The comment period recently closed on the USDA’s Research, Education, and Economics (REE) Action Plan Draft, which responded to informal and formal consultations with internal and external advisors and stakeholders, and “lessons learned from implementation of Farm Bill provisions.” It refines the initial REE Action Plan, which was released in February of 2012.
Why should we care? Well, the action plan is meant to identify and outline the core organizing efforts of the USDA’s science agenda, including how the USDA delivers on its the scientific discovery mission through The Agricultural Research Service (ARS), the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Agricultural Statistics Service. In other words, it is setting the priorities for the work of 1,200 research projects and thousands of staff within the USDA, the priorities for over $1.2 million in projects and research funds distributed to Land-Grant universities and other partners, and the priorities around what kinds of data the USDA works to collect and how it disseminates it. This document will strongly influence what kind of science is supported, what kinds of things we can find out about our own food system and what possibilities and alternatives are explored. As a former academic, I can say the USDA is a very important funder for academic work on the food system and their statistics are vital to allowing us to figure out what’s going on in our own food system.
Now that autism affects one in fifty school-aged kids—up from 1 in 150 as measured in 2000—we should be asking ourselves some pretty serious questions about why so many kids have autism. Sure, we know that the health and educational systems are better at diagnosing autism, but better diagnosis explains only part of the increase. With exponential increases in rates of autism over the past two decades, there is more going on than better diagnosis.
As more kids are diagnosed with autism, most of our attention is focused on providing services. Serving kids with autism is essential, but there is also a need to examine the possible myriad of factors that might be contributing to this autism epidemic. If we knew how to prevent autism, it would be our responsibility as a society to commit resources at our disposal to do so.
Preventing autism requires that we look at the whole picture. The bulk of research in autism has been focused on genetics, which plays a contributing role in risk for autism. Emerging from more recent research, however, is a pattern of links between risk for autism and environmental and dietary factors. While the etiology of autism is complex, with both genetic and environmental components, it is clear that the role of the immune system is key. A child’s prenatal and postnatal environments, including diet, clearly impact immune health. Autism is likely the result of multiple assaults on the immune system. One of these assaults then tips the person over a threshold into the autism state.
The Farm Bill was designed to reign in price volatility, manage supply and protect nature while providing vital nutrition programs for the country’s poor. Instead, it’s been ravaged by constant corporate assault and a Congress too emboldened with industry money to stand up for our best interests.
The result? An agriculture system that is highly productive at the expense of health, the environment and rural communities.
It's time to move Beyond the Farm Bill and design the type of food and agriculture policy we need. One that provides:
In the midst of worrisome news about droughts, desertification, unreliable monsoons and growing concerns around water security around the world, the announcement by the UNESCO and Kenyan officials at the recent International Water Security Conference in Nairobi was anything but gloomy. The finding of potentially huge groundwater resources in northwestern Kenya is indeed a blessing, not only for the herding communities of drought-prone Turkana, but also for the region as a whole.
Until very recently the region was best known to the global water community both for the lack of access to water that mark the lives and livelihoods of indigenous communities that live there, and for their efforts to save Turkana Lake, the largest permanent desert lake in the world according to International Rivers.
But a recent survey by RTI, a company hired by U.N., found groundwater systems with a potential of storing about 250 billion cubic meters (or about 66 trillion gallons) in the Kachoda, Gatome, Nkalale and Lockichar areas, with the largest aquifer being located in the Lokitipi Basin—all of them in Turkana county, one of the 47 counties in Kenya. Of these, the three smaller aquifers combined are estimated to store about 30 billion cubic meters of water, once confirmed by drilling.
Golden Rice’s recent re-emergence in the news reminded me of how long the biotech industry has been touting this “wonder” crop in order to gain approval for genetic modification more broadly. It appears we’re now seeing a similar tactic with the proposed introduction of genetically modified (GMO) American chestnut trees. Once stretching across the eastern part of the United States and memorialized in countless stories, songs and poems, few trees evoke more nostalgia for America’s past than the Chestnut. However, the American chestnut now mostly lingers in our memory, as the more than 4 billion trees—equaling around a quarter of all hardwoods in the Eastern seaboard—were almost completely wiped out when a disease swept through the country in the early 1900s.
Such emotional connections help to explain the fervor behind efforts to reintroduce this American icon, but also the latent danger in such work. One effort has utilized traditional breeding practices to create and introduce a new chestnut hybrid that is resistant to the blight. Until the last few years, the American Chestnut Foundation supported this effort before shifting to support a competing initiative, led by the College of Environmental Science and Forestry of the State University of New York in Syracuse, which takes the more controversial approach of genetic modification. The American Chestnut Research and Restoration Center, through transfer of genes native to wheat into the chestnut, has created a blight-resistant version of the American Chestnut, and is intending—with appropriate regulatory support—to introduce this version into the wild.
