Roundup and risk assessment

The New Yorker – Friday 10th April

Michael Specter, the New Yorker’s science writer, has come to the defence of Monsanto’s biggest earner, Roundup. The active ingredient of Roundup – along with more than 700 other herbicide formulations – is the chemical glyphosate, which is under attack on multiple fronts. The World Health Organisation recently made a public statement that the chemical was ‘probably carcinogenic’ and another study has recently made links to glyphosate’s role in causing antimicrobial resistance. As Specter points out, glyphosate is the most heavily sprayed herbicide in the world, which, for him, appears reason enough to ensure that its safety, though relative, is still assured.

It’s tempting to get pulled into a ‘my science is better than your science’ debate here but what’s really at stake is the bigger picture, which is much larger than just the possible safety issues of glyphosate. Specter does away with this by cursorily commenting that of course we shouldn’t overuse glyphosate because it “causes tremendous damage to the crops… as well as [the] immediate environment”. But on the up side, Specter claims, it cuts down on soil erosion by reducing the need to plough.

SFT Policy Director Richard Young comments that:

The very reason that Michael Specter is keen to defend glyphosate is why I am concerned about its widespread use. The pervasive use of this herbicide is driving agriculture towards ever larger areas of monoculture with ever less sustainable crop rotations, and farms that are getting bigger and bigger. This is degrading soils worldwide and contributing to the dramatic decline in farmland birds, pollinating insects, diverse landscapes and functional family farms. So even if the residues of glyphosate, which are now frequently found in bread and water, are of no health concern, and even if you can safely breath in glyphosate spray drift like fresh morning air, there are other significant reasons that we should not allow farming systems to develop that are so highly dependent on such a chemical.

Specter cautions against use of the precautionary principle on the basis that even if glyphosate is a carcinogen this doesn’t mean it is necessarily causing cancer. It’s true, of course, that the rise in cases of the blood cancer non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which has occurred since glyphosate came into use in the 1970s, could be pure coincidence or instead linked to other pesticides. But we now also have detailed research from New Zealand scientists that has found that exposure to glyphosate even at fairly low levels inactivates some important medical antibiotics. In addition, there’s another scientific debate taking place about whether glyphosate locks up important minerals in the soil and contributes to declining trace element levels in food.

We need to keep in mind that all of this research could turn out to be inaccurate or of less significance than it appears, but given the ubiquitous use of glyphosate and the extent to which we and the environment are now exposed to it, a precautionary approach must surely be the way to proceed.

Mixed grazing best option for uplands

FGInsight – Thursday 2nd April

New research from the James Hutton Institute and Universities of Aberdeen and Hull argues that grazing both sheep and cows on British uplands is the best way to preserve biodiversity in these areas. The research was carried out on the Woodland Trust’s Glen Finglas estate in the Trossachs of Scotland. In marked contrast to environmentalist George Monbiot’s accusation that farming has devastated the uplands of Britain and “grazed [it] to destruction”, Darren Evans at the University of Hull commented that “These unique habitats have evolved as a result of traditional farming practices and abandoning such areas would have a huge impact on the internationally important plants and animals which live there.”

Significantly, the report found that a mixed farming approach with both sheep and cows grazing the land had a greater impact on preserving biodiversity. The animals each consume different plants and between them help to maintain a balance in the natural habitat of the uplands.

Monbiot would, doubtless, disagree. His passion for rewilding the uplands is radical and interesting, but it begs some fundamental questions. Livestock have become part of the uplands ecosystems having grazed them for centuries.

Evans further comments that, livestock farming is now “an essential part of British biodiversity”. Recent studies have argued that red meat consumption must be reduced, but considering that an appropriate regional diet in Britain is based on what we best produce here, meat from grazing animals is a key component. Evans argues that because of the role livestock plays in British biodiversity, “it is certainly important we do not abandon meat altogether”. Given this perspective, grassland management becomes a key component in maintaining biodiversity and while there may not be a clear win-win situation in a landscape already altered by our inhabitation, it can provide “the best possible trade-off between ‘winners’ and losers’”.

