MPs raise concerns over tests on pesticides linked to bee deaths

The Telegraph – Wednesday 19th November

MPs in Westminster are asking questions about the independence of new research into the link between neonicotinoids and declining bee populations as emails between the study’s funders, Bayer and Syngenta, and researchers come to light. Some might think that a connection between these bio-tech companies and the researchers was a conflict of interest, but the UK government, which commissioned the research, apparently did not. Defra (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) promised there would be no undue influence from the funders – but this has proven difficult to control and the emails suggest that Syngenta pressurised the lead scientist to alter the research aim to “show that modern beekeeping, as well as natural pollinator diversity and intensive farming, are compatible in a tangible, compelling and scientifically grounded way”.

The UK government’s partnership with the bio-tech companies could be seen as an acknowledged complicity, as they have already stated that support for the continuation of the neonicotinoid ban will be dependent only on the pesticide producers’ studies. Clearly, scientific objectivity and independence is not a big concern. But when research is compromised by bias, it’s the public that loses out – both in the confusion that arises from conflicting science and in the government’s responsibility to its citizens to protect public interests. Food security will be significantly impacted if bees and other pollinators decline further.

Obesity ‘costing same as smoking’

BBC News – Thursday 20th November

A new report from the McKinsey Global Institute tells us again that we have a huge, global problem with obesity. Health costs will run to £1.3 trillion a year across the world, with the UK shouldering £47 billion. The report profiles the economic impact of obesity, which is now causing a rise in heart and lung disease, type-2 diabetes and various cancers. The cost implications are as significant as they were with the impacts of smoking.

Obesity

With smoking, it took persistence and comprehensive strategies to make a difference, and it looks like the obesity epidemic will similarly only respond to a coordinated approach. The report encourages looking beyond “individual responsibility” – it can’t just be about getting people to lose weight and eat better. It must also include “action across national and local government, industry and society as a whole”. The report mentions things like workplace fitness programmes and portion control on processed food, but it must also extend to labelling, taxation and restrictions on advertising as the government did with smoking. There is a lot to learn from this earlier health threat about how we might start to turn around the obesity epidemic.

Principles and criteria for global sustainable beef

Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef – Monday 3rd November

The Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB) is an initiative led by some of the biggest names in beef production and retailing, including the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association in the US, Cargill and McDonald’s. They have recently adopted principles and criteria for defining sustainable beef production, even though these have been widely criticised for not going far enough.

They have agreed three core principles which state that production should be environmentally sound, socially responsible and economically viable. They have also agreed some general criteria for specific categories to be considered: natural resources, people and the community, animal health and well-being, food and efficiency, and innovation, but they are leaving the detail on these to be agreed at a more local level.

In a joint letter drawn up by Animal Welfare Approved and Friends of the Earth US, and signed by a range of organisations that focus on sustainable food and agriculture – including the SFT, Healthy Food ActionFood Democracy Now, Center for Food Safety, Slow Food USA and Food Chain Workers Alliance the purpose behind the initiative has been welcomed but the GRSB is strongly criticised for the lack of detail. The letter criticises the lack of action on routine antibiotic use in beef production, the failure to rigorously ensure animal health and welfare, and a lack of meaningful strategy on reducing environmental damage.

SFT Policy Director, Richard Young said, “This is one of those difficult situations where we have to welcome a development like this, because so much beef production worldwide is very unsustainable and anything that can be done to improve that has to be good. But given how little of substance has been agreed so far we are seriously concerned that all this will do in practice is allow some of the most damaging and unsustainable beef production systems to pass themselves off as sustainable and in so doing undermine the efforts of those who are developing genuinely sustainable systems based entirely on grass and/or organic farming standards.”

Fasting for three days can regenerate entire immune system, study finds

The Telegraph – Saturday 5th June

Researchers at the University of Southern California have made a remarkable finding: fasting is really good for you. It’s no longer just some nutty diet. Apparently, fasting for up to three days can effectively reboot your immune system, getting rid of old or damaged white blood cells and replacing them with brand spanking new ones. This could be especially important for cancer patients recovering from chemotherapy and the elderly whose immune system weakens with age. While there are more clinical trials to be done to reinforce the robustness of the research, it looks like it could be a breakthrough in medical treatment for those with compromised immune systems. It’s also likely to be good for the body more generally.

