at the Science Museum in London.

The exhibition was called Future Foods? An exhibition looking at Genetically Modified Food and it ran between November 1997 and March 1998.

The stuff is (are?): a four-page leaflet accompanying the exhibition, and a 30-page booklet, Food for our Future: Food and biotechnology, published by the Food and Drink Federation.

Both the leaflet and the booklet cover similar ground, an explanation of what genetic modification is (ie the sort done in a lab, rather than that done in a greenhouse using conventional breeding techniques), and outlines of the arguments for and against. OK, largely ‘for’: both publications wax lyrical about GM crops, and how they can enhance our lives in so many ways, from reducing our use of pesticides to making our food extra-nutritious.

And they describe how we could expect to be experiencing those benefits within just a handful of years.

I thought it might be worth find out how some of the crops mentioned in those booklets had fared in the years since the exhibition.

To put their progress, or otherwise, into context, it’s important to consider the current situation in the UK, and the EU of which the UK is still a part.

At present, a GM crop cannot be grown anywhere in any EU member country unless it has been approved by the EU’s European Food Safety Authority. If/when it is, then it’s up to the governments of individual countries whether or not they adopt it.

Unlike some nations (the US, for example), the EU regulates according to the ‘precautionary principle’, in effect, the whole “better to be overly cautious – and safe – than sorry” thing. Although EFSA has approved a handful of GM crops, from carnations to sugarbeet, currently only GM maize is actually grown in the EU, in Spain and Portugal.

That’s not to say we don’t already have GM crops in this country, because we do. They’re not grown in fields on ‘proper’ farms, but in laboratories or in fields at research facilities. (Although some people warn that it could be possible for GM organisms to escape from the research facilities and ‘contaminate’ surrounding farmland.)

We also have GM food, although not much: the EU has approved only GM canola (rapeseed), soya, maize, potato and sugarbeet for (animal and human) consumption. I’ve seen cooking oil that includes oil from GM plants, for example, and hummus. And an awful lot of our animal feed is made from (imported) GM ingredients, such as soy.

Food eaten directly by humans must be labelled (which is why I knew the cooking oil was GM) – although I do wonder how many people even think to check the labels for the abbreviation “GM”. But food from animals fed on GM, such as pigs reared on GM soy, does not have to be labelled; not in the UK, at any rate.

When we leave the EU, however, we should no longer be bound by EU restrictions on growing GM crops, of course; as Boris put it, we’ll be “liberated.

But how many of the foods featured in my exhibition bumpf could we expect to have access to once we have been “liberated”?

As far as I know, the best source of information on GM crops – what is grown, where in the world and in what quantities – is the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), which, on its website, describes itself as: “a not-for-profit international organization that shares the benefits of crop biotechnology to various stakeholders, particularly resource-poor farmers in developing countries, through knowledge sharing initiatives and the transfer and delivery of proprietary biotechnology applications.”

ISAAA’s partners and donors include CGIAR (formerly the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research), the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and organisations like the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), which is funded by, amongst others, the UK Government’s Department for International Development (DfID), and companies that develop GM crops.

As ISAAA says itself, it thinks GM crops are a good thing; it promotes them, it doesn’t try to cover them up.

So if they know a GM crop exists, they’re going to tell you about it, and I’m pretty sure they have the best information on the planet about what exists. Maybe I’m wrong and there is a better source out there, and if that is the case I apologise, but the ISAAA is the best one I can think of.

The ISAAA database (http://www.isaaa.org/gmapprovaldatabase/default.asp) lists 31 GM crops, from alfalfa to wheat, via insect-resistant eggplant (aubergine) and safflower, that have been approved for human or animal consumption, use and/or cultivation around the world, including the EU.

Not all of them were grown in 2018. In fact, the majority weren’t, and some haven’t been grown for years – they’ve been withdrawn from the market, for a variety of reasons (some of which you can read about later).

The most popular traits relate to tackling a problem: weeds, pests (insects), disease or drought, but there are some that are more about making a product ‘better’: apples and potatoes that don’t go brown when they’re cut, or soya that yields oil that’s supposed to be healthier than that from conventional plants. Some have more than one of these traits.

In 2018, GM crops were grown in 26 countries around the world – a total of 191.7million hectares of them – and imported into 44 more (including members of the GM-sceptical EU). As a point of comparison, in the first year the crops were commercialized – 1996 – only 1.7 million hectares were grown.

