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Organic news archive: December 2005

The Scotsman takes a looks at the organic egg market and "how demand is likely to outstrip supply when new legislation hatches in the New Year [requiring any pullets destined for an organic farm to be certified prior to arrival]". The article refers to figures from the Soil Association's Organic Market Report 2005 which show the market is 'booming' and recommends readers check out the SA online directory for information about organic suppliers. (7/12/05)

'Wild Harvest - Britain's Wildlife Farming Revolution', a BBC 2 documentary looking at wildlife and farming issues as part of the BBC Natural World documentary series, will be broadcast tonight. Peter Melchett, policy director of the Soil Association is interviewed on his organic farm about how organic farming benefits wildlife population. He says, "In this country organic farming covers about four per cent of the farmland and it's growing very well. I don't think there's any reason why it should stop at any particular point, and certainly something like a quarter or a third in the next 10 or 20 years is a reasonable guess and that will have huge benefits for wildlife." It is one of the Daily Mail's 'Pick of the Day' - "as this gentle, beautiful film reveals, the return of organic methods and the introduction of the environmental stewardship scheme have prompted a reverse in wildlife's decline." (14/12/05 - 8pm to 8.50pm and repeated on Sunday 18/12/05 - 6pm)

"At the heart of the negotiations over the European Union budget lies the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). At the heart of the world trade talks in Hong Kong lies the CAP. Both sets of talks are deadlocked because of the CAP, whose subsidies keep millions of farmers in the developing world mired in poverty. ... In 2003 the richest 6.5 per cent of European farmers claimed 55 per cent of total CAP subsidies. In Spain, the richest 18 per cent received 76 per cent. About 37,000 Spanish family farms disappear each year. The EU is reaping what it sows." (The Times (and here) - 14/12/05)

Some of the UK's bestselling apples are being treated with a chemical that enables them to be stored for a year before going on sale in supermarkets and grocery stores. The chemical, 1-methylcyclopropene (1-MCP) allows producers to put apples in cold storage for months before they are shipped to Britain. Its manufacturer says it is designed to enhance the taste of an apple, but confirms that it also significantly prolongs shelf life. Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University, London, said: "The golden rule is that good food goes bad" and if it doesn't you have to ask what has been done to it. "This is a brilliant, but surreal, use of science. They are using technology to play around with the seasons, and the food may look fresh but it isn't. The problem is that companies don't tell us this is being done." (The Sunday Times - 11/12/05; Daily Mail - 13/12/05)

A British doctor at the forefront of treating the east Asian bird flu outbreaks has said fears of a world pandemic may be exaggerated. "It may never happen," said Dr Jeremy Farrar, director of Oxford University's clinical research unit at the Hospital for Tropical Diseases in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Farrar believes there may be weaknesses inherent in the virus, which explain why it has not killed more people and has not been passed from human to human in the two years since the first outbreak. Farrar's views contrast with those of the government, which has warned of the disaster. Last month Sir Liam Donaldson, the chief medical officer, said a pandemic, probably from a mutated form of Asian bird flu, was a "biological inevitability". (The Sunday Times - 11/12/05)

Richard Sandbrook OBE, a founder member of Friends of the Earth, former Director of the International Institute of Environment & Development, and latterly treasurer of the conservation charity Plantlife, has died aged 59. He was one of the key thinkers behind conceiving and communicating what sustainable development was. A great friend of the earth and a generous and likeable mentor to younger colleagues. John Richard Sandbrook, environmentalist. OBE, 1946 -2005.

Spending on "ethical goods" in the UK rose by nearly a sixth to almost £26 billion last year, a report by the Co-operative Bank has found. The ethical consumerism report examines the way that ethics affects spending on goods such as petrol, clothing, transport and financial services. Spending ethically on food, including Fairtrade items and organically grown produce, surpassed £4 billion for the first time; and spending on ethical fashion reached £680 million. (The Times, The Independent - 12/12/05)

A new pressure group dedicated to making the National Farmers Union stand up to supermarkets and get better process for Britain's loss-making farming businesses is launched today. 'Better NFU' is led by Derek Mead, an NFU council member, and Derek Handley, the chairman of Farmers for Action.

An article by Zac Goldsmith, editor of the Ecologist, in The Times titled 'Why the NFU should be culled' discusses the role of the NFU and why he supports new pressure group Better NFU. He writes, "the NFU's reluctance to stand up for its members doesn't end with the supermarkets. Time and again the organisation has backed away from supporting commonsense measures to revive the rural economy. For instance, while almost every farmers' organisation has called for a shift in government policy to enable schools, hospitals and barracks wherever possible to buy locally produced food, the NFU has remained silent."

"Given that the NFU is the single most powerful organisation purporting to represent farmers, with a whopping £20 million income, an estimated £40 million stashed in the bank and continual statutory access to the key decision-makers, the organisation's mostly supine behaviour is inexcusable. But not inexplicable. The clue lies in the word statutory."

