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Organic news archive: January 2004

A showcase project to develop a genetically modified crop for Africa has failed. Three years of field trials have shown that GM sweet potatoes modified to resist a virus were no less vulnerable than ordinary varieties, and sometimes their yield was lower, according to the Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute. The GM project has cost Monsanto, the World Bank and the US government an estimated $6 million over the last decade. It had been held up worldwide as an example of how GM crops will help revolutionise farming in Africa. Embarrassingly for GM business, in Uganda conventional breeding has produced a high-yielding resistant variety more quickly and more cheaply. (New Scientist)

A new £1bn supermarket price war could shatter the fragile recovery in the British farming industry. Sir Don Curry told The Guardian (19 January) that he was "deeply concerned" that prices were being cut on the high street "without serious thought being given to the impact on the supply chain." He said there was no more slack for farmers to take up.

Organic farmers say that another supermarket price war will have devastating consequences for them, too. Patrick Holden, head of the Soil Association, warned that any further cuts would drive many of them off the land: "The supermarket buyers are putting relentless pressure on price. The downward slide of prices leads to a dilution of standards and scaling up to industrial production. There's a real threat here. Our individual reaction to price cuts is 'Oh good, my food will be cheaper' but we don't realise we are destroying farming in this country. If you buy on price you compromise on quality and safety. We seem to understand that with cars, but not with our food."

Bruce Carslisle, a second generation organic potato and broccoli farmer in Wales, said any further cuts in the price of organic produce would push the market to the continent. "A new price war, coupled with the increasing competitiveness over cosmetic standards for organic produce, would be disastrous. We've already got waste levels that average 50%, because of small blemishes on potatoes or bent carrots."

The UK Government will approve the commercial growing of genetically modified maize crops in Britain next month. But ministers will impose strict conditions on the cultivation of GM maize, and ban commercial GM sugar beet and oilseed rape after trials showed that they could be more damaging to the environment than conventional crops.

Farmers wanting to grow GM maize are unlikely to be able to go ahead before 2005, and will be subject to similar restrictions to those governing the trials, which specify the type of herbicide and the variety of GM seed they can use, and the type of plants they can grow in neighbouring fields. As such, the restrictions will be so tight that many farmers will be put off planting the first GM commercial crops. With no market demand for GM maize, and a seriously tight atmosphere of checks and legislation, it's hoped that any farmers tempted to grow GM by incentives from the GM corporations will give up because of the amount of bother it would entail. Michael Meacher, the former environment minister, said that questions over health risks had still to be resolved. He said: "I do not believe the Government has a mandate to proceed with the commercialisation of any GM crop." (The Independent - 15/01/04)

A study by scientists at Liverpool University has confirmed that TV food commercials have a direct effect on what their children eat. They claim their study is the 'missing link' which proves that watching food adverts, particularly those for high-fat snacks, encourages children to raid the fridge and pile on the pounds. It also suggests that children already prone to putting on weight are especially vulnerable to the adverts. (Daily Mail)

Farmed salmon is big news at the moment. Following research showing that concentrations of contaminants (such as PCBs and dioxins) are higher in farmed salmon than wild salmon, why not switch to organic salmon?

Organic salmon has a number of benefits:

  • They are fed with trimmings of fish caught for human consumption, not the industrial fishmeal that non-organic farmed salmon are fed.
  • The use of veterinary drugs which are heavily used in conventional salmon farming, is strongly restricted. Basically, if organic salmon get sick, they can be treated using drugs if supervised closely by the certification board. Non-organic salmon don't even get a chance to be sick, as they're routinely dosed with strong veterinary drugs, just like battery farm chickens.
  • Almost all conventionally farmed salmon is fed with canthaxanthin to dye the flesh pink. This is not allowed under Soil Association standards, which is why organic salmon looks a much more natural light pink.
  • Organic fish farmers aim to produce healthy stock through natural methods and careful siting of the farms. For example, stocking densities are half the levels in conventional salmon farming and organic fish farms are located in cleaner water with high tidal flows.

All organic fish farms, as with all organic businesses, are inspected at least once a year to ensure that standards are met. For more information, see the Soil Association's press release.

