Pesticide Action Network Updates Service (PANUPS)
A Weekly News Update on Pesticides, Health and Alternatives
See PANUPS archive for complete information.
- Getting relief to battered Haiti
- Farm Bureau denies climate change, targets sustainable ag movement
- Bees, bats & frogs dying off in droves, pesticides implicated
- GMOs cause organ failure in mammals
- Bayer cited for failure to store Bhopal gas safely in West Virginia
Tuesday night’s massive 7.3 earthquake that rocked Haiti – the most impoverished nation in the Western Hemisphere – makes the country’s future only so much more fragile. As Tracy Kidder observed in the New York Times, “While earthquakes are acts of nature, extreme vulnerability to earthquakes is manmade.” Haiti’s poverty has been exacerbated and its food systems impaired over the last several decades by the World Bank, IMF, and USAID policies. According to The Centre for Research on Globalization, 80% of Haiti’s population lives in poverty, more than 2/3 of workers have only sporadic employment, and even though the national minimum wage is $1.80, IMF figures indicate that over half of employed Haitians earn only 44 cents per day. In the 1990’s, the World Bank and IMF’s Structural Adjustment Program for Haiti eliminated most export duties and import tariffs, flooding the country with cheap American corn and destroying the local food economy. Haiti’s farmers couldn’t compete as the U.S. government dumped our surplus corn into a market at prices far below the local cost of production.<>
In 1997 Grassroots International released a study documenting how USAID policies had undermined local and national Haitian priorities: Despite stated goals of revitalizing agriculture, only a tiny fraction of the USAID budget has gone to agricultural development that could provide food security; much more went to direct food aid, which suppresses the price of local food and further undermines the local food system, thus keeping Haiti dependent on international food aid. Fortunately, there are plenty of organizations already working with and through local Haitian groups to empower Haiti’s people who are well-positioned to provide relief. Grassroots International has set up a fund through their partner organizations in Haiti. Another PAN ally, Partners in Health (Zanmi Lasante in Haitian Creole) works to address disparities in healthcare worldwide, and has been the largest rural healthcare provider in Haiti. They are accepting funds for organizing aid through their facilities outside of Port-au-Prince.
Wednesday afternoon, Partners in Health issued the following statement: “We have already begun to implement a two-part strategy to address the immediate need for emergency medical care in Port-au-Prince. First, we are organizing the logistics to get the medical staff and supplies needed for setting up field hospital sites in Port-au-Prince where we can triage patients, provide emergency care, and send those who need surgery or more complex treatment to our functioning hospitals and surgical facilities. To do this, we are creating a supply chain through the Dominican Republic. Second, we are ensuring that our facilities in the Central Plateau are ready to serve the flow of patients from Port-au-Prince. Operating and procedure rooms are staffed, supplied, and equipped for surgeries and we have converted a church in Cange into a large triage area. Already our sites in Cange, Belladeres and Hinche are reporting a steady flow of people coming with medical needs from the capital city. In the days that come we will need to make sure our pharmacies and supplies stay stocked and our staff continue to be able to respond. Currently, our greatest need is financial support”
On Monday, American Farm Bureau president Bob Stallman took the opening of the organization’s annual gathering as an occasion to declare war on climate legislation and the sustainable agriculture movement. According to Grist, Stallman said the top challenge facing farmers is: “the nonstop criticism of contemporary agriculture.” Stallman’s speech continues, “[A] line must be drawn between our polite and respectful engagement with consumers and the way we must aggressively respond to extremists who want to drag agriculture back to the day of 40 acres and a mule. Who could blame us for thinking that the avalanche of misguided, activist-driven regulation on labor and environment being proposed in Washington is anything but unfriendly. The time has come to face our opponents with a new attitude. The days of their elitist power grabs are over. General George Patton was very quotable. He said that in times of war, ‘Make your plans to fit the circumstances.’ To those who expect to just roll over America’s farm and ranch families, my only message is this: The circumstances have changed.”
Falling into lockstep with the newly clarified Big Ag alignment was House Agriculture Committee Chair Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn), who, after voting for and extracting pounds of farm lobby flesh from the Waxman-Markey climate bill, has recently vowed to vote against any Senate bill on climate change. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, over 40 distinguished scientists have challenged the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) for its “inaccurate and marginalized position” on climate change. In an open letter, the authors wrote: “As scientists concerned about the grave risks that climate change poses to the world and U.S. agriculture, we are disappointed that the American Farm Bureau has chosen to officially deny the existence of human-caused climate change when the evidence of it has never been clearer.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced long awaited changes to its rules on agricultural subsidies. According to Philip Brasher of the Des Moines Register, “The USDA largely left intact rules proposed in December 2008 in the final days of the Bush administration.” Small-scale farmers and advocates of sustainable agriculture were hoping for something more in line with Obama’s campaign promises around farm subsidy reform. Ferd Hoefner, policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, commented, “Like other administrations before, when push comes to shove, something is always more important to the White House politically than the fate of family farming, and they trade away subsidy reform in a heart beat.”