"This relationship between the NFU and the Government was cemented by the 1947 Agriculture Act, which essentially set into law the involvement of the NFU in all aspects of agricultural policymaking. This has led to a cosy, even collusive, bond between ministers and their officials and NFU bigwigs." (The Daily Telegraph, The Times - 12/12/05; Valerie Elliot introduces Zac Goldsmith's article in The Times)

Although there are now more than 100 farmers' markets in Ireland, the real growth in organic sales has come from the increased availability of produce on supermarket shelves. About 62% of consumers now buy their organic food from this source. In 2003, the latest year for which figures are available, the Irish organic food market was worth about €35m but this was anticipated to increase to €86m by the end of 2005 - up-to-date figures are expected in January. (Sunday Times - 11/12/05)

In an article looking at the effects of the explosion of an oil depot near Hemel Hempstead, London yesterday the Daily Mail writes, "Environmentalists fear that the chemicals released by the blast could leech into the earth, polluting lakes, rivers and streams and killing aquatic plants. There are also concerns that the acidic cocktail could damage winter crops." (12/12/05)

Conservative leader David Cameron is to set up a policy group on the environment which will look at "'quality of life' issues" BBC news reports. "Mr Cameron says climate change is among the most serious challenges around." The group will be chaired by ex-Environment Secretary John Gummer and deputy chaired by Zac Goldsmith, editor of the Ecologist.

In a column in The Guardian today David Cameron outlines the aims of his "Quality of Life policy group". Cameron says, "asking people to rank the economy, schools, the NHS and the environment in order of importance is like asking parents which of their children they love most. All these issues are important, and whatever the polls say, people care passionately about the environment. That's why the quality of life agenda will be a priority for the Conservative Party under my leadership.".

Cameron includes climate change, pollution, biodiversity, the countryside and waste as key issues which require further investigation by the Quality of Life policy group. The group will be discussing their agenda at the London Wetland Centre with Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and other leading environmental groups later today.

Peter Ainsworth has been named as shadow environment secretary. (BBC News and The Guardian - 9/12/05)

"Politics comes a very poor second to conservation groups," writes John Ingham in an article comparing membership numbers in the two areas and announcing that David Cameron is to make the environment one of the first subjects he has spoken on since becoming a Tory leader. 254,000 Tory supporters voted for their new leader whilst The National Trust has 3.4 million supporters, The Royal Society for Protection of Birds has one million plus, the Wildlife Trust 600,000, while WWF, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace have nearly 700,000 combined. (Daily Express - 9/12/05)

In an article about CAP payouts in Britain, Felicity Lawrence of The Guardian writes: "The largest individual payments made to the UK under the much criticised common agricultural policy are going to multinational food companies and not, as commonly assumed, to farmers. A Guardian investigation into CAP payments has found that millions of pounds are being paid to manufacturers of bulk fats and sugars used to produce processed foods. The largest UK recipients of money include companies such as Tate & Lyle, Nestle, Cadbury's, Kraft and a host of manufacturers of bulk animal fats, sugars and refined starches. Further information requests reveal a similar pattern of the largest individual payments going to multinationals in other European countries. France, which remains set against CAP reform, has refused to release details of its payments." (The Guardian - 8/12/05)

Britain is to direct more foreign aid to develop genetically modified crops in Africa. A paper from the Department for International Development, launched yesterday by international development secretary Hilary Benn, includes commitments to promote patented GM seeds and scientific research by GM firms. This is a classic case of multinational marketing policy dressed up as giving aid, similar to scams like the Nestle baby formula give-aways of the 1980's. According to the UK Government's own research, 98% of the British public oppose GM foods. In a democracy, it is simply unacceptable that the UK government so wantonly bypasses its voters' concerns. (The Guardian - 8/12/05)

In an ethical trading poll on leading clothing chains run by Ethical Consumer magazine, Primark scored just 2.5 out of 20 on an ethical index that ranks the leading clothing chains on criteria such as workers' rights and whether they do business with oppressive regimes. Mark One and Marks & Spencer were second and third. The magazine suggests shoppers buy from charity shops, try vintage clothing and seek out organic cotton. Conventionally farmed cotton is treated with 10 per cent of the world's pesticides, which the Pesticide Action Network estimates cause 20,000 deaths in the Third World every year. (The Independent - 8/12/05)

The Soil Association has responded to the Department for International Development's new strategy for agriculture in developing countries with a forceful questioning of their policy. The Soil Association's Policy Director, Peter Melchett, made the following comment:

"The UK Government's new strategy for agriculture and poverty reduction in the developing world is fundamentally unsustainable. DFiD's continued determination to encourage genetically modified (GM) crops flies in the face of practical experience that GM crops are bad for farmers, and UK Government research which shows they are bad for the environment. It is also clear that GM crops are bad for local economies and pose possible threats to human health. In contrast to the US and UK Government's pro-GM position, many developing countries like Ethiopia are already recognising the benefits that modern organic farming deliver in their countries, because organic delivers far higher yields in subsistence farming systems, along with greater drought resistance. Crucially, farmers can save organic seeds and avoid having to buy expensive (and sometimes dangerous) chemical sprays and expensive, oil-based artificial fertilisers."

