Archive for the ‘disease’ Category

May10

EU Bans Class of Pesticides Thought Harmful to Bees

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By Laura Reynolds

On April 29, the European Union voted to largely ban the use of neonicotinoids, a type of pesticide, for two years beginning in December 2013. The ban had 15 member state supporters, including France, Germany, and Poland; eight opponents, including the United Kingdom; and four abstaining votes.

Neonicotinoids are a possible cause of the rapid decline in bee populations worldwide. (Photo credit: University of California)

The ban restricts the use of three pesticides—imidacloprid, clothianidin, and thiamethoxam—on flowering crops, which honeybees depend on for pollen and hive health. Environmental groups, beekeepers, scientists, and the public hailed the ban as a victory for the precautionary principle, which urges caution and careful scientific study in circumstances where the effects of a chemical or action on the environment are not sufficiently clear.

Neonicotinoids are thought to be particularly harmful for insects because the chemical is applied directly to a plant’s seed instead of its leaves or flowers. This makes the pesticide present in the plant’s pollen. Neonicotinoids are also persistent chemicals, meaning that they do not degrade within weeks or months, but rather remain in the nerve systems of insects, causing systemic and lasting damage.

In the United States, a coalition of beekeeping companies and environmental groups sued the Environmental Protection Agency in March over its approval of neonicotinoids for domestic use. The groups cited a lack of scientific understanding of the pesticides’ effect on bees and other insects, and drew a possible connection between the chemicals and the ongoing collapse of honeybee hives across the country and worldwide.

This bee population crisis, known as colony collapse disorder, emerged in 2005, and scientists have not yet identified a clear cause. Numerous peer-reviewed scientific studies have both confirmed and denied a link between neonicotinoids and beehive collapse. Scientists agree that viruses, mites, drought, and loss of native habitat could also be contributing to the collapse.

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Mar22

The Looming Threat of Water Scarcity

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By Supriya Kumar

Some 1.2 billion people—almost a fifth of the world—live in areas of physical water scarcity, while another 1.6 billion face what can be called economic water shortage. The situation is only expected to worsen as population growth, climate change, investment and management shortfalls, and inefficient use of existing resources restrict the amount of water available to people. It is estimated that by 2025, 1.8 billion people will live in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity, with almost half of the world living in conditions of water stress.

Global water scarcity map. (Photo credit: International Water Management Institute)

Water scarcity has several definitions. Physical scarcity occurs when there is not enough water to meet demand; its symptoms include severe environmental degradation, declining groundwater, and unequal water distribution. Economic water scarcity occurs when there is a lack of investment and proper management to meet the demand of people who do not have the financial means to use existing water sources; the symptoms in this case normally include poor infrastructure.Large parts of Africa suffer from economic water scarcity.

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Feb01

Innovation of the Month: Gardens for Health

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By Carly Chaapel

Around the world, gardens provide food for local communities, serve as educational tools, and empower the poor. In sub-Saharan Africa, where 22.5 million people live with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), humanitarian and environmental organizations are turning to community gardens for nutritional and social benefits for HIV patients.

Rwandan farmer harvests plants for her family with the help of Gardens for Health. (Photo credit: Gardens for Health International)

In Rwanda, the most densely populated sub-Saharan country, the average citizen lives well below global average health, education, and income standards. The Human Development Index ranks Rwanda 166 out of 187 countries, indicating “low human development.” According to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), nearly 170,000 people (3 percent of adults) suffer from HIV in Rwanda.

Numerous organizations are, however, generating hope for the poor and the sick in Rwanda. Gardens for Health International, for example, partners with local health clinics to provide agricultural solutions for health problems, including malnutrition. Patients who arrive at rural clinics in need of food aid and emergency treatment often leave with the resources necessary to both address their immediate needs and sustain themselves and their families in the future. Gardens for Health experts routinely visit families in their homes, bringing the tools and knowledge needed (e.g., seedlings and market access knowledge) to increase yields, diversify diets, and prevent future malnutrition.

In Swaziland, the International Red Cross has donated money to support community gardens with similar goals. According to USAID, 25.9 percent of adults in Swaziland live with HIV, and nearly 70,000 children have been orphaned due to the virus. Although food crises are prevalent in this drought-prone country, donations from the Red Cross have enabled communities to both develop food gardens and access valuable adaptation technology, such as drip irrigation, which can increase agricultural productivity and boost year-round food security for families living with HIV.

