Friday, May 21, 2010


May 20, 2010
2:28 PM

Venter Takes Genetic Engineering to 'Extreme New Level'
First organism with entirely synthetic DNA jeopardizes ecosystems and human health

WASHINGTON - May 20 - Today, the J. Craig Venter Institute announced the creation of the first living organism with an entirely synthetic genome.

Friends of the Earth's genetic technology policy campaigner, Eric Hoffman, responded:

"Craig Venter's lab has taken genetic engineering to an extreme new level. These new synthetic chromosomes mimic billions of years of evolution.

"We must ensure that strong regulations are in place to protect the environment and human health from this potentially dangerous new technology. We are far from actually understanding how genes affect the development of life, but it could be difficult to prevent Venter's synthetic biology experiments from eventually entering the natural ecosystem and acting as invasive species, choking out natural living things.

"The Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration must receive this announcement as a warning bell, signifying that the time has come for our government to fully regulate all synthetic biology experiments and products. It is imperative that in the pursuit of scientific experimentation, we do not sacrifice human health, the environment, and natural ecosystems. Mr. Venter should stop all further research until sufficient regulations are in place."

CONTACT: Friends of the Earth
Scott Baumgartner, office 202-222-0751,
Eric Hoffman, office 202-222-0747, mobile 443-465-2219,
Friends of the Earth is the U.S. voice of the world's largest grassroots environmental network, with member groups in 77 countries. Since 1969, Friends of the Earth has fought to create a more healthy, just world.


Published on Friday, May 21, 2010 by Inter Press Service
'Culture Integral to Agricultur
by Sabina Zaccaro

ROME - Biodiversity in agriculture is about culture. Traditional knowledge and culture are as important as research and investments aver farmers, researchers and academicians who are gathered in Rome to celebrate International Day for Biodiversity on Saturday.

[In the international year on biodiversity, we cannot forget agricultural biodiversity and also the farmers who make a huge work of recovery, valorisation and use of agro-biodiversity, Antonio Onorati of the International Planning Committee for food sovereignty told IPS. ("Natural Pesticide" photo by Flickr user Leeks 'N' Bounds)]In the international year on biodiversity, we cannot forget agricultural biodiversity and also the farmers who make a huge work of recovery, valorisation and use of agro-biodiversity, Antonio Onorati of the International Planning Committee for food sovereignty told IPS. ("Natural Pesticide" photo by Flickr user Leeks 'N' Bounds)
While there will be talk on preserving the panda and other endangered animal species on biodiversity day, the focus is on food and agriculture which are ‘'key for nutrition, to feed the world despite the impacts of climate change,'' says Emile Frison, director-general of Bioversity International (BI), which is based in Maccarese, outside Rome.

BI, which is dedicated to the conservation and use of agricultural biodiversity and a part of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research is organising in Rome, Biodiversity Week (20-23 May), to discuss the key role of biodiversity in agriculture.

And it does so by highlighting the link between nature, food and culture, since "the diversity of crops and livestock not only provides nutritional security but also in economic development, history, culture and the struggle against climate change for everyone on the planet," Frison said.

According to Bioversity there are about 30,000 edible plant species of which three, rice, wheat and maize, provide 60 percent of calories for human beings.

However, the value of these staples is hardly recognised. "When you talk about biodiversity people around the table are essentially from ministries of environment, and they come from a background of nature conservation and protection. For them, traditionally, agriculture has been the enemy, the one that encroaches on the environment,'' Frison told IPS.

"What we realise today is that there is much greater attention [paid] to biodiversity in agricultural ecosystems and also to agricultural biodiversity itself. We can no longer just care about protected areas, but now we must look at how we can make the entire biodiversity more useful to people."

If the challenge is to acknowledge the cultural dimension of nutrition to achieve more sustainable and diverse agriculture, this can only be done with the direct involvement of farmers.

In the international year on biodiversity, we cannot forget agricultural biodiversity and also the farmers who make a huge work of recovery, valorisation and use of agro-biodiversity, Antonio Onorati of the International Planning Committee for food sovereignty told IPS.

Being not only the custodians but also the creators of biodiversity, farmers ask "to be responsible for the diversity of what we plant, producing our seeds, creating new varieties, in cooperation with researchers, but in the fields," Onorati said.