The biggest producer in 2018, by far, was the US, which grew 75 million hectares, of maize, soy, cotton, canola, sugarbeet, alfalfa, papaya, squash, potatoes and apples. The ISAAA praises the US for its “support” of GM crops and “leadership” in its regulation of them (or non-regulation, as some critics of GM would see it).

The smallest, and newest, grower was the African nation of eSwatini (formerly Swaziland), where around 250 hectares of insect-resistant GM cotton were grown.

The most ‘popular’ crop internationally was soybeans, accounting for 50 per cent of the acreage grown. The other ‘top’ crops were maize, cotton and canola (rape).

So what about the crops in my booklet and leaflet?

The most commonly used trait nowadays is mentioned only almost in passing in the leaflet and booklet: herbicide tolerance. A total of 46 per cent of GM crops grown in 2018 – mainly soybeans, canola, maize, alfalfa, and cotton – were genetically engineered to be resistant to some form of herbicide.

The ‘benefit’ of this trait is that it supposedly enables farmers to use less herbicide on their crops, because the weeds will be taken out in one go, while the crops will be fine.

While herbicide-resistant wheat, featured in the booklet, was approved for food and animal feed use in the US, and food use only in Australia, Colombia and New Zealand, in 2004, it’s never been authorised for cultivation anywhere.

The next most ‘popular’ trait today is insect resistance (often ‘stacked’ with herbicide tolerance).

Among the fruits and vegetables being lined up to be made “pest resistant” in the mid-1990s were: “potatoes able to resist the Colorado beetle”; “fruit trees and strawberries”; “crops including apple, potato, maize, cotton, rice and tomato”, and cauliflower with a snowdrop gene added, to make it produce lectin, to make it resistant to pests.

Colorado beetle-resistant potatoes, called NewLeaf, had been available in the US since 1995. However, they were withdrawn in 2001, after the manufacturer, Monsanto, decided they weren’t commercially viable.

The potatoes, which were supposed to be disease-resistant as well, were expensive to produce, even after development costs had been met, but apparently, only a relatively small acreage was planted.

I’ve seen a number of possible explanations for why: the planting process was more complicated than that for conventional potatoes, so maybe farmers decided the ‘benefits’ weren’t worth the hassle, especially when a new insecticide that was effective against Colorado beetle came onto the market?

Meanwhile, food producers couldn’t work out how to separate GM foods from non-GM ones for consumers who declined to eat GM food (one of the main markets Monsanto was targeting was crisp manufacturers; good luck to them in separating GM crisps from non-GM ones!).

No insect resistant apples, rice or tomatoes have been approved (although they have, of course, been approved for other ‘qualities’). Strawberries don’t feature anywhere on the ISAAA database, nor do cauliflowers.

However, some of the biggest GM crops on the planet are pest-resistant maize and cotton (as mentioned above). The latter is especially contentious, though: https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/monsanto-burkina-cotton/.

There’s also insect-resistant Bt sugarcane, developed and approved in the US and Canada and Brazil in 2016-2018, which was grown in Brazil in 2018.

How about the disease-resistant fruit and veg that features in the booklet and leaflet?

Such as: “cucumber, lettuce, tomatoes, peppers resistant to Cucumber Mosaic Virus”; “sweet potato resistant to feathery mottle virus”, and “a viral-resistant variety of papaya able to resist ringspot”?

The only disease-resistant crops to have any kind of approval, ie for consumption and/or cultivation, are: beans, papayas, plums, potatoes, squash, sweet peppers, tomato. Of these, only papaya and squash were grown, in the US and China, in 2018.

The GM feature that got the most coverage in the leaflet and booklet is the one that is least used today: what I suppose you could call the ‘making plants better’ one. Maybe that’s because a vaccine-in-a-banana sounds a lot more exciting than “wheat that doesn’t wilt when you douse it in weedkiller”?

So what were these brave new fruits and veg, and what happened to them? Well, some appear to have been more successful than others.

For a start: “Potatoes and apples that don’t go brown when you cut them”?

Anti-browning potatoes, under the brand name “Innate”, were launched in the US – but only in 2016, while “Arctic” apples genetically engineered by a Canadian company not to go brown went on sale in the US – in 2017.

