Pesticides & birth defects; Agriculture & climate; McDonald's, Monsanto & more...
Pesticide Action Network Updates Service (PANUPS)
A Weekly News Update on Pesticides, Health and Alternatives
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- Birth defects up during pesticide use season
- Lindane's last stand?
- Agriculture still missing from climate change conversation
- McDonald's to cut pesticide use
- Pesticides linked to childhood brain cancers
- Monsanto's GM corn flops in South Africa
A study published in the April 2009 issue of the medical journal Acta Pædiatrica is the first to report that birth defect rates in the United States are highest among women conceiving in the spring and summer, a time period correlated with increased levels of pesticides in surface water, reports Science Daily. The study looked at all 30.1 million U.S. births between 1996 and 2002, and found a significant increase in spina bifida, cleft lip, clubfoot and Down's syndrome when the child was conceived between April and July -- a period which coincides with elevated levels of atrazine and other pesticides in surface water. Atrazine, which is banned in European countries but permitted in the U.S., is among the many pesticides suspected to be harmful to the developing embryo. While the scientists "didn't prove a cause and effect link," according to lead author Dr. Paul Winchester, M.D., Indiana University School of Medicine professor of clinical pediatrics, the evidence points to an association between pesticide exposure and birth defects. Winchester said the researchers are excited by the findings, because "...if our suspicions are right and pesticides are contributing to birth defect risk, we can reverse or modify the factors that are causing these lifelong and often very serious medical problems."
In a letter to Secretary of State Clinton and Acting Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration Sharfstein, the New York Times reports, a coalition of groups urged the US agencies to support a full global ban of the pesticide lindane at an upcoming Stockholm Convention meeting in early May. The U.S. has been one of the few countries pressing to exempt pharmaceutical products containing lindane under the international treaty, which targets persistent organic pollutants for global phaseout. In addition to the letter, the groups submitted a scientific study from the journal Environmental Health Perspectives documenting the success of the 2001 California ban of lindane shampoos and lotions, which are used to control lice and scabies. The groups also sent the agencies a compilation of personal stories from parents around the country who have used less hazardous methods to control lice, and resolutions from several tribes representing Indigenous communities in the Arctic, where lindane is known to contaminate traditional foods. “These lindane shampoos and lotions have already been banned in California and many countries, inluding most recently Chile and Mexico,” says Kristin Schafer, Associate Director for Advocacy with Pesticide Action Network North America. “U.S. agencies must do their job and take action now to protect children in the U.S. and around the world from this persistent pesticide.” Exposure to lindane, a neurotoxic organochlorine pesticide, has been linked to seizures, developmental disabilities and hormone disruption. It is known to be particularly hazardous to children.
Not only is farming at risk in an increasingly volatile climate, it is also a major emitter of greenhouse gases, reports the Inter Press Service. "Agriculture has been missing in the run-up talks to Copenhagen," says Mark Rosegrant of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). Nations will meet in Copenhagen in December 2009 to complete a new climate treaty aimed at reducing emissions of greenhouse gasses (GHGs). Industrial agriculture accounts for between 15 and 30 percent of human emissions of GHGs -- depending on how much of the sector's production and distribution chain is included in measurements (the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change puts agriculture's GHG contribution at 25 percent). However, with agroecological practices in place, agriculture could actually help solve climate change both by sequestering carbon in organically-farmed soil and by reducing the need for petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides. Agroecological practices also cultivate a soil structure that retains water better, and is therefore more drought-tolerant than industrially-farmed soil. Climate change doesn't just mean hotter or drier, "it means far more variable weather in the future," said Dr. Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, senior scientist for Pesticide Action Network, in an interview. "'Future conditions will not be like the past. All bets are off. We need to focus on creating adaptive, resilient farming systems,'" Ishii-Eiteman added. Conventional agriculture's reliance on chemical inputs to artificially inflate crop yields in developed countries is not only fossil-fuel intensive; "it is ill-suited to high levels of variability and volatility in weather," she said. The International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), a three-year analysis of global agriculture, reached the same conclusion, that industrial agriculture is unsustainable in part because its reliance on petroleum-based inputs. Inter Press Service notes U.S. studies showing that organic farming uses up 32 percent less energy overall. According to the Rodale Institute, converting 10,000 medium-sized farms in the U.S. to organic production would store enough carbon in the soil that it would be like taking over a million cars off the road.
Reuters reports that McDonald's Corp, the largest purchaser of potatoes in the United States, has agreed to take preliminary steps to reduce pesticide use in its domestic potato supply. The action came in response to a shareholder proposal by three investors, including the AFL-CIO, that would have required McDonald’s to publish a report on options for reducing pesticide use in its supply chain. As part of the agreement, McDonald's will survey its current U.S. potato suppliers, and recommend best practices to its global suppliers. "We welcome McDonald's stepping up to the plate and look forward to supporting the company's efforts to reduce pesticide use in the future," said Dr. Richard Liroff, executive director at the Investor Environmental Health Network. Liroff added McDonald's must first know where it stands in terms of pesticide use in potato supplies before it can set targets for reduction. The world's largest fast-food chain said the process would support ongoing efforts to make its supply chain sustainable, and it would share its findings with investors and include the findings in its annual corporate social responsibility report.
"A new study finds that children who live in homes where their parents use pesticides are twice as likely to develop brain cancer versus those that live in residences in which no pesticides are used," writes Heather Hamlin in a synopsis of the study for Environmental Health News. The research included brain cancer cases from children under 10 years of age from more than 800 fathers and 500 mothers in Florida, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. "This study highlights a new and compelling reason to avoid or limit pesticide use and take necessary precautions during exposure. It also adds to a growing body of research that finds that pesticide exposure -- especially with farm life and pesticide use -- might be contributing significantly to this deadly disease.... Researchers assessed -- through telephone interviews with the mothers -- parental exposure to insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides at home and at work beginning two years prior to their child's birth."
South African farmers lost "between 80000 and 150000 tons" of genetically-modified (GM) corn when the plots failed to produce hardly any seeds, reports The Times in Johannesburg. "As much as 40,000ha planted to Monsanto maize cultivars... failed to pollinate or suffered reduced pollination," the South African Farmer's Weekly adds. Monsanto attributes the failure to "under-fertilization in the laboratory". Marian Mayet, director of the Africa Centre for Biosecurity in Johannesburg, demanded an urgent government investigation, and an immediate ban on all foods from genetically-engineered seed, according to the DigitalJournal. Mayet blames the crop failure on Monsanto’s "genetically-manipulated technology". Monsanto has stated that losses were "'less than 25% of three different corn varieties," but according to Mayet's information some farms have suffered up to 80% crop failures. “Monsanto says they just made a mistake in the laboratory, however we say that biotechnology is a failure. You cannot make a ‘mistake’ with three different varieties of corn," Mayet said. While Monsanto has offered compensation to farmers for lost crops, there is no clear solution to replace the lost harvest. Corn is the main food source for South Africa's 48 million citizens.