It is called participatory plant breeding, and many examples can be found in the world. These programmes are based on the dynamic collaboration between plant breeding institutions and farmers, and designed to ensure that research is directly relevant to farmers' needs.

These programmes can effectively maintain and improve agricultural biodiversity, Onorati said, and also empower farmers since seed production and the choice of variety are made in alliance with them.

Researchers quite recognise that traditional knowledge is a value. According to Frison, the traditional farmers' system of exchanging seeds - now overwhelmed by the industrial production - is the key to maintenance of traditional varieties that can better adapt to new climatic conditions.

"We must give voice to the food communities,'' said Carlo Petrini, the founder of Slow Food International that gave life to Terra Madre (Mother Earth), the world meeting of food communities that gathers farmers and food producers from 155 countries - all committed to defend and promote environmentally friendly modes of production, natural resources and biodiversity conservation.

"The virtuous conservation practices of thousands of food communities can really compete with the big economic entities, and with the market. In this sense, they are an economic subject, not a political subject, though they are not heard by decision-making powers," Petrini said.

Traditional farmers' knowledge should be preserved and transmitted to future generations, according to Petrini who has a dream, creation of the ‘granaries of memory', a documented collection of old people, women and indigenous groups who have dedicated their life to the land.

"The knowledge and the memory of humble people are extraordinary, and they must be transmitted to future generations; they will serve as a granary of knowledge when, one day, we will be affected by shortage of ideas."

Here women have a major role to play. An example is the Italian community of Teramo, in the Abruzzo region, Petrini told IPS. "Here since centuries, in May, women do the so-called ‘virtues'; they collect all the leftovers from the winter such as dried fruit or leftover pork."

"When spring arrives, all this food is put together and cooked with fresh vegetables in a dish called ‘virtu terramane', which is a masterpiece of flavour and represents the fight against food wasting. The message is no food must go waste," he said.

Copyright © 2010 IPS-Inter Press Service

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


Healthy breakfasts buy lunch in Berkeley Schools
by Ed Bruske
17 May 2010 5:00 AM

Around 8:30 each morning, students at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, Calif., cross an asphalt playground behind the main school building and begin drifting into a cafeteria and kitchen complex known as the Dining Commons to pick up breakfast for themselves and their classmates. They head for a set of rolling metal shelves holding gray, plastic bins, and carry one back to their classroom, where they dole out the food and fill out a roster indicating which students took the meal.

One morning during my recent "internship" with the school's central kitchen, I was assigned to load the bins. That day, the bins' contents were a sliced loaf of homemade banana bread, kid-size Fuji and Golden Delicious apples (that I sealed in plastic bags), and cartons of plain organic milk.

I couldn't believe how simple it was. Here in the District of Columbia, where my daughter attends fourth grade at a public elementary school, kids eat in cafeterias and get to choose hot items like breakfast pizza, eggs, or egg-and-cheese patties with bagels, in addition to brand-name cereals and a choice of four different milk varieties, including chocolate and strawberry.

The Berkeley breakfast seemed downright spartan by comparison. Yet those gray bins hold the key to the success of Berkeley's cook-from-scratch program.

Mealing and dealing

When chef Ann Cooper was hired five years ago to help transform the Berkeley meal program from industrially processed convenience foods to meals cooked fresh from raw ingredients, one of the first things she did was examine the program's finances. And there in the school system's general budget she found certain "Meals for Needy" funds provided by the State of California. The state allocates $1.24 for each breakfast the school district serves to students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals, and that's on top of the $1.46 the federal government pays for students who meet the subsidized breakfast criteria. But California does not require that "Meals for Needy" money actually be used for food. It can be directed anywhere in a school district's budget. Cooper insisted that it be dedicated to her food operation.

"The 'Meals for Needy' money wasn’t going into meals, it was going into the general fund for other programs. Food services was running a negative balance," Cooper recalls. "Ethically, I thought the money should go into school food. I said, 'If you want us to grow the program and make it sustainable, you’re actually penalizing us if we don’t get this money.'"

In Cooper's second year, the 'Meals for Needy' funds were reassigned to food services. It was a virtual bonanza of extra cash -- $879,000 this year alone, out of a $3.7 million food budget.