By disseminating resources and information, organizations such as Gardens for Health and the International Red Cross can increase access to healthy foods for the poor, hungry, and sick, and enable families to develop productive and sustainable food gardens just outside their front doors.

Do you know about a garden that is used as a healing space for the sick? Tell us more in the comments below.

Carly Chaapel is a former research intern with the Worldwatch Institute’s Food and Agriculture Program.

Oct16

21 Awesome Policies Changing the Food System!

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Today we celebrate World Food Day in commemoration of the founding of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). It is a chance to renew our commitment to sustainable and equitable agriculture as a means of ending world hunger.

Around the world, governments and organizations alike have made huge strides towards achieving the principles on which the FAO was founded. Governments on every continent have taken significant steps to change food systems for the better, making them more sustainable, healthy, and accessible to all. Today, we showcase just 21 of the many recent policies and laws enacted by governments worldwide that are helping to change the food system, promote sustainable agriculture, and eradicate hunger.

1. The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act was passed in 2010 with a focus on improving the nutrition of children across the United States. Authorizing funding for federal school meal and child nutrition programs, this legislation allows the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to make real reforms to school lunch and breakfast programs and promote healthy eating habits among the nation’s youth. Read more about the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act and 15 innovations making school meals healthier and more sustainable on the Nourishing the Planet blog.

2. The Rwanda Agricultural Board (RAB) was founded in 2011 to help improve the provision of services to farmers in the country. It focuses on adapting its policies to local needs, developing sustainable production systems, and providing farmers and consumers with education, techniques, and services to help supply Rwandans with better foods. The RAB has received praise for its efforts from organizations like the Executive Board of the Forum for Agriculture Research in Africa.

3. Beginning in 2008, the Australian government committed $12.8 million for 190 primary schools across Australia to participate in the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Program. Hoping to encourage healthy and nutritious eating habits in young Australians, the program works with primary schools to teach students how to grow, harvest, prepare, and share fresh food.

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Oct13

Saturday Series: An Interview with Gigi Pomerantz

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By Lee Davies

In our new Saturday Series, we interview inspiring people our readers have nominated. These people are working on the frontlines to improve the global food and agricultural systems. Want to nominate someone?  E-mail your suggestions to Danielle Nierenberg!

Gigi Pomerantz (Photo Credit: Linda Sechrist)

Name: Gigi Pomerantz

Affiliation: Youthaiti

Bio: Gigi Pomerantz is the executive director of Youthaiti, a nonprofit promoting ecological sanitation in Haiti. Ms. Pomerantz founded the organization in 2008.

Why did you begin work in Haiti? And what led you to focus on sanitation?

My work in Haiti began in 2006 when I traveled on a medical mission to the rural village of Duchity in Grand’Anse. During our first day there we met with local teachers, health agents, and the one physician who lived in the village to do a ‘health needs assessment.’ They listed sanitation as one of their top five priorities for improving health.

For the next five days we saw 1,400 patients and treated every single one for intestinal worms and at least 50 percent for other gastrointestinal problems, including a lot of diarrhea. It became clear to me that this need was real. As a nurse practitioner, my focus has always been on prevention, and sanitation is prevention at its most basic level. Prevent the water that you drink from becoming contaminated, and you save the lives of millions of children who die from childhood diarrhea.

After the completion of Youthaiti’s projects, how will communities continue these sanitation programs?

We are introducing several methods of ecological sanitation that should be sustainable for even the poorest of the poor. Currently we encourage two methods of household sanitation: the Arborloo shallow pit composting latrine, and the Humanure bucket toilet. An Arborloo costs about $60 to construct with a concrete squat plate and a movable shelter. A Humanure bucket toilet could cost as little as $2.50 if they just squat over it, or $15 with a toilet seat. Both methods create compost. Arborloos compost directly in the ground, where a tree can be planted. Humanure toilets provide humanure, which can triple or quadruple garden yields and increase family income.

We also have built 17 community urine-diverting toilets to serve schools and other gather places, such as markets and bus stops.

