Safe Chemicals Act introduced, good news for people and families

Posted April 14, 2011

Today, the Senate introduced the Safe Chemicals Act, which seeks to  reform the outdated and badly broken Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). We think this is good news for people and families across the United States. Why? Because TSCA has failed so completely to protect our health! Of the more than 80,000 chemicals on the market today, only about 200 have ever been tested for safety. Of those, only five have been banned. Despite 10 years of rulemaking, the EPA could not even ban asbestos, a substance widely known to be harmful to health.

Now, more than 35 years after TSCA was passed, there is no shortage of stories about toxic chemicals, like BPA, phthalates, formaldehyde and lead ending up in the products we use everyday. These chemicals don't just end up in our products, they end up in food. For example, one of the most prevelant exposure routes for people to BPA is canned foods (can linings almost always contain BPA, which leaches into the contents of the can). A recent study from Environmental Health Perspectives found that by eliminating canned foods, levels of BPA were reduced by an average of 60 percent in study participants, after only three days!

The Safe Chemicals Act will change all of that by changing the way we review and regulate chemicals. 

Here's what we like about the bill:

  1. Takes fast action to address highest risk chemicals.
  2. Further evaluates chemicals that could pose unacceptable risk.
  3. Ensures safety threshold is met for all chemicals on the market.
  4. Provide broad public, market and worker access to reliable chemical information.
  5. Promotes innovation, green chemistry and safer alternatives to chemicals of concern.

Toxic chemicals, and their health effects, know no party lines. Let's hope Congress moves this bill forward quickly. 

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Free trade and human rights: a voyage into India's countryside

Posted April 14, 2011

IATP's Shefali Sharma is part of a delegation visiting rural areas in India to assess the human rights impacts of the country's trade and investment policies.

I am in Bangalore tonight—a key metropolis for India’s economic growth story. In Bangalore reside many of India’s premier IT companies and back-end offices for multinational companies, be it for telecommunications or travel. But I won’t be staying in the silicon valley of India for long. Tomorrow, a team of us—from an Indian NGO called Anthra, a German development organization called Misereor, the Heinrich Boell Foundation, a photographer and I—will be waking up at the crack of dawn and driving three hours from the South Indian state of Karnataka to another southern state called Andhra Pradesh.

Over the next four days, we'll visit the districts of Chittoor and Medak and talk to people in the villages of Yallakulu, Raipedu and Chennapur. Our purpose? To understand how changes in India’s international trade and investment policies are likely to affect dairy farmers and food growers in some of the most rural areas of India.

India is negotiating a free trade agreement with the European Union and talking about possibilities of a future trade deal with the United States. While such deals often take place behind closed doors between governments and their industrial lobbies, such agreements can have drastic impacts on environmental and other public interest laws and regulations. Trade and investment policies also have a lot to say about who will continue to eke out a living while facing increased competition. Under these agreements, the most powerful and the least powerful must be treated “alike” under the free trade concept of nondiscrimination.

Human rights law, on the other hand, stresses the need to discriminate in favor of the marginalized and vulnerable populations and claims supremacy over all other international law. This principle sets the stage for our next few days where we will be learning about the lives of people dependant on dairy production (something the European Union wants to import into India with much greater ease) and growing other agriculture commodities. In particular, based on the stories they will tell us, we will analyze to what extent the right to food—the “physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or the means to its procurement”—is being respected under the liberalization policies the Indian government has steadily been adopting. And how a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the EU may strengthen or undermine this critical right.

We begin this journey after an intensive, two-day consultation in New Delhi on building a Human Rights Impact Assessment of key areas of the FTA that are likely to impact small food producers in India. These consultations provided us with data and information we needed to understand the changes that are taking place in the dairy, poultry, food retail, India’s public food distribution system and in land-based investments. Now, we go to the field to see how these changes are playing out in the lives of vulnerable people themselves. Stay tuned.

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U.S. subsidizes Brazilian cotton to protect Monsanto's profits

Posted April 8, 2011

On February 18, Republicans in the House of Representatives defeated an obscure amendment to the House Appropriations bill by a 2-to-1 margin. The Kind Amendment would have eliminated $147 million dollars that the federal government pays every year directly to Brazilian cotton farmers. In an era of nationwide belt tightening, with funding for things like education and the U.S. Farm Bill on the chopping block, defending payments to Brazilian farmers may seem curious.