Vegetables with increased levels of carotenoids (the things that make tomatoes, peppers and carrots red, which, apparently, helps protect against cancer and coronary heart disease)?
No carotenoid-enhanced vegetables of any kind on the ISAAA database.

A banana that delivers a vaccine, such as against Hepatitis B (to make a more patient-friendly method of vaccination, especially for children)?

The leaflet stated that the Boyce Thompson Institute in New York had genetically modified potatoes to carry Hep B vaccine and were hoping to do the same with bananas. I can find reports about the potato vaccine entering clinical trial in 1999, and media reports of the “remarkable” success of (I assume) that same clinical trial from 2005.

But do inoculative bananas feature on the ISAAA database? Er no. In fact, bananas don’t feature at all.

A search for “vaccine” brings up news stories about research into using fruit, and veg, as a means of delivering vaccines (carrots against cholera, for example, in 2007, and Hep B vaccine in transgenic maize in 2014), and/or as a medium for developing a vaccine – ie modifying the whatever so it contains the vaccine, which can then be extracted from the plant and purified.

(Tobacco seems a particularly popular medium; I don’t know whether this is because tobacco is particularly good for this, or because someone is desperately trying to find a new use for all the tobacco-growing facilities around the world that must be falling out of use as smoking declines.) But so far, no inoculative plants of any kind.

Jeans made from cotton genetically modified to grow blue?

No sign of that cotton anywhere, although, away from the ISAAA website, I did find a media story, from the US, about scientists in the US genetically modifying plants to make blue dye for jeans, instead of making it from chemicals. But as far as I can find out, this hasn’t made it into commercial use.

“Improving nutritional value” (ie biofortification), such as “transferring genes from pea plants to make higher protein rice”? That didn’t happen, or at least hasn’t as yet.

The only GM bio-fortified food currently available is “Golden Rice”. It’s been engineered, using genes from daffodils and soil bacterium, to contain Vitamin A, which doesn’t occur naturally in rice. It’s supposedly intended to be eaten in developing countries, as a way of tackling Vitamin A deficiency, which causes, amongst other things, sight loss. It’s taken 20 years, and a reported US$100 million, to develop.

Over the last couple of years it’s been approved for use in food for human consumption in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand (and, in the US, in animal feed too), although it’s not been approved to be grown anywhere in the world yet.

(An organisation called HarvestPlus, which is also associated with CGIAR, has been distributing non-GM Vitamin A enriched sweet potatoes in developing countries for over a decade. I can’t find out how much it cost to develop, but US$100million is an awful lot of money).

Altering the saturated fat content of corn, soya, oilseed rape (canola) and other oil crops”:

GM high-oleic acid soybean oil has been available since the late 1990s, approved for consumption by animals and humans, in a couple of dozen countries and grown in several, especially the US. It’s supposed to be lower in saturated fat and trans fats – and therefore healthier – than conventional soybean oil.

Low saturated fat corn oil, made from GM maize, has been available since the 1990s. A transgenic high-laurate canola oil was approved for human and animal consumption and cultivation, in the US and Canada in the mid-1990s (ie before the booklet was produced). It was intended as a substitute for imported coconut and palm oils, but, apparently, it wasn’t as successful as the developers hoped, and may not even be available today.

Higher vitamin fruit and veg:
Haven’t happened. At least as far as I can discover.

Longer-lasting fruit and veg:
The booklet lists the Flavr Savr delayed-ripening tomato, which had gone on sale in the US shortly before the booklet was published. These tomatoes were the first commercialised GM foodstuff to go on sale anywhere in the world, but within about three years they’d disappeared from shop shelves.

Factors blamed for their demise include them being of poor quality because they were developed from low-grade ordinary tomatoes, because the developer couldn’t afford better, more expensive varieties, and them being poorly packed on their journey from Mexico, where they were grown. However, I’ve also seen claims that they were prohibitively expensive, and didn’t taste as good as ordinary tomatoes as well.

Delayed-ripening melons were approved for human consumption in the US in 1999, but have never been approved for cultivation anywhere in the world.

So that’s now compared to then. Who knows what things will be like in 2040? That’s partly up to you, Boris…

Crunching the newspaper numbers

The other morning, our newspaper person accidentally dropped a couple of delivery lists in our garden while delivering our paper.

As an occasional cruncher of newspaper sales numbers, I found them rather interesting, and I thought I might as well put them to good use, just in case there’s someone (anyone?) out there who’s just as sad as me…

On the streets covered by the rounds, there are approximately 860 houses. Just 54 of them have a(t least one) newspaper delivered.

