Science in Society Archive

Science in a New Key

Invited address to UK Parliamentary and Scientific Committee, 19th May 2009, Westminster, London Dr. Mae-Wan Ho

The accompanying presentation to this lecture is available from the I-SIS online store here.

What is I-SIS?

Thank you for inviting me to address this important committee on the theme of science in the street.

I am director of the Institute of Science in Society (ISIS), which my husband Peter Saunders and I co-founded in 1999; our motto is “Science in action, in and for society.” We don't take science to the street just for the sake of popularizing science, or making science fun and acceptable to the public.

First among our mission is to provide accessible and reliable science information to the public and policy makers. That's very important in view of the extent to which corporate business has taken over science, as reported in the latest issue of our quarterly magazine Science in Society [1] ( Corporate Monopoly of Science , SiS 42). We promote both critical understanding and appreciation of science, or science literacy, without which we can have no real democracy in decision-making. And, we want social accountability and sustainability in science and science policies.

I should say what I mean by science, so you can see where we are coming from. Science in the most general sense is reliable knowledge of nature that enables us to live sustainably with her . It doesn't matter how that knowledge is acquired, in the lab or in real life, and includes especially indigenous and local knowledge.

CP Snow and beyond

This year is the 50th anniversary of CP Snow's famous lecture, “The Two Cultures”, on science and the humanities failing to understand each other and the lack of scientists in positions of power preventing solutions to serious problems like poverty. We share those concerns.

You may have noticed the wonderful artworks that form the backdrop of my slides. We encourage appreciation of both art and science through our trend-setting magazine and website ( ) with an e-mail list of thousands. Commenting on “The Two Cultures” in the journal Nature , art historian Martin Kemp and others lament the general decline in the appreciation of culture and overspecialization in education [2, 3]. ISIS is well placed to tackle those problems; our scientists are all polymaths to varying degrees, and very keen on the humanities and art.

The lack of science literacy in our politicians is indeed worrying; with the result that not only do they do what corporations like Monsanto tell them, but also speak like Monsanto.

Despite his good intentions, CP Snow belonged to the establishment that recognizes only one kind of science, and that's where he and ISIS part company. Science is inherently anti-establishment; it can't help but challenge the status quo as it advances, and that's where ISIS ' strength lies. We keep abreast, and often ahead, of mainstream science. And we keep an eye on what cutting-edge science can do for the world, which has gotten a lot worse since Snow gave his lecture. We are facing a crisis in food, fuel, and finance in the midst of climate change.

The good news is we have all the knowledge and technologies to get out of the crisis and save the climate, as made clear in our in-depth reports issued from time to time [4, 5] (see Which Energy? , Food Futures Now *Organic *Sustainable *Fossil Fuel Free , ISIS publications). The bad news is the lack of political will and vision; our leaders are stuck in the mindset of the obsolete scientific paradigm that helped create the problems in the first place.

Albert Einstein's saying - “We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them” – has appeared in so many power point presentations lately it has become a cliché. Nevertheless, it is a good launch pad for the new science and new thinking we need to solve the problems. Let me set the scene with the briefest history of Western science starting from the Enlightenment.

From mechanism to organism

The European Enlightenment brought many good things. It was the age of reason over received wisdom [6]; it transferred the power of creation from God to nature, which we can begin to understand by scientific enquiry.

The Enlightenment also reinforced a powerful view of the world as machine [7] that ushered in the industrial revolution; and with that, the enclosure of the commons, capitalism, imperialism, colonialism, world wars, and an industrial, mechanised, chemical Agriculture without Farmers ( SiS 27) [8]. Graham Harvey's excellent book, Carbon Fields [9], tells you a lot on how it happened, and more importantly, how it could be reversed.

It's been 200 years since Darwin 's birth, and 150 years since the Origin of Species . Darwin and Victorian England gave us the idea that competition for the survival of the fittest is the way to progress. Add Darwinism to Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations (1776), without mitigating moral sentiment, and we get the ‘free market' neo-liberal economy that has dominated the world for 150 years [10] (see Genetic Engineering: Dream or Nightmare? ), resulting in the accelerating over-exploitation of planet and people that has brought the world to its knees.

