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Organic news archive: June 2004

The East London Community Recycling Partnership (ELCRP) was profiled in the Guardian Society section. It is the only community-based organisation in Britain that is carrying out large-scale food disposal. The government wants 50% of households to be composting by 2006 and 35% of household waste to be composted or recycled by 2010. The ELCRP has achieved over 50% overall participation in its food waste composting project on an estate in Hackney, East London. (30/6/04 - The Guardian)

Following last week's news that Syngenta will stop all GM research from its site in Berkshire, the development of GM crops in the UK is doomed.Monsanto reported a higher-than-expected quarterly profit as a result of strong sales of herbicides and genetically modified seeds. The company, based in St. Louis, attributed the improvement to an earlier-than-normal rush to use herbicide products on North American farm fields, and to steady growth in bioengineered soybeans, corn and other crops. On Wall Street, the shares rose to the highest level in three years. Monsanto's net income increased 45%, to $252 million, in the fiscal third quarter ended May 31, compared with $174 million in the quarter a year earlier. (Reuters - 30/6/04)

Fresh fears have been raised about the health of people living near the shrinking Aral Sea which stretches across Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in Central Asia where very heavy use of pesticides to grow cotton have left the environment in ruins. A new study has found high levels of DNA damage that could explain the region's abnormally high cancer rates: the region has the highest rate of cancer of the oesophagus in the world. This comes as the latest estimates say the Aral Sea is receding so rapidly it could vanish within the next 15 years. Once the world's fourth largest inland body of water, the sea has been drained by a poorly managed irrigation system that supplies water to cotton crops. In the last eight years, the sea has fallen another five metres leaving a vision of environmental apocalypse: vast stretches of desert, laden with heavy doses of salt and burdened with a toxic mix of chemical residues washed down over the decades from the farms upstream. (29/6/04 - BBC News)

Scientists are spending £12m looking at why our food tastes so bad. Experts from Newcastle University are leading the project, which also examines how organic farming can solve the problem and boost the nutritional value of basic foods. Test crops of cabbages, lettuces, wheat and potatoes are being grown at a research centre in Northumberland. They are being grown under a variety of conditions so that the research team can compare factors such as taste and nutritional quality between the vegetables grown organically and those grown using synthetic pesticides and fertilisers. Project leader, Professor Carlo Leifert of the Nafferton Ecological Farming Group at the University of Newcastle, said: "We need to find out what is behind reports which have proved that the taste and nutritional value of our foods is deteriorating. There are more and more indications that moving to natural production systems, such as organic farming, can improve food quality. This project will attempt to find out why this is the case, and how we can further improve on these production systems." The first set of results from the project will be presented at a conference at Newcastle University in January 2005. (29/6/04 - BBC News)

The 12 Greenpeace campaigners who prevented a US cargo ship carrying 35,000 tonnes of GM maize from docking near Bristol were arrested by police. The Daily Mirror applauded the protestors, saying that if they hadn't boarded the ship, the public wouldn't have been made aware that milk from some supermarkets comes from cows given "cheap GM feed imported from America." (23/6/04)

McDonald's is hoping to counter the threat of a ban on advertising its burgers and fries to children, by launching a £1m campaign designed to persuade kids to eat fruit and take more exercise. In contrast to McDonald's current "I'm Lovin' it" ads, which promote the company's regular high calorie fare, its latest campaign will remind younger viewers to keep fit, eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day and "not to have too many treats". A series of two-minute commercials during children's TV will feature Ronald McDonald and characters called Yums who sing and dance as they deliver McDonald's healthy eating message. They're also launching a new comic book in their restaurants aimed at children and underlinging the fiver portions of fresh produce per day message from the WHO. (22/6/04 - The Guardian)

Greenpeace activists have staged a dramatic highjacking of a container ship allegedly bringing tonnes of GM crops into the country. They boarded Panam-registered vessel the Etoile on 20 June, and have vowed to stay onboard in the Bristol Channel until it is sent back to the US. Campaigners claim it is carrying up to 35,000 tonnes of GM maize [Patrick Holden is being interviewed about this story by HTV West news] (21/6/04 - The Daily Telegraph, Western Daily Press)

The health section of The Independent Review warns that sun creams are the subject of new safety fears and advocates the use of natural sun-creams, such as those by Green People, Weleda and Dr. Hauschka, many of the herbal derivatives of which are from 'certified organic sources'. (21/6/04 - The Independent)

The Soil Association will launch the Northwest Organic Centre at the Rual Business Centre at Myerscough College, near Preston, Lancashire on 24 June, proving impartial information and support to organic businesses in Cheshire, Cumbria and Lanacashire. (21/6/04)

Tesco is under fire from campaign groups Friends of the Earth and Farm for damaging rural communities and threatening the livelihoods of farmers and local shops. (21/6/04)

