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Organic news archive: August 2005

British organic milk producers say they need 26 pence per litre to cover added costs of the system but they are only getting 21-22 pence, despite soaring demand. According to Stuart Martin, the marketing manager for the Organic Milk Suppliers Co-operative (Scotland), the problem is that the high levels of demand are not being matched by higher prices from retail customers. Ysanne Spevack, editor of organicfoodee.com suggests that supermarkets could absorb these extra costs, selling organic milk at the same price as non-organic milk, and reaping the benefits of attracting organic customers with organic milk as a 'loss-leader'. From this week, Sainsbury's stores are selling organic milk at the same price as non-organic milk, but paying British organic farmers a fair price. (Farmers Guardian - 26/8/05)

Researchers from the Mississippi State University claim to have found 15 species of weed resistant to glyphosate worldwide, including ryegrass, bindweed and goosegrass. This resistance is almost certainly due to escaped GM pollen gene pollution. (Farmers Guardian - 26/8/05)

In an attempt to prevent an avian flu pandemic this winter Dutch poultry farmers have complied with a government order to move all their birds indoors, and Germany plans to follow suit. Defra said that Britain had no plans to follow suit. A spokesperson from Defra said: "The evidence as it is shows the risk to be low. We don't think that is proportional to the risk. It is a contingency if the risk grows higher, but at the moment we are urging a high level of vigilance." Peter Melchett, Soil Association policy director, says: "Avian flu is a serious disease but there are some serious objections to keeping chickens indoors. It would be a nightmare from a cost, welfare and disease point of view. It would be prohibitively expensive. These are birds that often have nowhere to be shut up, their only indoor access is for sleeping. Shutting them up might combat them getting bird flu, but would increase the chance of other diseases spreading. Outdoor birds are highly mobile and inquisitive, and for welfare reasons it would be unfair to keep them inside." (The Times - 23/8/05)

Sir John Krebs is to give the televised BBC Christmas science lectures, which are aimed at young children and adults. According to the Royal Institution, the now-retired Sir John "will ask whether new farming methods such as genetically modified crops will be the solution, or whether we will al have to become vegetarians". He will also consider the question: "Will the future bring us the chocolate bar that treats heart diseases or the mood-enhancing potato crisp?" Ysanne Spevack at organicfoodee.com finds this prospect disturbing, as Sir John is the guy who persuaded Tony Blair that GM food is a good idea, despite 98% of the British Public saying that they don't trust it. (The Guardian - 23/8/05)

Recent evidence links aspartame - "the most controversial food additive in history" - to leukaemia and lymphoma adding "substantial fuel to the ongoing protests of doctors, scientists and consumer groups who allege that this artificial sweetener should never have been released onto the market". (Ecologist Online - 5/8/05)

"Britain's organic food revolution was facing its first serious test last night after an investigation revealed disturbing levels of fraud within the industry", according to the Observer's front page on Sunday 21 August. "Farmers, retailers and food inspectors have disclosed a catalogue of malpractice, including producers falsely passing off food as organic and retailers failing to gain accreditation from independent inspectors. The findings raise concerns that consumers paying high premiums for organic food are being ripped off." The revelations follow what is believed to have been the UK's first concerted investigation into organic food fraud by trading standards officers. An inquiry for Richmond council, in south-west London, exposed a number of retailers wrongly selling food as organic. Two traders were prosecuted earlier this month as a result of the investigation. Ysanne Spevack was invited to answer Jay Rayner, the Observer's Food Editor, in a live debate on LBC Radio on the morning of Monday 22 August. She successfully pointed out a number of major discrepancies in his argument against organic food, leaving presenter Nick Ferrari convinced that despite a few crooks, the vast majority of organic food traders are honest and selling better food. (The Observer; The Guardian - 21/8/05)

Organic milk is one of the richest sources of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), an essential fat which is, it seems, vital for the proper chemical functioning of the brain, mediating hormones, the immune system and blood flow according to Professor Puri, a biochemist and consultant psychiatrist at Hammersmith hospital in London. (The Times T2 - 19/8/05)

House of Fraser is selling the lease for its landmark department store - Barkers of Kensington - to US-based company Whole Foods Market, who own the UK organic food chain Fresh & Wild. The US company will open their first European store on the site. (Daily Express - 20/8/05)

"Liz Hurley is set to launch a range of organic baby meals. The plan shows 40-year-old Liz's commitment to green issues. She has joined the UK Soil Association and is making her London home more eco-friendly." (The Sun - 22/8/05)

Over thirty months cattle will be back in the food chain from November 2005 if the Government accepts the Food Standards Agency's recommendations. Supermarkets ASDA and Sainsbury's have said they will stock the beef but Morrisons is unsure and Waitrose completely rules it out. (Farmers Guardian)

BSE has been transmitted naturally between sheep for the first time, a study has shown. Confirmation that such a thing is possible reinforces fears that the disease may have entered sheep as well as cattle on farms in Britain. The revelation that lambs at a government experimental station appear to have caught BSE from their mothers coincides with plans to relax anti-BSE controls in cattle and was not mentioned at a meeting of the Food Standards Agency in London this week. (The Guardian - 17/8/05)

