Largest international study into safety of GM food launched by Russian NGO

The Guardian – Tuesday 11th November

The launch of what aims to be a definitive study on the impact of GMO maize and the herbicide glyphosate has just been announced. The $25 million ‘Factor GMO’ study will start next year and will address the question of whether GM food, and associated pesticides, are safe for human health. This question has, of course, been hotly debated for some time, but existing research has largely been carried out by the bio-tech industry, and has mostly only studied short term impacts (90-days). Independent studies, like that of French researcher Gilles-Eric Seralini, have caused much controversy. The Séralini study, which is one of few longer-term studies on the impact of GMOs, was originally published in a peer-reviewed journal that subsequently retracted it under suspect circumstances. The study had some disturbing conclusions, but much of the methodology was questioned by pro-GM scientists.

Independence in the scientific world is becoming harder and harder to ensure, as university programmes become increasingly funded by private companies with vested interests. The Factor GMO study is being co-ordinated by a Russian NGO and has an international board of scientists overseeing it. The names of the project funders will be revealed, but not until the study starts. It will be imperative that Factor GMO maintains scientific objectivity and integrity. Those involved in the study have stated that “… project organisers have considered all of the points of disagreement and distrust surrounding this subject,” and are starting from a point of neutrality. However, the study will need to be published in a peer-reviewed journal and garner a consensus on the validity of its science and analysis if it is to have a meaningful impact on the debate around GMO safety. If its findings do show that GM foods may be unsafe in the long term, they will also need to be prepared for the full force of the biotech PR machine.

World is crossing malnutrition red line, warns report

BBC News – Thursday 13th November

The Global Nutrition Report for 2014 has just been published and its findings are dire. Malnutrition across the globe is at a tipping point. Every nation in the world, except China, has a significant problem with either undernutrition or overnutrition. That’s a startling testament to how poorly many of us are eating – and it’s causing the deaths of more than three million children a year.

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The picture is stark largely because overnutrition is now included in the analysis. In some countries, it’s not that people go hungry, it’s that people are eating too much. Their caloric intake is impacting their health: although the calories are high, they are not getting the vitamins and minerals they need. Obesity as well as starvation causes malnutrition, which impacts on both growth and brain development. This should be a wake up call for the world’s governments. Global targets were set for addressing the issue at the 2013 nutrition and growth summit that David Cameron hosted in London, but it remains to be seen if headway can be made.

How a national food policy could save millions of American lives

Washington Post – Friday 7th November

This staunch polemic on the need for a national food policy is written by some of the most influential names in the food movement: Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan, Ricardo Salvador and Olivier de Schutter. It comes hot on the heels of The New York Times Food for Tomorrow conference, which brought together a remarkable array of speakers from both the food movement and Big Food to discuss key issues facing our current food system. SFT director Patrick Holden spoke at the conference on scaling-up sustainable food (videos from the conference are available here).

A national food policy for the United States is a critical step towards fixing what is undeniably a broken system. As the writers of the polemic point out, the current system is destroying our health and our environment at an unprecedented scale, while feeding income inequality amongst its workforce. They want to see Obama use his last two years in office to map out a policy, which clearly marks priorities for both US agriculture and US eating, bringing an end to the conflict between them. The passing of the farm bill this year did much to support local and sustainable food production, but it also continued its much stronger support for industrialised agriculture. As pointed out in this article, “The result is the spectacle of Michelle Obama warning Americans to avoid high-fructose corn syrup, at the same time the president is signing farm bills that subsidise its production.” It’s this paradox that keeps meaningful change in the US food system from happening.

A national food policy could go a long way in resolving this paradox. Bittman and his co-writers call for a sound set of principles to guide US agriculture and food policy. High on the list is “Farm policies… designed to support our public health and environmental objectives.” But they also want see access to healthy food facilitated; transparency in the production and marketing of food; an end to toxic bacteria, chemicals and drugs in food; high animal welfare standards; a fair wage for workers; food marketing that encourages eating real food rather than processed food; and a food system that works to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and can cope with climate change.

It’s a tall order for a system that currently embodies the antithesis of all these principles. But, for the Obama administration, it could be a very meaningful legacy that has a whopping impact on the future of food in the United States.

Overstock.com moves beyond flat screen TVs to CSAs

Grist – Friday 14th November

This is a refreshing, 21st century story! Overstock.com, a US company that shifts all kinds of overstocked goods, is branching out into community supported agriculture (CSAs). Along with a wide range of categories such as ‘furniture’, ‘electronics’ and ‘health and beauty’, you can also peruse the ‘farmers’ market’ – not something you would expect on the site of one of world’s largest online retailers. But Overstock.com is developing a local delivery service to put local farmers in touch with consumers and help them sell their produce to people in their area. It is starting with some major US cities (ones that love their food) including San Francisco and Austin, Texas, and growing the network from there.

The CEO of Overstock.com, Patrick Byrne, is not your usual Wall Street suit. He has a reputation of being in the vanguard of new ideas – as shown by the fact that Overstock.com is about to start taking Bitcoin as currency. Unorthodox could be Byrne’s middle name, so it’s no surprise that he is trying to break the company’s global reach into local chunks. He is not charging CSAs to be a part of Overstock.com, but they do have to be responsible for the delivery of their produce. This helping hand could be invaluable in terms of growing the economy of scale of small farms and introducing them to a wider market. This is the kind of innovative thinking you might expect from a CEO with a PhD in philosophy – maybe we need more of those?!

Scots hospital food nutrition may be legally enforced

BBC News – Monday 17th November

It seems a bit mad to have to legally enforce nutritional standards for hospital patients but the Scots are taking hospital food very seriously – as they should. Alex Neill, the Secretary for Health and Wellbeing in the Scottish Government, is introducing new NHS catering guidelines, which will undergo consultation on whether they should be legally enforceable.

Serving healthy food to patients in hospitals should be an obvious policy, but it is by no means a widespread practice. In recent years, hospital food has come under increasing scrutiny across the United Kingdom. In Scotland, the quality has been improving, and the new measures aim to take it up a notch. Making nutritional standards legally enforceable will help to ensure that patients are served food that actually helps them heal. Through its hard line approach Scotland is becoming a leader in improving hospital food nutrition. England and Wales should follow suit.

Tanzania accused of backtracking over sale of Maasai’s ancestral land

The Guardian – Sunday 16th November

One of Africa’s oldest tribes is at risk of eviction from their homelands, as the Tanzanian government decided to make way for a big-game hunting reserve. Last year a similar deal was withdrawn, but now it appears that the government is retracting on their promise not to sell.

The ancestral land of the Maasai is paramount to their nomadic way of life. Along with other pastoral communities, the Maasai have had to adapt to increasing threats to their traditional lifestyle, including the impact of climate change, which is causing grazing lands to disappear.

The Tanzanian government is now offering the Maasai 1 billion shillings, the equivalent of £369,350, in compensation. A paltry amount when you consider what will be lost. Samwel Nangiria, co-ordinator of the local Ngonett civil society group, told the Guardian “One billion is very little and you cannot compare that with land. It’s inherited. Their mothers and grandmothers are buried in that land. There’s nothing you can compare with it.”

If you would like to make your voice heard on this important issue, add your name to the Avaaz petition, which has so far gathered over 2 million signatures.

Featured image by Theophilos Papadopolous, in text image by UNAMID

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