Taxes on fertilisers and greater regulation of farmers are being considered by ministers in a bid to crack down on the widespread pollution of rivers and drinking water supplies by agriculture, Elliot Morley, environment minister, announced. Measures such as increased environmental grants, more advice on good farming practice and encouraging joint ventures between water companies and farmers were also being considered, he said yesterday. The carrot and stick proposals, subject to three months' consultation, could see up to 15 per cent of English farmland taken out of intensive production and farmers increasingly subsidised through agri-environmental schemes. Farming is the biggest cause of river pollution yet the cost of cleaning up water supplies is paid for by consumers through their water bills at an average of £7 a year each. (18/6/04 - Financial Times)

Public Health Minister Melanie Johnson has criticised manufacturers for not doing enough or moving quickly enough to remove excess salt from products like white bread, baked beans, and potato crisps. Miss Johnson has written to big name firms - including Heinz, Kraft, Nestle, Unilever, Waitrose, Sainsbury's, Asda and Marks & Spencer - outlining her concerns. The Daily Mail says a sandwich on sale at Safeway is saltier than the sea. Seawater contains 2.5g of salt per 100g, while 'The Best' chicken caesar sandwich has 2.9g per 100g. Sainsbury's and Asda expressed concern at being included in the list as they claim the minister had met them this week and was fully aware of their salt reduction plans. But Professor Graham MacGregor, chairman of the campaign group Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH), said it was clear the firms were dragging the process out: "The whole industry is trying to slow the process [of salt reduction] down for purely commercial reasons." (17/6/04 - Daily Mail and The Times)

Despite the recent lifting by the EU of its unofficial six-year moratorium on approving new genetically modified organisms, a scientific panel has failed to agree on whether or not to approve the import and processing of a type of genetically modified canola, or oilseed rape. (17/6/04 - just-food.com)

The profound and damaging impact of Europe's environment on children has been quantified for the first time by experts who have found that a third of their ill-health and 100,000 deaths a year are caused by air pollution, unsafe water, lead and injuries. The World Health Organisation study on the environmental burden of disease, published in The Lancet medical journal, reveals that more than 13,000 children die of injuries in western Europe predominantly in road traffic accidents which is a third of all deaths under 19. (18/6/04 - The Guardian)

A little-noticed ruling by the US department of agriculture has reclassified french fries as fresh vegetables. Arguing that the process of coating or battering a vegetable does not change the end product, the department has ruled that a chip is as fresh as, and indeed not that different from, a waxed lemon. The change was first proposed in 2002 after lobbying of the agriculture department by the Frozen Potato Products Institute (the US chip industry). The amendment to the perishable agricultural commodities act, which was drawn up in 1930 to protect fruit and vegetable growers, goes beyond potatoes to include most battered vegetables as well as products such as caramel-coated apples. The reclassification will be welcome news to the french fries industry, with consumption having dropped in the US. (16/6/04 - The Guardian)

The Government has announced that it will commission a new report on health risks of pesticides from the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution. In addition, new legislation will be introduced to make it mandatory for farmers to keep spray records and provide access to the public via 'third parties', such as GPs or lawyers, and a pilot study will look at the practicality and costs to farmers of providing advance notification to the public of spraying. However, the government's Advisory Committee on Pesticides, an independent expert body, has concluded there are no health justifications for the introduction of no spray buffer zones. In response to this, pesticides campaigner Georgina Downs has said that she will be leading a legal challenge against the Government on behalf of people living near fields that are regularly sprayed with "cocktails" of poisonous chemicals. Georgina lives next to a conventional lettuce farm and her family has had health problems such as headaches, sore throats and blisters as a result of spraying of lettuces. (BBC News 24, BBC Lunchtime TV News, BBC Southern Counties Radio, Farming Today, BBC TV South Today. A video story on this issue is available via http://news.bbc.co.uk/)

The chairman of Shell says that he is "really very worried for the planet". In an interview in The Guardian's Life section, Ron Oxburgh says we urgently need to capture emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, which scientists think contribute to global warming, and store them underground - a technique called carbon sequestration. "Sequestration is difficult, but if we don't have sequestration then I see very little hope for the world," said Lord Oxburgh. "No one can be comfortable at the prospect of continuing to pump out the amounts of carbon dioxide that we are pumping out at present ... with consequences that we really can't predict but are probably not good." His comments will enrage many in the oil industry, which is targeted by climate change campaigners because the use of its products spews out huge quantities of carbon dioxide, most visibly from vehicle exhausts. (17/6/04 - The Guardian)

A proposal to ban vending machines from schools has been rejected by the Government. Ministers were under pressure to remove the machines after the Commons health select committee said they contained snacks which were often high in sugar, fat and salt, and were encouraging unhealthy eating. But in its response to the committee's report, ministers are expected to say that they do not intend to tell head teachers what they should do. However the Government will ask teachers to restock the machines with healthier foods. It is also understood that plans to ban advertisements for junk food from children's television have been abandoned. (16/6/04 - Daily Telegraph).