A herd of Russian cows are to be fed confiscated marijuana over the winter as the feed crops that the 40 tonnes of cannabis had been planted among also had to be destroyed. A Drugs Control service spokeswoman said: "I don't know what the milk will be like after this." (The Times)

More than half the British chickens tested for a BBC investigation contained antibiotic-resistant E.coli. The germs were also found in a third of the samples of UK and overseas chicken bought from British suppliers. The E.coli was resistant to the antibiotic Trimethaprim which is used to treat bladder infections. Health Protection Agency scientists who tested the meat found 12 of the chickens had antibiotic resistant Campylobacter. And Vancomycin Resistant Enteroccci was found in one in 25 of the samples, although more tests would be needed to confirm the exact type of the bug found. Richard Young, the Soil Association's policy advisor, said: "Everyone knows about superbugs like MRSA but the growing problem of drug-resistant E.coli poses a potentially bigger problem because the infection is so much more common." (The Daily Mail)

Michael Meacher, the former Environment Minister, called for an end to "seven years of secrecy over genetically modified food" last night and demanded access to evidence used by the Government to approve new crops. Mr Meacher said: "The data available to the Government is produced by biotech companies and remains commercially confidential. Farmers and food retailers need to know that their produce is safe and their animals not at risk." (Daily Express)

Rock bottom milk prices have forced more dairy farmers than expected to sell up over the last two years, according to a Government-funded report. The dairy crisis is so severe that Britain could face a big domestic short fall within two years, the study says. Although the supply of liquid milk is unlikely to be affected, the shortages could hit British manufacturers of butter, cheese and powdered milk. In the past two years, one in eight dairy farmers surveyed has quit the industry while one in six of those remaining says they might leave within five years. (The Daily Telegraph)

Chickens sold in stores are riddled with superbugs which antibiotics can no longer wipe out, say Government scientists. If insufficiently cooked, they could cause serious illnesses which doctors would find impossible to treat. Scientists from the health protection Agency tested 147 fresh and frozen chickens bought from supermarkets, high street stores and wholesalers. The birds did not include organic chickens and just under half were reared in the UK. The survey found a third of the chickens were contaminated with the campylobacter food poisoning bug and one in four of those was resistant to one of the antibiotics commonly used to treat it. A disturbing two-thirds of the chickens contained antibiotic-resistant E coli. Most of these were resistant to at least two antibiotics, while three chickens contained bugs resistant to at least five drugs. In most cases, the bacteria are killed off by the cooking process. But if the meat is not heated thoroughly enough, they can cause disease. In contrast organic chickens are given antibiotics only when they are ill. The practice of medicating organic chickens only when necessary means the germs are less likely to become resistant to antibiotics'. The findings were reported on 15 August on BBC1, Real Story, at 7.30pm. (Daily Mail - 15/8/05)

Josephine Farley, chair of Soil Association's Health Products Standards Committee, advises Mail on Sunday's Sarah Stacey about sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS), commonly used as a foaming agent in hair and body care products. SLS is undoubtedly a skin irritant, which anyone with a sensitivity problem would be sensible to avoid and that includes infants with eczema. The jury is still out on whether it could be carcinogenic as some critics allege. However, by causing irritation, SLS may allow other potentially risky chemicals to enter the bloodstream. Sodium lauryl sulphate is an ingredient in almost all shampoos and foaming liquids but is banned from Soil Association certified organic beauty products. (Mail on Sunday - 14/8/05)

According to US and British researchers, the cloning technology already exists for processed meats like hamburgers, sausages to be made in the lab using cells taken from cows, chickens, pigs, fish and other animals. The wide acceptance of meat substitutes such as 'quorn', which is a cultured fungus, "Shows that the time for cultured tissue is near", says Brian Ford, a British biologist and the author of The Future of Food. (The Independent - 13/8/05)

A panel of international experts on genetic modification (GM) and consumer rights will be speaking at a conference on 'Co-existence, contamination and GM-free zones: Jeopardising consumer choice?' Some questions that will be explored at the Bologna conference include: Is it viable to grow genetically modified (GM) crops without contaminating conventional and organic crops? Is consumer choice being threatened by the current growth of GM crops? How can GM-free zones be legally established, and what purpose do they serve? The conference is free and open to all. Discussions will take place in English and Italian with interpretation in these 2 languages. To ensure a place, go to www.consumersinternational.org.

