The amazing significance of what a mother-to-be eats

BBC News – Monday 14th September

Fascinating long-term research has revealed the phenomenal impact of a mother’s diet at the time of her baby’s conception on the child’s long-term health. A study in The Gambia – on-going for the past 40 years – has brought to the fore the important role that nutrition plays in the epigenetics of human development. This growing field of medical research looks at the effect of the body’s hormones on genes, and scientists are finding that what we eat appears to play a significant role in this – surprise, surprise!

For Gambians, conceiving a child in the rainy season or the dry season has huge significance because of the different foods the mother eats at these times of year. The availability of leafy greens in the rainy season means improved long-term health for the foetus conceived at this time – green vegetables are especially high in B vitamins and folic acid. In the developed world, the seasons aren’t as impactful because of the wide availability of imported food. However, the study makes an undeniable case for the value of fresh vegetables in our long-term health. The disadvantages for Gambians conceived in the dry season, when their mothers largely eat grains, are startling.

The recognition that a woman’s diet at the moment of conception affects the health of her child is likely to put greater emphasis on nutrition during pregnancy. Michael Mosley, who writes this piece, notes how overlooked nutrition has been in medical research, commenting that in the five years he spent in medical school, he “learned almost nothing about nutrition”. As the outcomes of this long-term study are unpacked, it is likely to reveal how integral food is to our health throughout our lives.

European Parliament votes to ban all animal cloning

The Grocer – Tuesday 8th September

For many of us cloning still has the ring of science fiction, but in reality it is becoming part of our daily life. China has embraced it as a key technique of industrial livestock production and it’s taking hold in US agriculture as well.

Fortunately, however, the European Parliament has just voted overwhelmingly to ban all aspects of cloning except for research purposes. It doesn’t think it’s a good idea to use it as a production method for farm animals. This is a prescient move.

Cloning is one of those technologies to be wary of, as it could be rife with unknown unknowns. It doesn’t really work as seamlessly as hoped – an exact replica of an animal is not what cloning creates. Cloned animals are often subject to Large Offspring Syndrome, which means their offspring are abnormally large with critical organs that may be malformed, so they often die at birth or shortly thereafter. If clones live, they usually age prematurely and suffer from gene mutations and other abnormalities. They are also subject to abnormal gene expression. The genes in a cloned embryo have a different programme than a natural embryo and the nucleus must be reprogrammed. All these issues raise animal welfare and ethical questions.

The fact that cloning is taking hold in two of the world’s largest agricultural economies is deeply disturbing. Given the problems recognised in the cloning process, is it something we really want to introduce into our food chain? We must hope that the European Parliament’s firm stance carries the day, but Members of the European Parliament are only part of the decision-making process and it will now be left to a Council of Minister’s meeting to make the final decision, which could include a compromise.

FAO: World food prices reach 7-year low

Farming Online – Monday 14th September

After years of warnings about the rising cost of food in the 21st century, the current turn around in food prices may come as something of a surprise. Food prices are falling across the board and it seems that, for the moment, the era of cheap food is not quite over. Ah, the marvels of the global commodities market!

But before we rejoice at this respite for consumers, it’s important to remember who is losing out. The dairy sector in Europe is in crisis as prices tumble lower and lower. Without some meaningful regulation things will only get worse for the dairy sector, and more and more small- and medium-scale dairy operations will be culled. With only the largest operations remaining, both the planet and the public will be worse off – localised milk production will become a thing of the past. At the rate China is expanding into the global dairy industry, the country may become Europe’s biggest supplier in future. Beef production has also taken a hit, and while beef prices have stabilised in the past month, over the year they have fallen some 18%. Adding to this is cereal, where yields continue to be high, bringing prices down. Vegetable oils have also become cheaper as the price of palm oil – the processed food industry’s cooking oil of choice – has fallen to a new low this year.

Farmers across the globe will continue to take the hit for these depressed prices, for the benefit of us, the consumer. And yet in food production, farmers are the people who most deserve their due.

Paying farmers to help the environment works, but “perverse” subsidies must be balanced

University of Cambridge – Wednesday 9th September

A new study from Cambridge University points out the obvious, which warrants saying one more time: giving farmers money for better environmental practice is a good incentive, but what’s the point if they are also being paid to farm in ways that damage to the environment?

This has always been the double bind. The farmers who get the most money in government subsidies do the least in the way of environmental protection. Agriculture, the researchers note, causes more environmental damage than any other economic sector. It has the greatest obligation to turn around its destructive impact in this era of the Sixth Extinction. And yet subsidies continue to be highest to the most industrialised and damaging agricultural enterprises. The logic of this is beyond any person who has even a passing concern for the planet. The researchers argue that this discrepancy needs to be redressed: the “perverse” subsidy of practices that are bad both environmentally and economically (when the true cost account comes in) must end if incentives to improve environmental practice in farming are to be effective.

The study highlights our need to reconceptualise the priorities of farming. “In many parts of the world, governments already provide huge subsidies to the agriculture industry,” says lead author Andrew Tanentzap. “If we are paying people to be farmers, part of that payment – indeed, part of the job of a farmer – needs to be protecting the countryside as well as farming it. We need a shift in what it means to be a farmer.”

Farm dust that protects children from allergies could lead to asthma vaccine

The Guardian – Friday 4th September

A new study has shed light on why growing up on a farm helps reduce allergies and asthma. Farm dust is good for you, it turns out, and most people who grow up on farms produce a protein that protects them from common allergies. It’s a novel discovery that could pave the way for a vaccine to prevent asthma.

Farming holds all kinds of health benefits, starting with the advantages of getting dirty. It has been shown to lower anxiety levels when you get your hands in it because contact with a certain soil bacteria produces serotonin in the brain. It has also long been known that children growing up on farms have better immune systems.

However, it’s worth exercising caution and remembering that the type of farming system can have a dramatic impact on soil quality and safety. As was recently reported in Mother Jones, dust from industrial feedlots in the US was found to be carrying antibiotic resistant genes, potentially posing a threat to human health.

Photograph: DFID

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