The full-fat paradox: dairy fat linked to lower diabetes risk

NPR The Salt – Monday 18th April

Fascinating new research turns thinking on dairy fat on its head. Dairy fat is saturated fat, which has long been thought to be bad for your health. However, there is a growing body of research that indicates that in the case of dairy fat – whole fat milk, cream and butter – it could actually lower the risk of diabetes and obesity.

Researchers tracked the amount of dairy fat in the blood of over 3,000 people starting in the early 1980s. What they found was that those with the highest amount of dairy fat were 50% less likely to develop diabetes. These findings resonate with a number of other studies, which found that adults and children with increased levels of high-fat dairy, remarkably put on fewer pounds and were less likely to become obese. Opinions still differ on the reasons why this is the case but it certainly challenges the tyranny of low-fat food.

UK refusal to support EU school food plan, “another knock” for agriculture

Farming UK – Saturday 16th April

The UK has abstained from voting on the EU’s proposed school food plan, which focuses on encouraging healthy eating and supporting local food, two principles you would think it would be hard to find fault with. The EU wants to see a greater connection between agriculture and food, and the plan also includes educational programmes such as farm visits.

Defra has yet to comment on the abstention despite coming under harsh criticism from Glyn Roberts, President of the Farmers Union of Wales. Roberts argued that “At a time when some children think their milk comes from a bottle in the supermarket and their meat from McDonalds, surely we owe it to the next generation to facilitate educational visits?” He further questioned, “If government can’t be in support of a scheme which promotes local produce, then how can we expect them to fully support our rural economies and protect domestic food security if we leave the EU?”

Indeed this does raise the question of what the government’s priorities are in relation to UK agriculture and the improvement of food for school children. If it doesn’t support British farmers feeding British school children, who do they think should be feeding them?

Commission moves to ban two endocrine disrupting herbicides

Farming Online – Tuesday 19th April

The EU appears to be on the move in its regulation of agricultural chemicals. The Commission has proposed a ban on two herbicides, Amitrole and Isoproturon, which are thought to have endocrine disrupting properties, meaning that they have the potential to affect our systems. Isoproturon has been linked to effects on sex hormones, while Amitrole has been linked to reproductive issues and thyroid cancer.

While the ban has been welcomed by the Pesticide Action Network (PAN), the organisation is already concerned that their regulation could be watered down along the way, claiming that DG Sante, the Commission’s health office is holding off on making decisions on EDCs until exemption clauses that would offer derogations on their use, are enacted. These would allow continued use of these chemicals in certain circumstances such as when their dangers were considered ‘negligible’. PAN has expressed concern that DG Sante will try to “…avoid any banning of such pesticides in future.”

But despite this, there is, perhaps, a slow turning of the tide in the Commission. While the EU Parliament voted to relicense glyphosate recently, it reduced its term from fifteen years to seven and suggested banning its use in public parks, gardens and playgrounds. While there are still more rounds to go before the relicensing is finalised – the Parliamentary vote is really only a recommendation – the contention raised by EU member states through this process reflects growing public pressure on MEPs and regulatory bodies to take the public health impacts of EDCs much more seriously.

Study finds cattle may reduce greenhouse gas emissions from ag

The Des Moines Register – Friday 8th April

Livestock, cattle in particular, has really carried more than its fair share of responsibility for GHG emissions and environmental degradation. With the publication in 2006 of Livestock’s Long Shadow by the FAO, which assessed the impact on the environment of the meat industry, cattle has been touted as a major contributor to the earth’s current environmental crisis. However, a new study offers a more nuanced view on the impact of cattle, making a case for the role of pastured cattle in sustainable environmental systems.

Mark Rasmussen, who is director of Iowa State’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, argues that the GHG emitted by cattle through their digestion is of lesser importance than that emitted through soil erosion from row crops. As soil erodes it releases carbon in amounts greater than the methane emitted by cattle. The impact of soil erosion has been largely left out of calculations on agricultural GHG emissions. The study suggests that if land used to grow row crops – largely corn and soybean in the state of Iowa – were converted to forage it could reduce soil erosion by cutting down on the amount of organic matter lost in the soil. And there are other benefits of this, such as less run-off from pastures because healthy soil is more absorbent, and an increase in habitat for bees and other pollinators.

In light of this, it begs the question of whether we need to be growing so much corn and soybean? The WWF state that on average 40% of global grain production is fed to cattle and this is not what they should be eating. But transitioning land back to forage is a hard sell to many farmers. There are costs involved in transitioning and grass-fed beef takes more time to get to market, so change will probably only happen with significant incentives. And to really benefit from this transition, care must be given to not overgraze land or all is for nought. But the Iowa State report offers much food for thought and points a way to more sustainable agriculture.

Texas colleges are opening food pantries to serve their students in need

The Independent – Wednesday 20th April

It seems college educations are breeding something new in the US – food insecurity. In Texas, some 14 colleges in the state have opened food banks to support struggling students, and there is now a total of 298 college and university food banks across the US. Food insecurity for students is becoming a growing problem as working hours are devoted to study, and as more places are given to people from low income backgrounds, where there often isn’t family money to support them. Add to this the rising cost of tuition and many students fall deeper into poverty as they try to get out of it by going to college. The financial aid given to lower-income students, often doesn’t stretch to food, so the colleges themselves are filling the gap to ensure their students aren’t missing meals.

The colleges and universities are to be applauded for stepping into the food gap for their students, but the fact that there is a need for it calls into question the high costs of education. If students can’t afford to eat because of what they pay for tuition, even if they are receiving tuition support, there’s something deeply wrong. The College & University Food Bank Alliance comments that they, “believe that access to adequate and nutritious food is a basic human right, and that attendance of a college or university does not mean that this right is forfeited.” But education must be a route up and out of poverty, not down into it.

Photograph: Nick Saltmarsh

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