This was during the school holidays, so it could be that some houses had cancelled their papers because they were away.

It was also a weekday; maybe more people get a paper delivered on a Sunday, when they have time to digest the contents with their breakfast.

It’s also possible that some of the residents of the 800 or so houses that didn’t have a paper delivered – our neighbour, for example – buy one from a shop.

Others could use another newsagent, although seeing as ours is the only one for a couple of miles, I’m not sure how likely that is.

And, of course, who knows how many people in those 800 or so houses that don’t get a paper delivered – and maybe even some who do – are avid users of newspaper websites?

But these delivery lists are proof of people actually putting their hands in their pockets to pay for the news they consume; a demonstration that they care enough to hand over hard cash (rather than allow their data to be pillaged in exchange for it).

Is it worth examining exactly what that six per cent-or-so of my neighbours are paying for? I think so…

My community is, I suppose, what you would call ‘mixed’, in class and (assumed) wealth terms, anyway (in race/religion terms it’s very much still white British). It’s Northern – on the edge of Bolton, and it’s a former (many years ago, we’re not talking 1980s here) mining community. There’s not much in the way of places of employment now, though, so I’d be surprised if more than 20 per cent of the residents work within a mile radius of their home; most will have to commute.

So that’s the market we’re talking about.

The rounds cover three private housing estates; two built in the 1960s, one in the 1980s. Quite a lot of the 1960s houses seem to be occupied by people who bought them when they were new, or almost new, ie people in their 60s and 70s. The 1980s estate seems a bit more mixed.

The smaller 1960s estate comprises about 60 houses. Nine of them get a paper. And the most popular one is…. The Daily Mail. Six houses get that, including two who also get the local paper, the Bolton News.

One gets only the Bolton News, and two get just the Daily Express.

The bigger 1960s estate has around 300 houses, including a couple of dozen council/ex-council houses right on the very edge.

That’s more mixed. Five get the Daily Mirror, including two who get the Bolton News as well. (Three of them live on the same road of private houses. No other paper even figures on that road, even though the houses, and residents, are not really any different from those around them.)

Three get the Daily Telegraph and three The Times, including one who gets the Bolton News too. Just two get the Mail, and only one The Guardian. In fact that’s the only Guardian on all of these rounds.

Four get the Bolton News alone.

The delivery round/s seem to cover something like 150 houses on the 1980s estate. (Either the newspaper person didn’t drop the lists for them or no one there gets a paper.)

The most popular paper is… The Daily Mail (again!): five households get that, all of them on the same street. (It is mainly bungalows, ie popular with older people, though.)

Three take the Daily Telegraph (two on ‘Daily Mail’ street); three houses get the Bolton News; one The Times, and one the Daily Mirror.

And now we come to the council and ex-council house estate. If you’re thinking Shameless here, then don’t, because, while the streets aren’t exactly Millionaire’s Row, they ain’t exactly feral either.

And the most popular paper on those streets? The Sun. Four houses get that. Two get the Mirror, one the Daily Mail and one the Bolton News.

On the half-mile or so stretch of main road that figures in the round/s, the most popular paper is the Bolton News – three houses get that. Two get the Express and one the Daily Telegraph.

I’m not sure exactly what all the above says about where I live – other than there’s lean pickings for newspaper delivery people – but someone (other than me) might find it interesting.

Tsunami in Thailand

Published in UK Press Gazette, 5 January 2005 (also available here: http://www.pressgazette.co.uk/everything-is-gone-everyone-is-dead/ ).

What we didn’t know at the time is that Suzanne, the mother of Hannes Bergstrom, the toddler re-united with his family through the Phuket Gazette website, was one of those killed in the tsunami:

“Too few coffins in Phuket”

tsunami Phuket Boxing-Day 26-December-2004

Originally published on GreatReporter.com: http://greatreporter.com/content/asia-disaster-too-few-coffins-phuket

(Warning: it is a little graphic in places)

Asia disaster: ‘Too few coffins in Phuket’

As we turned into Patong Hospital’s car park we found ourselves stuck behind four trucks laden with empty coffins – about 40 per truck.

Some were little more than grey crates, others had been painted white with gold patterns stenciled on the sides, pale imitations of the ornate caskets so common in South-East Asia.