The mechanistic model has had its day. In science, it was becoming obsolete at the beginning of the past century with the emergence of the science of the organism. Three books that influenced me the most were all inspired by the new physics, especially quantum theory. Alfred North Whitehead's eloquent critique of the static, flat, and colourless Newtonian Universe in Science and the Modern World [11] is all of a piece with Henri Bergson's insistence, in Time and Freewill [12], that time is multidimensional and heterogeneous, giving unique qualities to our innermost experiences. Whitehead argued that we can never really understand nature except as an organism embedded within the super-organism of nature. Erwin Schrödinger struggled against the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory, which insists that nothing can be said about the world in which we live [13] (see Life & the Universe After the Copenhagen Interpretation , SiS 34). His book, What is Life? [14], is well known for having predicted the genetic material DNA. But that's only the half of it. The other half predicted the molecular coherence of organisms; which we discovered in my laboratory in 1992.

Living organisms have such a high degree of molecular coherence that they appear as dynamic liquid crystal displays under the polarising microscope geologists use for identifying crystals, as you can see in the pictures on the cover of my book The Rainbow and the Worm, The Physics of Organisms [15] first published in 1993; now in its 3rd much enlarged edition. The accompanying DVD Quantum Jazz, a fusion of science and art, consists of real time video recordings of a variety of organisms, set to music composed and produced in-house by the very talented ISIS bunch. And I take this opportunity to thank all of them for making ISIS what it is today.

Sustainable circular economy of the organism

One main reason organisms are so coherent is because they use energy and resources in a circular way. They run on a closed loop economy that minimises waste. In the ideal, the organism accumulates no entropy (representing waste energy and disorganisation), and even the waste exported is minimum.

The key to the sustainable circular economy is to maximise cooperation and reciprocity, instead of competition. The organism has structured activities spanning all space-time scales, those yielding energy are directly coupled to those requiring it, and the giving and taking can be reversed, so both material and energy are recycled .

In contrast, the dominant economic model of infinite unsustainable growth that depends on competition has no closed cycle and hence no structures within; it thrives on profligacy and waste, and tends to spiral out of control. Boom and bust are inherent to the model.

Sustainable systems as organisms

It soon occurred to me that all sustainable systems are like organisms [16], an idea developed further with theoretical ecologist Robert Ulanowicz at the University of Maryland [17]. And this applies all the more so to sustainable agricultural systems as documented in ISIS ' report [5] launched April 2008 in this parliament. Our report shows how organic agriculture and localised food and energy systems can potentially compensate for all greenhouse emissions due to human activities and free us from fossil fuels; simply by farming creatively according to nature's circular economy. Circular economy is very productive. Let me give you some examples.

Takeo Furano in Japan runs a happy circular economy of ducklings in the rice paddies. Weeds and pests become food for the ducklings, while the ducklings provide mechanical stimulation and aeration for the rice plants to grow big and strong. Every year, Furano gets 7 tonnes of rice, 300 ducks, 4 000 ducklings, countless fish, and enough vegetables for 100 people from his 2 ha farm.

The remarkable dyke-pond systems perfected by the peasant farmers of the Pearl River Delta is so productive that it supported on average 17 people per ha in its heyday. There are many different dyke-pond systems; one involves growing mulberry, elephant grass and vegetables, and raising pigs and silkworms on the dykes, the wastes going to fertilize the plankton and feeding 5 species of carp in the ponds.

Professor George Chan was trained as an environment engineer at Imperial College, London, and had many government posts in the US and Mauritius before he was about to retire and spent 5 years with the Chinese peasants of the Pearl River Delta. He said he learnt as much from them as in Imperial College , and developed an Integrated Food and Waste Management System, which I have schematised in a diagram as Dream Farm 1. It is an incredibly productive mixed farm with diverse crops, livestock, fish, and fowl, organised around a biogas digester to recycle livestock manure and waste water into nutrients and energy, while preventing pollution. The biogas containing 60 percent or more of methane can provide all energy needs. You can have floating gardens, or rice crops on the ponds as well as crops on the dykes, and clean, very happy pigs.

Dream Farm 2 to feed and fuel the world, and mitigate climate change

By incorporating other renewable energies at small to micro-scale, such as wind, solar and hydroelectric (where appropriate), we get an integrated food and energy Dream Farm 2. My ideal would be one set up for education and research, to serve as an incubator and showcase for new technologies, information exchange, and resource centre for Dream Farms around the world, all designed to use local resources and biodiversity as much as possible . Note that in the new version, I've given up making hydrogen for more promising applications such as thermoelectrics that can harvest waste heat to generate electricity [18] ( Harvesting Waste Heat to Save the Climate , SiS 42).

With anaerobic digestion of organic wastes, we have no need for bioenergy crops that compromise food security. Biogas gives a smokeless fuel for cooking, for co-generating electricity and heat, and is the most environmentally friendly transport fuel, as Sweden has discovered in a big way [19] (see The Biogas Economy Arrives , SiS 40).

