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News archive: September 2007

Martinique poisoned by pesticides

The indiscriminate use of toxic pesticides on banana plantations in the French Caribbean has left much of the islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe poisoned for a century to come, a report to the French parliament warned yesterday. The two islands and their 800,000 inhabitants faced a “health disaster”, with soaring rates of cancer and infertility, said Professor Dominique Belpomme, a French cancer specialist.

Based on present trends, half the men of Martinique and Guadeloupe were likely to develop prostate cancer at some point in their lives, Professor Belpomme said. Birth defects in children were also becoming far more common, he warned.

Tests have shown that every child born in Guadeloupe is contaminated with chlordecone, a highly toxic pesticide also known as kepone, which was banned in many countries in 1979. It was used legally in France until 1990 and in the French Caribbean until 1993. But it was used illegally to kill weevils in Martinique and Guadeloupe until 2002, often sprayed by airplanes.

Professor Belpomme said: “The situation is extremely serious. The tests we carried out on pesticides show there is a health disaster in the Caribbean. The word is not too strong. Martinique and Guadeloupe have literally been poisoned.”

“The poisoning affects both land and water. Chlordecone establishes itself in the clay and stays there for up to a century. As a result, the food chain is contaminated, especially water. In Martinique, most water sources are polluted.”

Politicians from the islands, which are overseas departments of France, were torn between accusing the professor of “alarmism” and calling for a full inquiry.

“This must not be covered up by a conspiracy of silence,” said Victorin Lurel, the socialist leader of the Guadeloupe regional council. Christian Estrosi, the French minister for overseas territories, cast some doubts on the scientific basis of the report but said he was “wholly favorable” to an official commission.

Martinique and Guadeloupe produce more than 260,000 tonnes of bananas a year, worth US$300m. The industry, which employs 15,000 people, also receives £90m (US$180m) in EU aid. The islands, which are relatively poor compared with the French mainland, are already struggling to recover from Hurricane Dean, which devastated every banana plantation in Martinique and half of those in Guadeloupe last month. Many growers may find their soils and water tables so contaminated they will never be allowed to re-plant their crops, Professor Belpomme said. Although the banana fruit itself is not affected by chlordecone, the toxin can remain in soil for 100 years and is absorbed by humans through the skin and respiratory tract. Exposure to the powder can cause tremors, headaches, slurred speech, dizziness, memory loss, weight loss and sterility and raise the risk of developing cancer.

In early August, Guadeloupe’s appeal court accepted a complaint against “persons unknown” for “poisoning” the island with pesticides. This opens up the possibility of a criminal investigation into the responsibility of successive French governments in failing to ban, or monitor, the illegal use of the chemicals.

According to Professor Belpomme, the impact on health in the islands will be more serious than the “tainted blood” scandal of the 1980s, in which 4,000 French people were infected by blood contaminated with the HIV virus .

“In this case, it is a whole population which has been poisoned,” he told MPs. “Those people who are alive today but also future generations.

“The rate of prostate cancer is major. The French Caribbean is second in the world ranking. The rate of congenital malformation is increasing and women are having fewer children than 15 years ago. The standard theory is that this is because of the Pill, but I think it is linked to pesticides.”

But Christian Choupin, head of the Martinique and Guadeloupe banana growers’ association, insisted chlordecone was no longer used and claimed Professor Belpomme’s report had “no proper scientific basis”. “He is giving the impression that people are dropping like flies, which is not at all the case,” M. Chupin said.

By John Lichfield in Paris for The Independent UK

Pesticides linked to asthma

A new American scientific study clearly links exposure to commonly used pesticides increases the risk of asthma. Over 23 million Americans suffer from asthma, of which almost 9 million are minors.

The new scientific study of nearly 20,000 American farmers was presented on Sunday to the European Respiratory Society Annual Congress in Stockholm, Denmark. It was carried out by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina.

Of the 19,704 farmers included in the study, 127 had doctor diagnosed allergic asthma and 314 had non-allergic asthma.

The study concludes that a history of high pesticide exposure shows a doubling of asthma risk. The link remained statistically significant after adjusting for a variety of potentially confounding factors including age, smoking, body weight, and state of residence.

During the study, 452 farmers aged 30 and over developed asthma. Farmers in Iowa and North Carolina, who used around 16 chemical sprays, were found to be most at risk.

Overall, 16 of the pesticides studied were associated with asthma: 12 with the allergic variety of asthma and 4 with the non-allergic type. Coumaphos, EPTC, lindane, parathion, heptachlor, and 2,4,5-TP were most strongly linked to allergic asthma. For non-allergic asthma, DDT, malathion, and phorate had the strongest effect.