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Oct10

Learn the Truth about Sugary Drinks and Soda from the Food Day Campaign

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(Photo credit: CBS News)

Soda is the largest source of calories in the American diet and also contributes to a variety of health problems including obesity and diabetes. Get the facts about soda, without the sugar coating, from the Food Day Campaign, some soda-loving polar bears, and Jason Mraz at http://www.therealbears.org.

Watch the full video here!

 

Sep26

Citywatch: Getting to the Right Question on the Nutrient Benefits of Organic Food

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By Wayne Roberts

Citywatch: Whether it’s action or traction in the food world, cities are stepping up to the plate. The world is fast going urban, as are challenges of social, economic and environmental well being. Citywatch is crucial to Worldwatch. Wayne Roberts, retired manager of the world-renowned Toronto Food Policy Council, has his eye out for the future of food in the city. Click here to read more from Wayne.

Stanford recently released a controversial study comparing organic and conventionally produced foods (Photo Credit: Susan Troccolo)

The international media had a field day headlining a Stanford university study dissing the nutritional benefits of organic food. I hope it’s not too late for me to ask a few questions that might steer the debate in a more useful direction.

I would like the media to explain why a study that was not based on either original research or professional expertise was considered so significant.

The paper, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, is strictly a “meta-analysis,” combining some of the findings of some 200 other scientists’ publications over the years. It is the ninth such paper to come out in a decade, and the fourth to turn thumbs down on organic claims to significant superiority in the nutritional realm – not exactly trail-blazing stuff. Nor, considering the ability of writers to cherry pick various findings from different individual studies, does a meta-analysis inherently prove much more than ability to cherry pick. That’s why new hard research, rather than summaries of old research, is usually the stuff of news stories.

I would also like to ask why no-one checked the qualifications of this 12-person team, which was granted immediate credibility, despite the absence of a professional nutritionist, agrologist or bio-medical specialist. One is a librarian, a few are graduate students,  several are medical doctors who specialize in such fields as infectious disease, bio-terrorism, diagnosis or HIV, one is a mathematician, one an administrator, one a research assistant.

The heavy-hitter on the team is Igram Olkin, an 88 year-old retired professor of statistics. Stanford University media releases cite his renown as a specialist in meta-analysis, without mentioning that his name is batted around as a paid witness on statistics for the tobacco industry. Given that the Stanford team’s use of statistics is subjected to withering criticism by organic advocate and academic Charles Benbrook, it’s odd no mainstream reporter checked to see if where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

It’s also a bit odd that no-one asked what an article on nutritional merits of organic foods was doing in a medical journal, given that doctors have minimal training, credentials or interest in this field – although maybe I’ve just answered my own question.

One of the first things I learned when researching for my first serious food book some 15 years ago was that the relation between organic and nutrition does not compute.

Nutritional levels vary according to a host of factors. One big one is the quality of soil long before anyone farmed it organically or conventionally (no history of volcanoes in New York means no rich volcanic ash in the soil, for example). Another factor that has little to do with organic or conventional is when the crop was picked (tomatoes get most of their vitamin C as they turn red, not when they’re hard and green, which is when they get picked by machines).

The list of crucial questions and variables keeps growing: how long was the produce in a truck or store, under what conditions was the food stored, how was the food prepared (some vitamins are destroyed by heat, some nutrients only become available when heated).

It’s quite likely that healthier and stronger plants grow on organically-managed soils, without any help from synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.  But that’s no guarantee that the plants bulked up on more nutrients. Organic or not, plants work to meet their own survival needs, not ours, and the optimum level of vitamin B needed by a particular plant may or may not work best for humans. That’s why people choose particular plants if they’re looking for high doses of particular nutrients.

Put the whole mix together, and a study based on analysis of a conventional ruby red tomato, lightly cooked immediately after picking, will probably show more nutrients than an organic tomato picked green from an industrial organic farm a week ago, hauled across the continent on a truck, and left to sit at a salad bar, for example. These are the kinds of things that affect nutrient levels, and anyone who knows more about nutrition than editors of a conventional medical journal would hear alarms ringing in their ears if writers started making a big case about nutrient differences with or without organic.

This is why nutrition expert Marion Nestle started her blog item on the controversy by saying “sigh,” as in “have I not explained this a hundred times already?” Organic advocates rarely make a nutritional claim, she points out. So the Stanford article is knocking down a straw man.