I have refined the calculations recently [20] Organic Agriculture and Localized Food & Energy Systems for Mitigating Climate Change ( SiS 40), with pretty much the same results. I f Dream Farms were universally adopted over the world, it would have the potential to mitigate 56.6 percent of greenhouse emissions and 50.5 percent of energy use, on biogas from waste alone.

Thus, it would not be surprising if fossil energies could be eliminated altogether using a combination of solar, wind and micro-hydroelectric with biogas. The excess energy could be fed into the grid system to supply local homes and businesses.

Dream Farm 2s are being set up around the world, with and without our help. There has been a great deal of interest in the idea. Closest to home is An Urban Dream Farm for London? [21] proposed by Alex Smith, who owns an organic food factory next to the new Eurostar terminal in London , and was elected a London Leader for 2009. He wants to treat food wastes by anaerobic digestion to generate energy, and use the residue to fertilize the organic gardens and plots around the area.

Britain and Europe should be promoting organic, localised food and agricultural systems, and supporting appropriate research that combines the best science of the organism and indigenous local knowledge, making sure that scientists and farmers work in equal partnership (more details in [22] Towards a Convention on Knowledge , ISIS publication). (The science of the organism is also very relevant to holistic health and energy medicine, but that would be a different talk altogether [23] Quantum Coherent Liquid Crystalline Organism , ISIS lecture).

Ban GM crops

Most importantly, we should firmly reject GM crops. We presented The Case for A GM - Free Sustainable World in 2003 [24] ( ISIS publication). Since then, the evidence is even more compelling, as documented in a comprehensive dossier we put together from our archives [25] GM Science Exposed (ISIS CD book). GM crops have failed on every count: less yield and income for farmers, bad for biodiversity, more pesticides and water use, more dependence for farmers and more suicides, more vulnerable to pests, disease and climate extremes, and outstanding safety concerns. The bottom line is, whenever truly independent scientists do feeding trials with GMOs, they find sick or dead animals. And farmers themselves have witnessed many sick and dead livestock as well, when these were fed GM crops.

GM crops belong in the old mechanistic paradigm, already superseded by t he new genetics of the fluid genome as the first GM plants were created in the 1980s [26 ] ( Living with the Fluid Genome , ISIS publication). That is ultimately why genetic modification dangerous and definitely not the way to sustainability [27, 28] ( GM is Dangerous and Futile , GM is Not the Way to Sustainability , SiS 40). The fluid genome is very much part of the new science of the organism I have been talking about.

Geneticists are now documenting how toxic substances affect not just the individuals exposed, but also their children and children's children [29] ( Epigenetic Inheritance - What Genes Remember , SiS 41), basically because the substances determine how certain genes are expressed, and the effects are inherited [30] ( Epigenetic Toxicology , SiS 41). Decades of sequencing and dissecting the human genome have confirmed that the real causes of ill health are environmental and social [31] ( From Genomics to Epigenomics , SiS 41). It is not the genetic messages encoded in genomic DNA, but environmentally induced epigenetic modifications that overwhelmingly determine people's health and wellbeing. Early nutrition and parental care play a large role [32] ( Caring Mothers Strike Fatal Blow against Genetic Determinism , SiS 41) in an individual's physical and mental health.

Consequently, as our own report [5] finds, and the newly published International Assessment on Agricultural Knowledge, Science, and Technology for Development [33] fully concurs: organic, localised, and biodiverse agriculture is the most effective way to deliver health, wealth, and happiness to the world's nations. And that's the message we should be taking to the street.

The accompanying presentation to this lecture is available from the I-SIS online store here.

Article first published 18/05/09


  1. Saunders PT. Corporate monopoly of science. Science in Society 42 (in press).
  2. “Doing good, 50 years on” Nature Editorial 2009, 457, 10.
  3. Kemp M. Dissecting the Two Cultures. Nature 2009, 457, 32-33.
  4. Ho MW, Bunyard P, Saunders PT, Bravo E and Gala R. Which Energy? ISIS/TWN, London and Penang , 2006.
  5. Ho MW, Burcher S, Lim LC, et al. Food Futures Now, Organic, Sustainable, Fossil Fuel Free , ISIS TWN, London , 2008.
  6. Enlightenment, Encyclopaedia Brittanica , vol 8, pp. 599-602, 1964.
  7. Mechanism, Wikipedia. 3 February, 2009,
  8. Gala R. Agriculture without farmers, In Food Futures Now, Science in Society 27 , 30-32, 2005.
  9. Harvey G. The Carbon Fields , Grass Roots, Somerset , 2008.
  10. Ho MW. Genetic Engineering Dream of Nightmare? The Brave New World of Bad Science and Big Business, Third World Network, Gateway Books, MacMillan, Continuum, Penang, Malaysia, Bath, UK, Dublin, Ireland, New York, USA, 1998, 1999, 2007 (reprint with extended Introduction).
  11. Whitehead AN. Science and the Modern World, Penguin Books, harmondsworth, 1925.
  12. Bergson H. Time and Free Will. An Essay on the Imme4diate Data of Consciousness (F.L. Pogson, trans.), George Allen & Unwin, Ltd., New York , 1916.
  13. Ho MW. Life & the universe after the Copenhagen Interpretation. Science in Society 34 , 332-33, 2007.
  14. Schrödinger E. What is Life? Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1944.
  15. Ho MW. The Rainbow and the Worm, the Physics of Organisms , World Scientific , Singapore , 1993, 2 nd ed. 1998, reprinted 1999, 20021, 2003, 2005, 2006; 3 rd ed. 2008.

