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.
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.
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.
A minimum of 23,000 people die in the United States due to antibiotic resistance, according to the Center for Disease Control. Yet, antibiotic resistance—the rise of so-called “super bugs”—is on the rise because of overuse and abuse of antibiotics in our food system. Eighty percent of antibiotics sold in the U.S. go toward food animal production—mostly for the corporate meat industry that uses it for growth promotion and to keep a large number of animals alive in confined spaces. While doctors, nurse practitioners and pharmacists are required to write prescriptions for antibiotics to treat sick people, anyone can buy them over the counter in animal feed stores. This lack of regulation is creating a public health crisis that is entirely possible to avert.
After years of delay, FDA is finally attempting to address this major gap by requiring animal drug makers to have veterinary supervision of antibiotics in feed. Veterinary supervision is critical to slow the overuse of these drugs and the related spread of antibiotic resistance. However, the FDA (in order avoid resistance from drug companies) is watering down what “veterinary supervison” means, and therefore, undermining the ability of government agencies to effectively track how drugs in animal feed are used.
The existing rule (called the Veterinary Feed Directive, or VFD), which is stronger, only applies to two drugs. But the FDA is weakening this rule in order to apply it to many more antibiotic drugs. While regulating a broad range of antibiotics under the VFD is absolutely critical for public health, the FDA should create a strong and comprehensive rule that requires the drug industry to change its practices.
To read the proposed FDA rule, click here.
Busy hands make for busy minds—that’s the theory behind experiential, or hands-on learning. IATP’s new high school–level Farm to School Youth Leadership Curriculum, released today, is designed with this in mind: Beyond learning about sourcing local food and the research that goes into localizing their school lunch, students actually participate in creating or expanding a Farm to School program, assisting their school lunchroom staff and administration with the nitty gritty of sourcing local foods for lunch.
From the press release:
The Farm to School Youth Leadership Curriculum is comprised of six lessons that can be taught consecutively over a semester or as single lessons or activities to complement other classes. Each lesson contains a lesson summary, facilitator preparation notes, activities, worksheets, recommended optional work and further resources for students and teachers. Lessons include themes such as “School Lunch: How Does it Really Work?” and “Communicating with Producers of Local Foods.”
Development of the Farm to School Youth Leadership Curriculum was a collaborative process, including consultation with educators, food service professionals and Farm to School experts, supported by the Center for Prevention at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, the John P. and Eleanor R. Yackel Foundation, the Minnesota Agricultural Education Leadership Council and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.
Congress is quietly considering legislation that would speed the passage of two mega trade agreements, and seeks to specifically eliminate government programs that favor “localization.” The bill would give the Obama Administration what is known as “fast track” authority—meaning Congress would surrender its constitutional authority to shape trade agreements negotiated by the president and instead can only vote up or down on the deal.
Why should those working for a fair, sustainable food system care? Perhaps no area of policy has undermined local food systems around the world more than the slew of trade agreements passed over the last several decades. These trade rules cover everything from tariffs, food safety and intellectual property to enshrining corporate rights. They place restrictions on what is allowed in national policies, like the Farm Bill, as well as the state and local level. These deals have heavily tilted the playing field from farmers and consumers toward global agribusiness and food giants like Cargill, Monsanto and Wal-Mart.
Because these trade deals, like NAFTA and CAFTA, have been so blatantly negotiated on behalf of multinational corporations and have contributed to growing income inequality, they’ve been extremely unpopular. This is why the Obama Administration has decided to negotiate these two new trade agreements in secret. That’s right, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (including more than a dozen countries) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (with our biggest trading partner, the EU) is being negotiated entirely behind closed doors. The negotiating text has not been made public, and, amazingly, even many members of Congress are in the dark about what’s happening.
One of Berlin’s big newspapers, the Berlin Zeitung, flashed images of little piglets today and of mass produced turkeys. This is part of a bigger build up towards a major demonstration on January 18 in which over 20,000 citizens are expected in Berlin to protest against industrial farming in the country—mass meat production being the vivid centerpiece for why it is so bad for people and the environment.
I have been in Germany for the last few weeks and am struck by how hot this topic is becoming—capturing media attention and putting the Green Party into elected positions in different states where animal factory farms have become a major problem. A slow movement is building, garnering ever increasing consumer support towards direct farmer-to-consumer marketing of organic, small-scale, locally produced, humane agriculture products.
The campaign that is organizing events and the demonstration during Germany’s “Green Week” is called "Meine Landwirtschaft" or “My Agriculture,” building a message to put back agriculture into the hands of better stewards who can respect soil, water and integrate human and animal health into good food for the people and the planet. This year’s theme for the campaign demonstration is "Wir Haben Agrarindustrie Satt!" or "We’re fed up with industrial agriculture!" The poster child: a big pig face.
The illusion of choice takes away from our ability to get to a just, sustainable food system, meaning we’ll have to “Vote with our Vote.” We can’t afford to just “Vote with our Fork.”
We’ve been told that we in the U.S. have the best, safest food system in the world. Without getting bogged down in endless debate, let’s get some context: the U.S. has 6 percent of households with very low food security and almost 9 percent more who are not sure they’ll have enough money or resources for food (at the same time, our average food availability is equal to 3,800 calories per person per day, much more than the recommended 1900 to 2500 calories/person/day); we throw away and waste 30 to 50 percent of our food; our food system is rated as fourth in food safety; we’re first (among industrialized countries) in overweight and obesity and tied with Greece for second in terms of the number of people who can’t reliably afford adequate food. That’s right: despite having some of the world’s cheapest food, we have one of the highest levels among wealthy countries of people not being able to reliably afford it.
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.