In order to understand this peculiar political move, one has to look all the way back to 2002, when Brazil filed a case in the WTO challenging U.S. cotton subsidies. In 2004, the Dispute Settlement Body of the WTO found in favor of Brazil, ruling that government subsidies afforded U.S. cotton producers an unfair advantage and suppressed the world market price, which damaged Brazil's interests. After multiple appeals the WTO upheld the original ruling, and by 2009 the U.S. still had not reformed its cotton programs. Brazil then asked the WTO for permission to retaliate against the U.S. by imposing trade sanctions. The WTO decided that Brazil was entitled to impose 100-percent tariffs on over 100 different goods of U.S. origin. Even more importantly, however, Brazil was entitled to suspend intellectual property rights for U.S. companies, including patent protections on genetically engineered seeds.

In WTO language, Brazil was allowed to suspend its obligations to U.S. companies under the Trade-related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement. This constituted a major threat to the profits of U.S. agribusiness giants Monsanto and Pioneer, since Brazil is the second largest grower of biotech crops in the world. Fifty percent of Brazil’s corn harvest is engineered to produce the pesticide Bt, and Monsanto’s YieldGard VT Pro is a popular product among Brazilian corn farmers. By targeting the profits of major U.S. corporations, the Brazilian government put the U.S. in a tough spot: either let the subsidies stand and allow Brazilian farmers to plant Monsanto and Pioneer seeds without paying royalties, or substantially reform the cotton program. In essence, Brazil was pitting the interests of Big Agribusiness against those of Big Cotton, and the U.S. government was caught in the middle. 

The two governments, however, managed to come up with a creative solution. In a 2009 WTO “framework agreement,” the U.S. created the Commodity Conservation Corporation (CCC), and Brazil created the Brazilian Cotton Institute (BCI). Rather than eliminating or substantially reforming cotton subsidies, the CCC pays the BCI $147 million dollars a year in “technical assistance,” which happens to be the same amount the WTO authorized for trade retaliation specifically for cotton payments. In essence, then, the U.S. government pays a subsidy to Brazilian cotton farmers every year to protect the U.S. cotton program—and the profits of companies like Monsanto and Pioneer. 

In 2005, I attended the committee meeting of Brazil’s foreign trade ministry where Pedro Camargo Neto—a Brazilian trade lawyer and then-president of the Brazilian pork producers association—proposed suspension of the TRIPS agreement as retaliation for U.S. non-compliance with the WTO ruling on cotton. It was a brilliant political tactic, and dramatically shows the power of private firms in both countries to influence trade policy in the WTO. When I interviewed him as part of my dissertation, Camargo said the Brazilian cotton case would never have been launched without political pressure and funding from Brazil’s powerful cotton industry. Despite facing substantial resistance from the Brazilian government in launching the case, he said, “the producers were really backing it.”

Today in the U.S., taxpayers are bearing the cost of the cotton subsidies and the cost of failure to reform them. Although major news outlets called the payments yet another insane perversion of already insane U.S. agricultural policy, it clearly wasn’t just about preserving subsidies. In 2006, Steve Suppan anticipated the use—and drawbacks—of TRIPS suspension as a one of few tools of cross-retaliation available to poorer countries. However, because of the size of the market for genetically modified seeds there, TRIPS suspension was Brazil’s trump card. Apparently when the stakes are high enough for American business interests, the government will make sure that American taxpayers subsidize not just agriculture, but intellectual property, too.

Emelie Peine is an assistant professor of international political economy at the University of Puget Sound.

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Buying better chicken for schools, hospitals and other organizations

Posted April 8, 2011 by Andrew Ranallo   

Making healthy choices can be difficult, even when you know what you're looking for. The myriad of standards and certifications can be hard to navigate, especially in poultry: Does antibiotic-free mean no antibiotics in the feed or no antibiotics used in raising the animal? Do poultry producers have to list whether or not arsenic is used? Now, imagine being responsible for feeding a school's student body, or a hospital. Getting enough of the right product, and getting it on time, can be difficult when trying to source healthier alternatives.

Large-scale food purchasers now have a resource guide to help them make healthy decisions when purchasing poultry for their organizations. Today, IATP is releasing a new fact sheet entitled "Buying Better Chicken," which helps sort out the complicated system of certifications, standards and terminology in the poultry industry.

Take a look at the guide.

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Food packaging major exposure route for BPA

Posted March 30, 2011 by Katie Rojas-Jahn   

A new peer-reviewed study published today in Environmental Health Perspectives has found evidence suggesting that food packaging is a major source of exposure to Bisphenol A (BPA).

The study, conducted by the Breast Cancer Fund and the Silent Spring Institute, recruited five families (each with two parents and two children, for a total of 20 people) and tested them for levels of BPA and certain phthalates in their urine while feeding them a diet of freshly prepared foods. 

BPA is a known endocrine-disrupting chemical and has been linked to numerous health effects, including behavioral changes, early-onset puberty, reproductive harm, diabetes and even cancer. Due to its dubious reputation, it was also recently named on the Minnesota Priority Chemicals list, which includes toxins that are harmful to children and are present in products kids are exposed to. Phthalates are no treat either, having been linked to poor sperm quality, obesity and cancer.

