Synthetic biology is “Still in [the] Uncharted Waters of Public Opinion,” according to a recent focus group study by the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars. That’s not surprising since the technology involved sounds like something out of science fiction. It includes a range of techniques to modify organisms using artificially constructed sequences of genetic information (DNA) not found in nature. The Center’s Synthetic Biology Project gives an introduction to this discipline, sometimes referred to as “synbio.”
The advancement of synbio has taken place largely under the radar, with little public debate, but that’s changing. A June 17 criticism of an NGO synbio letter by an industry lobbyist, published on the investor website The Motley Fool, served to put more of a spotlight on the issue. The Motley Fool blog was almost immediately rebutted by Synbio Watch.
Jump straight to IATP’s new report, Measuring Success: Local Food Systems and the Need for New Indicators.
In agriculture, policymakers, analysts and researchers often use a set of indicators to assess whether a farming system, or new technology, is succeeding. The most common indicators focus on increasing “yield,” often of a singular crop or animal unit, within large-scale production systems. The use of indicators focused almost exclusively on production helps to shape scientiﬁc research and public policy. But just as weight alone is not a good measure of human health, a single-minded focus on production is an inadequate measure of the health of a farming system. So long as yields are high, this narrow focus supports the illusion that our agricultural system is meeting the nutrition, health, environmental sustainability, rural development and other needs of the population.
Farming produces multiple products. The most obvious are food, feed, ﬁber and raw materials for conversion into other food and non-food products (such as energy, materials, etc.). Done right, farming also contributes to better soil health and water quality, wildlife habitat, recreational opportunities and carbon storage. Unfortunately, less desired products are often produced as well, such as pollution to ground and surface water and air, with detrimental impacts to human and animal health.
The Antibiotic Resistance Coalition, comprising civil society organizations including IATP and stakeholders from multiple sectors on six continents, has called on World Health Organization (WHO) Member States to pass a critical resolution (Combating antimicrobial resistance, including antibiotic resistance) at the 67th World Health Assembly (WHA). That resolution would spark concerted global action to control the escalating antimicrobial resistance crisis.
Governments meet at the WHA annually to decide on a host of critical global health issues. Meeting from May 19–24, one of the most urgent actions this year must be a strong resolution against the spread of antimicrobial resistance (which includes the increasing resistance of antibiotics to simple infections) and to launch a global strategy that coordinates action against its spread, which has reached crisis levels across national boundaries.
Last week, Republicans in the Senate blocked a vote on whether to enact a modest raise of the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour, and the tipped minimum wage from $2.13 an hour to 70 percent of the minimum wage. Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid has vowed to bring it up for a vote again. He should. And it should pass.
At the forefront of lobbying efforts to block a vote on the minimum wage was the powerful National Restaurant Association. The Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC-United) and Food Chain Workers Alliance published a scathing report recently uncovering the “Other NRA’s” longstanding efforts to undermine wages and women’s rights, oppose limits on junk food marketing, and restrict health care coverage, wielding enormous power in Washington. The NRA spent more than $2 million in lobbying alone last year, reports Open Secrets.
Whether it is in the processing plant or in the supermarket or in the restaurant, food service workers are some of the lowest paid in the country and most impacted by minimum wage laws. Meanwhile, according to a report by the National Employment Law Project, corporations like Wal-Mart, Yum Brands! (Pizza Hut, KFC, Subway) and McDonald’s are among those who benefit the most from low wages.
When U.S. and EU officials talk about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), they say it will bring the two economies together as leaders in the global economy. Just this week, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that, “TTIP should become the economic pillar of the EU and US alliance. It should be our joint attempt to shape a fast changing world and to set the standards of the future. It should act as a platform to project shared EU-U.S. values worldwide with regard to open markets and rule of law.”
But what do they mean, and how would that work? Negotiating a series of bilateral or regional trade deals seems like a direct challenge to multilateralism, and something likely to further weaken the already anemic World Trade Organization. TTIP and the 15 bilateral or regional trade deals being negotiated by the EU create a cobweb of interlocking agreements that in many ways serve to lock in global norms on issues like investment, intellectual property, food safety and other issues that go well beyond what WTO members have agreed to even consider at the multilateral level.
The Obama Administration’s feverish cheerleading for genetically modified crops is being put to the test with growing evidence that the technology is unpopular with consumers, causing problems in the field and facing increasing rejection in the marketplace.
