Revealed: Trafficked migrant workers abused in Irish fishing industry

The Guardian – Monday 2nd November

Two stories this week put labour abuses in the spotlight again. There has been a catalogue of stories over the past few years detailing the exploitation of farm and fishing labourers, in many cases so extreme as to constitute modern-day slavery. While some of this has emerged in the workforce of developing countries, it seems to have become equally common in developed countries. This week, the fishing industry of Ireland has been the subject of an extensive exposé by the Guardian newspaper on the abuses suffered by migrant African and Asian workers who are trafficked into the country. These workers often believe they are coming for legal labour, but once they arrive on Irish trawlers find they are working for less than originally agreed – and below Irish minimum wage – with unregulated hours well beyond what is legal for Irish workers. The Irish government appears to be aware of the problem, but seems to be doing little to address the exploitation.

The number of undocumented workers coming into the Irish fishing industry has grown significantly since Irish workers left the sea for jobs on land, largely in construction, as Ireland’s economy grew during the Celtic Tiger period. The growth in illegal migrant labour has been, unsurprisingly, a way of keeping costs down for boat owners aiming to increase their profits.

However, labour exploitation and abuse also happens in perfectly legal jobs, as Grist points out in a piece on workers in chicken processing units in the US. Oxfam America’s recently published report Lives on the Line, details the impact of processing 2000 chickens an hour on a worker’s body. The work is causing a range of serious repetitive stress injuries in workers who work as long as 12 hours in a shift and are paid as little as $11/£7 an hour.

Both of these cases bear witness to the lack of a true cost account of our food production – worker exploitation is just one side effect of a system designed to supply cheap food.

UK pig farmers losing out as EU ‘fails to enforce’ welfare rules

The Telegraph – Wednesday 28th October

Evidence is emerging that the EU is failing to enforce animal welfare regulations that bans sow crates, which prevent pregnant sows from moving around for the entirety of their pregnancy. These have been banned in the UK since 1999 but it wasn’t until 2013 that the EU ban came into being. The use of the crates can cut the cost of production for farmers – but at the cost of the welfare of pigs. This cruel practice still lingers in a number of EU countries because there is no meaningful enforcement by the EU, which is apparently “poorly resourced” with people on the ground to inspect countries suspected of not adhering to the ban.

The UK is right to raise the issue as it is not just unfair for some countries to flout the ban, but it also puts the UK at an unfair economic disadvantage effectively penalising UK farmers for doing the right thing. The EU needs to find an effective means of enforcing their policies so that adherence to EU regulations are no longer a pick and choose kind of thing. As for EU member states suspected of ignoring the ban – Belgium, Cyprus, Finland, France, Greece and Slovenia – they should be made accountable for their failure to see the ban enforced by their farmers as a point of responsibility.

Scientists urge national initiative on microbiomes

New York Times – Wednesday 28th October

Research on microbiomes is exploding at the moment with wide recognition that there is much that we need to know about them. So much so that scientists involved in the field are calling for a national effort in the US to expand the sphere of knowledge on the topic.

Microbiomes aren’t just living in our stomachs and on our bodies, they are a vital part of every ecosystem on the planet, both at a micro and macro level. The more scientists study them, the more they are recognising how incredibly important they are to all life on earth. There are microbiomes in the ocean, in Antarctica and in all manner of strange and inhospitable environments. Microbial life is found in everything and on everything and as it is slowly mapped, it’s revealing a startling picture of how vitally important their invisible world is to us.

Microbiomes are incredibly complex, with communities of microbial life running into the millions and billions, even trillions. Unravelling how these communities function could give us powerful tools for understanding human illness as well as damaged environmental ecosystems. SFT Chief Executive, Patrick Holden, wrote eloquently about the role of soil microbiology earlier this year, and the absolutely critical role it plays in soil health – soil’s microbiome, he argues, acts as the stomach of the plant providing it with essential nutrients through similarly digestive processes.

This is a long-term project that demands both collaboration and financial support on a global level. There is so much we still need to learn about this invisible world. It is entirely possible that increased knowledge of microbiomes could change the world.

Study links antibiotics with weight gain in children

The Wall Street Journal – Wednesday 21st October

An interesting new study has linked weight gain in children to antibiotic use – which shouldn’t come as that much of a surprise as the drugs have been widely used for decades in farm animals as a growth promoter. Notably, the drugs’ effect on weight gain appears to be cumulative and on-going. While a single dose does not have significant impact on weight gain, children who had taken a course of antibiotic seven or more times by the age of 15 were heavier than children who had not taken antibiotics. Researchers believe that this effect is likely permanent with weight gain extending into adulthood

The reason for this, studies suggest, is linked to the microbiome of the gut. Antibiotics, especially at a young age, may kill off beneficial gut bacteria leading to food being broken down in ways that may actually increase the calorie count of nutrients. The research reflects the complexity of our relationship to the microbiomes of the body and suggests a potential link between the overuse of antibiotics and our globally increasing weight gain, offering yet another incentive to cut right back on our antibiotic use.

Rise of the smart farm: get ready for satellite-controlled cows

The Guardian – Friday 30th October

The Information Age is now infiltrating even farming, combining knowledge and technology in new ways to transform food production on land and in the sea. Satellites, in particular, are being used to gather all kinds of information that will make farming easier. They now make weather forecasting better, monitor soil and crop health, programme machines to plough fields with unbelievable accuracy and even control the movement of cattle from space through “virtual fencing”. What satellites can do today is wide-ranging and valuable and companies are setting up new business opportunities to take advantage of them as launching costs come down. And the benefits will extend beyond just the purview of agribusiness. The EU’s Copernicus programme, focused on the earth’s land and seas, will provide an array of data on the planet’s environments and climate free of charge that will be valuable to farmers and fishermen everywhere.

The democratisation of information that the ‘smart farm’ makes possible holds great promise – but only if we ensure it delivers on efficiency, sustainability and environmental health. If it’s just another get-rich-quick scheme, giving a further leg-up to industrial farmers and helping to make them even more money at the expense of more sustainable farmers, this promise will be dashed.

Photograph: Franklin Heijin

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