Ecological ag in Global Food Security Act; Endangered bumblebee; Atrazine spike in Missouri; Historic pesticide protest in CA

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Pesticide Action Network Updates Service (PANUPS)

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Support Panups!July 2, 2010

Ecological ag included in Global Food Security Act

Food SecurityThis spring, scientists, development experts and more than 100 groups from around the world joined Pesticide Action Network in urging U.S. senators to strip what they termed a GMO giveaway (PDF) to ag biotech companies embedded in the Global Food Security Act (S. 384). Sponsored by Senators Casey (D-PA) and Lugar (R-IN), the bill is intended to reform aid programs to focus on longer-term agricultural development, and restructure aid agencies to better respond to food crises.

After months of sustained advocacy by PAN and partners, the controversial clause on GMOs (genetically modified organisms) has been revised. As of June, the Global Food Security Act now directs that funding shall support agricultural research “appropriate to local ecological and social conditions” and includes ecological agriculture along with conventional breeding and genetically modified technology [sic] in a list of approaches that could be supported. The bill has been presented to the Senate and awaits final approval. "Once signed into law," notes Kathleen McNeely of the Maryknoll Office of Global Concerns, "the bill would provide a degree of Congressional oversight over how research funds are actually spent. Without passage of the amended bill, the public loses this important lever to hold the Obama administration accountable for the direction and impacts of its Feed the Future initiative—the administration's multi-billion dollar approach to addressing global food security." Statements about the new initiative by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack and USAID Director Rajiv Shah (formerly of the Gates Foundation) suggest that the U.S. approach to ending world hunger still focuses largely on increasing productivity through U.S. "discovery" and "dissemination" to poor farmers of "breakthrough technologies" such as biotechnology.

"The challenge going forward," observes PAN senior scientist Dr. Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, "lies in ensuring that U.S. development aid actually shifts from favoring top-down 'solutions' like GMOs and the 'Green Revolution' model of agriculture towards ecologically sound farming systems that can feed the world without destroying either local culture or the very ecosystem functions on which life depends. Farmers' in-depth knowledge of local agroecosystems must inform the quest for solutions to today's complex problems." However, signals from the U.S. State Department—which has announced an intention to  “confront the naysayers” of GMOs and press ahead—do not indicate that any such shift is imminent, Ishii-Eiteman warns.

Meanwhile, the United Nations Special Rapporteur for the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter, speaking in Brussels at an international conference on agroecology and food security, argued that agroecological farming has a proven capacity to increase food production and farmers’ income, while protecting soil, water and climate. Citing the success of such approaches in Brazil, Cuba and across Africa, de Schutter explained that increased investments in agroecology are urgently needed to meet the world’s food needs, “Anything short of this would be an exercise in futility,” he concluded.

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Endangered species listing sought for bumblebee

BumblebeeIn a continued effort to save declining bee populations from an onslaught of habitat loss, pesticides, and diseases carried by commercial bees, conservation groups are enlisting the protection of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation and UC Davis entomologist Robbin Thorp have petitioned to include Franklin’s Bumblebee under the Endangered Species act, after Thorp documented their decline from 94 bees in 1994, to 1 bee in 2006, to none since in a recent survey supported by the U.S. Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Land Management. Petitions for other species of wild bees are being prepared as well.

The plight of the honeybee has “come to symbolize a deepening ecological crisis in North America,” according to Earth Island Journal, but the disappearance of the bumblebee has gotten far less public attention. Bumblebees pollinate 15% of crops grown in the U.S. each year, worth $3 billion. The hothouse tomato industry, in particular, is dependent on commercial bumblebees. But diseases spread by bees imported from Europe ( allowed for the first time in 85 years by the U.S. in 2005 to meet pollination demands), habitat loss, and the “chemical cocktail” of pesticides that bees drink off of cultivated crops have put wild honeybees and bumblebees in dire peril. Loss of these pollinators is endangering many species of plants as well. Since plant-pollinator interaction is so specific, the loss of even one type of bee can spell disaster for the plants it has adapted to pollinate. The Xerces Society of Portland, along with conservation groups and scientists, have called on the federal government to start regulating the import of commercial bees from Europe in order to protect the health and habitat of native wild bees. The executive director of the Xerces Society declared: “The decline in Franklin's bumblebee should serve as an alarm that we are starting to lose important pollinators…. We hope that Franklin's bumblebee will remind us to prevent pollinators across the U.S. from sliding toward extinction.” 

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Missouri town faces atrazine spike

Tap waterResidents of Drexel, Missouri, got to taste the effects of corporate influence on chemical regulation firsthand last week when a spike in atrazine levels made their water undrinkable. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources told residents not to drink, cook with, or wash dishes with the local water after finding atrazine at ten times the "acceptable" exposure level set by U.S. EPA. Atrazine, a broadleaf triazine herbicide used primarily on corn, is the second most heavily used pesticide in the U.S. (after glyphosate—"Roundup"), and the most-frequently detected pesticide contaminant in ground and surface water. (Approximately 94% of U.S. drinking water samples tested recently contained atrazine, according to WhatsOnMyFood.org). The EPA estimates that 76.4 million pounds of atrazine are used in the United States every year. The chemical is currently under re-review by the agency. During the previous review in 2003, the chemical's manufacturer, Syngenta, held over 50 private, closed-door meetings with regulators.

Drexel officials blame the spike on recent heavy rains in the Midwest, but a study released by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) earlier this year found that the problem is systemic: “of the 153 water systems that were sampled between 2005 and 2008, 100 ... had spikes of atrazine in their untreated water that exceeded [the federal standard] of 3 ppb. Two-thirds of these 100 systems had spikes of atrazine greater than 3 ppb in the treated water.” Drexel’s water was declared “safe” again last Friday —  the state health department said it’s unlikely that the brief exposure will have any negative health effects, despite the fact that atrazine’s toxicity at extremely low levels has been well documented. NRDC’s Andrew Wetzler points to several studies that link atrazine with female sex characteristics in male frogs, impaired reproductive systems in fish, and low sperm count and motility in farmworkers exposed to the chemical. Prenatal exposure to atrazine may increase the risk of birth defects, and Syngenta recently revealed that it had been tracking cases of prostate cancer in workers involved in manufacturing the pesticide. The company admitted it found rates more than three times the regional average. In March, PAN delivered a petition to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and leaders of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees in support of Midwest farm organizations who have been urging transparency and independent public science in the current review.

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Strawberry pesticide triggers historic CA protest

MEi protestTuesday marked an historic moment in California history. More Californians weighed in than ever before on a Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) public comment period. And the majority of the 50,000+ comments were in protest of the proposed registration of methyl iodide for use in California's strawberry fields. Public comments spoke specifically to the need for scientific integrity, an end to prioritizing corporate profit over public health, and a healthy and safe food system for all. Pesticide Action Network presented 50,000+ signatures en masse to the Governor’s office on June 17, 2010 together with partners from CREDO and Californians for Pesticide Reform. This week, our coalition also submitted scientific and technical comments on the state’s proposal and partnered with communities adjacent to where the chemical will be used, who in turn submitted their own statements of outrage and deep concern.

Newspapers from the LA Times to the New York Times to the San Francisco Chronicle, Sacramento Bee and Ventura County Star are following the issue closely. Mary-Ann Warmerdam, director of the Department of Pesticide Regulation, has promised responses to each substantive comment, and will make a decision in the coming months. 

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