There was just one parking space left and we took it. As we opened the doors of the air-conditioned car, we were surrounded by the whining of electric saws and the rhythm of nails being hammered.

The walk to the hospital entrance took us past the source of the noise, and the reason why our part of the car park was full. It was given over entirely to making coffins.

Young men grabbed plywood sheets from foot-high stacks on the floor – the hospital has been appealing for donations of plywood – and sawed them into panels for other young men to nail together as fast as they could.

It took about two minutes to make one coffin, and it showed: no two were the same size, and as there was no time to sandpaper the panels, the hands of their makers were freckled with splinters.

As soon as a coffin was finished, it was taken to the mortuary, where a body, wrapped in plastic sheeting was placed inside.

Phuket has few places in its refrigerated mortuaries and the island’s hospitals have been appealing for donations of formalin preservative to stop bodies piled outside from decomposing beyond recognition.

If there was an identity card on the body when it was found, a photocopy of it was pasted on one short end of the coffin. If there wasn’t, there was a photograph of the person’s face. But bodies don’t keep well in 30C heat, and if the face was too distorted or discoloured to be recognised, there were also photographs of their clothes, or a tattoo or a piece of distinctive jewellery.

The photographs have been placed on a computer in the hospital reception, and anxious people, mainly Thais, were queuing to click through them, hoping yet hoping not to find a face they recognised.

The coffins were carried to the hospital’s underground car park, probably the coolest place on the premises.

Half-an-hour earlier, I had stood on a hillside and looked across the area most affected by the tsunami, where some of Patong’s thriving bars, restaurants, trinket shops and tailors had previously been. It resembled a building site rather than a killing field.

The weather here is such that buildings don’t need to be particularly substantial, and they don’t leave much mess when they’re wrecked, so it’s sometimes hard to comprehend the magnitude of what has been visited on this so-called ‘island paradise’.

Until you find yourself watching men make coffin after coffin and still not make enough.

How the 2004 tsunami affected Phi Phi Island

Interview with Andrew Hewett, who founded the Phi Phi Dive Camp to help clean up Koh Phi Phi Don after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. Farang Untamed Travel (Thailand), December 2005:

Gold discovered at Lancashire beauty spot

It being April Fools’ Day and all, am I allowed to bask in past ‘glories’ (or more accurately, a past glory) by posting an April Fool I did when I was working for the Heywood Advertiser?

I got the idea from an interview I did years earlier, with a man from Bolton who had won a gold-panning competition in Scotland. (No, there is no gold in Scotland, not as far as I know, anyway; flakes of gold were deposited in a stream for the competitors to find.)

What made putting together the story so much fun was the enthusiastic cooperation of my partner-in-crime, the man in the picture, Peter Chadwick. Not only did he give me some great quotes for the story, he even took along his own frying pan for the picture!

(Note: to read the story, magnify the image by zooming in on the page – using CTRL++, for example.)

Man panning for gold in Ashworth Valley, near Heywood, Rochdale.

My April Fool for the Heywood Advertiser.

 

The Last Shan Prince’s Tractor

THERE probably aren’t many tractors that are tourist attractions, especially half-century old ones in a remote part of one of the planet’s least-visited countries.

Mr Donald sitting on his tractor at the entrance to his palace in Hsipaw.

Sao Oo Kya, “Mr Donald” with his Massey Ferguson tractor.

The bright red 1957 Model 35 Massey Ferguson takes pride of place outside the pre-War Home Counties-style building that was once the palace of the last Shan Sao Pha – prince – of Hsipaw, Burma, and the current custodian, the last prince’s nephew, “Mr Donald” Sone, is only too happy to share its extraordinary story with visitors.

The tractor was one of 11 bought new by Mr Donald’s uncle, Sao Kyi Seng, as he strove to modernise agricultural production in Hsipaw. But the modernisation ended abruptly in 1962, when he, Mr Donald’s father and the other 32 Shan princes were arrested during the coup that put Ne Win’s socialist government in power, and the fleet of tractors was “nationalised”.

Sao Kyi Seng was never seen again; the family learned later that he had “died” in custody – so when his Austrian-born wife, Inge, fled the country two years later, management of the estate fell to his nephew, Sao Oo Kya – Mr Donald.

Having found documents proving that the tractors had been bought with family money, and so were “personal possessions” which should not have been nationalised, Mr Donald set about trying to recover them.