Five great extinction events have reshaped earth in cataclysmic ways in the past 439 million years, each wiping out between half and 95% of planetary life; the most recent extinction event was the killing off of dinosaurs. Today we’re living through the sixth great extinction event – a fact of which much of the public remains unaware. According to a poll by the American Museum of Natural History, seven in ten biologists believe that mass extinction poses an even greater threat to humanity than the global warming which contributes to it. It takes 10 million years to recover from the biodiversity loss of these mass die-offs.
Whether or not they are placing their work in this longer-view context, scientists are drawing more and more links between pesticide use and certain clusters of wildlife die-offs. “For decades,” Sonia Shah reports in Yale’s Environment 360, “toxicologists have accrued a range of evidence showing that low-level pesticide exposure impairs immune function in wildlife, and have correlated this immune damage to outbreaks of disease.” Amphibians were the first to start dying off – in 1998 scientists identified the cause as a type of fungus called Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis. Carlos Davidson, a biologist at San Francisco State University, has studied insecticide use in the San Joaquin Valley that shows a strong correlation between pesticides drifting into the Sierra Nevada Mountains and declining amphibian populations. A few years later America’s honeybees started dying – 35% of their population has been decimated since 2006. Many scientists have begun drawing links between the dramatic bee die-offs, labeled Colony Collapse Disorder, and a group of pesticides known as neonicotinoids.
Bats are the most recent victims: in 2006 the first cave floors were found covered with dead bats in the Northeast. White Nose Syndrome, the fungus-related disease that killed them, has killed at least 1 million bats since then. As with the fungus that’s killing amphibians, some scientists think that that bats are more susceptible to the fungus because their immune systems may be weakened by pesticide exposure. Bats are particularly vulnerable because even low levels of pesticides can accumulate over of their long life spans. While there might be “too many different pesticides, lurking in too many complex, poorly understood habitats to build definitively damning indictments,” the growing body of evidence points increasingly towards pesticides – even at so-called “safe levels” – as the cause of these and other problems for wildlife.
A ground-breaking study in the International Journal of Biological Studies links three common varieties of Monsanto’s genetically modified (GM) corn to liver and kidney toxicity and clearly illustrates the need for independent research on GMOs’ health effects. As noted by Scientific American and a host of other observers, agricultural biotechnology firms consistently suppress or render impossible independent scientific studies by hiding behind patent law. This study — conducted by French university scientists — is a meta-analysis of studies conducted by Monsanto and another biotech firm, which comes to a different conclusion and calls into question the adequacy of Monsanto’s research methodology. Specifically, this study looks at sex-differentiated effects and non-linear dose response curves whereas Monsanto did not. Monsanto has issued a response to the study, to which one of the lead authors, Gilles-Eric Séralini in turn responded, “Our study contradicts Monsanto conclusions because Monsanto systematically neglects significant health effects in mammals that are different in males and females eating GMOs, or not proportional to the dose.” Originally, published in mid-December, the study has recently garnered coverage in Huffington Post, Grist and Twilight Earth, among other outlets.
“Bayer CropScience has not properly maintained or tested the underground storage tank where it keeps roughly 200,000 pounds of methyl isocyanate, the deadly chemical that killed thousands of people in Bhopal, India, in 1984,” reports the Charleston, West Virginia Gazette-Mail. Inspectors from the state’s Department of Environmental Protection discovered the problem during an inspection of the Institute, WV, plant in June 2009, and “formal violation notices were issued in late September. No fines have been issued, and DEP officials said last week they don’t know if Bayer has fixed the problems.” The U.S. Chemical Safety Board has been looking into the plant’s operations since an August 2008 explosion that “killed two plant workers and forced thousands of Kanawha Valley residents to take shelter in their homes”. In April, a congressional inquiry found that the 2008 explosion “could have easily damaged a nearby MIC storage tank and triggered a disaster that would have been worse than Bhopal”. In August 2009, Bayer announced it would cut storage of MIC at the plant by 80%. Reacting to the most recent revelations that the corrosion control system for the tank was installed and tested by uncertified workers, Chemical Safety Board Chair John Bresland told the Gazette-Mail: “‘I would have thought if you were dealing with a tank containing methyl isocyanate, you would always want to have the best practices in place.'” Maya Nye, of the local People Concerned About MIC, told the paper: “‘I’m concerned about why this information wasn’t made public before now.'”
CORRECTION: In a January 8 story — Bayer pesticide banned ‘for the bees’ — we mistakenly stated that the chemical spirotetramat is a neonicotinoid pesticide. The confusion stems from the fact that Bayer CropScience markets several different formulations of their products Movento and Ultor, some of which contain neonicotinoids in addition to their listed “active ingredient” spirotetramat. Certain formulations sold in other countries contain imidacloprid, which is a neonicotinoid, as well as spirotetramat. While Bayer promotes spirotetramat, a lipid biosynthesis inhibitor, as a “safer” alternative to neonicotinoids, both have been shown to be fatally toxic to bees.<>
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