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.
In December 2012, I received an email from Frances (Frankie) Moore Lappé, a woman whose name I had known since I was a teenager interested in hunger and poverty issues and reading all I could on the subject. I was honored. Frankie was reaching out to organizations and individuals who work to end hunger to ask if we had read the FAO’s 2012 State of Food Insecurity in the World (SOFI) report and if so, what we had made of it. Frankie was concerned about a number of things, including that the report presented too rosy a view on how the world’s governments were doing in their ambition to eliminate hunger, and too rosy a view on what economic growth could do about the problem.
It did not take Frankie long to persuade a group of us, including IATP, to take notice and formalize our concerns. Those concerns include:
As I dream of real summer weather, one of the things I look forward to most is picking strawberries with my little cousins at a pick-your-own farm near our family cabin up in Aitkin County. The first time we tried it, the kids were so excited we had to go back two times in one day and filled five ice cream gallon buckets with ruby red fruit, sweet and sun-warmed as we relished in harvesting that evening’s dessert.
Not every child gets to experience the wonder of connecting with our local food system in such a direct way, but this year’s issue of the Minnesota Grown Directory is here to help families make that connection.
Minnesota Grown is a partnership between the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and producers of specialty crops and livestock. Their annual directory of local producers is always a huge hit with our vibrant local foods community. This year’s issue, just published last week, lists nearly 1,000—a record number!—local farmers, markets and businesses where consumers can buy directly from the producer. It also boasts a strong family-friendly focus. IATP worked with Minnesota Grown to include information on Farm to Childcare programs, fun farm facts, kid-friendly activities like farm tours, and other techniques families with young children can use to engage with locally grown foods. The family-centered content is a great supplement to the detailed information on local producers the Minnesota Grown Directory always provides, and makes this year’s issue a wonderful resource for parents, teachers, childcare facilities and anyone interested in engaging with kids on local agriculture.
Two Converging Rivers—That’s what Shuanghui means in Chinese, apparently. It seems appropriate when we look at the scale at which both Shuanghui and Smithfield operate in their respective countries. Shuanghui is said to be China’s largest meat manufacturer and Smithfield is the largest pork processor in the United States. It’s a convergence of two very big and very dirty rivers. Contrary to the common theme in media reports on the acquisition, food safety problems and environmental pollution are not just the domain of the Chinese livestock industry. One doesn’t have to look very far to see Smithfield’s own record in this regard. Unmanageable non-point source pollution from concentrated animal farms, antibiotic resistance, disease and chemical-related deaths related to poultry factories are very much associated with and originate from the American model of industrial livestock production. Smithfield was embarrassed after an undercover video of animal cruelty was taken from one of its plants and released by the Humane Society.
Today, 795 health professionals from across the country sent a joint letter to President Obama urging his leadership in getting the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to jumpstart its now-stalled policies to help protect the future effectiveness of antibiotics by reducing their overuse in food animal production. The letter was delivered by IATP's Healthy Food Action, Health Care Without Harm and the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Close to 30 million pounds of the antibiotics are sold for use in U.S. food animals each year. Many of them are identical, or nearly so, to antibiotics used in human medicine. Most are used for non-sick animals, to promote their faster growth and compensate for the risks created by raising such animals in overcrowded and often unhygienic conditions.
“In our hospitals, and in our communities, antibiotics increasingly are failing to treat drug resistant superbugs,” says David Wallinga, MD of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and Healthy Food Action. “The huge overuse of these antibiotics on our farms, in meat production, is an important—and unaddressed—contributor to the problem.”
What this letter shows is this superbug epidemic is too important for FDA and the White House to sit on the sidelines. We need President Obama to make sure his administration leads in the fight to protect antibiotis.”
The announcement last week of a bid by China’s Shuanghui International to acquire Smithfield Foods Incorporated came midway through my research trip to Beijing for IATP’s initiative on the globalization of industrial meat production. The responses to the news from back home have been all over the map, albeit fairly predictable. But what are they saying in China? Below I share some initial views from the press, blogosphere, academia and government. I’ll have more later this week.
The government seems positive about the deal. The first thing I noticed was the use of the word “merger” in the official Xinhua News Service’s initial piece on the acquisition. (The U.S. press prefers “sale” or “takeover.”) Xinhua’s second article actually uses “Win-Win” in the title, and describes how the merger will relieve the U.S. of the burden of our excess pork while easing trade deficits and improving Shuanghui’s food safety standards. “We can learn a lot from the industry leader,” Shuanghui CEO Wan Long is quoted as saying. Clearly he has never Googled “Smithfield recall.”
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.”
Earlier this spring, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) was in the news because of a threat that the agency’s 8000+ inspectors would be furloughed as part of the sequester. Since, by law, all meat packing processing facilities in the U.S. must have a USDA inspector on site in order to operate, this would have brought the U.S. beef, pork and poultry industries to a screeching halt.
Of course, as soon as one of the most powerful, Inside-the-Beltway industries objects to any part of the sequester, Congress decides that although the legislation was designed precisely to inflict painful cuts in order to force action, they’ll make an exception in this one little case. (All of which shows that the real purpose of Budget Hysteria is to cut the parts of government that help the politically powerless: poor people, workers, sick people and children.) So when President Obama signed the continuing resolution, which keeps the government operating for the next six months, it included an amendment allowing the USDA to make cuts elsewhere in order to keep the inspectors on the job.
Sixty-eight percent. That’s the percent of corporate food and agriculture industry executives who said that weather extremes/volatility will be the “single biggest factor affecting North American food and agribusiness in 2013,” according to a poll by the Dutch bank, Rabobank in late 2012. Rabobank went on to say that business leaders’ concerns about weather extremes “far outweighed the next two closest factors—consumer demand (13%) and policy/regulation (10%).” “Geopolitical events” and “trade/tariffs/exchange rates” received votes in the single digits.
This striking data is another sign that the increasing volatility of our weather is not only real but is impacting even the largest food and agriculture businesses.
To dig more deeply into perceptions in the food industry about changing climate patterns, I recently conducted a series of conversations with produce distributors around the United States. These are folks who buy and sell vast quantities of fruit and vegetables from suppliers in the U.S. and all over the world, every day.
Although they are largely hidden from view, distributors are a key link in the chain of relationships that make it possible for most of our food (except that which is “direct marketed” via farmers markets and the like) to make its way from farms to grocery stores, restaurants and so on. Many I spoke with are multi-generation, family-owned businesses that sell a local and global supply of produce to institutions in their region of the country.
Commercialization of all kinds of nanotech is happening fast. As of March 2011, the nongovernmental Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) had registered more than 1,300 products whose manufacturers claim to include ENMs, and estimates that the number could grow to 3,400 by 2020—all without a broad-based body of science to support claims that it’s safe for public health or the environment.
With the World Bank and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) pushing for “sustainable intensification” to counteract a growing population and increasing resource scarcity, it seems our soil is in the nanotech crosshairs—whether we know the long-term impacts or not.
In a new IATP report, Nanomaterials in Soil: Our Future Food Chain?, Dr. Steve Suppan digs in to the science behind why companies are pushing ahead with nanotech, why governments are so far behind, and why real (read: non-industry) science and conversation is sorely needed before our soil and the microfauna that keep it functioning become nothing but dirt.
Until that research is available, IATP is pushing for an immediate moratorium on fertilizing with biosolids (also known as sewage sludge) from sewage treatment plants near nanotech fabrication facilities.
As Dr. Suppan writes, “…if we are what we eat, surely what we eat is only as healthy and sustainable as the soil it comes from.”