Every year, he wrote at least twice to the authorities to ask for them back; every time, the reply – if it came at all – was that he had written to the wrong person, or he had written to the right person but they were unable to help.

Then, three decades later, in 1994, Mr Donald accompanied 106-year-old local monk Ya Jaw Bawdaw on a trip to Rangoon, to meet members of the ruling junta. The generals had invited the venerated man to the capital several times, but he accepted this time only on condition that Mr Donald joined him as his private secretary.

Burma is a deeply religious country, so the generals were grateful for the favourable publicity generated by the monk’s visit, and, as a result, then-Head of Military Intelligence Khin Nyunt offered Mr Donald anything he wanted as a reward.

Without hesitation Mr Donald asked for the tractor he knew was rotting on a collective farm about 20 miles away; within four months, a lorry was depositing it outside the palace.

“It was a vehicular corpse,” remembered Mr Donald. The engine was clogged by decades of mud and grease, the pistons and piston rings were shattered, the tyres were perished, the bodywork rusted, and the broken crankshaft meant it couldn’t even be driven.

Mr Donald, a political science graduate, was no mechanic, and Burma’s three decades of global near-isolation meant parts were all but unavailable.

“People said I should buy a Chinese hand tractor; it would be cheaper and I could use it straightaway,” said Mr Donald, “But I told them, ‘This is my tractor and I will use it again.”

He devoted his spare time to dismantling the engine and cleaning every part, then trying to work out how to put it back together again. “It was all trial and error and it was very hard,” he said.

Eventually, Mr Donald found a man, semi-paralysed by a stroke, who knew a little about the tractors that had been used in the gypsum mine where he had worked. They hadn’t been Massey Fergusons, but they had been tractors. It was a start…

The rarity of parts meant it took two years to find a suitable crankshaft. Piston rings and bearings from other engines were reshaped and resized to fit the Massey Ferguson; the chimney was made by guesswork, and Mr Donald made gaskets from zinc sheets and cellophane Christmas paper.

By now, Hsipaw had been opened to foreigners, and the former palace had become a tourist attraction.

Word spread among the backpacking community of the Shan aristocrat and his tractor, and it wasn’t unknown for a visitor to take a spanner to the engine or produce from a backpack a catalogue from a parts supplier in England.

The fuel injection pump – from the Australian Outback – made it to Hsipaw that way, as did the Massey Ferguson tractor manual that enabled Mr Donald to work out, finally, why his tractor would not move.

Four years after recovering the Model 35, Mr Donald was finally able to start up the engine and chug round the estate’s 21-acre grounds, and when, now, he peels back the tarpaulin cover to show it to visitors, he does it with very visible pride.

A man and waterbuffalo working in padi fields near Hsipaw.

Rice padi fields near to Hsipaw, Burma.

He admits there were times when he came close to giving up, but he likes to think of his achievement as “an inspiration”. He said: “I wanted people to see that in this country there are people… who are making the old into the new…

“It was about far more than getting a tractor working again.”

 

This story dates from 2004, when I visited Mr Donald while I was travelling in Burma/Myanmar. It’s one of my most favourite stories ever. For a start, I have great affection for Massey Ferguson tractors like this – I could drive one before I was 10 years old. But I love the story, too, for what it represents: as Mr Donald said, his project “was about far more than getting a tractor working again”. I don’t know about Mr Donald, but I saw his story as a metaphor for the resilience of the people of Burma and their ingenuity, determination and pride in overcoming the obstacles put in their way by the junta; their absolute refusal to be crushed

Mr Donald was OK about me telling his story, and it was due to be published in 2005, but it was spiked after he was arrested for “acting against the state” or something, and “talking to tourists”. (When I returned to Hsipaw in Summer 2005, there was really sad little note on the gate to the Palace grounds, requesting tourists to keep well away.) Mr Donald was sentenced to 13 years in jail but he was released under an amnesty in 2009. Now, apparently, he lives outside Burma, and, of course, Burma itself seems to have changed quite a bit since then, so I guess it’s now safe to share his story.

(I’m publishing it on both my blogs, my professional alisonwinward.wordpress.com and my hobbyblog, 10,000 Miles & More, because it’s an example of me writing professionally, but I know there are people who follow my hobbyblog but not my professional one who may like to read it; PH, for a start.)