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Organic news archive: June 2005

Large fresh produce companies diversifying into organics pose a threat to specialist fruit and veg suppliers in the sector, according to the Organic Monitor supplement of The Grocer magazine. Supermarkets are encouraging their big fresh produce suppliers to branch out into organics, which could mean smaller, dedicated organic suppliers will be squeezed out. Organic Monitor said that supermarkets accounted for 48% of organic fruit and vegetable sales in Europe, but their market share was declining as volumes sold through professional box scheme operators and organic food stores grew. Britain's organic fruit market, valued at 330m euros, is the biggest in Europe. (The Grocer)

Organic farming is the only real solution to famine in Africa according to Tewolde Berhan, chief of Ethiopia's Environment Agency. He maintains that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) remove control from local farmers. He speaks for a growing number who believe that Africa should return to natural, sustainable methods of agriculture. Berhan says: "Organic farming deviates little from the natural environment in supplying nutrients to crops. We've developed the ability to change things in a big way and, without considering the consequences, we create disasters. Look at what happened with DDT. When well managed, and as fertility builds over years, organic agriculture isn't inferior in yield. Now, farmers don't want chemical fertilisers." (The Independent - 27/6/05)

The UK failed to persuade the rest of Europe to give in to American pressure and lift the ban on genetically modified crops and food. The objections were based on fears that genetically manipulated genes could escape into the wider environment and that non-target insects could be destroyed by crops with in-built insecticide. The US argues the decision is based on a trade ban. A variety of Maize produced by Monsanto called MON 863, was a hot topic at the meeting. It has caused unexplained kidney damage to rats, according to research conducted by the manufacturer. (The Guardian - 25/6/05)

Common Agricultural Policy is central to what the European Union is about, but reforms of the CAP are falling short reports The Guardian. People prefer cheap food, but demand for organic and higher-quality produce is rising. Most would rather do without agrochemicals or genetically modified crops. There are fears that farmland would be abandoned leaving the rest to be farmed even more intensively, if all farm support was removed. (The Guardian - 27/6/05)

Pressure is growing for the government to take action to tackle bovine TB. Many farmers claimed bovine TB could be more destructive to the industry in the long term than the outbreak of foot and mouth disease. The National Farmers' Union council is considering findings by its bovine TB experts linking the spread of the disease and wildlife, especially badgers. Wildlife campaigners say the disease is spreading because of the movement of livestock around the country. (The Guardian - 25/6/05)

GM foods pose no threat according to the UN. A World Health Organisation Study claims that GM pose no greater risk than conventional farming. It did admit that 'The use of GM organisms may have potential risk many, not all genes used in them have not been in the food supply before.' (Metro London - 24/6/05)

Gordon Brown turned up the moral pressure on European leaders to scrap the £33 billion-a-year Common Agricultural Policy yesterday by saying that over-generous subsidies paid to EU farmers were perpetuating mass poverty in Africa. Mr Brown said that developed countries could "no longer ignore" the "hypocrisy" of a regime that distorted world trade and held back Africa's poorest nations. (The Daily Telegraph, The Independent and The Times - 30/6/05)

John Humphrys, The Today programme Radio 4 presenter, yesterday denied being biased and unfair when he was grilled by a House of Lords committee about his combative interviewing style. Humphrys said the BBC had once received a complaint that he had been biased in an interview about GM food because he was an organic farmer. He said: "You could argue that I was more vehement than I would have been if I had not been sympathetic to organic farming, which I am." But he insisted that in interviews he was just as tough on the supporters of organic farming as its opponents. Humphrys was giving evidence to a committee considering the BBC's charter review.

Farmers' markets are in crisis as exotic produce from abroad creeps on to stalls, according to The Times. "Real Farmers' market" holders insist that produce such as olives, citrus fruits and bread made from Canadian wheat have no place at the markets and are incensed that some traders are padding out their own grown produce with imported food. They believe their wholesome image is under threat from those who do not stick to its original principals. They are demanding a legal definition of farmers' markets and are lobbying Lord Bach, the Food and Farming Minister, to issue guidance on the dos and don'ts for the markets. Ben Reynolds from charity Sustain said: "The problem is that deli markets are calling themselves farmers' markets but the stallholders haven't a clue how the food is grown or the animals reared." (The Times - 25/6/05)

British Researchers will receive more than £40 million of a £250 million fund to fight disease in developing countries. The Grand Challenges in Global Health initiative will back a range of research, including the creation of GM crops that claim to be more nutritious and can withstand harsh environments. The programme is mostly backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and also received £15 million from the Wellcome Trust in Britain. (The Daily Telegraph - 28/6/05)

