Posts Tagged ‘pollinators’

Food read round-up: GM alfalfa, endangered bees and misleading food claims

Wednesday, August 7th, 2013

Butterfly gathering pollen from flowering alfalfa
Photo: C. Wainwright, via Flickr


Genetically modified (GM) seeds, the wholesale use of herbicides and pesticides, deceptive product marketing and labeling: however you look at it, the industrial system that supplies much of the world’s food doesn’t  inspire confidence.

What can consumers do? Support local food producers. Push for more effective regulation. Above all, keep asking questions about how food is produced, and hold food companies, retailers and politicians to account.

Farmers seek environmental assessment of GM alfalfa from Ontario government:  The Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) approved genetically modified (GM) alfalfa back in 2005, but it wasn’t legal to grow it until recently.  In April 2013, federal agriculture minister Gerry Ritz allowed registration of one variety of GM alfalfa, leaving the door open for biotech companies to put their seeds on the market.  Forage Genetics International is already pushing to introduce the seeds in Eastern Canada.

Many farmers and other groups oppose GM seeds, citing risks such as contamination of non-GM crops and the loss of exports to markets (EU, Japan) where GM crops are not accepted. Given the federal government’s stance, two Ontario farmers have asked the provincial government to conduct an environmental assessment of the seed before it’s sold here.  They made the request under the under Ontario’s Environmental Bill of Rights, which allows residents to request an assessment if they believe a new commercial activity could have a negative effect on the environment and economy.  It’s the first GM-related request made under the bill and was prepared by individuals and groups concerned about the risks of GM alfalfa, with supporting evidence from the Organic Agriculture Protection Fund, the National Farmers Union and the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN).

The request argues that the GM crop would irreversibly contaminate the environment, promote herbicide-resistant weeds, encourage more herbicide use, and hurt farms, farmers and the food supply. A widely planted perennial, alfalfa flowers several times each season and is pollinated by a variety of insects, significantly raising the risk of contamination from GM varieties.

Ontario forms new working group to support bee health: As reports of declining bee populations continue to make headlines, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne has announced that her government would form a working group to study bee health. Made up of beekeepers, farmers, representatives of food agribusiness, scientists and government officials, the group is to develop and release a plan to protect the bees by spring 2014.

As I wrote in an earlier post, the EU has banned several insect nerve agents known as neonicotinoids,  which have been linked to the decline in bees and other pollinators. Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency is re-evaluating neonicotinoid use but won’t issue a report until 2018. Given the urgency of the problem, Premier Wynne has asked the report date be advanced “significantly.”

Labels often hide food fraud: Despite the trend toward a more farm-to-fork transparency, it’s almost impossible to control the amount of food fraud that goes on every day, writes Clare Fischer Guajira in Food Fraud: Labels on What We Eat Often Mislead. Whether it’s done to persuade consumers to buy, or to increase the producer’s bottom line, food adulteration – passing food off as higher quality than it is – occurs on a global scale.  (Think last year’s horsemeat scandal in Europe, the arrests earlier this year of Chinese traders selling rat meat as lamb, and a U.S. report stating that one-third of the fish sampled in a national survey was mislabeled.) Given limited resources and a complex global food system, more stringent regulation will only do so. In the meantime, experts advise consumers to ask lots of questions, buy from reputable sources and be suspicious of rock-bottom prices; if retailers can’t give you satisfactory answers, go elsewhere.

How food companies use nutritionism to sell more products: We’ve seen them on grocery shelves: heart-healthy chocolate chip muffins, probiotic ice cream, and water with added vitamins. Known as functional foods – they’ve been engineered to offer what their manufacturers claim are health benefits.  The functional food trend is rooted in an approach called nutritionism, described by food policy expert Marion Nestle in as reducing “the value of a food…to its single functional ingredient. This logic…fails to consider the complexity of food composition and the interactions amongst food components.”  In other words, vitamins added to a bottle of sweetened water aren’t going to give you the same benefit as consuming them as part of whole, unprocessed food.

