Pesticide combination impacts often greater than the sum of their parts, new study says

Civil Eats – Wednesday 24th February

While there is much research on individual pesticides, herbicides and fumigants to tell us that they are safe, there has been little done on their safety when used in combination. Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) have been looking into this, with a particular focus on fumigants, where several are used together, a common practice in California agriculture.

The findings from this research give much cause for concern. A common cocktail of pesticides used is chloropicrin, 1,3-dichloropropene, and metam salts, and while each chemical on its own is considered ‘safe’, the study found that when used in combination, their overall toxicity increases to become a danger to farm workers, school children and other people living in agricultural areas. Fumigants, as a type of pesticide, have a greater propensity to disperse through the environment – as a gas, they are subject to drift and can often contaminate nearby schools and residential areas; when dispersed into soil, they take a long time to degrade and can pollute ground water. Susan Kegley of Pesticide Action Now, one of the co-author’s of the study comments that it’s “not speculation” that people are being exposed to this dangerous chemical combo which is widely used in California agriculture, especially in the strawberry industry.

As the dangers of glyphosate, so widely touted for decades as ‘safe’, come to light, the UCLA study is a rare next step in identifying the true danger of the multitude of chemicals used heavily in conventional farming. The health impacts of chemicals used in combination as well as the cumulative effects of exposure to chemicals pervasive through our environment, needs to be examined more thoroughly and policy measures set in place to reduce their prevalence.

Decline of pollinators poses threat to world food supply, report says

New York Times – Friday 26th February

The headline to this piece shouldn’t really come as a surprise to anyone. Pollinators play a critical role in our food production and without them, anywhere from a third to half the food we eat would disappear from our diets. That clearly impacts global food security, with over 35% of food crops dependent on pollination, but to save our pollinators we need to think about more than just the bees.

Most people know about the difficulties faced by honey bees, including the impacts of neonicotinoids and the reduction of biodiversity on the health of hives, as well as the challenges of dealing with pests and diseases. But there are many more pollinators than just honey bees, important though they are, including many other insect species as well as bats and birds. This broader view makes apparent that there is so much more to do to save our pollinators, particularly given that some 16% of bird and bat pollinator species are at risk of extinction, as well as 9% of bee and butterfly species.

A recent report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, attempts to increase awareness of the problems facing pollinators and offers practical advice on policy to governments. The report details the dangers pollinators face – particularly from intensive, industrial farming with its monocultural planting, eradication of field margins and heavy chemical use. But the other culprit is climate change which is bringing more virulent pests and disease.

The group was notably careful not take any conclusive stance on the use of neonicotinoids, arguing that the science is “currently unresolved” despite strong and mounting evidence of the link between neonicotinoids and the decline of pollinators. In attempting to be “brutally honest with the science” the group may in fact be helping to muddy the water for countries wanting to support pollinator populations and implement restrictions on pesticide use.

Farmers still being harmed by late subsidy payments costing taxpayer £180 million

The Yorkshire Post – Wednesday 2nd March

Late subsidy payments to British farmers this year are wreaking havoc on the finances of farming by causing farmers’ cash flow to dry up. A report from the Public Accounts Committee claims that the mismanagement was fuelled by infighting and “turf wars” in the Common Agricultural Policy Delivery Programme. The delay in delivery of claims has not only hit farmers, it’s cost taxpayers as well and the problem has been ongoing. The report noted that costs resulting from poor administration are around £180 million a year.

In a separate but related issue, ministers are also upset with Defra over labelling issues after discovering the department was allowing butter to be labelled ‘British’, when in fact the raw product had come in from elsewhere. All this points to the problem of red tape and bureaucracy gone amok, possibly linked to what was described in the PAC report as a ‘dysfunctional and inappropriate culture’ within Defra which needs addressing so that more taxpayer’s money isn’t wasted.

UK households wasting 34,000 tonnes of beef each year

The Guardian

Food waste continues to be a high profile issue both in the UK and abroad. National campaign Love Food, Hate Waste has turned the spotlight on the amount of beef wasted by UK households and the figure is truly shocking: 34,000 tonnes of it goes to waste at a cost of £700 a year to every UK household.

On a financial level, that money thrown down the drain is foolish. But the impact of wasting meat is especially significant for the amount of resources that goes into its production. Depending on how it is produced, a kilo of beef can require between 5,000 and 20,000 litres of water, along with approximately 10kg of grain for cows in a conventional feedlot system, so the level of waste goes way beyond what you may think of as just the weight of the beef in your kitchen. The true cost of wasting a kilo of meat is much more because it includes all the production costs.

That we can waste such an important food source in such large amounts, speaks to abundance of cheap meat in the UK – although for some it is still relatively expensive – as well as the lack of value people place on the food they buy. While the debate around what kind and how much meat to eat continues, we must remember that there are still millions of people for whom eating meat is the most profound of luxuries.

Hundreds of French farmers killing themselves every year

The Independent – Sunday 28th February

Farmers marched last week in Charoux, France, to bring attention to the devastating impact of the downturn in the global commodity market, with around 600 farmers a year committing suicide as their businesses fail and livelihoods are put on the line.

Suicide rates among farmers have been increasing in France since the mid-noughties. Farmer Louis Ganay admitted his own struggle with suicide after 15 of his cows died, commenting, “Getting up early every day, knowing that in a month you’ll only be able to make €200 or €300 with 80 hours of work each week, it’s a real torture…” He makes clear why so many farmers give up.

The falling prices of food commodities has affected small- and mid-scale farmers the most, starting a cull of farm businesses around Europe. More regulatory protection is needed to support this key sector of the economy and Europe’s food supply, if we want to maintain the diversity and resilience of our food production system. At the moment, the continued intensification of farming, with its panoply of damaging impacts on the environment, health, animal welfare and antibiotics, is extolled as the only way out of the endemic poverty of farming. The EU and national governments must do more to support farmers struggling in what are very tough times for the sector.

Photograph: Don McCollough

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