Pig antibiotic alarm

The Scottish Farmer – Saturday 11th April

Recent research from Denmark again points out how heavily antibiotics are used in conventional farming systems. The research compared the number of antibiotic treatments that an organic pig had in comparison with a conventional one. For Danish pigs this ratio came in at 10 times more treatments for the conventional pig. However, antibiotic use in UK conventional pigs is estimated as 4–5 times higher per animal than in Denmark, based on sales figures for antibiotics. That makes the discrepancy between organic and conventional pigs even more significant: the conventional pigs are treated with 40–50 times as many antibiotic treatments.

Those are pretty big numbers to be throwing around and they tell you something about the problems we face in trying to regulate the use of antibiotics in farm animals. If we want to preserve antibiotics as a tool of modern medicine, that’s a lot of antibiotics to give an animal that lives for just 18–30 weeks. In organic systems, antibiotics are only used on animals that are, in fact, sick, which is how they should be used – on humans as well as animals.

The new research should give us pause to contemplate the ramifications of our intensive farming systems. Why have antibiotics become the farmer’s go-to tool for controlling the spread of disease when they are so important in human medicine? Calls to address increasing antimicrobial resistance in human and animals are intensifying and effective antibiotics could disappear in the not too distant future.  Lowering stocking levels would be a better way to reduce disease and you’d have happier and healthier animals to boot – and we might just save the future of modern medicine.

Italian pizza chefs threaten legal action over McDonald’s advert claiming children prefer hamburgers

The Telegraph – Sunday 12th April

A new McDonald’s ad has garnered the ire of Italian pizza chefs, and they’re threatening to sue. In the advertisement, a couple and their small child order food in a restaurant. The waiter suggests a pizza to the child, and the child instead asks for a “happy meal”.

The True Neapolitan Pizza Association, which represents pizza chefs across Italy, has called the ad “a shameful attack”, with McDonald’s responding by saying that “even the pizza chefs of Naples have probably brought their children to us at least once” – as if to throw fuel on the fire. It’s tempting to smirk at the posturing and laugh it off, but there are more serious issues simmering underneath. The advertising campaigns of a major multinational like McDonald’s are powerful and the insidiousness of taking aim at a cultural institution like the pizza is, no doubt, well thought through.

The erosion of cultural distinctiveness through globalisation can be a vital tool in opening up new markets. Italians hold on to their food culture dearly, so that proclaiming the pizza has lost its allure is, as one chef put it, “blasphemous”. McDonald’s is shooting at the heart of Italian food: destroying old icons and preparing the way for new ones.

Why Whole Foods is moving into one of the poorest neighborhoods in Chicago

The Washington Post – Friday 14th November

‘Food deserts’ are a growing problem in the poor, inner cities of the United States. These are areas where the economic infrastructure has become so bad that there are no supermarkets or other outlets for fresh food and the only option for a meal is something processed. Englewood in Chicago is one of these areas and into the void of suppliers an unexpected interloper has appeared – Whole Foods.

Whole Foods is definitely not the first supermarket chain to come to mind as a retail anchor in a poor neighbourhood. The company is well aware of its biting moniker ‘Whole Paycheck’ and it is hard not to think of the $30 bottles of olive oil on its shelves, even though it also carries its own brand at $7.99. But on the other side of the argument, it’s important not to assume that Whole Foods is inappropriate for the area’s demographic. When the Chicago Tribune called the plan to build in Englewood a ‘socioeconomic experiment’, the paper was criticised for making the assumption that residents could not afford what the store had to offer.

Whole Foods is not in this for a PR move: it’s a model that has worked for the company before and is part of its strategy for expansion. It realises there are just not enough wealthy enclaves for the chain to continue growing at the rate it would like to. In 2013, it opened a store in Detroit, which, by its own admission, “should never have been approved”. Its entry into the city wasn’t easy, but it has paid off for the supermarket with its 10-year sales goal met in just 14 months.

Englewood will be a real test for Whole Foods, especially as it has taken a long-term lease on the site. It is investing in community education in cooking and eating, bringing its price points down so that the stores are competitive, and pushing its own-brand products. It has also thought carefully about the location, which is next door to a catering college with the only sit-down restaurant in the area.

It’s a maverick move for a company largely perceived as catering to “rich, white people” and credit is due to it for taking a risk in areas where most supermarkets would never venture.

Photograph: Roger Ward

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