Pesticide ban has not hit crops, with bumper oilseed harvest forecast

The Independent – Monday 3rd August

Several weeks ago, after heavy lobbying by the NFU, Defra gave permission to UK farmers to use neonicotinoids on oilseed rape crops, despite an EU ban on the chemical. This decision was based on apparent fears that crop yields could drop significantly without the use of neonicotinoids. However, new figures just out have forecast that, instead, this could be a bumper year for oilseed rape. Has the NFU been crying wolf? It’s too early to say. The NFU’s chief arable adviser, Guy Gagen, has warned that the new figures could turn out to be wrong, but the general feeling is that this is unlikely.

The predicted increase in the crop calls into question the sense of Defra’s move to grant permission to use the banned chemicals. What’s at stake here in any overuse of neonicotinoids is the health of our pollinators, which, let’s face it, are critical to Britain’s food security. So shouldn’t we be more circumspect and careful in our use of such chemicals?

Pesticides are not the only way to control the dreaded flea beetle, which attacks oilseed rape crops. One reason the crop is so susceptible to this pest is that it is usually grown on large acreages in limited rotation with other crops, most often just wheat. This means that significant damage is inevitable in some years because the bug is able to proliferate under these conditions. Developing more varied rotations is a much more sustainable way to reduce crop damage and falling yields. Instead of more chemicals, we need a more systemic approach based on environmentally sound farming practice.

‘Gene drive’: Scientists sound the alarm over supercharged GM organisms which could spread in the wild and cause environmental disasters

The Independent – Sunday 2nd August

The next time someone tells you that genetic modification is completely safe, tell them to read up on ‘gene drive’ technology. The scientific community is raising the alarm on this developing science. Yes, it has many positive uses, but it could also be used in ways that may threaten life as we know it.

Gene drive technology significantly speeds up the spread of genetic modification so that it acts like a virus: a single gene modification ‘infects’ an entire body or species very quickly. Genes usually pass on mutations or modifications more slowly through successive generations but the gene drive accelerates this by allowing modifications to jump from chromosome to chromosome. As a result, all of the subsequent generation carry the modification instead of half.

It doesn’t take much to imagine how this might become dangerous. A gene drive could be used to stop the spread of diseases such as malaria and yellow fever by modifying the DNA of mosquitoes, but in the wrong hands it could be a powerful tool of bio-terrorism. A ‘wild break-out’ of a fast-moving genetic modification could wreak havoc on environmental ecosystems. This is how we arrive at ‘trackerjackers’.

It would be nice to think that we could control this new technology, but given this is unlikely, a number of scientists are recommending openness and transparency around the development and use of gene drives. They hope that this will lead to wide-ranging and diverse social controls that would manage its use. However, one thing is certain – we will be hearing a lot more about this new area of science and it’s going to reopen the debate about the safety of genetically modified organisms.

Fumes from Iowa hog-manure pit kill father and son

Mother Jones – Thursday 30th July

If you want any further evidence that industrial farming is deadly toxic, this story is it: a father and son have been killed by the noxious fumes given off in the manure pit of a pig farm. It was the second such tragedy in the United State’s mid-west this month.

The father and son were both overcome while wading into the pit to retrieve tools that had been dropped. The father attempted to save his son, who had collapsed in the pit, but he succumbed as well. The two should have been wearing breathing equipment that could have saved them, but their deaths are a measure of how dangerous and malignant these CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) can be.

Stories like this should act as the proverbial ‘canary in the coal mine’. In this article Tom Philpott also notes several incidents of spontaneous fires occurring when farmers break-up the foam that accumulates on the surface of manure pits, usually when power washing the facility. Does farming have to be so toxic that it is a clear and present danger? The simple answer is no, it doesn’t, and it shouldn’t be.

Primary school children to be target of anti-obesity strategy

The Guardian – Friday 31st July

UK Prime Minister David Cameron is currently consulting on the development of his anti-obesity strategy to be released this coming autumn. With nearly 10% of children entering the school system obese, this figure nearly doubles by the time they reach Year 6 (and doubles again for children from poorer areas), so their time in primary school is a critical opportunity to change both their eating and lifestyle habits.

Cameron recently sat down with advisors, including the Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies and celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, to start mapping out what needs to be done, and though the Prime Minister is reluctant to implement it, a sugar tax is definitely up for discussion. The comparison of the obesity epidemic with smoking in terms of their impact on public health is also on the agenda, as is the suggestion that the amount of added sugar in a product should be clearly labelled. Currently, packaging shows how much of an adult’s recommended daily intake is in each portion, not how much sugar has actually been added.

So there are at least some indications that the UK government may be taking the evidence linking obesity and poor diets more seriously than it has done in the past. With constant professional lobbying from the food industry, however, it remains to be seen whether the resulting measures will address the problem effectively.

School provides an important context for improving health and nutrition in children and teaching them better eating habits. However, any anti-obesity strategy focused on primary school children should also demand that Ofsted takes school sports seriously and ensures that parents truly understand what constitutes healthy eating – that is, eating fresh food cooked at home. A recent study found that home-cooked food was by far the healthiest way to eat. Eating ‘low-fat’ processed food should not be an option.

Tesco to ban Ribena and Capri-sun along with other sugary drinks to tackle obesity

The Independent – Tuesday 28th July

It’s hard to criticise Tesco for its ban on sugary drinks aimed at children: it’s a start in recognising the role of supermarkets in the rising obesity epidemic. Tesco also moved sweets and chocolates away from the checkout line last year (though not that far away…). But in the wider context of what we face in Britain and around the world, these moves are but a drop in the ocean of what needs to be done. Replacing sugary products with ones containing artificial sugar isn’t really the answer either: it doesn’t break the sweet drink habit and evidence shows that artificial sweeteners affect our metabolism and feelings of being full in ways that may drive us to eat more. It’s also unclear whether Tesco’s ban will remove sugar-added drinks from the supermarket altogether or just from the section devoted to children’s drinks.

So, it’s great that Tesco is at least thinking about the impact of what it sells, but what is really needed is to educate parents about what their kids should and should not be drinking. Sugary drinks should be a treat and not a staple in our households. We must get back to the drinks that are really good for us: simply water and milk.

Photograph: Stuart Richards

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