The state of Vermont is set to become the first in the country to require mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods. Maine and Connecticut have also passed mandatory labeling bills, but they require neighboring states to also pass such bills before they come into law. More than 25 states have GMO labeling laws working their way through state legislatures and ballot initiatives. Hawaii, a major testing ground for new GMO crops, has become another battleground as several counties now require greater disclosure and tougher regulations for GMO plantings.
This is a big deal and the biotech seed industry knows it. The industry has already spent millions to defeat ballot initiatives and state-based bills. Its next line of defense against the states is litigation, where it will likely sue states’ requiring labeling for violating the interstate commerce clause (restricting trade between states).
We’ve all made recipes and forgot that one key ingredient, only to forgive ourselves because, after all, food is more than just its physical ingredients: Too salty or not, we made that soup and we’ll be damned if we’re not proud of ourselves.
So what about the food we buy? Other than the items listed on the nutrition facts, food companies know we want to feel good: “The Breakfast of Champions” or something that’s “Mmm Mmm Good.” These famous slogans say nothing of ingredients, and everything about emotional appeal. Of course, advertising doesn’t include the whole story: The U.S. food system, controlled by a handful of corporations, is missing some key ingredients. We know there’s plenty of salt, sugar and fat, replacing the ingredients we might use at home, the freshness or family recipes we might cherish, and greater nutrition and variety provided by whole and home-cooked foods. In the same way, fair wages and prices for workers and farmers in the food system have been replaced with huge volumes of cheap food (and accompanying waste), low prices and inadequate wages.
From the soil and water that feeds our crops, to the waiters and waitresses that serve us our lunch, to the seeming myriad choices we have at the grocery store about what we eat, justice and health for ourselves, our farmers, workers and the environment is in drastically short supply.
Healthy, sustainable food cannot come from an unhealthy system that exploits its workers. Right now, part of that exploitation is an unacceptably low minimum wage in all sectors of the food system, from production to distribution, retail, restaurants and food service. In response, the Food Chain Workers Alliance (FCWA) is coordinating a day of action in support of a higher minimum wage this coming Monday, March 31—César Chávez Day. Representatives will deliver a petition with over 101,000 signatures to House Speaker John Boehner in support of the Fair Minimum Wage Act (H.R. 1010 / S.460), which would increase the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 per hour and the tipped minimum wage from $2.13 to 70 percent of that ($7.07 when minimum wage is $10.10).
From the FCWA press release:
Food, farming, livelihoods—no matter what you’re looking at, water is there, and when it’s not, things start to fall apart. California is facing currently its worst drought on record. Australia, too, with Queensland currently home to the state’s largest drought-declared area on record. With agriculture accounting for close to 70 percent of water withdrawals, the connection to our food supply is basic and utterly obvious.
In late February, the U.N. Committee on Food Security’s High Level Panel of Experts (CFS-HLPE) announced the composition of the expert team that will carry out its study on water and food security. We are pleased to announce that IATP’s Shiney Varghese has been selected as one of the team members. Shiney will bring to the collaborative effort her extensive experience with the water activist community, knowledge of agricultural water management, along with her grasp of water and food rights and the connections to climate change.
The 2014 National Nanotechnology Initiative Strategic Plan was released on February 28, a Friday afternoon. Perhaps it was a coincidence, but when the U.S. government doesn’t want to draw attention to a report, often that report will be released on a Friday afternoon.
There was no need to downplay the Strategic Plan, which, like the previous plan, continued to emphasize public funding for product development. However, a new “signature initiative” to develop nanotechnology enabled sensors, while not targeting public and environmental impacts of nanotechnology, can be used to protect public and environmental health.
(Nanotechnology involves the manufacture, visualization and manipulation of atomic to molecular sized materials. The NNI’s Nanotechnology 101 offers a concise introduction to the subject.)
The National Nanotechnology Coordinating Office (NNCO) wrote the Strategic Plan for a Congress that is generally optimistic and enthusiastic about nanotechnology, particularly its potential for job creation and economic growth. A February study (subscription required) co-funded by the NNCO claims to have identified a $1 trillion global market for nanotechnology enabled products in 2013. It is one of many ironies of federal nanotechnology investment that publicly funded research, such as this nanotechnology market evaluation, is privatized and available to the public only for at a steep price.