But to really turbo-charge the deal, Berkeley schools decided to start serving breakfast in the classroom only for all its students except those in high school, who take breakfast in the cafeteria. To top it off, breakfast is universally free. There's no reason for any student not to take it. Consequently, participation in the breakfast program exploded, from less than 9 percent of the district's 9,100 students in 2005 to 61 percent this year. The figure might be much higher if high-schoolers participated, but shifting class schedules and the absence of home rooms in high school pose barriers, says Cooper. Only 4 percent of high school students take breakfast, compared to 96 percent of elementary- and middle-schoolers.

By comparison, barely 30 percent of students in the District of Columbia take advantage of the free breakfast the public school system offers, although a recently passed "Healthy Schools" bill would require the city's schools to offer breakfast in classrooms where there is a high percentage of needy students.

“With current federal funding for the School Breakfast Program ranging from $1.16 to $1.74 for every breakfast served to students eligible for free and reduced meals, a Breakfast in the Classroom program -- in which every child is served breakfast every day -- can be a financial goldmine for severe-need school districts," says school-food consultant Kate Adamick, citing the relatively low food and labor costs associated with producing that meal. "The net revenue generated by the breakfast program can then be used to help supplement the cost of providing a healthier school lunch.”

Since the average cost of making a school breakfast like the one I packed is only around $1.31 in Berkeley, the multiplier effect of receiving both state and federal funds, coupled with a captive audience created by serving breakfasts only in classrooms -- and having students and teachers reduce labor costs by distributing the morning meal -- makes breakfast a cash cow that is the envy of every administrator in Berkeley schools.

"There are lots of people who would love to get their hands on that 'Meals for Needy' money," said Bonnie Christensen, the school district's executive chef. "I tell them, take away our 'Meals for Needy' money and you won't have a meals program any more."

The extra funds go a long way toward compensating for what may have been over-exuberant expectations for the lunch program. Eric Weaver, one of the original parent activists behind the switch from processed to fresh food in Berkeley (see my last post, about the history of Berkeley's school food revolution), said organizers knew that cooking from scratch would be more expensive, but they believed better food would induce more kids to participate. "The food cost is high. But if you're selling twice as many lunches, the marginal cost is lower," Weaver said.

In fact, student participation in the revamped lunch program has changed little since it started five years ago. The latest data show that 25.6 percent of Berkeley students took the federally subsidized lunch this year, compared to 24.5 percent in 2005, an increase of a little more than 1 percent. Participation among the 3,355 students at Berkeley High School has actually declined by nearly 16 percent, from a rate of 8.3 percent to 6.4 percent. Most high school students leave campus for lunch.

The extra revenue from breakfast helps pay for better food at lunch, as well as the additional labor it takes to prepare it. The average food cost for lunch meals in Berkeley schools is around $1.40, compared to $1 or less at most other schools around the country. Berkeley will feel a bit of a pinch in the fall, however. Because of California's ongoing budget meltdown, the per-student grant of $1.24 for each breakfast under the "Meals for Needy" program is scheduled to drop to $1.17.

If Berkeley's financial approach to breakfast sounds devilishly clever, it gets even better where student well-being is concerned. One of the reasons for moving breakfast to the classrooms was to remove the stigma students might feel standing in line for free meals. Even the truly needy will sometimes skip meals if it means revealing themselves as falling into the free or reduced-price category. About 41 percent of the Berkeley's children qualify for either free or reduced-price meals based on family income.

"We want all of the kids to sit down and eat breakfast together," says Christensen. "We don't want the stigma. The way to make that happen is to have kids take breakfast as a whole."


For the agrichemical industry, organic cotton is a pest

by Tom Philpott

11 May 2010 1:58 PM

Like the food you eat, the clothes on your back come from somewhere. If you wear cotton, that "somewhere" is ultimately a farm (with detours at a textile mill, a clothes factory, etc).

Growing vast monocrops of cotton, it turns out, is a dirty business. Globally, cotton occupies 2.4 percent of cropland -- and burns through 16 percent of the insecticides used every year, the Environmental Justice Foundation reports.

Indeed, conventional cotton production in the United States has long required a veritable monsoon of poisons. Cotton can even give even industrial corn a run for its money in terms of environmental impact. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, pesticide applications for cotton run "3 to 5 times greater per hectare than applications of pesticides to corn."