Government scientists have given the go-ahead to genetically modified crops. The Biotechnology and Biological Science Research Council based its recommendation on a five-year, £4.5m study into the safety of GM crops, released June 23. They called for a massive effort to convince the public of the value of GM crops. The report found that some GM crops could contaminate fields several kilometres away but scientists said the Government should press ahead with a safety limit of just 100 metres, despite the risk. Professor Phil Dale, head of the report said: "Some species will pollinate several kilometres away but it really depends on the crop - 100 metres seems to be a safe limit for many of them. We need to start planning for exactly how we go about growing these crops effectively rather than worrying about if we should grow them." The report will be used to kick-start a government decision on GM crops. (Evening Standard - 23/6/05)

The commercial sale of meat and milk from cloned animals has moved a significant step closer after American watchdogs signalled they are poised to give their approval. The move from the US Food and Drug Administration will be seen as the first step towards global acceptance of the controversial food products. Many in Britain are opposed to the farming practices that produce them. But once products containing cloned meat and milk go on sale in the US, there will be nothing to stop them from being exported to the UK because no policing regime has been set up here. Earlier this week, FDA officials told a conference for the biotech industry that a four-year assessment supports the safety of cloned farm animal produce. They found that the meat and milk were as safe as that produced by conventional animals. They also concluded it was acceptable in terms of animal welfare. (Daily Mail)

A reporter from the Daily Mail went undercover in a factory making food for school meals and was horrified at what she found. She concludes: "I for one won't be eating any processed food for a very long time. And I certainly won't be letting any child I know eat another chicken nugget. Ever."

An article in The Independent on June 24 considered the issue of the Common Agricultural Policy and its place in Europe. It uses a Q and A format to talk readers through the issue and decides: "There are many arguments that Tony Blair can win in Europe: a frontal assault on EU agriculture policy is not one of them."

A letter from the Conservative MEP, Robert Sturdy, says that supermarkets could do more to help British farmers. He says, "There is one influential conglomerate that has the power to dictate farmers' future - and that is our multi-national companies and supermarkets... (Local food) should be supported by our supermarkets too; they should be clamouring to stock the finest locally produced food." (Daily Telegraph)

The Farmers Union of Wales fears the EU is planning to change rules designed to prevent seed samples being contaminated with GM seeds. The union has written to all EU farm and environment commissioners urging that labels must continue to indicate the presence of any detectable level of GM seeds. Union President, Gareth Vaughan said: "Allowing routine contamination with GM organisms would strongly undermine our ability and right to produce GMO-free products, which are requested by most consumers, food processors and retailers within the EU. Welsh farmers are concerned that such contamination would make GM-free agriculture impossible." (Farmers Weekly)

Wakefield MP Mary Creagh's children's food bill was reintroduced to parliament as the British Medical Association published its own report warning of the dangerously high levels of childhood obesity and demanding that the government step up its efforts to improve the health of school pupils. The bill calls for a ban on the marketing of junk food and fizzy drinks to pupils, mandatory nutrition and quality guidelines for school meals and a ban on vending machines in schools. It wants to see compulsory food education on the curriculum and a duty placed on the government to promote healthy foods to children. (Daily Express - 23/6/05, Evening Standard and The Guardian - 22/6/05)

Not many politicians are prepared to get down to High Holborn in London at 8am, but last week Michael Meacher was at the Sainsbury HQ, with others, to try to persuade the supermarket chain to keep selling non-genetically modified (GM) milk. The right honourable MP even extended his visit in order to join an impromptu street choir, singing ribald songs about GM mice. (The Guardian - 22/6/05)

Scientists have called on European leaders to take urgent action to speed up regulation of the thousands of gender-bending chemicals in use across the continent. The harmful effects of these chemicals - called endocrine disrupters - have been a growing concern in recent years but today's move will be the first time the scientific community has raised its concerns with politicians and the public at large. The Prague Declaration, named after a meeting of more than 100 toxicologists and chemists in Czech Republic last month, and due to be launched today in Brussels, will state that legislation on the safe use of chemicals does not go far enough and lack of scientific evidence of the harmful effects of these chemicals must not delay political action. Endocrine disrupters are a diverse group of several thousands of chemicals - such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and dioxins - used in everything from pesticides to flame retardants, cosmetics to pharmaceuticals. Some of them alter the function of hormones in animals, either blocking their normal action or interfering with how they are made in the body. Since hormones regulate things like growth and body development, the potential for damage is clear. (The Guardian - 20/6/05)

A new report by an alliance of 18 aid agencies says that aid policy for Africa needs a complete rethink in climate change terms, because the continent is uniquely vulnerable to climatic shifts: 70 per cent of its people are immediately dependent on rain-fed, small-scale agriculture. The report, 'Africa - Up in smoke', says that aid needs to be targeted to make small communities more resilient in the face of potentially devastating rises in temperature or drops in rainfall. (The Independent - 20/6/05)