Food manufacturers effectively 'poison' their customers, according to Public Health Minister Melanie Johnson and Professor Graham MacGregor, chairman of Consensus Action on Salt. High salt levels in processed foods are directly responsible for high blood pressure, which causes 500,000 deaths, heart attacks and strokes each year. Health Minister Johnson told fast food giants she wants clear evidence of reductions in salt levels by February 27 2004, or products could be forced to carry a 'high in salt' warning label. (BBC - 29/01/04)

A report in the Journal Of Applied Toxicology has shown that synthetic chemicals - parabens - found in many underarm deodorants have been detected in breast tumours. Parabens, and many other chemicals, are not allowed under organic health and beautycare standards. So if it's certified organic, it won't contain parabens, or aluminium or zirconium, also commonly found in non-organic deodorants.

John Lydon AKA Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols has been going on about eating organic food. Organic Food in the UK, as we say... (The Sun - 28/01/04)

Coca-Cola and PepsiCo sold soft drinks containing pesticides harmful to human health and misled India's 1 billion people over claims that their products were safe for human consumption, Indian MPs concluded yesterday. Their report recommended stringent new regulations for fizzy drinks which would "seek complete freedom from pesticide residues [in] aerated beverages". Tests by campaigners last year showed Pepsi's soft drinks had 36 times the level of pesticide residues permitted under EU regulations and Coca-Cola's had 30 times the level. Toxins included lindane and DDT. (The Guardian)

Jamie Oliver is attacking the "shit" we feed our children and slated firms for making junk food dressed up as healthy snacks. Talking about Dairylea Lunches - made by one of the biggest food corporations in the world, Kraft Foods - Jamie says, "It's just gum and crap, and processed meat which is just fucking donkey bollocks! There's so much shit in the industry these days."

He has just launched a think-tank to see how school meals can be improved and is working on a TV show focusing on making canteen lunches better. Jamie says that in places like Italy and Spain, they don't think about food or cooking in the way we do. "Eating well and enjoying food is ingrained, it's part of their lives. We need to think about what we're eating, slow down, learn to enjoy cooking and eating well." (The Daily Mirror - 16/01/04)

Family-run organic farms in the UK are facing "silent cultural cleansing" as they are driven out of business by supermarkets and multinational food giants.

Patrick Holden from the Soil Association described how the world of family-operated organic farming is facing "inexorable decline". After decades defying conventional agricultural wisdom that "big is best", small farmers are falling victim to the financial muscle of their large rivals who are eager to cash in on the £1bn a year market for organic produce.

The trend has propelled organic food into the consumer mainstream, enabling more people to have access to organic food, but the ethics and practices of the new owners are frequently at odds with the beliefs upon which many organic farms were founded. More damagingly, it is feared that organic farmers are losing their control in terms of selling produce and setting prices - which is in turn threatening their livelihood.

Mr Holden said: "The squeeze on prices is going to shake out a lot of people in the next few years and we are losing people at an alarming rate." One significant solution to the problem of reconciling the growth of businesses with their ethical foundations lies with the consumers, according to Mr Holden.

"Consumers would certainly wish that their purchases were sufficiently ethical to cover decent living costs for the farmers," he said. "This 'industrialisation of agriculture' is precisely what organic consumers would hope to avoid." (The Independent - 20/1/04)

The judge in a Monsanto price-fixing trial in Chicago has been asked to remove himself from the case on conflict of interest grounds after it emerged that he previously worked for a law firm that represented Monsanto and had been listed as a lawyer for the company. (The Guardian - 10/01/04)

The German government will put forward a bill in cabinet next month to allow the cultivation of genetically modified crops. The bill will allow farmers to claim damages if their non-GM crop is cross-pollinated by GM plants nearby and they can either not sell it or have to sell it for less than the full value. The government is also proposing a register to show where GM plants are being cultivated. (www.eubusiness.com)

Children as young as three are showing signs of obesity, which will condemn them to a lifetime of ill health. Most alarmingly the report found that most children are still for 80 per cent of their waking hours. (The Lancet medical journal - 01/04)

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