  16. Ho MW. On the nature of sustainable economic systems. World Futures 1997, 51, 199-221.
  17. Ho MW and Ulanowicz R. sustainable systems as organisms? BioSystems 2005, 82, 39-51.
  18. Ho MW. Harvesting waste heat for saving the climate. Science in Society 42 (to appear).
  19. Ho MW. The biogas economy arrives. Science in Society 40 , 16-18, 2008.
  20. Ho MW. Organic agriculture & localised food and energy systems for mitigating climate change. Science in Society 40 , 24-28, 2008.
  21. Burcher S. An urban Dream Farm for London ? Science in Society 42 (in press).
  22. Ho MW, Novotny E, Webber P, Daniels EE et al. Towards a Convention on Knowledge , ISIS, London , 2002.
  23. Ho MW. Quantum coherent liquid crystalline organism. Invited lecture at European Quantum Energy Medicine Conference, 19 September 2008,
  24. Science Panel Report, Institute of Science in Society and Third World Network, London and Penang, 2003; republished GM-Free, Exposing the Hazards of Biotechnology to Ensure the Integrity of Our Food Supply , Vitalhealth Publishing, Ridgefield, Ct., 2004 (both available from ISIS online bookstore )
  25. GM Science Exposed: Hazards Ignored, Fraud, Regulatory Sham, Violation of Farmers' and Citizen's Rights, ISIS CD book, a compilation, updated to 2009,
  26. Ho MW. Living with the Fluid Genome , ISIS TWN, London , 2003.
  27. Ho MW. GM is dangerous and futile. Science in Society 40 (in press).
  28. Saunders PT. GM is not the way to sustainability. Science in Society 40 (in press).
  29. Ho WM. Epigenetic inheritance, “what genes remember”. Science in Society 41 , 4-5, 2009
  30. Ho MW. Epigenetic toxicology. Science in Society 41 , 12-15, 2009.
  31. Ho MW. From genomics to epigenomics. Science in Society 41 , 10-12, 2009.
  32. Ho MW. Caring mothers strike fatal blow against genetic determinism. Science in Society 41 , 6-9, 2009.
  33. Heinemann JA. Hope not Hype, The future of agriculture guided by the International Assessemtn on Agricultural Knowledge Science and Technology for Development , Third World Network, Penang , 2009.

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There are 15 comments on this article so far. Add your comment above.

Henry Nicholls Comment left 18th May 2009 19:07:59
Great speech, Maewan, full of education, facts, and wisdom. You have said as much as you could, as succingtly as possible. Warmest regards to all at Isis, Henry

Rory Short Comment left 18th May 2009 21:09:55
This article speaks of science playing what I regard as its proper role in society which is working with Nature rather than mechanistically exploiting it. More stength to your elbow Maewan we desperatly need it.

Chris Kennett Comment left 19th May 2009 05:05:29
Another great article Mae wen.Its time the sustainability arguments were put in front of profiteering without any regard to the consequences. Would dream farms be even more efficient,if you didnt have to feed large quantities of valuable food to the animals?The animals also release huge amounts of Methane and drink large quantities of water.

stephen macallan Comment left 18th May 2009 21:09:05
I have to agree - a very excellent speech. I just wish the politicians would hear it - really 'hear' it. stephen

Mikael Lund Comment left 18th May 2009 21:09:41
It is so refreshing to read your articles, which are so intelligently written and clearly communicated. I believe you are expressing exactly what more and more millions of people are thinking and feeling themselves while we all live with the total absence of this knowledge from the so called public media outlets including the bbc and cnn. I wish you will get all the power and funding for your work without delay of any kind. I am grateful to you.

claude saint-jarre Comment left 20th May 2009 06:06:27
Hello. I wish the dream farm could be a reality in winter for northern countries, in the spirit of producing locally... Did you find a land to experiment the dream farm? How money is needed? Merci, claude

Mae-wan Ho Comment left 19th May 2009 10:10:47
In reply to Chris Kennett, grassfed livestock in organic mixed farming has always been sustainable. Intensive grainfed feedlot cattle rearing is the problem. Most of the methane attributed to livestock actually comes from the fertilizers used in growing the grains. The amount of methane a cow produces depends on the feed. There are also natural methane-eating bacteria, which, I suspect, have all been killed by chemical agriculture.