Fizzy drinks firms have been ordered to make their products healthier. Health minister Melanie Johnson told firms during a speech in London: "I'd like to hear from you any ways your industry and your companies can help to make healthy soft drinks a viable option. Ministers want firms to take voluntary action. But they could bring in a public health law next year. (The Sun) Children as young as one are having decayed teeth removed because of poor diet, according to research carried out at Glasgow Dental Hospital. (Daily Mail)

A new book about the fish industry, The End of the Line by Charles Clover has been published. New forms of tuna fishing, introduced to stop dolphins being caught in nets, are endangering other species such as turtles, sharks and rays. An endangered species of tuna, juvenile bigeye, is commonly found in cans of tuna, possibly accounting for 20% of the meat.

Consumers and producers lose out as the supermarket giants battle for supremacy, according to an article in The Guardian. Felicity Lawrence, who wrote the recently published book about supermarkets and mass-produced food, Not on the Label, says, "Those who bear the brunt of the cuts are at the bottom of the chain. British farmers have been driven out of business or pushed to the margins of survival as supermarkets source whatever is cheapest and fly it in from around the globe. But this is not what most shoppers would choose - when asked, they say they prefer British farm food." The article warns that the most powerful supermarkets are gaining ground. As an example, Lawrence cites three neighbouring towns - Bicester, Brackley and Buckingham where Tesco is the only superstore operator. The recent acquisition of the 'One Stop' chain of convenience stores by Tesco - unopposed by the competition authorities - has given it four stores and a dominant position in Bicester town centre as well, plus stores in the centre of Brackley and Buckingham. Residents have to travel significant distances by car to reach alternative superstores. (15/6/04 - The Guardian)

Public health watchdogs were last night asked to speed an official assessment of the risk to humans from a possible new cattle disease as it emerged that 21 cows have been investigated for unexplained viral conditions in the last 10 years. Government officials appealed for "a sense of proportion" about the investigations which were sparked by vets' unease about the most recent case, in Cumbria at the end of last year, in which a young cow fell ill from a disease which damaged white brain matter and led to paralysis and death. They admitted that information on which to base such judgements was "scant" and that the answer might be to step up surveillance of herds. (9/6/04 - The Guardian)

News from Australia about more apparent reverses for GM. Monsanto pulled out of trials of GM canola [oilseed rape] in New South Wales earlier this year and has been followed by Bayer Crop Science, with similar varieties. There will be no GM canola trials this year. The state minister for agriculture, Ian Macdonald was miffed, blaming "a continuous stream of misinformation from those ideologically opposed to GM technology". The Union of Concerned Farmers welcomed the decision. (9/6/04 - Eco Soundings, in The Guardian)

A committee of MPs says more than a third of the price consumers pay for milk is being lost between the farm and the supermarket. Of the 50p we pay per litre, farmers get less than 20p and it costs them more than that to produce it. MPs found that about 18p per litre was unaccounted for, apparently disappearing in unexplained costs by dairy processing companies which buy milk from farms and sell the end product to retailers.

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs committee report says the dairy industry suffers from suspicion and mistrust, self-interest and a lack of constructive dialogue. It claims that last year's price rise in milk had been passed on to farmers. It also criticises the supermarkets for only agreeing to increase the price of milk under political pressure. Farmers themselves did not escape criticism, with the MPs arguing that more of them should join dairy co-operatives if they want more bargaining power. The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs committee said that the government needs to end the suspicion and mistrust which plagues the dairy industry. (8/6/04 - news.bbc.co.uk)

A possible new cattle disease which might pose a risk to human health is being urgently investigated by government vets. Tests on a heifer that died after five to six days of weakness in its legs and progressive paralysis have failed to identify any known condition, including BSE. A viral infection that damaged the white matter in the cow's brain is thought responsible for the death more than two months ago. The animal was at first thought to have died from botulism, but that test proved negative. Officials are currently unable to say where the affected farm was, but said no meat from the cow had been allowed into food. Other vets and farmers will soon be alerted to the case via the Veterinary Record journal, typical of the more open attitude demanded by the inquiry into the BSE disaster. (8/6/04 - The Guardian)

A 50 per cent decline in skylark numbers since 1970 could be reversed by crop circles. A two-year experiment has shown the breeding success of the birds increased by almost half when small patches of cereal fields were left unsown. The weeds and other plants that then grew there naturally provided ideal habitat for the creatures, scientists said. Farmers are expected to be offered Government subsidies to clear areas as part of a conservation drive. (Daily Mail)

Public health doctors have called for a ban on TV advertising of junk food before the watershed in efforts to protect children. Doctors at the British Medical Association's conference of public health medicine and community health made calls for action to tackle childhood obesity by stopping the targeting of young people. The matter was referred to the BMA's public health committee after representatives form around the country supported a ban on junk food ads before 9pm and totally on children's TV channels. (8/6/04 - Western Daily Press)

Man-made chemicals in everything from videos, TVs, computers to soft furnishings, car seats, and furniture are harming the development of children's brains, according to a report 'Compromising our Children ' published by WWF today. It says that 70,000 chemicals are on the market but very little is known about the health implications. (The Guardian, 2/6/04)

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