The problem with this kind of news is that everyone and their mother will start fasting, mostly unsupervised by a nutritionist (which is advised). You really need to know what you’re doing, as fasting does not necessarily mean nil by mouth: you need to stay hydrated, for example – though fruit smoothies would be missing the point! Get professional advice so you don’t do yourself a mischief.

Senior medical figures join call for farm antibiotic reduction targets for first time

Sustain – Tuesday 18th November

A joint letter signed by leading UK doctors calls for targets to be set on reducing antibiotics in farm animals. It comes in response to the government’s continued inaction on targets for farm antibiotic-use despite establishing targets for medical use in humans. More than 40% of antibiotics in the UK are given to intensively farmed livestock, and this letter, written in support of European Antibiotics Day, highlights the serious lack of meaningful restrictions in this sector.

The lack of targets and regulation to moderate antibiotic use on farms leaves humans increasingly vulnerable to antimicrobial resistance. The use on farm animals in factory farming, both prophylactic and for growth, has given rise to resistance in a range of bacteria. The letter identifies most notably the rising resistance to antibiotics in human E. coli infections, which may be linked to farming.

Perhaps most alarming is the overuse in farming of antibiotics classified as ‘Critically Important’ in human medicine, which has continued to rise over the past decade. The letter evidences the high level of concern from doctors at the top of their field – action on farm antibiotic use must move forward. With resistance on the rise, time may be running out. Let’s not wait too long.

Walmart workers increasingly rely on food banks, report says

The Guardian – Friday 21st November

This story, which has been simmering for some time, raises so many problematic issues it is hard to know where to start. However, at the centre of it all is a really simple question: why can’t a US company with net sales of $473 billion and a profit of $16 billion pay its workers a living wage? When this was asked at the recent Food for Tomorrow conference organised by The New York Times, Jack Sinclair, Vice President of Walmart’s Grocery Division, talked a very good line about how much Walmart does to promote its workers from the ground up, completely avoiding an answer to the question. It’s hard to imagine what he would say if he attempted.

The situation for workers at Walmart is so dire that many cannot afford to feed themselves, let alone their families. Individual stores are organising bake sales and ‘giving trees’ where workers making better wages are asked to donate money to those who who aren’t getting by. The stories of Walmart workers are extraordinary – have a look at the ‘Walmart Hunger Games’ on Tumblr highlighted in The Guardian’s article. A significant number of employees go regularly to food banks and are recipients of food stamps, with the US government’s SNAP programme effectively subsidising Walmart’s labour costs. It doesn’t stop there. Evidence suggests workers are being disciplined or fired for speaking out against the low wages.

The employee advocate group OUR Walmart, which unionised in response to Walmart’s labour practices, is organising its largest-ever protest on Black Friday – the post-Thanksgiving shopping day that is the biggest of the year in the United States. Workers want Walmart to make its minimum wage a living wage of $15/hour and to ensure full-time hours. There has been growing public support for low paid workers across the United States in the last year and McDonald’s faced similar protests against low pay recently. Individual states are beginning to raise their minimum wage as well. Walmart’s days as “the nation’s largest poverty incubator”, as lawyer and activist Michele Simon has called it, may be numbered.

Supermarket price war blamed for food producers folding

BBC News – Sunday 23rd November

As predicted, the UK’s largest supermarkets chains are kicking off a price war aimed at making themselves more competitive with Aldi and Lidl, by whom so much of the public is seduced. The victims of this, unsurprisingly, are the food producers who are being squeezed out of existence as supermarkets strive to lower prices and increase profits. Insolvencies among producers have increased from 114 to 146 in the past year. It’s apparently the “bloodiest price war in nearly two decades”.

But the drive to lower what are already low prices is embedded in the supermarket model and abuses by supermarket buyers are increasingly coming to light. They have had a long history of dubious practices in dealing with their producers. That’s possibly what’s at the root of Tesco’s financial black hole – promised payments from producers for promotions and product placement; it’s what is called ‘shelf money’ (see Peter Crosskey’s piece on this for the SFT).

It is widely acknowledged that much stricter regulation of supermarkets’ dealings with their suppliers is needed. The buyers’ power over producers is tantamount to exploitation. Have a look at the dairy industry and the recent furore with milk producers, who were paid 3p less than the cost of production as the price of milk fell – there are indications that this may have been linked to the supermarket price wars rather than a falling global milk market. The government created a grocery adjudicator in 2013 to police the Groceries Supply Code of Practice, but we need far more rigorous regulation to reign in potential abuses of the system.

Featured image by in text images by Tony Alter and Mike Mozart

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