Coca-Cola funds scientists who shift blame for obesity away from bad diets

New York Times – Sunday 9th August

Coca-Cola has been up to the usual corporate shenanigans as the threat of a sugar tax looms. It has set up a new non-profit organisation to promote the importance of exercising. Sounds pretty decent, except that isn’t quite what they’re up to. This isn’t like Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move programme which actually funds getting people to move around. The new foundation, the Global Energy Balance Network, set-up and funded by Coca-Cola is supporting ‘scientific’ research that argues obesity isn’t caused by what and how much you eat, but rather is a result of not burning those calories off through exercise. If you exercised, it wouldn’t matter how much you ate and drank, you could maintain a healthy weight. Exercise would keep you in ‘energy balance’. However, sensible as it sounds, evidence is now widespread that the impact of exercise on people trying to lose weight is minimal and there isn’t a direct relationship between exercise and weight loss – dietary change is a much more efficient way to cut calories. Exercise, while important is not the answer on its own.

But that’s definitely not what Coca-Cola wants you to think. The message that they want to send is that you can have those two sugary drinks a day as long as you exercise regularly. They’ve teamed up with a group of influential scientists, most of whom have received significant research grants from the company, to generate research that says eating too much sugar isn’t a problem as long as you exercise. It’s a tried and trusted tactic, confuse consumers by deflecting the impact of their products on public health onto something else – it’s not the sugary drinks that are making you fat, it’s that you’re not exercising.

The tactics are insidious and contribute to the erosion of public trust in the scientific method. But setting up seemingly independent bodies to disseminate corporate PR messages has a long history of success as a form of advertising. It is widely used to deflect criticism and mix the messages that consumers receive. So be well wary of whose funding research and look for the fine print where you might find statements like, “This research was funded by The Coca-Cola Company.” As the film Fed-Up (reviewed in our recent Five films for your summer holidays),  illustrated, sugar and processed food lie at the root of the obesity epidemic and don’t ever let the food industry tell you otherwise!

Can big brands like Nestlé really play a role in land disputes?

The Guardian – Thursday 6th August

Mitigating land ‘grab’ disputes is in the interests of corporate companies as well as communities, and recognition of this could make land acquisition fairer and less costly for both. With some 70% of land globally subject to ownership disputes, land acquisition for many companies comes with significant costs, many of them legal. While this should bear none of our sympathy, it is a factor that may encourage fairer practices towards the communities and individuals the land is taken from. The cost of land disputes is often significant for foreign investors and reflects badly on company ‘brands’ – it increases operating costs and generates bad relations with local communities neither of which are good for the bottom-line of a profit-focused company. For far too long, however, many companies have resisted the development of appropriate protocols for land acquisitions when there are potential land disputes. However, a number of big brands including Coca-Cola, Unilever and Nestlé are working with the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation) to promote FAO guidelines on responsible governance tenure for land, forests and fisheries.

This is a good step forward in both protecting the rights of communities to their resources and helping companies assess the liabilities and risks involved in their investment. There are examples to draw from in terms of creating equitable relations between the two – Divine Chocolate based in Ghana co-owns its land with people that have traditional rights to it. Significant change in this area, however, continues to slow and businesses need to take the lead, making a public commitment not to engage in dubious land acquisitions. It would represent yet another way that these companies could increase their sustainability profile – both in the financial terms they value and in the social terms that help to build their brand. In the long-view, this will ultimately make these companies better on their own terms and better in the public’s eye.

Morrisons agrees to milk price talks after farmers blockade distribution centre

Farmers Guardian Insight – Friday 7th August

The wave of farmers’ protests in the UK continues and is having a small but important impact in raising awareness of their predicament. Supermarkets, wary of the bad press they have been getting as a key contributor to the falling price of milk and other products, are making some concessions to farmers. Morrisons, which had its distribution centre in Bridgwater blockaded by farmers this past weekend, has agreed it will not accept any further price decreases from suppliers.

Suppliers like Arla and Muller have recently been cutting milk prices to even more unsustainable levels, as global milk prices continue to fall, causing a crisis in the industry. The statement from Morrisons acknowledges the role supermarkets play in the falling milk price. An ongoing price war between the big four UK supermarkets (Asda, Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons) has been a significant contributor to the current distress of dairy farmers.

The SFT’s CEO Patrick Holden has written passionately in The Observer this week about the plight of UK dairy farmers and small-scale farming more broadly. He calls for a fair trade milk label and an end to the cull of UK dairy businesses that is currently going on as toppling prices leave only the largest, most intensive farms able to stay in business.

Supermarkets and garden centres ban Roundup weedkiller suspected of causing cancer

The Guardian – Friday 7th August

There has been much debate around the safety of the chemical glyphosate, the main active ingredient of Monsanto’s herbicide Round-up and many other products. Ever since the World Health Organisation classified it ‘a probable carcinogen’ this past spring, there has been an ongoing argument on what this really means in terms of safety. In a New Yorker piece, Roundup and Risk Assessment, covered earlier in Eat The Week, writer Michael Specter argues that ‘probably carcinogenic’ is a long way from ‘carcinogenic’ and there’s really very little to worry about. But with cancer rates rising ever higher annually, people may feel any risk is too big – and that’s what appears to be playing out across European supermarkets and garden centres as products containing glyphosate are pulled off the shelves despite many regulators and others continuing to tell us it is safe.

So maybe this is a wake-up call to those who are playing down the risks of glyphosate exposure. Monsanto is in a state about the plight of its chemical, going so far as to release a fact sheet under the pseudonym ‘Common Sense Gardening Group’ which states that “glyphosate does not cause cancer … [and] does not pose any unacceptable risk to human health.” It’s a blatant move to further confuse understanding of glyphosate’s risk. Real common sense advice comes from toxicologist Andreas Kortenkamp at Brunel University, who suggests “Home gardeners should minimise their exposure by asking themselves: do I really need to use Roundup? Can I not hand-weed?”

What is perhaps most concerning about glyphosate is that despite its pervasive use, we don’t have a clear picture of how much exposure to the herbicide the general public is getting. Farm workers and gardeners are likely to be most at risk for obvious reasons, but what levels of glyphosate residues are found among the general population? A 2013 study by Friends of the Earth found the chemical in the urine of people in 18 European countries – a concerning indicator that we could have a problem on our hands. Wider bio-monitoring of glyphosate levels in urine and breast milk within the general population might help to build a picture of the risks posed by this chemical.

Scotland to ban GM crop growing

BBC News – Sunday 9th August

Scotland pushes back on GM crops with a strong ‘no’ to their cultivation. Scotland is to opt out of the GM crops, making a clear statement for Scotland’s position on GM, with Richard Lochhead, Rural Affairs Secretary, commenting that “There is no evidence of significant demand for GM products by Scottish consumers and I am concerned that allowing GM crops to be grown in Scotland would damage our clean and green brand…”

From the pro-GM perspective of England, the move has caused disappointment. With Wales also quite firm in its anti-GM stance, England is alone in welcoming GM. How this all plays out in practice could well cause tensions between the countries – what will happen if England’s GM crops contaminate Scottish or Welsh GM-free crops? Will England be willing to set appropriate protocols to prevent this? Could Scotland’s “clean and green brand” be compromised and might they seek compensation for this?

As Scotland and Wales go greener will the issue of choice in GM bring home the reality of a variegated Europe with pro-GM nations side by side with those wishing to remain GM-free? This remains to be seen.

Photograph: Smilla

Sign up to our Newsletter

Stay up to date with the latest SFT views and news