To try and stem the chemical cascade, farmers in cotton country have largely switched to seeds genetically modified to contain a pesticide and to withstand Roundup, Monsanto's broad-based herbicide. Today, upwards of 60 percent of cotton grown in the U.S. contains those traits.

Trouble is, that "solution" to cotton's chemical dependence is already failing. In cotton country, Roundup-resistant "superweeds" are a large and growing problem, forcing farmers to employ a toxic cocktail of herbicides to control weeds. And now, Monsanto recently revealed, a strain of cotton bollworms has developed resistance to the company's widely planted pesticide-carrying cotton strain. Who knows what new poison concoctions will be needed to exterminate these "superbugs"?

In short, while industrial cotton production works well for agrichemical companies and the global textile industry that spins cheap cotton into fat profit, it pretty much sucks for the environment. As for the farmers, their cost of production -- think all of those agrichemicals and seeds -- is generally higher than what the market pays them for their harvest. What keeps them in business is commodity subsidies. Between 1995 and 2009, U.S. cotton farmers took in about $30 billion in subsidies, EWG reports -- roughly equal to what wheat farmers got, and more than any other group besides corn farmers.

Given industrial cotton farming's dependence on chemicals and government payouts, it's no wonder more and more consumers are demanding organic cotton. Get this, from the Memphis Commercial Appeal:

Although still tiny, sales of organic fibers, mostly cotton, also grew rapidly in the U.S., climbing from $69 million in 2002 to $521 million in 2009. In contrast to the 10 percent increase in sales of organic bedding and clothing in 2009, sales of nonorganics fell by 1 percent.

Naturally, rather than help farmers reach this growing market by phasing out toxic chemicals, the agribusiness lobby is scrambling to re-brand current practices as sustainable. The Commercial Appeal continues:

To counter the perception that organic is better for consumers and the environment, the Cordova [,Tenn.]-based National Cotton Council of America has joined with Cotton Inc. and other major agribusiness and farm commodity groups to come up with a definition of "sustainable" that they hope will become part of U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations much as a definition of "organic" did nearly a decade ago.

A group called the Keystone Center -- whose board includes execs from agrichemical giants Monsanto, DuPont, and Dow -- has organized an effort by Monsanto, The Fertilizer Institute, and other groups to "write a technical definition for sustainable," the Commercial Appeal reports.

Evidently, after rigorous study and soul-searching, the coalition settled upon a definition of "sustainable" cotton production that ... blesses current practices. Whether consumers will actually take Keystone's "sustainable" label seriously is another question.

Now, none of this is surprising. Monsanto would like to sustain the lucrative market for its herbicides and the cotton seeds designed to withstand them; no mystery there. The real scandal is the USDA's role in serving that end. Rather than using research cash to help farmers reach the growing organic market, the agency is sitting on its hands while farmers are stuck right where they are: between expensive chemical inputs and low cotton prices .

According to the Commercial Appeal, growing U.S. demand for clothes made with organic cotton is largely satisfied by overseas producers: "There are no more than 60 growers of organic cotton in the U.S. -- and none in the Mid-South." The Mid-South is one of the few major cotton-growing regions in the nation. Cotton farmers who are now struggling with superweeds and high seed prices might be tempted to go organic to cut costs and earn a premium price in the marketplace. The problem is that there has been no research on how to control weeds without chemicals -- and without such knowledge in place, few farmers will gamble on new growing practices.

The Commercial Appeal talks to a pioneering Missouri farmer named Steve McKaskle, who grew organic cotton for 16 years until a 2006 tornado destroyed his family's cotton gin and other equipment. McKaskle now grows organic vegetables, and the reporter asks him why other Mid-South cotton farmers hadn't gone organic:

McKaskle said the chief problem with organic cultivation in the Mid-South is not the climate -- it's the lack of money available to develop processes and techniques that would help large commercial organic farmers.

Government researchers can only answer the questions they set out to answer. If the problem before them is how to sustain chemical-intensive cotton production, their research will promote a kind of treadmill of new chemical-intensive solutions: for example, using herbicides developed by Syngenta to clean up messes caused by Monsanto's herbicide.

A more interesting problem, from the perspective of the public who pays the bills, would be: how can we grow cotton in a way that doesn't foul waterways and turn farmers into wards of the state? If USDA researchers put significant resources into answering that question, I'd wager, we'd see organic agriculture flower in cotton country.


