Household chemicals ‘cocktail effect’ raises cancer concern for watchdog

The Guardian – Thursday 10th May

The European Environment Agency (EEA) has just released a new meta-study that raises concerns about numerous chemicals that have been linked with a range of diseases and conditions. It is yet another warning from a major ‘watchdog’ agency that many of the chemicals we are exposed to in our food and our homes, may be significantly impacting our health.

Of particular concern are endochrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) which affect the way that hormones act. They have been deeply impactful on wildlife and are also thought to be a serious concern for humans with studies linking them to an increase in breast cancer and lowered male fertility. The EEA has commented that “It would be prudent to take a precautionary approach to many of these chemicals until their effects are more fully understood.”

Most notably, however, the study raises concern around the ‘cocktail effect’ of our exposure to the many different chemicals in our daily life. There has been little research on the cumulative effect of these chemicals and their interactions with one another on our bodies. To start to get a handle on this, the agency recommends both rigourous treatment of sewage and other water sources as well as better regulation on how these chemicals are used.

It is a measure of how potentially impactful these chemicals are, that in recent months both the World Health Organisation (WHO) and now the EEA have made strong statements about the potential dangers to public health they generate. Sadly, the EEA falls short of calling for a ban on the most concerning of the chemicals. Evidence of their dangers is building along with public awareness, but we must keep the pressure on to more fully map what these chemicals are doing to us.

Pesticide use near schools, triggers a push for statewide regulations

LA Times – Saturday 13th June

Concern about pesticide exposure is spreading across the globe. New regulations are being developed in California after parents and school administrators complained of chemical sprays drifting onto school grounds – in one case, onto a school sport field from a neighbouring strawberry farm, as farm workers worked in full hazard suits. Further, the state has been handing out exemptions to some growers, allowing them to spray at levels that exceed current regulations even as it made air quality unsafe.

There has, of course, been push back from producers arguing that there are already rigorous regulations for spraying and new regulations will raise their costs. But these are the first statewide regulations to be proposed and would provide a minimum standard to work to – with emphasis on the word “minimum”. Current regulations had been imposed on a county by county basis. Agriculture is powerful in California and headway on stricter regulation is difficult. Last year, legislation on notifying communities of pesticide spraying in their area, failed.

One local government official in Ventura County suggested that “What is safe for the community without unfairly regulating the industry? We need to create a balance.” Do we? Shouldn’t we rather privilege the health of children and young people, and the wider community at large, over the rights of agricultural producers to spray dangerous and damaging chemicals into the air?

What Cuba can teach America about organic farming

PBS Newshour – Friday 19th June

Cuba is a leader in organic agriculture. The island nation has been farmed organically for the past two decades and there is an extensive network of around 10,000 urban farms that provide fresh produce for the country. The country is often held up as a model of sustainable food production, and there is much learning to be gained from its scale and reach. The next time someone says organic agriculture could never feed the world, tell them to visit Cuba. It’s a micro-vision of sustainable farming that could become macro.

But Cuba didn’t embrace organic production by choice. Up until 1991, it had been heavily dependent on petro-chemical fertilisers and pesticides provided by Russia. When the Soviet Union collapsed, so did access to the tools of industrial agriculture and Cuba’s food security spiralled into crisis. The caloric intake of its citizens decreased dramatically by more than 1,000 calories a day as production tumbled. It was organic production methods that saved them. The government encouraged small-scale urban gardening and taught farmers about the principles of crop rotation, composting and soil management. By 2002, the country had won back the 1,000 lost calories.

While there is so much promise for a sustainable food system in the story of Cuba, whether in the end they will preserve theirs is in question. Cuba still imports a significant amount of its food and production needs to increase. As trade with the US begins to open, agribusiness is itching to get into the new market. Many acknowledge that this will inevitably change the country’s agriculture, and with the pressure on production, conventional methods are certain to return. The hope is that organic production, despite this, will remain strong in the country – but that very much remains to be seen.

Ecosystem services: we need to talk about bees

Farming Online – Thursday 18th June

We have, perhaps, been overly-focused on the plight of honeybees, specifically, as our pollinators, more broadly, decline. A new study warns that we must keep a bigger picture in mind. Honeybees are heavily used in agriculture and as a result, their decline through colony collapse has been widely publicised. But wild bees play a major role in crop pollination as well and rarer bee species will also be important as climate change takes hold. The study makes the point that bee biodiversity must be maintained, along with the biodiversity of other pollinators, including butterflies, birds and also bats. It’s not just about saving one species.

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In a way, that’s not good news, because the earth’s biodiversity is in the midst of a mass extinction – one that will include us if we don’t get our act together pretty promptly. The decline of biodiversity along with climate change and soil erosion and degradation, is among the most significant problems we face in the 21st century. It will have a devastating impact as ecosystems across the world become increasingly unbalanced. Biodiversity is a critical tool in surviving climate change, and pollinators make this point pretty clearly. Losing honeybees would be bad, but losing the breadth of our pollinators would be worse, so we need to take a holistic approach. That’s where the “ecosystem services” analysis that’s often used to convince those with an only economic interest in matters of the world, falls short. Honeybees may be worth a lot to agri-business by pollinating high value crops like almonds, but we need a diversity of pollinators if we’re going to continue to feed the world.

Jamie Oliver slaps a 10p sugar tax on all sweet drinks at his restaurants in protest of the government’s refusal to introduce levy

Daily Mail – Sunday 21st June

Jamie Oliver is taking a stance on sugar-filled fizzy drinks. Despite widespread calls for a sugar tax in the UK, most notably by charities Sustain and Action on Sugar, but even from the Chief Medical Officer, the government has not moved to implement one. Jamie Oliver’s action is aimed at raising awareness of sugar’s impact on childhood obesity levels and the government’s need to take urgent action to reduce its consumption. The 10p tax in his restaurants will be donated to Sustain to promote healthy eating programmes for children. It’s also hoped that other restaurants will follow suit, joining his campaign for the tax.

In recent years, the dangers of sugar have been well mapped and publicised. Movement from the food and drink sector to reduce sugar levels in drinks has been slow and research into sugar substitutes has called into question how different the alternatives really are. Little has changed in the wider food environment to deter consumption, especially among children and young people. There is much debate around the effectiveness of a sugar tax, but it certainly has a place in a wider strategy for tackling childhood obesity, such as that of Action on Sugar. Taxation was instrumental in the campaign to stop smoking – maybe not the only contributor to the decline of that bad habit, but certainly significant in a multi-tiered approach that included regulation of marketing and branding and a wide, high-profile public health campaign. It’s well worth taking taxation out for a run again in the fight on childhood obesity.

Photograph: Jets and Zeppelins and Webted

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