Bayer secures Monsanto takeover with $56 billion bid

New York Times – Wednesday 14th September

In this season of corporate consolidation, Bayer and Monsanto have just tied the knot, in a move that will give Bayer unprecedented stature in crop science and tremendous power over global food production – that is, of course, if regulators don’t knock the deal out.

The downturn in the global commodities market in the last few years has set off a frenzy of corporate buy-outs and takeovers. Dupont is planning to merge with Dow, fertiliser companies Agrarium and Potash are shortly to sign on the dotted line, and Syngenta has already been taken over by the state owned China National Chemical Corporation.

While consolidation is a tried and tested business tactic during hard times, it’s the consumer that usually gets the short end of the stick. In this case, it will be farmers who are already struggling with falling prices and a decline in farm income, who will suffer. Corporate mergers make it harder to get a fair price for consumers. For farmers, the outcome is clear: “They tell the regulators they’re cost-cutting, and then they tell their customers they have to increase pricing after the deal’s done.” But more insidious than this is that mergers of this kind have a major impact on food production, breeding “monopoly and monoculture” as Nathanael Johnson of Grist points out. Again, it’s farmers and consumers who lose out and corporations gain even more control of food production. Down the line that could prove a nasty turn for our global food security.

US farm income to hit lowest level since 2009

Farmers Guardian – Monday 12th September

US farms are experiencing the impacts of a slide in prices on the global commodities market which has pushed farm incomes down for the third year in a row. The fall in prices is driven by a boom in recent years of US corn and soya yields, and this is expected to continue this autumn. Prices are declining on other commodity grains as well, with wheat down 23%. The economic climate for agriculture in the US has also been affected by increased competition on the export market, though American food exports remain strong.

All this means that US farm businesses are being pushed harder to make tough decisions and find external income sources to support themselves. Most farm households, figures from the USDA show, are earning all of their income off-farm and the fiscal ‘health’ of farms is nearly at all-time lows.

The question to be asked in the US, as well as in the UK, is how to protect farmers from the volatile nature of our economic system and provide them with some stability? Both countries look heavily to the value of their export markets for this, but all too often this is at the expense of internal food security. The clear inanity of boom generating bust – record yields, falling incomes – should tell us we need a new way forward.

FSA pledges to cut farm antibiotic use

Farming Online – Tuesday 6th September

A recently published study on resistant strains of E.coli in supermarket meat, has led the FSA to pledge that it will reduce the use of antibiotics in farm animals. The study’s disturbing finding that supermarket chicken and pork is carrying significant amounts of antibiotic resistant E. coli, poses what the FSA describes as a “significant threat” to human health. The agency is now testing other supermarket meats and produce for resistant ‘superbugs’.

The agency’s pledge is a significant step forward in the fight to save antibiotics. The widespread prophylactic use of antibiotics in industrial farming has been a major factor in the rise the anti-microbial resistance.

SFT Policy Director, Richard Young, wrote last week in response to the study that “…it is now beyond doubt that the unhealthy and unnatural conditions on many intensive livestock farms, and the continuing search for increased productivity, encourage farmers to use medically important antibiotics as management tools, rather than solely as life-saving treatments.” Some 88% of antibiotic use on UK farms is for what the Alliance to Save our Antibiotics calls “mass medication”.

The study’s researchers have identified the lack of effective monitoring of antimicrobial resistance in farm animals as point of serious concern. Resistance in farm animals is thought to be a ‘jumping-off’ point for resistance in humans, so tackling the issues of antibiotic use in animal agriculture is truly critical.

Sugar intake in children ‘double recommended level’

BBC – Friday 9th September

More evidence that kids are eating far too much sugar has been provided by the latest National Diet and Nutrition Survey. The survey shows that children aged 4 to 10 are consuming twice as much as they should, with the figure rising to three times as much among teenagers.

It’s a measure of the broader bad eating habits that plague the British public. Adults also consume too much sugar, while not eating enough vegetables, fruit and fibre. It’s no wonder that most of us are overweight or obese.

While the consumption of sugary drinks has started to drop, it is a ubiquitous ingredient in processed food – as much in savoury concoctions as in sweet. But the Sugar Association and other food industry bodies have long worked to hide the health impacts of sugar consumption. Recent research found that in 1965, the Sugar Research Foundation (a precursor to the Sugar Association) paid Harvard researchers to discredit evidence of the link between eating sugar and cardiovascular disease – which is now recognised as a significant contributor along with saturated fat.

Public Health England wants to see the food industry cut sugar levels in their products by 20%, arguing this will help reduce childhood obesity. While such a reduction is no doubt important, the government needs to intervene more decisively to regulate the advertising of junk food to children, which has an extraordinary influence on their food choices, as well as improving education on real food and food labelling.

Big trouble with big chicken

Civil Eats – Tuesday 6th September

The public image of ‘big chicken’ has been improving somewhat in the last couple of years. Commitments to cage-free and antibiotic-free chicken, driven largely by consumer demand, have looked good in the press but barely reflect the reality of the industry.

Labour abuses in chicken processing factories are rife and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) of the US government is finally starting to crack down on workers’ treatment. It has recently issued one of the industry’s biggest fines to Tyson – $263,000, a mere drop in the bucket when compared to the company’s $41 billion in sales.

Chicken processing is gruelling, poorly paid work and labour practice is dominated by the speed of processing – over 100 birds per minute, with the industry pushing for this to rise to 175 birds per minute. Serious repetitive stress injuries are a problem, as are ‘neighbour cuts’ where workers are injured by other workers using knives and scissors in tight proximity.

OSHA delivered 17 citations in July to Tyson and 22 to Pilgrim’s Pride for safety and health violations. These range from workers suffering hearing loss because protective gear was not issued, fire hazards and unsafe levels of carbon dioxide in factories, to slippery floors, trip hazards and falling crates. Additionally, workers were not given timely medical referrals for illness and injuries – one employee was seen by the factory’s nursing station 94 times before being referred to a doctor.

Cheap chicken is still packed with inhumanity, for both the humans and animals involved in it, and consumers need to be aware of the long, long road these companies still have to travel to decent working conditions.

UK one of ‘least natural countries in the world’ with one in seven species facing extinction

The Independent – Wednesday 14th September

Coming on the heels of England’s Natural Environment Indicators, the 2016 State of Nature report was bound to be a dark read. One in seven of Britain’s species is facing extinction with more than half of species in decline, and Britain is among “the most nature-depleted countries in the world”.

The report points an unwavering finger at agriculture for the damage done to the country’s wildlife, commenting that “the intensive management of agricultural land had by far the largest negative impact on nature, across all habitats and species”. The NFU immediately stepped forward to refute the allegation, arguing that more attention should be paid to urbanisation and climate change. But it will be hard to argue that the decline of 56% of British species between 1970 and 2014 has nothing to do with the intensification of farming in the country – so many of the species in trouble are associated with farmland and farmland birds have declined by more than half in that period. Farmland butterflies also reached their lowest levels ever in 2012. Agricultural land is the country’s most extensive topography, comprising 75% of UK land.

An increase in agricultural productivity in the last century has affected wildlife in a wide variety of ways. While the increased use of chemicals in agriculture this has hailed, is one clear impact, habitat has also been lost in the push to maximise yields. Calls are now growing for the government to do more for what wildlife and nature we have left. Embracing agroecological farming practice is critical to this.

Photograph: P Dean

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