June 28, 2013

CLF Week in Links: Obesity, Oceans, Meat, and More

Robert Lawrence, MD

Robert Lawrence, MD

Director Emeritus

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

Obesity is a disease - changes to come?

Another Meatless Monday moment. It seems that it’s becoming a yearly tradition. Last year the USDA changed its mind about promoting Meatless Monday after Big Meat put the screws to the agency, and last week it was Congressional office building cafeterias that halted their promotion of the campaign—also under pressure from the livestock industry. (Here’s my blogpost with more details.) I think it’s a good sign that Big Meat feels they need to devote resources to this sort of thing; it’s evidence that the growing popularity of meat reduction campaigns is making the industry feel the heat and increasingly recognizes that health-conscious consumers are reducing their meat consumption.

The meat and diabetes connection. CLF’s Allison Righter has done a fine job addressing a recent Harvard study that links meat consumption to type 2 diabetes. Check out her blogpost from earlier this week. In combination with earlier studies from the Cleveland Clinic that documented higher levels of artery-damaging Trimethylamin N-oxide or TMAO in the blood of regular meat eaters compared with vegetarians or vegans, the evidence for the harmful effects of a high-meat diet is now very compelling.

AMA declares obesity is a disease. From this Los Angeles Times story: “The nation’s leading physicians organization took the vote after debating whether the action would do more to help affected patients get useful treatment or would further stigmatize a condition with many causes and few easy fixes.” So now, according to the American Medical Association, 78 million American adults and 12 million children have a disease that needs to be treated. With 90 million citizens (30 percent of the population) requiring treatment we have to develop policies that protect the average American from what Kelly Brownell calls the “toxic, obesogenic environment.” Once we understood the harmful effects of tobacco, policymakers kicked in with higher tobacco taxes, smoking restrictions in public places, limitations on advertising, and so forth. Substitute sweetened beverages, calorically dense fast food, sugar- and fat-laden processed foods and snacks for tobacco and the shape of the policy world we need to develop comes into focus.

Preventing Antibiotic Resistance Act of 2013. Just yesterday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) introduced legislation to combat antibiotic-resistant superbugs that develop when antibiotics are misused in animal agriculture. The Preventing Antibiotic Resistance Act of 2013 is an interesting companion to Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA), which was introduced by Rep. Louise Slaughter (D—NY) in 2009 and has not been passed. I like that the Senator’s bill restricts the administration of antibiotics to sick animals only (as does PAMTA), but I’m not sure about the provision stating, “Any drug not used in human medicine is left untouched by this legislation.” As any biologist can tell you, mutations that develop in the genome of a bacterium in response to selective pressure from exposure to any antibiotic can contribute to resistance to other antibiotics. Bacteriologists now refer to the “resistome” as the collective body of antibiotic resistance genes available for swapping among bacteria of the same species or different species through small cassettes of DNA called plasmids. So an antibiotic not used in human medicine may lead to the emergence of a resistance gene in a salmonella, which in turns shares that gene with an E. coli. That E. coli may then infect a human who is treated with a different antibiotic, and that antibiotic is rendered ineffective by the presence of the resistance gene.

Smart snacks in schools. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that under USDA’s new “Smart Snacks in School” nutrition standards, America’s students will be offered healthier food options during the school day. This should really improve vending machine fare for all public school students. CLF Lerner Doctoral Fellow Julia Wolfson wrote a blogpost about this issue in February.

Dangerous fish milestone? From the Earth Policy Institute: “The world quietly reached a milestone in the evolution of the human diet in 2011. For the first time in modern history, world farmed fish production topped beef production.” Read more of the story here. It does a good job of explaining the potentially terrible complications of this burgeoning market for farmed fish, including the overharvesting of ocean fish used to feed farmed fish, the depletion of mangrove forests, and the waste produced by the farms. You will never eat another shrimp.

Más Monsanto in South America. This Wall Street Journal story shares Monsanto’s plans to debut its second-generation of genetically modified soybean seeds in South American next growing season. South America produces just over half the world’s soybeans, with Brazil and Argentina in the lead. The seeds are called Roundup Ready 2, and they supposedly combine glyphosate (Roundup) resistance with defenses against insects. Considering that the first-generation seeds have led to the proliferation of superweeds that are glyphosate-resistant, what can we expect from this second generation?

World Food Prize sham. Shame on the organization known as the World Food Prize for awarding its 2013 prize to an executive at Monsanto and another at Syngenta. Read this blogpost by our friends at Civil Eats for a sense of the secrecy and the money trail. And follow @CivilEats via Twitter.

Bittman’s food heroes. New York Times columnist Mark Bittman has taken some advice from food movement activists and created a short list of his own for who truly deserves a food prize. Among the names on his short list are La Via Campesina; our friends Olivier DeSchutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food and Vandana Shiva, director of Navdanya in India; and Miguel Altieri, one of the world’s leading proponents of agroecology.

Chipotle to label GMO food. People are starting to notice a policy shift undertaken by Chipotle Mexican Grill in March—the food chain now labels GMOs in its foods with al little pink “G.” This policy has not affected the menus in the restaurants—only the online menus. The corporation says it intends to eliminate GMOs from their offerings. Perhaps the next move, though, should be to extend their labeling policy to the menus in the restaurants, as well as adjust downwards their portion size.

Food composting in New York. I’ll be watching eagerly to see what becomes of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s initiative to mandate recycling of food waste from homes. Here’s the story from the New York Times. The program will begin on a voluntary basis and then expand. Will Allen’s Growing Power project in Milwaukee now turns over twenty million pounds of food waste each year into valuable compost used to grow fresh produce within the city.

Calorie counts. Frank Bruni does a very good job of summarizing the available data on the effectiveness of posting calories on menu boards. We still have a long way to go toward curbing the disease known as obesity. As Bruni writes, “The stomach wants what it wants;” he also suggests we need a more forceful kick in our rears. But as noted above, recognizing obesity as a disease should stimulate research and action on a broad array of interventions from individual behavior change to environmental, social marketing, tax policy and other changes to create a health-promoting food environment.

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