EU curbs on food speculation could still leave millions hungry, activists warn

The Guardian – Tuesday 23rd February

In 2014, the EU moved to control food speculation (gambling on food market prices) by limiting the use of financial instruments linked to commodities. The legislation, due to come into effect in 2018, leaves much to be desired and a wide range of NGOs have written a joint letter to the EU finance commissioner arguing that proposed measures do not go near far enough. The limits on speculation set by the EU will likely leave many still vulnerable to price volatility.

ActionAid International, Global Justice Now, Oxfam International and other organisations want to see more meaningful and robust limits on commodity price speculation put in place, reducing the impact of what are often devastating price spikes on staple foods. As Heidi Chow of Global Justice Now so aptly states: “Food is one of the most basic needs of humanity and food prices should not be treated like a gambling game for corporations to make huge profits from.”

Balancing the demands of capitalist markets against the needs of a wider global populace who should have a basic right to food, shouldn’t be as complex and difficult as it so often is.

A town demands protection from pesticides

National Geographic – Tuesday 23rd February

The town of Avia Terai, Argentina, in the midst of the country’s agricultural heartland, has become a shocking example of the impact of pesticides on the health of agricultural workers, their children and other residents. These impacts have been documented by photographer Marco Vernaschi whose work in the town has put a spotlight on the issue with images of residents that have galvanised concern for the town’s health problems. The residents are now pursuing basic protections, including notification of the aerial spraying of pesticides, and regulations on where pesticides can be sprayed. But the area is still drenched in the residues of dangerous chemicals.

Studies in Argentina’s agricultural regions are finding increased rates of a wide array of health problems, from congenital defects to neurological problems, immune disorders and cancers as well as other diseases and disorders. Herbicides and pesticides, like atrazine, chlorpyrifos and paraquat have been shown to have significant health impacts resulting from exposure. Glyphosate, the world’s most widely used agricultural chemical is now coming under increasing scrutiny after the WHO labelled it ‘probably carcinogenic’ in 2015. Regulation on it is increasing in some quarters and some countries are beginning to ban the herbicide. There is also considerable pressure from companies and some scientists lobbying to prevent restriction on its use.

The time has come to cut through the politics of this highly charged issue and make a thorough scientific assessment of how pervasive the chemical is through the food chain and how significant potential health risks really are. In the meantime, restrictions and bans should be welcomed – and current scientific evidence supports them – unless a strong scientific consensus is built that contradicts this and declares that glyphosate is safe for use again.

Program to protect fish is saving fishermen’s lives, too

NPR – Monday 16th February

The spread of catch share programmes for fisheries is having the surprising side effect of improving the safety of fishermen. Catch share programmes, implemented as a conservation method, are increasingly replacing traditional fishing seasons, where fishermen are given a window to fish a particular species, catching as much as they can of it, in a relatively short period. The most notorious of these has long been the season for king crab in the Bering Sea. With just a few days to catch the crab, fisherman often went out whatever the weather conditions, putting lives at serious risk and making fishing one of the most dangerous professions in the US.

Catch share programmes, though designed to preserve fish stocks, are also encouraging fisherman to work more safely. Fisherman work to a quota system, with fishing allowed over a much longer period of time. Without the pressure of needing to pull in as much fish as they can in a short period of time, they are less pressured to fish in bad weather or leave port without proper maintenance on their boat, among other risky behaviours.

Catch share programmes are going a long way to improve labour standards in this capacity. The down-side of catch share programmes is that they can lead to fleet consolidation, shutting out smaller-scale fisherman; but while it’s important to maintain the diversity of fishermen in the market by supporting smaller fleets, it’s hard to argue with the value of catch share programmes to both fisherman and fish.

Africa’s forests ‘threatened by palm oil rush’

The Guardian – Tuesday 23rd February

Palm oil production continues its scourge of deforestation, even as government bodies and corporate commitments inch the industry towards sustainability in Asia. Africa is now witnessing the loss of tropical forests as palm oil and rubber production spread across the continent. Greenpeace has raised an alert about the increasing deforestation, largely perpetrated by the corporate giant Socfin, a Belgian company that focuses on palm oil and rubber production.

The dangers of untrammelled deforestation of established forests are well known: a vast release of sequestered CO2 making a major contribution to GHG emissions and increasing global warming, devastation of native biodiversity in areas that are particularly rich in it, and the displacement and disruption of indigenous peoples and their livelihoods. With growing recognition of the critical threat of climate change, the world can ill afford to continue the practice of such massive deforestation for the benefit of a relative few.

The potential that such practices could be supported by the International Finance Corporation (IFC) is perhaps the most shocking aspect of this story. The IFC is a branch of the World Bank, a global governmental body that seeks to “fight poverty” and support investment in developing countries. While the IFC’s requirements for “good international industry practice” are modest, Socfin is still far off the mark, according to Greenpeace. Yet it has applied for a €150m loan from the IFC. Greenpeace states that their corporate commitments and practices are “insufficient to prevent deforestation” and is calling for Socfin’s loan application to be suspended. One hopes that the IFC will heed Greenpeace and take a stronger stance more broadly on zero-deforestation for the industry.

I knew Beijing’s smog was killing me slowly. But is it making me fat?

LA Times – Sunday 22nd February

Can smog make you fat? Foreign correspondent, Julie Makinen, contemplates the impact of life in Beijing, on the heels of a new study that finds tantalising, if arguably tenuous, links between obesity and environmental factors.

The study took two groups of rats and fed them the same diet, but one group breathed clean, filtered air and the other, the smoggy air of heavily polluted Beijing. The results were remarkable: as the experiment progressed, the rats breathing the polluted air became some 15% fatter than the rats on the clean air, their cholesterol skyrocketed with a 97% increase, and their insulin resistance level (a precursor of diabetes) went up. And remember, the rats are all eating the same food. The impact of the poor air quality followed through to the second generation of these rats raised in polluted conditions.

The concern with the study is that rats are one species and humans a completely different one, and you can’t extend the impacts from one species to another. However, the roots of obesity are recognised as being multiple and complex. Pollution causes inflammation in the lungs and this can spread through to other parts of the body. Smog can inflame fat tissue with the effect of weight gain. In the rats, researcher Jungfeng Zhang at Duke University says, “dirty air causes more fat to accumulate in the body, and also decreases sugar metabolism, which is directly related to weight gain.”

What is really interesting about the study is not just that smog might make you fat, but that our obesity problem may have a fundamental systemic root that is not just about what we eat but more broadly about how we live – and on both fronts, we seem to be getting it really wrong.

Photograph: Safia Osman

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