May 18, 2010
3:31 PM

Pesticides Restricted Throughout Bay Area Endangered Species Habitat Environmental Protection Agency Will Evaluate 75 Pesticides Likely Harmful to 11 Imperiled Bay Area Wildlife Species

SAN FRANCISCO - May 18 - The Center for Biological Diversity this week won restrictions on the use of toxic pesticides in and adjacent to habitat for 11 endangered and threatened wildlife species in the San Francisco Bay Area. A federal court yesterday signed an injunction imposing interim restrictions on the use of 75 pesticides in eight Bay Area counties while the Environmental Protection Agency formally evaluates their potentially harmful effects on Bay Area endangered species over the next five years. The injunction stems from a Center lawsuit in 2007 against the EPA for violating the Endangered Species Act.

"These pesticide use restrictions will protect some of the Bay Area's most vulnerable wildlife from inappropriate use of toxic pesticides," said Jeff Miller, conservation advocate with the Center.

The endangered species are the Alameda whipsnake, bay checkerspot butterfly, California clapper rail, California freshwater shrimp, California tiger salamander, delta smelt, salt marsh harvest mouse, San Francisco garter snake, San Joaquin kit fox, tidewater goby, and valley elderberry longhorn beetle. Similar protections were obtained by the Center in a 2006 settlement prohibiting use of 66 pesticides in and adjacent to California red-legged frog habitats statewide.

The EPA is required under the Endangered Species Act to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over registration and approved uses of pesticides that may harm listed species or their critical habitat. Despite an obligation to avoid authorizing pesticide uses that jeopardize endangered species, the agency has consistently failed to evaluate or adequately regulate pesticides harmful to endangered species without citizen lawsuits and court-ordered timelines.

The injunction sets deadlines for the EPA to conduct "effects determinations" and sets aside use authorization for the 75 pesticides in, and adjacent to, endangered species habitats within eight Bay Area counties (Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Solano, and Sonoma) until the determinations and consultation are completed. The consultations should result in cancellation of some pesticide uses and permanent use restrictions for harmful pesticides. The EPA began making effects determinations in October 2008 and must complete them by September 30, 2014.


Yesterday's injunction also contains provisions to ensure that information regarding the restrictions is disseminated to pesticide retailers and users. The EPA must develop a bilingual (English and Spanish) brochure describing the settlement, the counties in which the injunction applies, tips for reducing offsite movement of pesticides, and reference to EPA's Web site for information about where buffer zones apply for which pesticides and species. The EPA must develop a point-of-sale notification for urban pesticides in the form of a shelf tag with written and graphic information about potential adverse effects of pesticide use on endangered species in the Bay Area and Delta region, which must be distributed annually to pesticide retail stores in the greater Bay Area region.

Reported pesticide use in the Bay Area is about 10 million pounds annually, but actual pesticide use is estimated to be several times this amount since most home and commercial pesticide use is not reported to the state. Pesticide pollution has played a role in the recent collapse of Bay-Delta fish populations such as delta smelt, longfin smelt, and chinook salmon. Toxic pulses of pesticides have been documented in Bay Area streams and the Delta during critical stages in fish development, and many local water bodies are listed as "impaired" for not meeting water-quality standards due to high concentrations of extremely toxic pesticides such as chlorpyrifos and diazinon.
In 2006 the Center published Poisoning Our Imperiled Wildlife: San Francisco Bay Area Endangered Species at Risk from Pesticides, a report analyzing EPA's failure to regulate pesticides harmful to Bay Area endangered species and the agency's ongoing refusal to reform pesticide registration and use in accordance with scientific findings. The lawsuit, the report on pesticide impacts to Bay Area species, maps of pesticide use, and information about the listed species are on the Center's pesticides Web page.
At the Center for Biological Diversity, we believe that the welfare of human beings is deeply linked to nature - to the existence in our world of a vast diversity of wild animals and plants. Because diversity has intrinsic value, and because its loss impoverishes society, we work to secure a future for all species, great and small, hovering on the brink of extinction. We do so through science, law, and creative media, with a focus on protecting the lands, waters, and climate that species need to survive.
CONTACT: Center for Biological Diversity
Jeff Miller, Center for Biological Diversity, (510) 499-9185

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


Published on Monday, May 17, 2010 by Civil Eats
Five Questions Monsanto Needs to Answer about its Seed Donation to Haiti

by Timi Gerson

Monsanto has donated $4 million in seeds to Haiti, sending 60 tons of conventional hybrid corn and vegetable seed, followed by 70 more tons of corn seed last week with an additional 345 tons of corn seed to come during the next year. Yet the number one recommendation of a recent report by Catholic Relief Services on post-earthquake Haiti is to focus on local seed fairs and not to introduce new or "improved" varieties at this time.