“This is the first study with sufficient power to evaluate individual pesticides and adult asthma among individuals who routinely apply pesticides. Moreover, this is the only study to date to do this for allergic and non-allergic asthma separately,” a spokesman for the researchers said.

“The possible scope of the link between pesticides and adult-onset asthma raises a problem of broader interest, given the considerable quantities of pesticides used in the domestic and urban environments. Their impact on a population which, while less exposed, has a greater risk of allergies and a higher prevalence of asthma, remains to be determined.”

Food additives cause ADHD in children

It is more than 30 years since an American scientist, Ben Feingold, first suggested that artificial food colors and other additives caused overactive, impulsive and inattentive behavior in children; this sort of hyperactivity is known to be a marker for later educational difficulties, especially problems with reading, and antisocial behavior.

Feingold’s work and subsequent studies, however, were dismissed as flawed or inconclusive.

Today’s UK government-commissioned research confirming that food additives commonly found in non-organic children’s food have a detrimental effect on their behavior is the largest trial of its kind. But its findings come as no surprise to campaign groups such as the Hyperactive Children’s Support Group, who have long argued that eliminating junk food can dramatically improve the behavior of some children.

One of the things that makes the latest findings so significant is that the research by the University of Southampton has been so thoroughly conducted and reviewed and cannot be argued away; it is published in medical journal The Lancet today. The study also found there was increased hyperactivity in children with no history of problems.

The leader of the research, Professor Jim Stevenson, said it provided a clear demonstration that changes in behavior could be detected in three-year-old and eight-year-old children who consumed a mix of additives. Researchers at the same department found similar effects in a study seven years ago.

The additives tested were designed to match what a child would be exposed to in a normal diet. The mixes tested included artificial colors used for decades in many products aimed at children and the widely used preservative sodium benzoate. All of the food additives in the test are banned from organic food, so choosing organic soft food, candy, cakes and ice cream means avoiding these food additives.

Since Feingold’s original work, behavioral problems among schoolchildren have risen, as have diagnoses of attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder. Estimates of numbers of children suffering from full ADHD vary: one UK survey estimates that 2.5% of British schoolchildren are affected, and international studies put the figure at 5-10%.

The UK Government’ Food Standards Agency (FSA), which commissioned the study, was taking a cautious line yesterday. Professor Ieuan Hughes, the chairman of its expert committee on the toxicity of chemicals in food (CoT), said that since some children in the study reacted significantly to the additives but others did not, it was not possible to draw conclusions about the effect on the general population. Nor was it possible, he said, to extrapolate from these particular additives to other additives.

The FSA revised its official advice, but only to suggest that parents who think their children show signs of hyperactive behavior should avoid foods containing artificial colors and the preservative sodium benzoate by checking labels. In fact, many of the products which contain these additives – sweets, cakes, ice cream and drinks – are sold without labels.

The FSA has also not issued advice to schools on whether the additives should be banned from school food but advised concerned parents to ask head teachers.

Experts were asking yesterday why it had taken the authorities so long to act and why they had not gone further to remove the additives from food. Tim Lang, professor of food policy at London’s City University, said:

“The first calls to investigate these additives were made 30 years ago. Good for the FSA for finally doing this research but why did it take so long? The FSA must take a tougher pro-child position.”

Since EU legislation regulates the use of additives, the agency has referred the findings to the European Food Safety Authority, which has begun a review of all additives. It recently withdrew approval for one of the first colors it re-examined, Red 2G, which has been used for cosmetic purposes for decades in meat products.

Erik Millstone, professor of science policy at University of Sussex, who has studied the additives industry for many years, criticized the CoT and the FSA response as wholly inadequate. “Stevenson’s team has robustly shown that food additives do adversely affect the behavior, not only of children diagnosed as hyperactive, but normal healthy children too. The CoT pretends that these results have no implications for the general population or for food additives as a whole … The complacency of the CoT and FSA officials must now cease,” he said.

Although the FSA and the food industry stressed that the additives had been assessed for safety by the EC, some of the colors have been banned at various times in Scandinavian countries and the US. Also, some were approved many years ago when safety testing did not consider the effect on behavior. Until now, safety testing has looked at individual additives in isolation not in the cocktails in which they are consumed in the diet.

The FSA has been considering the safety of these additives since 2000, when it received the results of a study conducted by the same researchers, known as the Isle of Wight study. That research concluded that significant improvements in children’s behavior could be produced by the removing of colorings and sodium benzoate from their diet. CoT decided that this study was inconclusive, however. The purpose of the latest FSA study was to provide conclusive evidence.

Head teachers who have worked to remove additives from school meals said the research vindicated their efforts. Alan Coode, former head of a primary school in Merton, said: “We knew this all along. When we changed our school meals and removed additives there was a new calmness to the school. The science has just caught up.”