"Jamie Oliver's school meals are producing a remarkable spin-off by helping children to behave better." So say the papers, although organicfoodee.com readers know that it's not astonishing that people who eat a decent meal are happier and have more concentration skills. Schools offering Jamie's menus say concentration during lessons has improved. (The Daily Mail - 11/8/05; The Independent - 12/8/05)

"A vast expanse of western Siberia is undergoing an unprecedented thaw that could dramatically increase the rate of global warming, climate scientists warn." This sub-Arctic region is heating up faster than anywhere else is in the world, having experienced a rise of some 3C in the past 40 years. An estimated 70bn tonnes of methane is trapped in the peat bogs under the melting ice. If this seeps out over the next 100 years, it will double the amount of methane being released from the world's land surfaces (wetland and agriculture), leading to a 10-25% increase in global warming. (The Guardian - 11/8/05)

Nearly all of England's wildlife-rich grassland has disappeared under the plough, according to new research by English Nature. The survey found that 97% of grassland rich in wildlife had been converted to arable cropping or forage since 1930. And 79% of the estimated remaining 80,000ha was described as in poor condition. Fertiliser and herbicide use for intensive farming is mostly to blame. (Farmers Weekly)

The European commission yesterday cleared imports of genetically modified maize produced by the US biotechnology firm Monsanto for use as animal feed. The commission granted Monsanto a 10-year licence to export the maize. This is the third GM product to be approved by the EU since the end of its six-year moratorium in April last year, and it comes after a tortuous authorisation process. EU governments and environmental activists have consistently questioned the safety of the maize, known as MON 863. In September, EU health ministers will vote on whether to clear the same maize for human consumption. (The Guardian - 9/8/05)

What was billed by the media as the world's worst incident of pollution by genetically-engineered crops, one that provoked a row among scientists, has vanished, says a study published today. Four years ago, researchers reported finding cobs of genetically modified maize in Oaxaca, Mexico, suggesting that GM maize (corn) from the US had invaded a traditional maize variety. Then the leading journal Nature disowned the paper that described the discovery by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley. Now a two-year study published by Prof Allison Snow's team, of Ohio State University, in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, says genetically modified corn has not spread to native maize crops in southern Mexico. (Daily Telegraph - 9/8/05)

GM crops can be grown in the UK without farmers having to notify the authorities or their neighbours, the Guardian has discovered after testing a loophole which allows enthusiasts to grow their own GM maize. Supporters of GM crops can legally grow them in Britain by applying to the biotech company Monsanto for a sample pack of GM maize to test on a British farm. When the Guardian put this to the test, Monsanto offered to send a small quantity free provided the farmer sent the test results and undertook to protect the company's interest by not breaching patents, for example, by selling the seed to a third party. The government admits there is nothing to stop some GM crops being grown in the UK. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) says no regulations exist to prevent farmers growing GM crops approved for cultivation elsewhere in the EU because "it seems unlikely that anyone would want to do so". The gap in the regulations which would allow Monsanto maize to be grown in the UK without notifying Defra arises because a number of varieties were approved for cultivation in the EU in 1998, before public concern forced governments to rethink their policies. (The Guardian - 8/8/05)

A cabinet minister has revealed that the Government is launching a charm offensive to stop the media reporting scare stories about GM crops. The campaign is being led by John Hutton, the Cabinet Office Minister, who said he wanted to persuade the media to report sensitive issues such as GM crops and foods in a "more balanced" way - to prevent crucial decisions being based on emotion rather than scientific opinion. But he insisted he was not trying to pressure the media. Tony Blair dispatched Mr Hutton to talk to media chiefs because he says he fears Britain could miss out on economic and social benefits amid public hostility to GM. We at organicfoodee.com strongly feel this is simply another way for Tony Blair to bow to US pressure against the wishes of the electorate of Britain. (The Independent - 8/8/05)

Farmers, small businesses, green campaigners and politicians accused the Government of a 'whitewash' after supermarkets were effectively cleared of any wrongdoing in their relations with suppliers. The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) has decided that the Supermarket Code of Practice does not need to be changed. The Breaking the Armlock Alliance, of which the Soil Association is a member, condemned the OFT for a failure to regulate. (Farmers Weekly, Farmers Guardian)

A survey conducted by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) has found that organic farms are supporting far greater biodiversity than non-organic farms, including 32% more birds, and 109% more wild plants within the cropped area. Soil Association policy director Peter Melchett described the increase in wildlife numbers and species as "hugely significant" and urged more farmers to covert, to increase the organic area and meet rising consumer demand. (Farmers Weekly, Farmers Guardian)

The Government's biomass task force, headed by former NFU president Ben Gill, believes biomass could eventually account for 5% of the UK's electricity demand. A new report provides recommendations for how the Government and biomass industry could use biomass energy to meet targets for renewable energy and sustainable farming. Proposed initiatives include installing biomass heating systems in all new schools and hospitals. (Farmers Guardian)

Organic farms sustain almost twice as many plant species as conventional farms, according to a study. Fields farmed without artificial fertilisers and pesticides had a greater variety and number of wildlife, including flowers, beetles, spiders, birds and bats. The UK Government-funded report, carried out at 180 farms over five years, is the largest study of the impact on biodiversity of organic farming to date. Researchers, whose work is published today in Biology Letters, the journal of the Royal Society, measured the numbers of species and their abundance in and near cereal fields at the farms, half of which were organic. Organic fields had on average, 32% more birds, 35% more bats and 15% more spiders. They also had 85% more species of plants. A Soil Association spokesman said: "This is a very comprehensive study and provides final proof that organic farmers promote a much richer environment." (The Daily Telegraph - 3 August)

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