David Cameron: ‘It is time to look again at GM food’

The Telegraph – Friday 14th June

What else is there really to talk about this week, other than the UK government’s widely publicised love-in for genetically modified foods? In speeches made this week, David Cameron and our Environment Minister, Owen Paterson, clearly marked out the government’s position on allowing GM food to be grown and consumed in Europe. Following the coverage of this issue across the week, it was hard not to find the whole thing part-terrifying, part-pantomime, and part-complete public relations debacle. When Mr. Paterson stood up in front of a home-crowd of GM scientists and researchers at the Rothamsted Research Institute, he made proclamations about the benefits of GM technology, which even Monsanto normally shy away from. From saving millions of children from starvation, to ending blindness (due to Vitamin A deficiency), Mr. Paterson extolled the virtues of GM as a panacea for the world’s food problems and the answer to all our ills. With no mention of the danger of corporate consolidation in the food chain, and the evidenced increase in pesticide use amongst GM farmers, someone had clearly been drinking the cool-aid.

It was refreshingly reassuring however, to see that the British public seriously object to the idea of being taken for a ride. Mr. Paterson’s wild enthusiasm led many people to smell a rat, and the media backlash included: sensible dismantling of his claims by Joanna Blythman and Tony Juniper, the amusing struggle by Downing Street when asked whether or not the Prime Minister would eat GM crops, a damning new report comparing EU (Non-GM) and US (GM) agriculture, and a badly timed strategic announcement from the GM companies that they were pulling back from Europe, due to lack of consumer interest.

You can read a full-transcript of Mr. Paterson’s speech here.

Needless to say, the SFT has much more to say on this topic, so watch this space.

G8 vision for tackling hunger wilfully ignores the politics of malnutrition

The Guardian – Wednesday 12th June

It was a bad week for claims made by the British government, generally professing to be acting in the interests of people, whilst blatantly promoting the interests of the big, agrochemical organisations. Under the guise of ‘Ending Hunger’ –  a dubious term, much like the ‘War on Terror’ – the ground-work was laid to support the distribution of GM technology in Africa, with huge chunks of an ‘increased aid’ budget allocated to spend on GM research and developments, and the engineering of higher vitamin content into vegetables. It does occur to us that the best way to combat nutrient deficiency in developing world countries, is to provide farmers with the tools to grow a diverse range of nutrient dense food-stuffs, enabling them to feed themselves rather than be dependent on low-agricultural wages. But greater voices than ours summed up the issues in the articles below:

George Monbiot – Africa, let us help – just like in 1884

Jack Monroe – World leaders feasted, while kids went hungry to bed 

Banned pesticides may be having wider environmental impacts 

BBC News – Friday 14th June

Reports that the neonicotinoid pesticides are not just harming bees and other insect pollinators, but also grain-eating birds, soil and water should come as no big surprise. For years, we have been told officially that pesticides used on food crops are harmless, but we have all known instinctively that they must be having an effect – both by altering the availability of seeds and insects in the environment, on which birds and so many other creatures live, and by adding huge quantities of toxic chemicals to the global environment every year.

It has been widely reported that neonicotinoids have been banned, but this isn’t actually the case. No restrictions are being introduced until the end of this year, which means they can still be used on all crops this summer and autumn. Further, they will continue to be used on crops like wheat and potatoes which bees are not particularly attracted to. So their impact on the environment and farmland birds will continue.

But the problem is larger than just neonicotinoids. Pesticide use continues to increase, in part because of unsustainable crop rotations of cash crops grown on arable land year after year. Practice used to be to return land to grass for grazing animals periodically, allowing it to rebuild fertility and break pest and disease cycles naturally. Farmers have been encouraged to specialise in either crops or livestock and not integrate the two, as was once common.

As a result we have, on the one hand, deserts of arable land where fertility comes only from a bag, and weed, pest and disease control is provided by chemists. While on the other hand, we have large factory farms with animals where pests and diseases are also controlled by antibiotics, coccidiostats, wormers and much more. Clean grazing on regularly reseeded pastures has all but disappeared on industrial-scale farms.

As such, even a complete ban on neonicotinoids will not stem the decline of bees, birds and biodiversity. We need to make a national policy decision to return to integrated mixed farming methods where there is more diversity in the system, and the weed, pest and disease problems of arable cropping are broken by alternating with grass and livestock in time honoured ways.

Weed killer found in human urine across Europe

Friends of the Earth Europe – Thursday 13th June

Eating fewer calories but still getting fat 

The Grocer – Saturday 15th June

For years we have been told that a calorie is a calorie no matter where it comes from. If we eat more than we burn, we will get fat and it will be our own fault. So, if we’re eating 600 calories less, why are we getting fatter? Researchers argue that we do less manual labour and eat out much more, where we generally consume less healthy food. While this may be part of the answer, there is another significant issue to consider as well. We have reduced our consumption of fat (especially animal fats) and increased our consumption of carbohydrates (sugars), following official advice. But this has made us fatter even so. In a recent US study, researchers found that children who drink full cream milk were less overweight than children who drink skimmed or semi-skimmed milk. That doesn’t fit with the advice to cut fat consumption. The reason for this is complex and involves a number of factors, including the different ways in which the body deals with different foods. So we need to have a better understanding of how fats and sugars function in nutrition. The SFT will be returning to this issue because it also has implications for the way we make food production more sustainable in the future. In the meantime, anyone who wants to understand the answer should read Fat Chance by Dr Robert Lustig or this 90-minute documentary, ‘Sugar, the bitter truth.’

Local, self-sufficient, optimistic: are Transition Towns the way forward?

The Guardian – Saturday 15th June

Rob Hopkins, the founder of the Transition Towns movement, has published a book on his ethos of local action, The Power of Just Doing Stuff. There is so much good thinking on sustainability coming from the grass-roots up, and Transition Towns is one good example. The idea behind Transition Towns is to reinvest power and money in the local community. Part economic theory – keep local money local – part activism, it invites communities to invest in self-sufficiency and resilience, thinking of how they might protect themselves better from the future shocks of climate change and fossil fuel depletion. That might mean having a community owned power supply generated by green energy, or launching a local currency as they’ve done in Bristol. It’s about getting ordinary people to think outside the box, and empowering them to create a better future for themselves and others.

Britain’s new ‘peasants’ down on the farm

The Guardian – Sunday 16th June

Britain’s Land Workers Alliance are the first British group to join La Via Campesina, a global ‘peasants’ organisation. There is a growing movement of young people who are returning to farming out of a commitment to a sustainable future for Britain’s agriculture. The Alliance is committed to small-scale farming with a local focus. They want to help support a ‘living, working countryside,’ more than just a beautiful place to retire to. It’s critical to Britain’s long-term food security that its land continues to be farmed, and it’s important that we have people who want to do that and land available that they can do it on.

Photograph by Cafod Photo Library

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