Archive for the ‘Pesticides’ Category

Feb26

Agricultural Population Growth Marginal as Nonagricultural Population Soars

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The global agricultural population—defined as individuals dependent on agriculture, hunting, fishing, and forestry for their livelihood—accounted for over 37 percent of the world’s total population in 2011, the most recent year for which data are available. This is a decrease of 12 percent from 1980, when the world’s agricultural and nonagricultural populations were roughly the same size. Although the agricultural population shrunk as a share of total population between 1980 and 2011, it grew numerically from 2.2 billion to 2.6 billion people during this period.

The world’s agricultural population grew from 2.2 billion to 2.6 billion people between 1980 and 2011. (Photo Credit: UNDP)

Between 1980 and 2011, the nonagricultural population grew by a staggering 94 percent, from 2.2 billion to 4.4 billion people—a rate approximately five times greater than that of agricultural population growth. In both cases growth was driven by the massive increase in the world’s total population, which more than doubled between 1961 and 2011, from 3.1 billion to 7 billion people.

It should be noted that the distinction between these population groups is not the same as the rural-urban divide. Rural populations are not exclusively agricultural, nor are urban populations exclusively nonagricultural. The rural population of Africa in 2011 was 622.8 million, for instance, while the agricultural population was 520.3 million.

Although the agricultural population grew worldwide between 1980 and 2011, growth was restricted to Africa, Asia, and Oceania. During this period, this population group declined in North, Central, and South America, in the Caribbean, and in Europe.

In 2011, Africa and Asia accounted for about 95 percent of the world’s agricultural population. In contrast, the agricultural population in the Americas accounted for a little less than 4 percent. Especially in the United States, this is the result of the development and use of new and innovative technologies as well as the increased use of farm machinery, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation systems that require less manual labor.

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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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Jan15

Certified Organic Farmland Still Lagging Worldwide

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By Laura Reynolds 

Despite the growing worldwide demand for organic food, clothing, and other products, the area of land certified as organic still makes up just 0.9 percent of global agricultural land. In 2010, the latest year for which data are available, 37 million hectares of land were organically farmed—an area that has grown more than threefold since 1999.

Certified organic farmland still represents just .9 percent of all agricultural land. (Photo credit: Andrew Hyde)

There is large regional variation in the area of land farmed organically. Oceania, which includes Australia, New Zealand, and Pacific Island nations, leads the world in certified organic land, with 12.1 million hectares in 2010. In contrast, North America had 2.6 million hectares of organic land, and Africa had just over 1 million hectares.

Reliable data are lacking for land that is farmed using organic principles but that is not certified organic. Many farmers, particularly subsistence farmers or those selling to local markets, farm organically but do not acquire organic certification. Certified organic products have created a niche market in recent decades, allowing farmers to earn premium prices over conventional products, particularly when selling to supermarkets or restaurants.

The countries with the most certified organic producers in 2010 were India (400,551 farmers), Uganda (188,625), and Mexico (128,826), while the region that added the most organic farmland between 2009 and 2010 was Europe. Overall, the amount of organically farmed land worldwide dropped slightly, by 0.1 percent, between 2009 and 2010—due largely to a decrease in organic land in India and China.

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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.

Sep11

Benbrook Study on GM Crops and Pesticides

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By Catherine Ward

Genetically Modified (GM) crops were first introduced into the commercial food production system in the late 1990s and, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), GM crops were being cultivated on more than 1 billion hectares around the world by 2010. During 2011, over 16 million farmers worldwide were involved in planting 160 million hectares of GM crops, making biotech crops the fastest adopted crop technology in modern times.

New data shows that GM crops do not reduce the quantity of pesticides needed for crop production (Photo Credit: Petr Kratochvil)

The scientific community and GMWatch have since raised concerns over the use of GM crops as a possible danger to health and the environment. New data from a study carried out by Dr. Charles Benbrook shows that GM crops do not reduce the quantity of pesticides used in their production over time, and crops now considered herbicide-tolerant include corn (Bt corn varieties), soy, and cotton (Bt cotton varities).

Benbrook analyzed pesticide use on GM and non-GM equivalent crops over 16 years (1996-2011), with findings showing that herbicide-tolerant crops have increased pesticide use by 239 million kg over this time period. For example, increased herbicide use on GM herbicide-tolerant cotton was 0.4 kg per acre more than its non-GM counterpart. Similarly, herbicide use on GM soy was 0.3 kg per acre more than non-GM soy.

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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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