Some tough questions need to be asked and answered before we'll know whether or not Monsanto's donation will help or hurt long-term efforts to rebuild food sufficiency and sovereignty in Haiti. Here are five of them:

* What do Haitians think? Do rural organizations representing Haiti's farmers actually want these seeds from Monsanto or not? We know at least one spokesperson for Haitian farmers isn't interested. Chavannes Jean-Baptiste of the Peasant Movement of Papay and the National Peasant Movement of the Papay Congress said in a recent article published by Grassroots International that "if people start sending hybrid, NGO seeds, that's the end of Haitian agriculture."

* Will Haitian farmers be able to use existing farming methods with these seeds or do they require a completely different set of techniques - for example, is it possible for these seeds to be banked year to year for use in more than one planting cycle? Hybrid seeds don't have a great track record for re-planting, which means that farmers typically must buy new seeds every year.

* Does cultivation of these seeds require expensive new inputs and/or chemicals that may negatively impact the environment and soil over the long-term? Hybrids typically require a lot of fertilizers, pesticides, etc. and according to the press release, these will be provided through the USAID's 5-year WINNER program. When the WINNER program is done, will farmers find themselves reliant on external inputs they can't afford or access? What will the inputs leave behind in terms of the soil's condition?

* Will the rest of the Monsanto seeds sent to Haiti over the next year be conventional or genetically modified (GM)? GM seeds are as controversial in Haiti as they are here at home. It is critical that Haitians themselves are in charge of the decision to plant or not plant GM; they first need to know what is being offered to them in the first place.

* Will the Monsanto seeds (whether conventional or GM) affect indigenous seed diversity by mixing with them and contaminating existing seed strains? Large influxes of non-native seeds have touched off controversy and alarmed environmental activists and peasant farmers from Mexico to Malaysia to Mali.

Agricultural development is critical for Haiti and was even before the earthquake. Lambi Fund of Haiti, a partner organization of American Jewish World Service (AJWS), has been working with rural communities to create indigenous seed banks, building expertise in farming techniques and using environmentally-friendly methods to renew depleted Haitian soil.

Advocates for common sense food aid, including AJWS, are asking Congress to spend the $150 million dollars requested by the Obama Administration for Food Aid to Haiti on resources that will help Haiti feed itself for the long-term. You can make your voice heard by signing this petition.

Monsanto's donation - just like the US government's in-kind food aid donations - should empower rather than dis-empower the rural communities working to grow food for their country over the long term. More to the point, the communities most affected by these donations should decide whether they want this aid at all and if so, what they want and when they want it. It's unclear in this case if Monsanto or anyone else has asked them.
© 2010 Civil Eats
Timi Gerson is Director of Advocacy for American Jewish World Service. Gerson started her career organizing legislative campaigns for fair U.S. trade policy as field director for Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch. A fluent Spanish speaker, Gerson has lived and worked with women’s and human rights groups in Colombia and Costa Rica.

Monday, May 17, 2010


ADHD In Children: PESTICIDES May Be Missing Link

CARLA K. JOHNSON | 05/17/10 08:08 AM | AP

Adhd Children Pesticides Fruits Vegetables
Photo from Flickr: fazen

CHICAGO — A new analysis of U.S. health data links children's attention-deficit disorder with exposure to common pesticides used on fruits and vegetables.

While the study couldn't prove that pesticides used in agriculture contribute to childhood learning problems, experts said the research is persuasive.

"I would take it quite seriously," said Virginia Rauh of Columbia University, who has studied prenatal exposure to pesticides and wasn't involved in the new study.

More research will be needed to confirm the tie, she said.

Children may be especially prone to the health risks of pesticides because they're still growing and they may consume more pesticide residue than adults relative to their body weight.

