Farmworker dies; FAO expels activists; Atrazine; DDT fight in Uganda; and more…

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US Biofuels AttackedJune 5, 2008

Teenage farm worker dies of heat exhaustion

Maria Isabel Vasquez Jiminez Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez, a 17-year-old farmworker, collapsed while working in a sweltering vineyard outside Stockton, California on May 14. Before Maria was taken to a clinic, a Merced Farm Labor company foreman instructed coworkers to tell doctors the teenager collapsed “because she was jogging to get exercise. Since she’s underage, it will create big problems for us.” Maria was also pregnant. Doctors said if Jimenez had arrived sooner, she might have survived. Ten farmworkers have died from heat exposure in the last four years. After three workers perished in summer 2005, California Governor Schwarzenegger issued new regulations to train workers on heat stress prevention. According to the Sacramento Bee, a 2007 state investigation found 36% of employers were ignoring the new regulations. June 4, 500 people organized by the United Farm Workers (UFW) completed a memorial march to Sacramento to appeal to lawmakers to increase protection for farm workers. “How much is the life of a farm worker worth?” asks UFW President Arturo S. Rodriguez. “Maria had only one life and now it is gone,” but enforcement of effective safety laws “can help affirm that Maria’s life was important and that she didn’t die in vain.” The Associated Press reports: “On the day Vasquez Jimenez died, relatives say she was making $8 per hour on a 9.5-hour shift — more than four hours over the state limit for minors working during business days.”

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Farmers expelled from Food Summit in Rome

On June 3, ten farmer and civil society leaders were forcefully removed from the FAO Summit on the Food Crisis in Rome. The activists were staging a peaceful action to protest the fact that corporate control and speculation — two leading causes of recent spikes in food prices — are not being discussed at the Rome meeting. “We are outraged that such fundamental aspects of the food crisis were nowhere on the agenda,” declared Paul Nicholson, a member of the International Coordinating Committee of Via Campesina, the global peasants’ organization. The people were arrested as they carried posters contrasting agribusiness’ record profits with a record 900 million people that cannot afford to eat. Profits for Monsanto, the world’s largest seed company, were up 108 percent; Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland, the world’s largest food traders, registered increases of 86 and 42 percent respectively; Mosaic, one of the world’s largest fertilizer companies, saw its profits rise 1,134 percent. At previous FAO events, civil society was given the opportunity to have a dialogue with the delegates. For this Summit, farmers, fisherfolk, agricultural workers and indigenous people were shut out of the discussion. “We are concerned that this Summit will only reinforce corporate control of the food system and lead to a further destruction of the way of life of Indigenous peoples and their survival,” said Saul Vicente Vasquez of the International Indian Treaty Council.

Last night, June 4, “Negotiations on a final text were due to go on until late in the evening but officials at [FAO]… said the talks were aimed at watering down the joint declaration to the point at which all delegations could accept it,” according to the Guardian. After agrofuel production was identified as a significant cause of the increase in world grain prices, and the U.S. was attacked for its biofuel policies, the U.S. responded by “leading resistance to a joint statement on the need to review the cultivation of crops for biofuels.”

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Atrazine disrupts human hormone activity

AtrazineResearchers at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) report that atrazine, the second most widely used herbicide in the U.S., can cause serious problems for both fish and humans. Environmental Science and Technology (ES&T) reports the UCSF examination of atrazine’s endocrine-disrupting effects in zebrafish — along with parallel studies of cultured human cells — suggests that human gene cells may be more sensitive to atrazine than previously thought. Zebrafish exposed to “environmentally relevant” doses of atrazine in the lab developed slightly higher female-to-male ratios, indicating some feminization induced by the weed killer. Exposure appears to stimulate a gene that encodes aromatase, which converts androgens like testosterone to estrogens. Estrogen-sensitive breast cancers are often treated with drugs that reduce the level of aromatase and, consequently, the level of estrogen. Researchers found that atrazine activated NR5A receptors in human cell lines, increasing the activity of aromatase. The experiments show definite effects at 2 parts per billion (ppb); the U.S. EPA’s drinking-water limits for human exposure is set at 3 ppb. The pesticide is currently under review. According to ES&T, Holly Ingraham, coauthor of the new research, suspects other genes “may be much more sensitive to atrazine and could be linked to other important systems, such as reproduction and adrenal gland function.”

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Cancer Society to Alberta: Ban Pesticides!

More than 100 Canadian cities have some type of law prohibiting cosmetic (landscape) use of pesticides, and Quebec has imposed a province-wide ban. Alberta remains the only province without such pesticide restrictions. The Canadian Cancer Society (CCS) has called on Alberta to ban the sale and use of cancer-causing pesticides. A recent CCS poll found 87 percent of respondents supported restrictions on the use of cosmetic pesticides on public and private land. “We don’t want to wait until the science is 100 percent conclusive,” CCS spokesperson Lorie Boychuk told CBC News. “There’s enough evidence today there is a threat. The bottom line is they’re non-essential pesticides.” Boychuk said there are a number of healthier alternatives for lawn care — such as overseeding, aerating and fertilizing naturally — all of which allow a healthy lawn to choke out unwanted weeds. In an online response, Kim Leaman wrote: “Why are we so enamored with perfect lawns? Why are we willing to poison our homes and the entire planet just to make everything ‘pretty’? Get over it… let the dandelions feed the bees that make our gardens and crops grow.”

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Evidence pesticides damage DNA

Pesticides Damage DNA Scientists at India’s prestigious Patiala University warn that pesticides may be damaging the DNA of people in farming communities. According to a report in Pakistan’s Daily Times, the researchers “discovered that the DNA of farmers in Punjab has been altered, making them susceptible to cancer.” Patiala Professor Satbir Kaur says the study “found significant change in the DNA” but chemical trade industry spokesperson Salil Singhal falsely claims “There is no pesticide in use today which can cause cancer.” Signhal also claims that Punjab’s farmers only spray “a few times each season” but some local farmers who have cancer say they routinely spray chemicals “night and day.” Moreover, new crops and chemicals introduced by the West’s Green Revolution are now producing less nutritious crops and falling yields, raising the question “whether intensive farming like this is sustainable.”

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Ugandan farmers push for DDT ban

Ugandan Government lawyers are battling farmers and agricultural exporters over the government’s use of DDT to fight malaria. According to the Australian Broadcasting Company, the farmers are arguing that organic production businesses are being destroyed because many western countries refuse to import food containing traces of DDT. After spraying began in northern Uganda in April, agricultural exporters complained that the government had failed to follow the World Health Organization’s strict guidelines on the use of DDT. Lawyers representing the exporters have received permission from Uganda’s High Court to mount a legal challenge to the Government’s use of DDT. The court has ordered a temporary ban on DDT spraying while the case is being heard.

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Democrats offer chemical reform bill

On May 20, U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Reps. Hilda Solis (D-CA) and Henry Waxman (D-CA) introduced the Kid-Safe Chemical Act (H.R. 6100). The bill would require the EPA to conduct “safety determinations” on 300 commercial chemicals by 2012 and encourage the development of safer, “green chemistry” alternatives to existing chemicals. Inspired by the European Union’s Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) program, the bill requires companies to submit risk information before new chemicals can be produced or imported. The U.S. Toxic Substance Control Act is considered ineffective since it fails to consider and provide adequate information about chemical risks. Environmental Defense Fund Senior Scientist Richard Denison is pleased that Congress is taking action: “At last, we have a serious effort to bring U.S. chemicals policy into the 21st century. This legislation would close the gap between the policies of the U.S. and those of many other developed countries.”

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