With dairy and meat, new evidence suggests that a key issue is how animals are treated. Still- controversial studies suggest that grass-fed animals have more nutritious milk and meat than animals fed corn and soy – no matter whether organic or conventional. That’s only logical, given that most animals evolved to eat grass rather than corn or soy, which are good for bulking up fast, but not necessarily so good for complex nutrients.

Organic scores well, even in the Stanford study, in terms of pesticide residue, which is as important to personal health as nutrients. Almost no-one is suffering from scurvy, rickets or wasting in North America or Europe, where the Stanford study got a lot of media, but breast, prostate, colon and bladder cancers have affected almost every family. A strong case can be made that toxic residues from pesticides, brought into the body by food, are implicated in these cancers. So this isn’t exactly a minor selling point for organics.

On the question of toxins, however, I’m also intrigued that there are any—not 30 per cent less, but any—pesticide residues on organic. That can only mean that the toxins from conventional fields migrated by air, rain or water table to organic fields, and who knows where else.

Why didn’t that set off media alarm bells? It means that people who pay extra for organic are still getting toxic residues that rightfully belong to the people who produced and bought conventional food.

This is an issue worthy of a meta-analysis. Are organic consumers dupes, taking the toxic bullet for people who saved money thanks to pesticides. Is it fair that some farmers get to cut their production costs by spreading toxins throughout the environment?

Since the Stanford team is asking whether organic costs more when it doesn’t deliver more nutrients, why doesn’t the team also ask the flip side of the question—whether conventional gets to charge less because the toxic load is passed on to everyone?

That question gets to the penultimate tricky question of agricultural prices. Why do some get to offload costs to the environment for free, while those who contribute to a safer environment get no fee compensating them for their extra work on behalf of the public good? If an environmental fee was paid to the farmer producing the environmental service, then all farmers would compete on an even playing field, and no academics would ever have to ask whether organic delivers more value for the money.

Why doesn’t the Stanford team, or any of the media following their study, ask that?  There I go again, answering my own question.

Wayne Roberts is on the board of Unitarian Service Committee of Canada-Seeds of Survival, which funds “cials” in Honduras, and he toured Honduras as one of their delegation.

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE.

Sep21

New Study on Monsanto Maize Raises Serious Concerns about Safety of GM Foods

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By Rachael Styer

A new study released by Professor Gilles-Eric Seralini of the University of Caen in France and the independent research organization CRIIGEN is the first peer-reviewed lifetime feeding trial of Monsanto’s genetically modified (GM) Maize NK603 and the widely used herbicide Roundup. Previous studies regarding the safety of GMO foods for human consumption observed the effects of low-level consumption of GM foods by rats for only 90 days, a period of time roughly equivalent to a rat’s adolescence.

Rats consuming low-levels of Monsanto’s maize NK603 suffered mammary tumors and severe kidney and liver damage (Photo Credit: Linda Eckhardt)

Seralini’s study examines the health effects of GM maize consumption on rats over a period of two years, a rat’s average lifespan, and the results of the study are startling. Rats consuming low-levels of maize NK603 and the popular herbicide Roundup (individually or combined) suffered from mammary tumors and severe kidney and liver damage, conditions that typically led to premature death. Fifty percent of male rats and 70 percent of female rats fed on the substances died prematurely, compared to 20 percent and 30 percent, respectively, for the control group. To hear the experts discuss the study’s results further, check out this video interview posted by the UK’s The Grocer.

While GM foods have been touted as an efficient and effective way to feed a growing global population, the results of Seralini’s study suggest that perhaps those seeking a solution to problems of global hunger should focus their efforts elsewhere. Patrick Holden, the Founder and Director for the Sustainable Food Trust, expressed this sentiment in a press release about the study: “GM crops hold out the promise of helping to meet the triple challenges of climate change, resource depletion and population increase, but if they have negative effects on health we need to recognize this as quickly as possible and apply our energies in other areas.”

Consumer concern over the safety of GM foods is nothing new. Since the early 2000s, retailers have responded to consumer demand by labeling non-GM products in their stores, including Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods’ 365 Everyday Value brands. And the controversy over whether GM food labeling should be mandatory is playing out in California as voters and lawmakers debate the merits of Prop 37, a ballot initiative which would require food sellers in California to label most products containing GM ingredients.

