Why do we have an obesity crisis and yet need food banks, asks Government health minister

The Telegraph – Thursday 26th November

A government health minister, Lord Prior of Brampton, has commented on the “strange situation” of having huge numbers of people using food banks in the midst of an obesity epidemic.

The comment has garnered a fair bit of derision from both the Church of England and the Labour party with Kerry McCarthy, shadow minister for the environment pointing out that “The only ‘strange situation’ is a Tory Minister who doesn’t understand why his government’s policies are forcing families up and down this country to rely on food banks.”

That the minister is unable to see that the increase in the use of food banks and the obesity epidemic are two key outcomes of poverty, is a measure of his disconnection from the impact of government policies carried out in the name of austerity. As a health minister, one would hope he was aware that overnutrition is as damaging as undernutrition and that obesity is increasingly a disease of the poor. Research has revealed that children growing up in poverty are more than twice as likely to be obese as those who grow up in affluence.

The reason for this is, ultimately, a nutritional one. Food that makes you fat is, inevitably, not only unhealthy but tends to be cheaper than fresh food. People buy it because it makes them feel full when they’re hungry. The reason they’re hungry, and need to go to food banks, is because they can’t afford food – fresh or processed. When asked why they can’t afford food, up to 45% of people report it is due to cuts and sanctions to their benefits.

Connect the dots and you get a picture of the devastating impact of austerity, a picture which the Tory Lord needs to take a closer look at.

Stevia-derived sweeteners violate indigenous rights

Berne Decleration – Thursday 19th November

Controversy around the sweeteners derived from the stevia plant has broken out over the rights of the indigenous peoples who originally shared their knowledge and aided its commercial production. The Berne Declaration, a Swiss NGO focused on promoting “equitable, sustainable and democratic North-South relations” and its co-publishers have just released a new report, The Bitter Sweet Taste of Stevia, accusing commercial producers of steviol glycosides of biopiracy. Steviol glycosides are the high-intensity derivatives of stevia that are becoming widely used in fizzy drinks and other processed food. Stevia carries the kudos of being a ‘natural’ sweetener and this has been widely exploited in its marketing. Stevia is hoping to be the holy grail of sugar substitutes with no nasty chemical associations and damaging side affects.

The stevia plant comes from a region between Paraguay and Brazil and its leaves have long been used by the Guaraní people as a sweetener. The report alleges that a range of multi-national companies have been using the traditional knowledge of the Guaraní and the genetic resource of the plant to generate patents through which they are making significant profits – with no benefit to the Guaraní people. To make matters worse, the sale of stevia leaves as food is illegal in most developed countries and even the sale of those leaves for processing into the glycosides could be shut down by the production of ‘bio-synthetic’ stevia. Small-scale producers will, of course, be the losers here.

Exploitation by the developed world of the resources of the developing world is now a well-told tale. This story has been largely overlooked by mainstream media, but it is time that more attention is paid to insuring that patents related to traditional knowledge are based on ethical principles and emerge from equitable partnerships with the people whose resources are being targeted.

Tax on sugary drinks backed by MPs

BBC News – Monday 30th November

We’re one step closer to actually passing a tax on sugary drinks, despite David Cameron’s naysaying about what impact a tax might have. The Common’s Health Committee has taken a strong stance on the value of a sugar tax, claiming “compelling evidence” it would cut consumption.

Growing support for the tax, which is not a stand-alone measure but part of a wider strategy to tackle childhood obesity, will put further pressure on Cameron to change his position. The Committee’s recommendation follows on from the recent review by Public Health England that aimed to inform the Government’s strategy on tackling childhood obesity.

Children unquestionably consume far more sugar than they should and part of that is because of its pervasiveness in all kinds of food – savoury as often as sweet. But producers of fizzy drinks pack in the biggest hit of sugar for children, providing some 30-40% of daily sugar intake for children and young people, who are well over the recommended daily amount of sugar as they take in up to 75g a day. It’s hard not to take a righteous tone with the food and drinks industry when it complains that, “No-one seems to have considered hard-pressed consumers in all this”, because the very aim of this tax is to protect consumers from themselves and change behaviours that are detrimental to their long-term health.

China confirms one million cow cloning ‘factory’

Farmers Weekly – Thursday 26th November

There’s something quite ridiculous, as well as hideous, about China’s plan to open a one million cow cloning factory. Ridiculous in its belief that consumers will embrace cloned meat when there’s already widespread mistrust of genetic modification (and the FDA’s announcement that cloning like genetic modification is safe, is unlikely to change this). Hideous in the ramifications to animal welfare.

While cloning may have its uses – shown in both gene cloning and, potentially, therapeutic cloningreproductive cloning remains faulty, inefficient and problematic. We’re still a long way off from supermarkets filled with cloned meat and China’s factory may be more aspirational than successful. A couple of significant problems still plague the process. For starters, most animals that are currently being reproductively cloned are unfit for life – they suffer from something called ‘Large Animal Syndrome’ which increases both the overall size of the animal, but more significantly, the size of animals’ vital organs so they don’t function properly. Further, most embryos die and most animals die prematurely (due to aging chromosomes), and before this premature death they often live in pain and discomfort. It’s a pretty awful scenario both economically and ethically.

The Chinese are admittedly concerned about the country’s growing meat consumption and how they are going to meet demand as their middle class grows. They’ve embraced reproductive cloning in other ways, producing racehorses and pet animals. They may also use it to populate zoos with endangered species. One spokesman for the factory commented that they are pushing cloning “closer to mainstream acceptance”. Is this where we want to go? Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go suggests a very ugly endpoint for cloning – it tells a story of human clones from whom vital organs are ‘farmed’ on an industrial scale. It’s a haunting cautionary tale that should be attended to as we stand on the brink of mainstreaming this technique.

Join the 4/1000 initiative: Soils for food security and climate

Lima Paris Action Agenda Newsroom – Thursday 4th December

We have a great resource for mitigating climate change in our soils. Healthy soils ‘lock-up’ carbon in the earth, which prevent it from rising into the atmosphere as CO2 and contributing to climate change. Increasing carbon in the earth’s soils by just 0.4% per year would halt any increase of CO2 in the atmosphere, so the French government has introduced a programme called 4 per 1000 initiative: Soils for food security and climate at the COP21 talks to encourage countries to sign-up to a voluntary commitment to build soil carbon year on year.

The initiative brings to the fore the importance that agriculture plays in climate change. While often cited as one of the major contributors to GHG emissions, it also has the power to make a huge contribution to reducing emissions. Research into building soil carbon in soils is a very live issue, promising both increased soil fertility and providing a significant part of the answer to how we limit climate change to 2 degrees. Australia has been a leader in soil carbon research, having invested some $25 million AUD into it and has produced a soil carbon map for Australia that details its concentrations across the country (which makes immediately evident just how big a problem there is with carbon stores in the soil.)

Soil degradation, as the UN’s International Year of Soils has highlighted, is a huge issue for the world and needs to be recognised, alongside climate change, as one of the most pressing problems facing humanity. Research by the Economics of Land Degradation Initiative in 2015 calculated that soil degradation is costing between $6.3 and $10.6 trillion per year globally, but these costs could be reduced by enhancing soil carbon stocks and adopting more sustainable farming methods. The 4/1000 initiative suggests that countries work to increase organic matter in soils which helps to lock-up carbon, as well as developing policies that support sustainable agriculture and funding carbon sequestration projects. 4 per 1000 is an important initiative, but with so much at stake and so much potential for carbon sequestration to make a difference in climate change, why is this commitment voluntary and not binding?

Photograph: Rosa Say

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