Britain's official food safety watchdog - which prides itself on its "openness" - is embroiled in a row over the blanking-out of large sections of a document relating to a banned GM maize illegally imported into the country. The Food Standards Agency had even erased the telephone numbers of the European Commission and the biotech company Syngenta, along with statistics on the total trade in maize between Europe and the US. The documents, which were finally released under the Freedom of Information Act after weeks of pressure from a small environmental group, GM Free Cymru, help to expose one of the greatest GM scandals of recent years. (The Independent on Sunday - 19/6/05)

248 MPs are behind the Children's Food Bill, launched by food and farming alliance Sustain. As well as legislating for healthy school meals, the bill also aims to stop junk-food advertising and advocates teaching children to cook. http://www.sustainweb.org/child_index.asp for more information. (The Mail on Sunday)

Thirty fellows of the Royal Society have written to the Lancet accusing it of endangering public health by publishing unfounded scare stories. One of the criticisms is that The Lancet published research in 1999 by Arpad Pusztai that claimed to show that GM potatoes produced worrying biological changes in rats. A Royal Society committee decided it was based on poorly conducted experiments. (The Times - 18/6/05)

Leading scientific academies urge G8 to take action against climate change. A unprecedented joint statement issued by the scientific academies of all G8 countries as well as Brazil, India and China has called upon the G8 countries to cease procrastination and avert global catastrophe by limiting green house gas emissions. Human activities are causing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere to rise to a point not reached for at least 420,000 years. Global temperatures rose by 0.6c in the 20th century and are projected to increase by between 1.4c and5.8c by 2100. The statement, which has taken months to finalise, is all the more important as it is signed by Bruce Alberts, president of the US National Academy of Sciences, which has warned George Bush about the dangers of ignoring global warming. Between 1990 and 2002 the CO2 emissions of the US increased by 13%, which on their own were greater than the combined cut in emissions that will be achieved if all the Kyoto countries hit their targets. The statement said, "Further changes in climate are therefore unavoidable. Nations must prepare for them" (Independent, 8/6/05)

Chastened by booming obesity rates and seduced by worthy alternatives from dried mango to organic almonds, consumers will eat 38,000 tons less of crisps and snacks than they did in 2002. Research published today by Mintel found crisp and snack sales have fallen by 12% in three years, representing a £200 million decline in the value of the market to £2.2bn. David Bird author of report said "Consumers see crisps as an unhealthy product" (Independent, 8/6/05)

Joanna Blythman discusses the growing market in chilled foods as the average time taken to prepare a meal falls from 60 minutes in the 1980's to 19 minutes now and is predicted to be 8 minutes by 2010. In 2004 we bought £910m worth of ready meals, 96% of which were sold under supermarket labels. Manufacturers like Primula and Birds Eye are also after a market share in what is called within the industry a 'dynamic category'. The concern is that chilled ready meals are the "acceptable face of processed food" when in reality they are often re frozen, packed with more preservatives than frozen, and have lower vitamin counts. (The Guardian, 8/6/05)

An article in 'Easy Living' magazine (July) asks, with modern farming and food preparation methods, "is it possible to get all the nutrients you need from diet alone, or are vitamins a must?" The Soil Association's James Cleeton says we can apportion some of the blame for falling nutrient levels on modern farming methods. Buying organic food is a solution, but buying vitamin supplements is also recommended.

Green & Black's is aiming to nearly double its organic chocolate business over the next three years. William Kendall (chief executive) said that selling to Cadbury meant the company had the potential to increase annual sales from £30m to £50m. He plans to spend £5m-a-year advertising Green & Black's as a premium mainstream brand, as well as targetting the impulse sector and increasing expansion in the US. Kendall said a perception among some consumers that Green & Black's had "sold out" was wrong. He stressed the business would run as a standalone and maintain its Fairtrade agreement with cocoa suppliers in Belize for Maya bars. (The Grocer - 4/6/05)

New research published today finds pesticides alter male fertility in rats. Pregnant rats exposed to very high levels of a fungicide, vinclozolin and a pesticide, methoxychlor that was used to replace DDT, had male offspring with a reduced sperm count of 20%. Researchers believe that the chemicals altered the way genes functioned and may explain heritable diseases that were previously thought to be caused by genetic mutations. Michael Skinner of Washington State University who headed the research said, "We are mostly describing a new phenomenon...The hazards of environmental toxins are much more pronounced that we realised." (The Independent's science section - 3/6/05)

According to a non-partisan congressional watchdog, the Government Accountability Office, research commissioned by George Bush on climate change almost completely fails to examine the impact of global warming on either society or the environment. A GAO report released in April says none of the 21 climate change studies the Bush administration plans to publish by 2007 will feature assessments of global warming's possible effects on agriculture, water, energy or biological diversity. (The Ecologist - 6/05)

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