Although the study already underwent the peer review process, its methods have drawn criticism from other experts; Tom Sanders, head of the nutritional sciences research division at King’s College London, claims the authors went on a “statistical fishing trip.” But, Michael Antoniou, a molecular biologist also from King’s College London and a collaborator on the paper, defended the study’s results while still acknowledging the need for more research. Antoniou commented to reporters, “I feel this data is strong enough to withdraw the marketing approval for this variety of GM maize temporarily, until this study is followed up and repeated with a larger number of animals to get the full statistical power that we want.”

What do you think? Do GMOs present a public health risk? Let us know in the comments!

Rachael Styer is a research Intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE.

Sep20

Innovation of the Week: Gathering Waste and Making Good of It

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By Jeffrey Lamoureux

In most of the world’s slums, sanitation is a daily challenge. In the absence of sewage systems, people living in slums in Nairobi, Kolkata and São Paulo rely on rows of pit latrines shared by hundreds of other people, while others use “flying toilets” to dispose of waste. Disease and infection spreads easily in such environments.

Sanergy units can be built quickly and easily with affordable materials (Photo Credit: Sanergy)

But some social entrepreneurs in Nairobi are picking up where the government has left off and attempting to provide sanitary options to the slums. Sanergy, for example, is a company launched by a group of students at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Sloan School of Management. The group has designed low-profile sanitation centers that can be constructed anywhere to provide hot showers and clean toilets. These facilities can be built quickly and easily with affordable materials. Waste from the centers is deposited into airtight containers that are collected daily. Then it’s brought to processing facilities that can convert it into biogas. The biogas generates electricity, while the leftover material is made into fertilizer.

The company won a USD $100,000 grant from MIT and has been building its first units in Nairobi. It charges a low pay-per-use fee and hopes to grow by franchising the operation of its units, creating an income opportunity for enterprising residents. As the number of toilets proliferates, so too will the amount of energy the company is able to generate from its processing facilities. It hopes to eventually generate enough energy that it can sell its power to the national grid.

The company’s unique and innovative approach is notable for the way it combines the decentralization of waste collection with the centralization of waste processing. Retrofitting the slums with proper sewage drains is a near impossibility and can be an expensive and potentially politically volatile effort in areas where landownership is at best ambiguous. The self-contained units grant access to sanitary facilities to even those far off the grid. But by centralizing the processing of waste, Sanergy’s facilities will take advantage of the economies of scale present in the waste conversion process.

By creating products of value out of the waste, the company creates an incentive for others to set up their own facilities in partnership with Sanergy. The company hopes that there may eventually be facilities on every neighborhood block, significantly increasing the number of people with access to clean sanitation. The energy generated through the waste production will be a clean option to power a growing economy, and the fertilizer is a nutrient-rich alternative to expensive petroleum based fertilizers.

Do you have any other examples of innovations that are addressing the problems of sanitation within urban slums? Share them with us in the comments below!

Jeffrey Lamoureux is a research intern with Nourishing the Planet.

To purchase your own copy of State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet, please click HERE.

Sep07

Lost in the Bee-Line

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By Molly Redfield

Pesticides. Sprayed across vast expanses of farm land, they have become a ubiquitous part of industrial agriculture. But there may actually be more consequences to their use than we had previously predicted. A recent study headed by Chensheng Lu at Harvard University connects the rising phenomena of bee hive abandonment, known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), to the use of a family of pesticides called neonicotinoids.

Scientists believe that pesticide use is a major factor in the recent worldwide decline in bee populations (Photo credit: Robert Gutowski)

Introduced in the early 1990s, neonicotinoids are today incorporated widely in industrial agricultural operations because they are readily taken up by plants, acting quickly and effectively on crop pests. But these pesticides also affect non-target pest species. When bees forage, they are exposed to neonicotinoids that are present in both the plants vegetative tissue and the nectar they feed on.

In Lu’s study, exposure to the neonicotinoid imidacloprid is shown to impact the homing ability of honeybees. Lu and his colleagues further suggest that neonicotinoids may be one of the central causes of CCD and the subsequent massive decline in bee populations since 2006. They link this decline in the U.S. and worldwide to the emergence of genetically engineered corn seed treated with neonicotinoids. Other factors such as pathogens and declining habitats further aggravate the loss of bee populations.

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