Chris Kennett Comment left 19th May 2009 13:01:05
Thank you for your reply.I do believe grassfed livestock is sustainable on a small scale,but which ever way animals are fed would take up a lot of land if meat consumption is likely to double in the next 30 years(UN report).There was a programme on BBC recently about the difference that could be made in this country if many varieties of grass are sown on pasture land.The programme suggested that we wouldnt need to harvest huge amounts of grains/dry hay if animals could be left to graze over the winter months.Thus cutting back on fields harvested with machines and the use of chemicals.At the moment most farms only plant a couple of varieties of grass.The problem with this is that over the winter months cows hooves go through the grass and turn a field into a muddy bog and the grass doesnt re grow for a few months.When fields are planted with many varities of grasses with strong root systems the cows hooves dont break through,so the grass carries on growing all year.

Chris Kennett Comment left 20th May 2009 10:10:13
For Steven Maher.Thanks Steven,I didnt say it was a new idea,Im just sad that this isnt taught to our farmers,guess its all about selling chemicals and tractors.

Mae-wan ho Comment left 20th May 2009 10:10:04
Hi Chris Kennett, I do think people are eating too much meat for health and the environment, and suggest reducing consumption and hence the current world livestock by half. Graham Harvey's excellent book Carbon Fields tells you how natural biodiverse perennial pastures for extensive livestock rearing is what Britain is best for, and such pastures are great for sequestering C below ground, perrenials have very deep roots. Henry Nicholls actually have such perennial biodiverse pastures on his farm. Claude Saint-Jarre, please read ISIS' Food Futures Now for all sorts of ideas. You will need to design your farm archecturally and with regard to engineering also in accordance to the zero-entropy circular thermodynamics model for maximimum energy efficiency and minimum waste. The most obvious is to have a greenhouse/conservatory over the biogas digester area, and house your animals next to it. But You will need to get together with some good ecoarchitect.

Steven Maher Comment left 20th May 2009 06:06:46
For Chris Kennett Read Fertility Farming by Newman Turner. It describes in detail (along with a ley mixture) of exactly how to do it organically. 60 years ago!

Steven Maher Comment left 21st May 2009 05:05:11
Mae, what about dream farm 2 for desert areas? I imagine the tactics are somewhat different. Have you or George made any kind of plans for this? As I live in a desert they would be great to see.

Mae-Wan Ho Comment left 22nd May 2009 16:04:04
Please do not call me Mae, Steven Maher. Each implementation should be based on local resources, both physical and biological. There has been successes claimed for mining fossil water and using that under the cover of a conservatory to recycle between fish and plants. As I said, it really involves circular engineering to recycle resources and minimising wastes.

Chris Kennett Comment left 22nd May 2009 17:05:58
Thank you Mae-wan and Steven for references. On the matter of health and animal products. When you look at our anatomy and physiology what tells us that we should be eating quantities of animal products? We are the only species that takes milk from another species.We are the only species that carry on eating dairy products after teething. Bonobo chimps only consume approx 1% animal products in the form of ants/insects/small mamals. Gorillas are vegetarian apart from maybe bacteria/small insects injested with their grasses/herbs. Surely we can get ample protein supplies from eating other forms of protein/aminoacids,such as nuts seeds and even herbs/leaves etc. The strongest animals are vegetarian(elephant rhino). After being a Vegan for 10years plus my bone density is well above average,also my cholesterol blood pressure and heart rate are well below average.These levels have improved since removing animal products from my diet.I am aware that I may need to take a b12 supplement as im probably not eating enough bacteria/insects to cover this. Many health proffessionals say that animal products/high protein intake causes an acid environment in our bodies thus releasing calcium from our bones to neutralise. Another question is if chimps breast feed for up to 7years or so and they only live to half our age,how come humans are only said to need to breast feed for a year or so at the most?

Steven Maher Comment left 23rd May 2009 06:06:01
Dr. Mae-wan Ho: My apologies. Thank you for your reply.

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