The food industry said it was already removing many artificial colorings. It argues that avoiding sodium benzoate is more difficult because it stops drinks that may have a shelf life of several years going off. The preservative is still very widely used, particularly by soft drinks manufacturers.

PepsiCo said no decision would be taken about its use of additives until it had seen the research. Coca-Cola, GlaxoSmith Kline, which makes energy drinks, and Unilever referred us to the industry’s Food and Drink Federation. Its director of communications, Julian Hunt, said: “It is important to reassure consumers that the Southampton study does not suggest there is a safety issue with the use of these additives. In addition, the way in which the additives were tested as a mixture is not how they are used in everyday products.” He said the industry would continue to reduce the use of additives.

The global additives market is worth more than $25bn (£12.4bn) a year. It grew by 2.4% a year between 2001 and 2004, when the food industry says it was transforming itself, and is growing rapidly.

Article by Felicity Lawrence for The Guardian, UK

Organic food sales soar

Organic food and drink sales in the UK nudged the £2 billion (US$4 billion) mark for the first time in 2006, with a sustained market growth rate of 22 per cent throughout the year.

Launched to coincide with the start of the UK’s Organic Fortnight 2007, the Soil Association’s definitive annual Organic Market Report shows continued strong growth and dynamic public support for organic food, drink, textiles and health and beauty products.

Retail sales of organic products through organic delivery and mail order schemes and other direct routes increased from £95 million in 2005 to £146 million in 2006 – a staggering 53 per cent growth, more than double that experienced by the major supermarkets.

Organic textiles and the booming organic health and beauty sector are experiencing particularly strong growth. 2006 saw a 30 per cent increase in the number of health and beauty products licensed with the Soil Association. At current growth rates, the UK market for organic cotton products is estimated to be worth £107 million by 2008.

The report includes consumer research by Mintel which shows that more than half of those surveyed had purchased organic fruit and vegetables within the previous 12 months; one in four consumers had bought organic meat or dairy products; and one in six had purchased packaged organic goods.

Other key figures from the report reveal:

* Sales of free-range and organic outstripping eggs from caged birds for the first time. Consumer concerns over animal welfare appear to be driving changes in the poultry sector.
* An average of £37 million (US$74 million) is spent each week on organic produce in the UK with consumers living in London, the Southeast, the Southwest and Wales most likely to buy organic food.
* Households with children under the age of 15 tend to buy a wider range of organic foods than those with no children.
* Organic farmers are three times as likely to market their products locally or directly as non-organic farmers in the UK.

Despite the steady growth in demand for organic food over the past decade, some key sectors are still failing to meet demand. Organic livestock sectors are dependent on supplies of organic feed, but UK self-sufficiency in organic cereals fell below 50 per cent, during 2006, increasing our reliance on imported organic grains. The cost of livestock feed, whether for organic or non organic farmers, is rising as a result of recent poor global harvests, increasing diversion of cereals into biofuel production and rapidly rising demand particularly from China and India.

Helen Browning, Soil Association Director of Food and Farming said:
“These figures are extremely encouraging, the year on year growth in sales not just in food and drink, but also the newer booming clothing and health and beauty sectors confirm organic has moved well beyond a mere fad or niche.”

“The staggering 53 per cent growth in sales through home delivery schemes and other direct routes confirms strong public support for local, seasonal and organic food that provides a fair return to farmers and growers, boosts the local economy, and also reduces your carbon footprint – consumers are increasingly linking everyday food choice to environmental action.”

“While this year’s report confirms a positive future for organic food and farming, the organic movement faces challenges in the long-term from climate change and rising oil prices, as do all farmers and growers. Rises in feed and fuel prices will need to be reflected in food prices at the check-out that enable farmers to get a fair return on their production costs. It’s fantastic to have such strong public support for and understanding of the benefits provided by organic farming, but that must urgently extend to more widespread acceptance, by retailers as well as consumers, of the true costs of producing staple foods like eggs, milk, meat , and bread sustainably.”

“The significant short-fall in UK grown organic cereals is a major concern, forcing greater reliance on imports for livestock feed – but of course, it is also a major opportunity for current non-organic cereal farmers to convert and supply a guaranteed and growing market.”

“With the government’s own studies confirming that organic farming typically uses 30 per cent less energy than non-organic farming, it’s not surprising more and more people are choosing to purchase planet-friendly, organic food. This is confirmed by an independent poll commissioned by the Soil Association from Mumsnet, which found that 84 per cent of mums believe that organic is better for their family and 90 per cent for the planet. We’ll be using that endorsement from the nation’s mums to get Gordon Brown to wake up to the planet-friendly benefits of organic food and farming.”

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