We are all hearing a lot about obesity these days and more people are obese than ever; one-third of American children and two-thirds of adults are overweight or obese. The American Medical Association has declared that obesity is a disease.
While some disagree with the designation of obesity as a disease, there is strong evidence that obesity is linked with diseases—specifically Type II diabetes and heart disease. There is also general agreement that obesity is a major public health problem. Preventing obesity would contribute to a healthier, happier population and save an estimated $190 billion per year in direct health care costs.
But how do we prevent obesity? We all know that we should eat healthier and exercise more to maintain a healthy weight, but few people are aware that avoiding exposure to certain chemicals could reduce their risk of obesity, especially during prenatal life and in childhood. An emerging body of science links chemicals that disrupt hormones to increased risk for obesity.
Fetuses and children are the most vulnerable to adverse health effects from hormone-disrupting chemicals. Like hormones themselves, these chemicals exert health impacts even at minute levels of exposure and exposures in the womb can have lifelong impacts.
On Saturday, May 25, IATP participated in the March Against Monsanto (MAM) in St. Paul, Minnesota. The MAM took place in 436 cities in 52 countries, with an estimated two million participants. Monsanto was the focus not only because of the scale and reach of its products, but because of its undue influence on the global food system. A recent Food and Water Watch report, summarizing 936 Wikileaks documents, gives an idea of what the U.S. State Department has done to change laws and enable sales of Monsanto products around the world. Indeed, multiple U.S. federal agencies have advanced the company’s commercial interests, in the face of the rejection of Monsanto products by many farmers, consumers, academics and governments. Nevertheless, in the name of free trade and food security, the U.S. promotes GMOs to “feed the world.”
The Minnesota Green Chemistry Forum hosted a happy hour event on May 15, entitled The Business Case for Chemical Policy Reform. The group of fifty, over half from the business community, heard presentations about how sound chemical policies can benefit businesses and why business voices are needed in chemical policy debates.
We heard from David Levine, co-founder & CEO of the American Sustainable Business Council (ASBC), a growing coalition of over 165,000 businesses and social enterprises and more than 300,000 entrepreneurs, owners, executive, investors and business professionals. David cited the results of an ASBC polling showing that 87 percent of small businesses think there should be government regulations to ensure that chemicals used in growing food are safe and 73 percent support government regulation to assure that consumer products are free of toxins. Nine out of 10 small businesses surveyed believe that chemical manufacturers should be held responsible for ensuring that chemicals they use are safe and 94 percent support disclosure of chemicals of concern in products.
Over 5000 children’s products contain toxic chemicals linked to cancer, hormone disruption and reproductive problems, including the toxic metals, cadmium, mercury and antimony, as well as phthalates and solvents. A new report by the Washington Toxics Coalition and Safer States reveals the results of manufacturer reporting to the Washington State Department of Ecology.
Makers of kids’ products reported using 41 of the 66 chemicals identified by WA Ecology as a concern for children’s health. Major manufacturers who reported using the chemicals in their products include Walmart, Gap, Gymboree, Hallmark, H & M and others. They use these chemicals in an array of kids’ products, including clothing, footwear, toys, games, jewelry, accessories, baby products, furniture, bedding, arts and crafts supplies and personal care products. Besides exposing kids in the products themselves, some of these chemicals, for example toxic flame retardants, build up in the environment and in the food we eat.
Examples of product categories reported to contain toxic chemicals include:
The chemical reports are required under Washington State’s Children’s Safe Products Act of 2008. A searchable database of chemical use reports filed with the Washington State Department of Ecology is available at http://www.ecy.wa.gov/programs/swfa/cspa/search.html.
The Goldman Environmental Prize honors grassroots environmental leaders in each of the six continents. It’s an important forum that lifts up inspirational, justice-based work in communities around the world that often goes unrecognized. Earlier this week, the six winners were announced:
Jonathan Deal, South Africa – led a successful campaign against fracking in South Africa to protect the Karoo, a semi-desert region treasured for its agriculture, beauty and wildlife.
Azzam Alwash, Iraq – returned to war-torn Iraq to lead local communities in restoring the once-lush marshes that were turned to dustbowls during Saddam Hussein's rule.
Rossano Ercolini, Italy – began a public education campaign about the dangers of incinerators in his small Tuscan town that grew into a national Zero Waste movement.
Aleta Baun, Indonesia – organized hundreds of local villagers to peacefully occupy marble mining sites in "weaving protests," successfully stopping the destruction of sacred forestland in Mutins Mountain on the island of Timor.
Kimberly Wasserman, USA – led local residents in a successful campaign to shut down two of the country's oldest and dirtiest power plants, and is now transforming Chicago's old industrial sites into parks and multi-use spaces.
Nohra Padilla, Colombia – organized Colombia's marginalized waste pickers to make recycling a legitimate part of waste management.