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IATP welcomes LaDonna Redmond to lead food and justice project

Posted March 15, 2011 by Andrew Ranallo   

The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy announced today that LaDonna Redmond will lead a new project focusing on health, justice and the food system. 

The project will center on health disparities resulting from the food system, from the farm to consumers—particularly as they affect low-income populations and communities of color.

“We are excited to have LaDonna lead this area of work,” said IATP President Jim Harkness. “A more fair and healthy food system has to include everyone, not just those who can afford it. LaDonna’s extensive experience working at the community and policy level will be a tremendous asset.”

Redmond is a long-time community activist who has successfully worked to get Chicago Public Schools to evaluate junk food, launched urban agriculture projects, started a community grocery store and worked on federal farm policy to expand access to healthy food in low-income communities. Redmond is a frequently invited speaker and occasional radio host. In 2009, Redmond was one of 25 citizen and business leaders named a Responsibility Pioneer by Time Magazine. Redmond is a former Food and Society Policy Fellow. 

“We have a food system that has largely been built on the backs of people who don’t have a lot of rights and access to our public policy infrastructure,” said Redmond. “We need to collectively better understand the inequities in the food system and make sure we include people who have faced these inequities in finding solutions.”

Redmond will be leading efforts at IATP to identify research gaps related to health in the food system, and connect researchers with those facing inequities in the food chain, including farmers, farm and food workers, and consumers.

Here is a short video featuring LaDonna talking about food justice, health and what role IATP can play:

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Minnesota schools increasingly eat farm fresh

Posted March 10, 2011 by Andrew Ranallo   

A new survey of Minnesota foodservice leaders released today shows, in just four years, the number of Minnesota schools participating in Farm to School has sharply increased: From just 10 in 2006 to 123 this year. 

F2s Foodservice leaders representing 50 percent of the K-12 districts in the state responded to the survey, conducted by IATP, in partnership with the Minnesota School Nutrition Association (MSNA).

“Minnesota is lucky to have the three key ingredients for Farm to School: dedicated food service leaders,  innovative farmers seeking local markets, and passionate students and parents,” says IATP's JoAnne Berkenkamp.

See the press release for more information, or read the full survey results. For more Farm to School resources and information, and to see a map of Minnesota school districts participating, be sure to check out Farm2SchoolMN.org!

 

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Reclaiming rights on International Women’s Day centennial

Posted March 8, 2011 by Shiney Varghese   

The year 2011 started with the news of food price hikes around the world pushing even more people, especially women, into hunger. But then along came images of women in Egypt in the forefront of a revolution to get rid of a government that has been in power for over 30 years! Victories such as the ones in Egypt are occasions for celebrating the strength and resilience of women even under the most oppressed circumstances, and their ability to defy prevalent stereotypes.

So, what will 2011, the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, bring for women?[1]

In the initial years, tragic events such as the "Triangle Fire" of 1911 (which killed more than 140 working women in New York City) became a focus of International Women's Day. Since its beginnings in Europe, International Women's Day has grown to become a day of recognition and celebration across the world. Drawing attention to the abject working conditions women faced, and to issues such as land rights and food security, domestic violence and trafficking in women, and at the same time expressing solidarity with sisters across cultures and regions, IWD has grown in strength and visibility.

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BPA-free doesn't mean estrogen free

Posted March 4, 2011 by Katie Rojas-Jahn   


IStock_000006558719Medium_webA new study in Environmental Health Perspectives found that most plastic containers that come  into contact with food or beverages leach chemicals that mimic estrogen, even when they are advertised as being BPA-Free.

Bisphenol A has been under fire in recent years because it is a compound used in products like baby bottles and sippy cups which releases an estrogen-like chemical that disrupts hormones in the human body. The exposure is believed to be problematic especially in children's products, because their bodies are still developing, making them more vulnerable.

The controversy over BPA has led many countries (Canada was the first) and states in the U.S. (Minnesota was the first) to ban it in certain products. Consumers have also become increasingly concerned about the chemical and have switched to buying BPA-free alternatives.

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Food Matters: Training for clinicians

Posted March 3, 2011 by    

Are you a clinician? What should you know about the food system to help ensure your patients’ healthy pregnancies, and the future life of their fetus and children?

Healthy Food Action’s David Wallinga, MD is teaming with Health Care Without Harm and Physicians for Social Responsibility to do a food system science and advocacy training this Spring to help prepare clinicians to answer that question.

Register now for the Food Matters: Clinical Education and Advocacy Program. Trainings are scheduled in Oakland, March 5, Philly, May 7, Boston, May 14, and Burlington, VT (date TBD).

See the Food Matters website for more information.

– David Wallinga, MD

 

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