US campaigners urge investigation into ag science suppression

Farming Online – Thursday 7th May

There is concern that scientists working for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) are being harassed over research which strengthens the evidence of a link between neonicotinoid insecticides and declining bee populations. A joint letter signed by a range of NGOs has been sent to the USDA’s Inspector General calling for an investigation of the alleged harassment. The allegations are supported by an anonymous USDA employee who gave evidence to Reuters.

This is not the first story of scientists’ research being subject to harassment and censorship. Nathanael Johnson at Grist has detailed some of trials that scientists have faced when their work has contradicted the party line of corporations. But it does seem to have stepped up to a whole new level if the USDA, which should be defending ‘independent’ research is instead compelling its researchers to “retract studies, water down findings, remove their name from authorship and endure long indefinite delays in approving publication of papers that may be controversial,” as Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a concerned NGO, has put it. While the USDA has refuted PEER’s accusations, it is a reminder that the independence of scientific research is ever more in peril. With much university research and many peer-review publications funded by corporations with vested interests, scientific objectivity is becoming harder to ensure. This makes drawing clear conclusions from research difficult at best, especially as there seems always to be alternative research findings which conflict, even with robust studies. Will the value of scientific empiricism eventually be eroded leaving us only with our own imperfect and subjective human judgement?

Junk food kills bacteria that protect against obesity, heart disease and cancer, study finds

The Telegraph – Sunday 10th May

Yet another study evidences the deleterious effects of bad food. The son of geneticist Tim Spector, a professor at Kings College, was recruited to live on a diet of McDonald’s food and fizzy drinks for ten days and then Spector looked at what it did to the bacteria living in his son’s gut. Results weren’t good – he’d lost more than 1,300 different bacterial species that had been living there. Spector’s experiment has contributed to growing evidence that what we eat and how well we eat makes a big difference to the health, happiness and the diversity of our gut bacteria. ‘Junk food’ that is ultra-processed is believed to kill the good bacteria that protect us from a wide range of now prevalent conditions ranging from obesity and diabetes to IBS and even autism. 

These new studies are reinforcing the importance of diets that are diverse and largely unprocessed. The limited range of ingredients in processed food, is part of what is unhealthy about them – most are made primarily from corn, soy, wheat and meat. More diverse diets support more diverse gut flora and that, we are realising, is incredibly important to our health. It is believed that obesity for example isn’t just caused by overeating, it’s also influenced by a degraded microbiome which lacks the bacteria that help regulate metabolism. Spector notes that “Fifteen thousand years ago our ancestors regularly ingested around 150 ingredients in a week… Most people nowadays consume fewer than 20 separate food types and many, if not most, are artificially refined.” That’s a pretty stark contrast and says a lot about the poverty of our eating.

Food companies are unprepared for global water scarcity, says new report

The Guardian – Thursday 7th May

It’s a water wake-up call for food companies in a future of endemic global water shortages brought on by climate change. The Boston based consortium Ceres has recently published a report mapping the impact of both shortages and pollution of water on food production – it is expected that water, which is still largely free to food producers, will become more expensive as well as increasingly scarce, and food prices will rise as a result. The article provides some eye-opening statistics: some 70% of global water use goes on growing crops and raising animals; a kilo of pasta requires 1,850 litres of water to produce; a third of our food is produced in parts of the world where water is becoming scarce (California comes to mind here).

The problem, Ceres argues is that food companies aren’t taking water seriously and thinking about its potential impact on their profits as it becomes scarcer and more expensive. Ceres has scored 37 of the biggest companies in terms of their water management on a scale of 0 – 100 and the results are pretty poor. 31 out of 37 companies come in below 50. It doesn’t bode well for the future of their bottom line, and that’s precisely the point Ceres wants to make. These companies need to start planning their businesses for a future where water is anything but ‘on tap’.

Giving the poor easy access to healthy food doesn’t mean they’ll buy it

New York Times – Friday 8th May

This thoughtful blog on fixing food deserts addresses the unexpected results – nothing much changes in what people eat. Creating access to fresh food in poor neighbourhoods by incentivising supermarkets to open, is only a first step. Most people in these neighbourhoods continue to buy what they’ve been buying, i.e. they continue eating the unhealthy food that’s always been available. Their eating habits don’t transform overnight with the arrival of a supermarket and its fresh food, and it was pretty naïve, frankly, to think they would.

All this is not to say that we shouldn’t bother fixing food deserts – food justice demands that we do, and access to fresh food is a necessary part of changing poor eating habits. Two other things, however, are much more influential in deciding what and how people eat: the fact that processed food remains a cheaper alternative to fresh food and the fact that it doesn’t require cooking, which takes time, energy, extra ingredients and knowledge of how to cook.

This points to a much bigger issue of access – cost. Poor people buy cheap food because they can’t afford more expensive food and fresh food is, sadly, more expensive. Additionally, those who are college educated eat significantly better than those with a high-school education. This indicates that education both generally and around healthy eating, is vital to improving how people eat. We need fresh food in food deserts but perhaps we need to access it through urban growing projects and community gardens which engage and educate as well produce fresh food?

Last flight looms for US-funded air war on drugs as Colombia counts health cost

The Guardian – Wednesday 6th May

Glyphosate is being withdrawn as the front-line tool in Colombia for combatting coca production (from which cocaine is made) after the World Health Organization stated that the herbicide is “probably carcinogenic”. Products like Roundup, which contain glyphosate have been a key tool of anti-narcotics agencies, which use it to destroy illegal crops in the field. But after decades of scoffing at those who claim their health has been affected by the aerial spraying, the Colombian authorities appear poised to make a major U-turn. But this is also in part because the spraying can also be indicriminate, affecting legal crops like coffee too.

So no more glyphosate for the Colombian drug cartels, as for the rest of us, however it remains the most widely used herbicide in the world.

Local authorities cutting size of allotments in half to allow more gardeners to share the same space

The Independent – Saturday 9th May

Local authorities have just realised that they can reduce their waiting lists for allotments – which can stretch into years – by cutting their size. The standard size allotment of 250 sq m is too much for most people anyway, so many people are happy to share it with someone else. This is also because the demographic of allotment holders is changing – more families are taking on allotments and they have less time than the traditional pensioner with lots of time to potter around growing things. The smaller plot may not produce enough veg to fully feed a family of four, but it can certainly make a dent in their shopping bill and it’s such a great way to ensure your kids know what a courgette is.

However, while sharing plots is a great way to get more people growing and every little bit helps in this case, it doesn’t really address the root problem of why waiting lists for allotments are so ridiculously long. One of the biggest is that the number of allotments available has fallen from 1.4 million in the post war years to just 150,000 today. Despite protections for allotment land, local authorities continue to sell off many of their allotments to developers because the land is so valuable; so there is less land available. But the easy money that local authorities see in the sale of allotments is a bit of mirage when the health costs of rising obesity skyrockets out of control and upwards of a million people turn to food banks for food. Having an allotment will give you both exercise and good healthy food that is largely cheap and abundant. Shouldn’t everybody be allotted one?

Photograph: Robert Couse-Baker 

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