In “That’s not natural or organic: How Big Food misleads,” author Gyorgy Scrinis digs into the way Big Food uses nutritionism to sell products and how product labeling helps or hinders consumers in making informed food choices. Scrinis argues that not only have food corporations become the main promoters of nutritionism, but, since the 1980s, they have come to control the nutritional agenda, pouring millions of dollars into political lobbying and directly funding scientific studies on specific foods and nutrients.  In addition, by engineering back into food the nutrients that processing removed in the first place, the industry sidesteps questions about the fundamental quality and value of its products.

What food stories have you been reading lately?

The Food Read Round-up: Opposition mounting to GMOs and pesticides

Friday, June 7th, 2013

Rallies against Monsanto and GMOs took place in Canada and more than 50 other countries on May 25, 2013.
Photo: Alexis Baden-Mayer, Flickr

The Food Read Round-up curates media stories about food and farming in Ottawa, across Canada, and around the world.

The genetically modified chickens are coming home to roost. Opposition to foods that contain genes from different species (known as genetically modified organisms, or GMOs*) and to the agro-chemical companies that make them seems to be building. Resistance reached new heights over the past few weeks with worldwide public protests and anti-GMO actions from international governments.

At the same time, more evidence has emerged linking the use of pesticides with the decline of honeybees and other food crop pollinators. Scientists, beekeepers and environmentalists are calling for restrictions on these substances and some government bodies have already responded.

The bottom line: awareness is growing that the food system is too important to entrust to agro-chemical corporations and their wares.

Monsanto takes heat from international governments and the public.  It’s been an eventful few weeks for Monsanto.  In the face of staunch opposition from most European countries, the multinational maker of GM seed and the herbicide Roundup has decided to walk away from its drive to expand GM crops in those markets. This means no more lobbying efforts or attempts to seek approvals for new plants. Instead, Monsanto says, it will focus on the handful of European markets where there is broader public acceptance of GM technology, such as Spain, Portugal and Ukraine.

In addition, as the European Union (EU) and the U.S. prepare for trade talks, it’s predicted that Europe could force GM crops off the table entirely – bad news not only for Monsanto, but for agro-chemical competitors like DuPont and Syngenta. European farmers, environmentalists and consumers worry that if trade restrictions are loosened, GM seeds and U.S.-grown GM crops would flood farmlands and grocery stores, jeopardizing human health and natural ecosystems.

But it’s not just Europeans who are turning their backs on GM food products. On May 31, Japan and South Korea suspended imports of some U.S. wheat after a rogue GM strain was found on an Oregon farm.

And while GM corn, soybeans and other crops dominate in North America, pressure for change has been building here, too. On May 25, rallies against Monsanto and its products were held across Canada and the U.S., as well as in 50 other countries. This past week, Connecticut became the first state to pass a law requiring GM foods be labeled. Although there’s a major catch – the requirement won’t take effect until at least four other states pass similar legislation – Connecticut lawmakers are hoping that the precedent they’ve set will persuade others to get on board.

Fourth insecticide added to list of risks to honeybees. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has added fipronil to its list of high-risk insect nerve agents, or neonicotinoids, believed to have contributed to the worldwide drop in populations of honeybees and other insects. Together, these insects pollinate three-quarters of the world’s food crops. In its assessment of fipronil, the EFSA noted that drifting pesticide dust has been found to pose a “high acute risk to honeybees when used as a seed treatment for maize.”  A product of German chemical manufacturer BASF, fipronil is used on more than 100 crops in 70 countries.

The EFSA move came on the heels of an April 29 ban by the European Commission on three other neonicotinoids.

In North America, there are similar concerns about pesticides and pollinators.  Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency has linked the pesticides with mass bee deaths during last year’s spring corn planting in Ontario and Québec; beekeepers and environmental advocacy groups have begun calling for restrictions on neonicotinoid use. In the U.S., the American Bird Conservancy wants a ban on the pesticides as seed treatments because of the potential to harm to birds and other wildlife. In March 2013, a group of beekeepers, conservationists, and supporters of sustainable farming sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for allowing registration of neonicotinoids without sufficient study.

*Genetic modification is defined by the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN) as the alteration of “plants or animals at the molecular level by inserting genes or DNA segments from other organisms. Unlike conventional breeding and hybridization, the process of genetic engineering enables the direct transfer of genes between different species…that would not breed in nature.” 

What food stories have you been reading?