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News archive: February 2007

Chinese organic food boom

Wang Xinqiu is prepared to pay ten times more for organic vegetables than for regular produce in Beijing. It buys her peace of mind.

“Organic food seems safer,” said Wang, a Chinese medicine practitioner, after selecting organic cabbage and ginger at a Carrefour SA supermarket as her daughter, 8-year-old Maria, tagged along. “A big reason I buy organic is I’m concerned that my child could eat something contaminated.”

People in China are developing a taste for organically grown food. More than 60% of the country’s 562 million city dwellers are willing to pay more for produce certified safe or organic, according to research commissioned by the Chinese Ministry of Commerce.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Carrefour are among those taking advantage of the trend. Sales of organic vegetables at one Wal-Mart store in Beijing soared 88 percent in the 12 months through November, the company said. Chinese people in 2005 bought or exported US$13.3 billion of food certified as green, a local standard that limits pesticide and chemical use, Chinese government figures show.

“Chinese consumers really are serious about safe and organic foods, and they’re willing to pay for them,” said Elizabeth Harrington, chief executive officer of E. Harrington Global, a Chicago firm that contributed to the Commerce Ministry research. “Part of it is the negative publicity that has come out in recent years about everything from fake foods to contaminated baby foods to pesticides in apples.”

The Health Ministry declared 144 instances of food poisoning involving 4,922 people in October through December, a 42 percent increase in those affected from a year earlier.

As wages and food production rise, “the issue has shifted from total supply to the quality of supply,” said Huang Jikun, director of the Center for Agricultural Policy at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. “People are concerned. There’s more information available and we know what we are eating.”

Song Guangxiong, a professor at North China Electricity University in Beijing, said he learned about the dangers of pesticides from a friend who runs an organic farm near the city. He now buys only organic vegetables.

“There’s going to be a bill for the choices we make,” said Song, 33. “It’s pretty expensive, but I think it’s worth the money.”

Cost will deter many Chinese, said Wang, 42, the traditional-medicine doctor. She can afford organic foods on her US$387 monthly wage, she said.

The US giant discount supermarket chain Wal-Mart started selling organic products in all of its Chinese stores – which now total 71 – in May 2005. Organic grain sales rose 33% in the 12 months through November and egg sales climbed 50%, said Jonathan Dong, a spokesman in Beijing.

“Organic food is becoming increasingly popular,” Dong said. “We see good growth potential in the long term.”

China’s national standard for organic products took effect in April 2005, 15 years after the creation of the green standard.

Yang Fu, 26, moved to Beijing from Sichuan province in 2004 to work for an equipment-leasing company. With more pay and access to organic produce, he has opted for the safest diet.

“I don’t have to worry when I buy organic food,” he said.

Story by Dune Lawrence in Beijing for Bloomberg News

Monsanto’s illegal dumping

Monsanto is under investigation amid allegations it sanctioned the dumping of toxic waste on sites across the country despite evidence that it would poison the landscape for generations.

The activities of the US chemical giant, best-known for its support and development of Genetically Modified plants (GM / GE), are being examined by the UK government’s Environment Agency and public health bodies. Monsanto manufacture GM seeds and were also the the corporation who produced Agent Orange.

The focus of the investigation is a site in south Wales that has been called ‘one of the most contaminated’ in the country. It appears that toxic chemicals were dumped in the Brofiscin quarry in the 1960s and 1970s despite the fact there was no licence for these materials and the site was not lined or sealed. This meant a cocktail of highly poisonous chemicals has been able to escape into the environment and threatens to poison local streams and rivers. The quarry, which is on the edge of the village of Groesfaen, near Cardiff, first erupted in 2003, spilling fumes over the surrounding area.

Since then surveys have found that 67 chemicals, including Agent Orange derivatives, dioxins and PCBs which could have been made only by Monsanto, are leaking from the site.

The Environment Agency says that if the dumping were to take place today there would be a criminal prosecution and civil action to raise the money needed to clean up the site. However, it appears that much of the dumping was carried out during years when Britain’s regime for environmental protection was more lax. Consequently, there are doubts as to how far any legal action can go or which companies should be liable for clean-up costs that are expected to run into tens of millions of pounds.

A spokesman for the Environment Agency said: “Our overall aim is to understand the current risks to ground water and surface waters and to determine the most cost-effective way forward to protect the local environment and to recover costs from those liable.” The Food Standards Agency, which has responsibility for food safety, together with the local council and health bodies are involved in the investigation.

The Environment Agency spokesman said: “The main focus has been to identify if chemicals deposited at the quarry during the ’60s and ’70s are getting into surface water, groundwater, air or affecting site users. These investigations … have confirmed that these chemicals are making their way into groundwater and surface water.”

The inquiry is looking at identifying which companies were responsible for the illegal dumping in order to make them pay for the clean-up.

The Agency said: “Various individuals and organisations are in the process of being identified as having a possible involvement. They will need to provide evidence that they were, or not, involved in the disposal of chemicals at the site.”

One of those companies under the microscope is Pharmacia Corp, which manufactured PCB chemicals on sites in South Wales in the 1960s and 1970s. Pharmacia is part of Monsanto. Monsanto insists that contractors used by the company were always advised of the type of waste that was to be removed and disposed.

A spokesman said: “We continue to work with the Wales Department of Environment and other regulatory bodies to resolve these issues. While the people involved in the manufacture of PCBs … are no longer with the company and probably deceased, a thorough, non-selective review of all of the documents will show that Pharmacia did inform its contractors of the nature of wastes prior to disposal, and that Pharmacia did not dump wastes from its own vehicles.”