In the body, pesticides break down into compounds that can be measured in urine. Almost universally, the study found detectable levels: The compounds turned up in the urine of 94 percent of the children.

The kids with higher levels had increased chances of having ADHD, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, a common problem that causes students to have trouble in school. The findings were published Monday in Pediatrics.

The children may have eaten food treated with pesticides, breathed it in the air or swallowed it in their drinking water. The study didn't determine how they were exposed. Experts said it's likely children who don't live near farms are exposed through what they eat.

"Exposure is practically ubiquitous. We're all exposed," said lead author Maryse Bouchard of the University of Montreal.
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She said people can limit their exposure by eating organic produce. Frozen blueberries, strawberries and celery had more pesticide residue than other foods in one government report.

A 2008 Emory University study found that in children who switched to organically grown fruits and vegetables, urine levels of pesticide compounds dropped to undetectable or close to undetectable levels.

Because of known dangers of pesticides in humans, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency limits how much residue can stay on food. But the new study shows it's possible even tiny, allowable amounts of pesticide may affect brain chemistry, Rauh said.

The exact causes behind the children's reported ADHD though are unclear. Any number of factors could have caused the symptoms and the link with pesticides could be by chance.

The new findings are based on one-time urine samples in 1,139 children and interviews with their parents to determine which children had ADHD. The children, ages 8 to 15, took part in a government health survey in 2000-2004.

As reported by their parents, about 150 children in the study either showed the severe inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity characteristic of ADHD, or were taking drugs to treat it.

The study dealt with one common type of pesticide called organophosphates. Levels of six pesticide compounds were measured. For the most frequent compound detected, 20 percent of the children with above-average levels had ADHD. In children with no detectable amount in their urine, 10 percent had ADHD.

"This is a well conducted study," said Dr. Lynn Goldman of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and a former EPA administrator.

Relying on one urine sample for each child, instead of multiple samples over time, wasn't ideal, Goldman said.

The study provides more evidence that the government should encourage farmers to switch to organic methods, said Margaret Reeves, senior scientist with the Pesticide Action Network, an advocacy group that's been working to end the use of many pesticides.

"It's unpardonable to allow this exposure to continue," Reeves said.


By Annie Shattuck. Edited by Emily Schwartz Greco, April 17, 2009

Editor's Note: This commentary was adapted from the report "Why the Lugar-Casey Global Food Security Act will Fail to Curb Hunger," by Annie Shattuck and Eric Holt-Giménez. (Food First Policy Brief No. 18. Institute for Food and Development Policy. Oakland, California.)

A new bill before the Senate would create a federal mandate for genetically modified (GM) crop research as part of U.S. aid programs, despite evidence that these crops will fail to curb hunger.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the sweet-sounding Global Food Security Act (SB 384) last month with little fanfare. The legislation, also known as the Lugar-Casey Act for the bill's authors Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) and Robert Casey (D-PA), includes a provision sought after by aid groups that would allow food aid to be purchased — at least in part, locally. The bill aims to reform aid programs to focus on longer-term agricultural development, and restructure aid agencies to better respond to crises. While the focus on hunger is commendable, funding for agricultural development — some $7.7 billion worth of it — under the proposed law would be directed in large part to genetically modified crop research.

The bill is proving to be divisive among aid groups. But according to a new report by Food First that I co-authored, this bill is not an isolated piece of legislation, but a coordinated roll-out of the "new Green Revolution," — a project that includes the Gates Foundation's multi-billion dollar Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). In fact, the legislation is based on an industry-friendly report funded by the Gates Foundation. Initiated by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in fall of 2008 and drafted by the end the year, the hastily prepared report on which the new law is based calls for increasing research funding for biotechnology.
Ignoring the Evidence

In contrast, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge Science, and Technology for Development (IAASTD), a recent four-year study conducted by the World Bank and the Food and Organization (FAO) in consultation with more than 400 scientists and development experts, reached the opposite conclusions. The IAASTD found that reliance on resource-extractive industrial agriculture is unsustainable, particularly in the face of worsening climate, energy, and water crises. And it concluded that expensive, short-term technical fixes — including GM crops — don't adequately address the complex challenges of the agricultural sector and often exacerbate social and environmental harm. The IAASTD called for land reform, agro-ecological techniques (proven to enhance farmers' adaptive capacity and resilience to environmental stresses such as climate change and water scarcity), building local economies, local control of seeds, and farmer-led participatory breeding programs.