"Decades of bad farming practices in the UK have left the soil almost lifeless, adding to pollution, erosion and greenhouse gas emissions," writes Paul Evans in the Guardian. "Whether fed by compost or by natural processes, healthy soils are alive, with a biodiversity far in excess of anything above ground. Apart from growing our food, filtering our water and holding back floods, they regulate the climate and sustain wildlife. But there is growing awareness by governments and academics that we have been treating soil, literally, like dirt, and that if we continue to abuse it, not only will we lose the nutrients in what we grow - with knock-on effects all the way up the food chain - but we will undermine all attempts to control the release of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas."

"The historical view," says Peter Melchett, policy director for the Soil Association, "is that, before the last war, we ploughed shallow using horses, and farmed causing little disturbance. Now we plough with huge bits of metal at great depth. The significant changes in 50 years have caused a catastrophic decline in wildlife and food quality. There is a dangerous trend in agriculture for bigger farms, bigger fields and bigger machines, causing more disturbance of the soil. Here in Norfolk it used to be snow that blocked the roads in winter. Now it's mud from carrot fields." "Ploughing will burn carbon out of the soil, and the organic movement and government initiatives are working to put it back. But no amount of muck and magic will reverse the carbon loss through global warming that is threatening the future of our soils. The message for British farmers and land managers is clear: tackle carbon emissions aggressively and take as much land as possible out of intensive production and into woodland, wetland, permanent grassland and heathland so soils can develop and store carbon for as long as possible." (The Guardian - 7/12/05)

"Nanotechnology has been hailed as a potential cure for cancer and environmental ills. But it could become the asbestos of the 21st century," writes Jimmy Lee Shreve in The Independent. "At scales of a millionth of a millimetre, materials can develop unusual and unpredictable properties, leading to concerns about risks to health and the environment. Some experts are calling for a moratorium on nanotechnology, saying that ultra-fine particles created for cosmetic, industrial and high technology uses could prove deadly. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announced last month that it would be ploughing £5m into investigating the health risks of nanotechnology. Researchers will look at how nanoparticles travel through the environment and human body, and how they might affect health. Defra's approach is understated. But a 2004 report from the Switzerland-based reinsurer Swiss Re makes a far more urgent case. It states that, once in the blood, 'nanoparticles can move practically unhindered through the entire body'. During pregnancy, nanoparticles would be likely to enter the foetus. Nanoparticles, it continued, may harm living tissue in at least two ways - through chemical reactivity, or by damaging phagocytes, or scavenger cells. Nanoparticles may disrupt the immune system, cause allergic reactions, interfere with cell communications, or alter enzyme exchanges. Water filters will not remove nanoparticles, and they could perhaps penetrate plant roots and enter the food chain." (The Independent - 7/12/05)

In the Guardian's Eco Soundings column today environment correspondent John Vidal reports: "Development secretary Hilary Benn today unveils Britain's long-awaited strategy for agriculture in poor countries, and GM crops, as expected, are to be officially blessed. What happy timing, then, that Michael Pragnell, chief executive of Syngenta, the world's third largest GM company, should be in London last week to give a talk about poverty in Africa'. All in all, it was an interesting week for GM agriculture. The Indian farm minister said the GM cotton crop had failed in two states; Monsanto seized a bank account of the Confédération Paysanne, France's second largest agriculture trade union; the technology was rejected in a referendum in Switzerland, the home of Syngenta; and Russian and Italian research pointed to potential health problems in rats and mice fed GM soya and peas." (The Guardian - 7/12/05)

US researchers said yesterday for the first time there was a clear link between advertising and young people's appetite for junk food as they called on Government to force food companies to stop marketing unhealthy foods to young people if voluntary limits were failing. The findings, in a study by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), represent a challenge to many US food companies that have argued there was no proven link between the use of television advertising and the foods that children consume. (The Financial Times - 7/12/05)

"Seen those BP ads on TV and in the press? Impressed that the oil giant is getting the message on climate change? Think again. BP is also running a big advertising campaign in the US to coincide with the Montreal climate talks. Both versions have the same graphics, the same nifty tune, the same style. But whereas we Brits are told to 'work out your carbon footprint - it's a start', the American consumer is told: 'We're investing $15bn in finding new oil and gas in the Gulf of Mexico - it's a start'." (The Guardian - 7/12/05)

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