Story by Sean Poulter for the Daily Mail UK, February 13, 2007

New material invented from carrots

Two Scottish scientists based in Fife have developed a new material made from carrots to replace glass fibre found in everything from fishing rods to car parts. The inventors, Dr David Hepworth and Dr Eric Whale, plan to start selling fishing rods made from the material, called Curran, next month. They then hope to move on to carrot fibre snow boards.

The material is billed as a revolutionising performance product with unique strength and weight. Through a special process, nano fibres found in carrots are extracted and combined with high-tech resins enabling tough, durable components to be moulded to whatever shape, degree of stiffness, strength or lightness required. They also use colourful backgrounds, which have been taken from university research involved in advanced aerospace technologies.

Through their company CelluComp, the duo will initially enter the sporting goods market with the launch in March of Just Cast, a unique, high performance range of fly fishing rods offering lengths of 7.5ft to 10ft.

Dr Hepworth said: “Curran is incredibly versatile and we believe that we are launching at a time when companies are looking for that combination of quality and performance but achieved in a way that is environmentally friendly. The potential of Curran is enormous and if we can replace just a small percentage of carbon fibre in products the effects on the environment could be significant and wide ranging.”

Eco-hero fights pesticides

Pesticides campaigner Georgina Downs has won the right to have her legal challenge against the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) heard in the British High Court. She is a member of the public who has independently decided to contest Defra’s policy on pesticide usage. Georgina decided to take this case to court after getting sick while living near fields that were regularly sprayed with pesticides.

She will argue that that there has never been a proper risk assessment into the effects of long-term exposure to pesticides in people who live or work near sprayed fields. This could mean there is no evidence to support UK Government assertions that there are no health risks from crop spraying.

Transition Towns plan for end of oil

In these last years of oil dependency, a new trend is emerging in which towns prepare themselves to face the challenge of being oil-free.

Following in the footsteps of Kinsale in Ireland, Totnes in Devon has recently declared itself Britain’s first “transition” town. There have been meetings about how all food and energy can be produced locally, and a plan is underway to set up a local energy company, rewrite the local development plan and persuade other towns to join the movement.

Permaculture expert Rob Hopkins is drawing up a 25-year plan to see how Totnes could support itself without oil.

Stroud in Gloucestershire and Lewes in East Sussex, have also recently become transition towns.



UK allows 0.9% GM

Today a delegation representing 74 organic businesses, with a combined turnover of about £950,000,000 (US$2,000,000,000) are meeting at the House of Commons to express their grave concern at Government proposals to allow up to 0.9% genetcially modified food (GM) in organic food without it being labelled.

Last Autumn, the UK Government completed their consultation on the coexistence between GM crops, non-GM crops and organic crops in England. The Government’s consultation document, drawing on opinions expressed by the European Commission (which are not binding on national governments) presupposes a GM content in all non-GM food, including organic food, of up to 0.9%. The Government says that organic and non-GM food containing up to 0.9% GM would not be labelled, leaving consumers in complete ignorance as to the GM content.

The meeting in the House of Commons, hosted by Peter Ainsworth MP, Shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, and Jim Paice MP, Shadow Agriculture Minister, was organised by the Food and Drink Federation’s Organic Group and The Soil Association.

During the consultation, the Government met with a number of biotech corporations, including AstraZeneca, BASF Plant Science, Bayer CropScience, Dow AgroSciences, Du Pont (UK) Ltd, Monsanto UK Ltd, and Syngenta Ltd. Not one organic business was consulted directly.

The 27 companies attending today’s meeting include: Abel & Cole, Aspalls, Community Foods, Dorset Cereals, Doves Farm, Fresh, Green & Blacks, Grove Fresh, OMSCo, Planet Organic, Rachel’s Dairies, Rainbow Wholefoods, R B Organic, Riverford, Stonegate, Yeo Valley and W Jordan Cereals.

Alex Smith of Alara, Chair of the Food and Drink Federation’s Organic Group said, “There is overwhelming evidence that one of the main reasons that consumers buy organic is to avoid eating food containing any GM. If the proposals set out by the Government were implemented, very significant new economic burdens could be placed on organic food producers, manufacturers and retailers – the Government envisage allowing routine contamination of all non-GM and organic food chains with up to 0.9% GM. Organic businesses will face enhanced risks of GM contamination, product recall and loss of their most valuable asset, the consumer trust that underlies their brand value.”

Peter Melchett, Soil Association Policy Director said: “The Government wants the full cost of keeping organic food as it now is, at the lowest reliable and repeatable level of detection of GM (0.1% GM), to fall on organic businesses, and therefore on organic consumers. So people who eat organic food will end up paying for a GM policy designed to benefit the GM companies. The Government is putting at risk one of the fastest growing areas of the UK economy. Tesco’s organic sales grew by 39% last year. Organic farm shops and box schemes are seeing similar rates of growth. The Soil Association has pledged to keep GM out of organic food, so the public can continue to put their trust in organic food”.

Peter Melchett added: “We warmly welcome the motion tabled in the House of Commons by the Conservative Front Bench, with all-party support, which states that ‘consumers have the right to choose non-GM foods and that all foods containing GM material, or that come from livestock fed on GM, should be clearly labelled as such’, and that 0.1% GM ‘should be the trigger point for GM labelling’. We hope it is not too late for the Government to change their pro-GM stance, which threatens public trust in organic farming and food.”

The 74 companies supporting this initiative have a combined turnover of about £950,000,000. Together they directly employ 8,356 people throughout the United Kingdom. They work with at least 4,790 suppliers, who in turn provide jobs for thousands of people in the UK and abroad.

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