Evidence in favor of these alternatives is building. A 2008 study by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development found that "organic agriculture can be more conducive to food security in Africa than most conventional production systems, and…it is more likely to be sustainable in the long term." Numerous studies have documented these alternatives' ability not only to raise yield — but reduce poverty and inequality, the root cause of hunger.
Lessons from the First Green Revolution

The Lugar-Casey Act represents the biggest project in agriculture since the original Green Revolution industrialized farming in the 1950s and 1960s. The first Green Revolution increased global food production by 11% in a very short time, but per capita hunger also increased equally as much. How could this be? Green Revolution technologies are expensive. The fertilizers, seeds, pesticides, and machinery needed to cash in on productive gains put the technology out of reach of most small farmers, increasing the divide between rich and poor in the developing world. Poor farmers were driven out of business and into poverty-stricken urban slums.

The new Green Revolution the Lugar-Casey bill highlights suffers from all these same problems. This time, however, the genetically engineered seeds will be under patent and privately owned by the biotechnology corporations that monopolize the seed industry. Patented seeds can be up to 35% more expensive than traditional and hybrid varieties.

Moreover, while the first Green Revolution did significantly raise yields, genetic modification has yet to do so. A recent report by the Union of Concerned Scientists showed that GM crops don't raise the potential yield of crops at all — the best they can do is marginally reduce losses, something improved farming practices, conventional pesticides, and agroecological techniques do as well. According to microbiologist Margaret Mellon, "After more than 3,000 field trials, only two types of engineered genes are in widespread use, and they haven't helped raise the ceiling on potential yields. This record does not inspire confidence in the future of the technology."
New Subsidies, New Markets

The funding the Lugar-Casey bill mandates is essentially a subsidy to private research and development goals: it has nothing to do with reducing hunger. Public money will go to U.S. corporations to produce patented products, essentially subsidizing risky projects and privatizing gain in the name of charity.

While funding from the Lugar-Casey Act may greatly expand current government-biotech partnerships, it certainly does not invent them. The U.S. government is already funding public-private private research partnerships with foreign aid dollars. One such partnership between Arcadia Biosciences, USAID (the U.S. agency responsible for delivering foreign aid), and Mahyco Seeds, an Indian seed company in which Monsanto has a significant ownership stake, will license the seeds — developed with public funds — to Mahyco.

Another partnership between USAID and Monsanto to develop a virus-resistant sweet potato in Kenya failed to deliver any useful product for farmers. After fourteen years and $6 million, local varieties vastly outperformed their genetically modified cousins in field trials. Meanwhile, conventional breeders in Uganda developed a virus-resistant strain in a few years at a small fraction of the cost. What the USAID-Monsanto partnership did succeed in, however, was creating a legal framework to open Kenya to conventional biotech products. In 2001 Kenyan legislators passed the Industrial Property Act, which according to patent expert Robert Lettington "may actually place very little restriction on the patenting of life forms at all." Lettington was right; this year Kenya approved a biosafety law that will allow for commercialization of genetically modified crops.

Currently, GM crops are legal in only three African nations. India and the Philippines are the only Southeast Asian nations that allow biotech plantings; Honduras is the only Central American nation to permit GM crops. Once attached to a pool of foreign aid money, the pressure to open markets to biotechnology will be substantial. The countries targeted for initial projects — Kenya, Uganda, Zambia, Malawi, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Guatemala, and Honduras — are all nations where the biotech industry has made significant inroads. They also represent significant potential markets — and a windfall for U.S. seed and chemical companies.

One thing is clear: The Global Food Security Act isn't just about feeding the hungry — it's about advancing the interests of U.S. agribusiness. The IAASTD found that agroecological techniques, stricter regulation of multinational agribusiness, and increased democratic control of the global food system can address the root causes of hunger in a way that a biotechnology never will. Lugar-Casey's renewed focus on agricultural development is welcome but that focus must come with a commitment to put the interests of small farmers before that of industry.
Annie Shattuck, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, is a policy analyst at the Institute for Food and Development Policy, also known as Food First, in Oakland, California.
Recommended Citation:

Annie Shattuck, "Global Food Security Act" (Washington, DC: Foreign Policy In Focus, April 17, 2009)