Round-up weedkiller “probably” causes cancer

The Guardian – Saturday 21st March

Here’s a headline that nobody’s going to like: it’s not what Monsanto wants to read and it’s definitely not what the wider public wants to read either, because the weedkiller’s chief chemical, glyphosate, is pervasive throughout our food chain and environment. But the World Health Organization (WHO) has now stated that the chemical is “probably” carcinogenic to humans and therefore could cause cancer. WHO made the statement following an analysis of studies published on exposure to the chemical in the United States, Canada and Sweden.

It should be noted that Monsanto immediately refuted WHO’s claims and demanded it explain the findings. Last year the US government’s Environmental Protection Agency increased tolerance levels for glyphosate, but this is not quite the validation of safety one might hope for. There is growing concern that many of the pesticides that both governments and chemical companies promise won’t harm us are not nearly as safe as they claim. Research has been emerging on the dangers of glyphosate and WHO’s statement recognises that there are impacts and effects from the chemical that cannot be ignored.

Food industry waging a bitter battle over a proposal on added-sugar labels

LA Times – Tuesday 17th March

There is something very telling about the panic that erupts from the food industry when new labelling initiatives are on the table. At the moment, in the United States, the Obamas are calling for the amount of added sugar to be detailed on the label – at present only total sugar is listed, which prevents consumers realising how much additional sugar the food industry puts in on top of the naturally occurring sugar. The number of companies vociferously resisting the addition of added sugar on the label makes you suspicious of how much they are currently getting away with. Campbell’s soup actually complained that the labelling would increase obesity by distracting consumers from thinking about calories…

In the past decade sugar has been called to account by doctors and nutritionists alike. It’s not just seen as ‘empty calories’ anymore. In the amounts we are now consuming, it has a number of dangerous health impacts and has been described as “poison” by Robert Lustig, an endocrinologist from the University of California who has researched its effects extensively. So there is a real argument that we should be able to distinguish added sugar from what is naturally occurring in a product. This might also raise awareness of instances where the sugar is wholly added and not naturally occurring in the product at all. The food industry well knows that if consumers are aware of how much sugar is added to their food, they may be shocked by what they see.

Study finds growing use of antibiotics in livestock across the globe

PBS Newshour – Sunday 22nd March

Despite measures in the United States and Europe to reign in antibiotic use in farm animals, most countries haven’t begun to tackle the issue seriously. A new study projects a 67% rise in antibiotic use in livestock in the next 15 years, with this doubling in Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. That’s not a good direction to be moving in if we are seeking to stem antimicrobial resistance.

The expansion is driven by growing demand for meat in developing countries, as they move towards greater prosperity. The new demand will result in more meat production, which will require more antibiotics to control disease given the intensive stocking levels of industrial farming. It’s a cycle that will be hard to break.

One of the lead authors on the study, Thomas Van Boeckel, states that “Antibiotics help to provide a lot of meat for people who can afford it.” His comment illuminates the difficulty in negotiating strict regulations to control their use – it’s hard to incentivise governments with a growing population finally attaining levels of affluence that allow them to purchase meat, and this reminds us how much higher meat consumption is already in most developed countries. This situation leaves us in a double bind: it demands antibiotics to produce the sought after meat, but potentially weakens a critical tool of public health.

The answer here is not an easy one – it requires a paradigm shift whereby a sustainable system of meat production is possible and animal welfare standards are such that antibiotics aren’t required for the routine maintenance of health in farmed animals. Industrial meat production may be a big ship to turn around, but antimicrobial resistance is perhaps the best incentive to change our ways.

Agriculture bears brunt of natural disasters

Farming Online – Thursday 19th March

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is again pointing attention to the increasing impact of natural disasters – projected to increase with climate change – on agriculture. These will disproportionally hit poor farmers in the global south – those subsistence and small-scale farmers that produce more than 50% of the world’s food. These farmers don’t have the subsidies and safety nets that many larger-scale farmers in the developed world have, so the impact of their failures will be deeper and more immediate. It will be their families and communities that have to negotiate the loss of food security resulting from natural disasters and other extreme weather events.

The FAO also points out that agriculture receives a smaller portion of humanitarian aid than is warranted, further emphasising the vulnerability these small-scale farmers face as climate changes takes hold. Building resilience is an important issue in helping the 2.5 billion people farming at this level. Their significance is measured in the GDPs of countries across Africa such as Mali, Burkina Faso, Kenya, Chad, Ethiopia and others, where they contribute up to a third of national production.

Flower-friendly farms “boost bee populations”         

BBC News – Monday 23rd March

Planting flowers for bees sounds like such a lovely idea and evokes a bucolic scene of fields in bright sunshine filled with the buzzing of renewed bee populations. But while it’s hard to take issue with anything that might help support bees, there is a bigger picture here that is being completely missed. Almost one in ten of European bee species are at risk of extinction and the decline of bee populations is a critical problem facing food producers. Saving our pollinators is going to require more than a few flowers planted in field margins, especially when these fields and possibly the flowers themselves are likely to be heavily sprayed with pesticides.

The initiative to grow flowers on ‘Higher Level Stewardship’ farms is part of the greening measures of the Common Agricultural Policy. A new study from the University of Sussex has found that farms receiving funding to plant flowers and improve habitat in other ways are seeing an increase in wild bee populations. This may be a good step towards more environmentally sound farming practice, but there is a desperate need in the case of pollinators to pick up the pace of change. Further, it could be argued that paying farmers to sow wild flowers in the margins of their fields is easier than making the significant systemic change that is needed in intensive farming, to nurture bees and wider biodiversity across the whole field and not just its edges.

Online farm payment system abandoned after “performance problems”

BBC News – Friday 2oth March

Defra has had to lose its £154 million IT system that was supposed to digitise its farm subsidy payments. It’s hard to get to the bottom of just what the problem was, but somewhere between farmers trying to use it and how it actually worked, there appears to have been a breakdown. It apparently was not built to do what it needed to do and if this is the case, that’s a pretty major error.

A previous attempt to go digital in 2005 also went horribly wrong, so it would be hoped some learning had ensued in the interim. This does not appear to have been the case. The best lesson to be taken away from the present digital debacle is the importance of having a paper option at the ready and perhaps even a Plan B, as BBC correspondent, Claire Marshall suggests. Submissions for the Basic Payment Scheme will be delayed by a month as the system returns to paper.

Photograph: BASF

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