It is with great sadness that I write, belatedly, in tribute to my friend and adviser on all things scientific, Professor Joe Cummins, who died just over two years ago after a lengthy battle with cancer.
I didn’t know of his death for over a year. Joe had worked and lived in London, Ontario, in Canada, for 23 years before retiring in 1996 from the University of Western Ontario to become Professor Emeritus in Genetics. I had not been in touch with him since completing my research for the book “Coffin Road”, about bees and neonicotinoids – a book inspired by Joe’s relentless search for answers to the mystery of the world’s disappearing bees. He had, at that time, been on dialysis, but I’d had no idea that death was so close.
My relationship with Joe spanned nearly twenty years, during which time he was my patient and tireless adviser on many books. But in all that time I never had the honour of meeting him in person. Our relationship was conducted entirely by email – and I have hundreds of our exchanges filed away in my mailer.
It was shortly after his retirement that I first encountered him online, when I was looking for an expert to advise me on genetics for my book, “The Firemaker”, the first in a series of thrillers set in China. He took me step-by-step through the process of genetically engineering foodstuffs – a highly complex scientific procedure not at all easy for the layman to understand.
My job was to grasp the basic principles, and makes them easily understood by a popular readership. Joe walked me through the complexities, enabling me to do just that. With great forbearance he answered all my silly questions, and spelled out for me with great clarity exactly how genetic modification works.
In doing so he conveyed to me the horrors of this process, and all the dangers that were, and are, being ignored by the biotech giants who are forcing their technologies upon us in relentless pursuit of profit, and with scant regard for the dangers to the environment and the human race. This very much shaped the story I told in my book.
Joe Cummins was hugely qualified, being awarded a PhD in cell biology at the University of Wisconsin in 1962, before going on to do post doctoral research at the University of Edinburgh, the Universities of Palermo and Catania in Italy, the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, and the Macardle Laboratory for Cancer Research back in Wisconsin.
His interest focused more and more on the environment and in 1999 he joined the Institute of Science in Society, writing papers attacking biotech companies and the failure of bureaucrats to properly regulate them. During fifteen years he became a thorn in the side of US regulatory bodies governing agriculture, the environment, and food and drugs. To that end he wrote more than 200 scientific and popular articles.
In this role he was one of a team from the Institute which addressed the European Parliament on the subject of a GM-free Europe. He concluded with three points which he believed vital to the survival of humanity: the elimination of neonicotinoid pesticides, the eradication of Bt crops – and the need to replace all bureaucrats who turn a blind eye to the destruction of nature in favour of the biotech and agrochemical industry!
Joe was a veritable force of nature, who fought for all things natural. He was a kind, supremely generous man, with a great sense of humour, and an endless patience for this annoying writer.
I owe him an enormous debt of gratitude.