September 6, 2013

CLF Week in Links: Fewer Crops, Fish, and M&Ms

Robert Lawrence, MD

Robert Lawrence, MD

Director Emeritus

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

fisherman-with-catchThe cost of climate change and crop loss. In so many ways, we taxpayers are footing a hefty bill for the effects of climate change. One striking piece of evidence is the $17.3 billion that the federal government paid last year to farmers for crop losses that occurred as a result of droughts, high temperatures, and hot winds—all symptoms of a changing climate. (These payments are made as part of the farm bill’s Federal Crop Insurance Program, with money collected from taxpayers, of course.) This Grist article cites an NRDC paper that addresses how farmers could cut their (and our) losses by using tried-and-true conservation measures. Unfortunately, the crop insurance program provides no incentives for farmers to use conservation tactics, nor does it seek action against those who farm in ways that degrade the environment and deplete natural resources—yet another flaw in our deeply flawed farm policy.

The anglers’ angle on climate change. National Wildlife Federation has released a report about the effects of climate change on fresh water fisheries, warning that recreational fishers may soon be disappointed by the dwindling numbers of freshwater fish whose reproductive capacity has been diminished by rising water temperatures. It’s an interesting advocacy angle, and I wonder if this approach will make an impression on climate-change deniers who love to fish.

Pesticides on supermarket food. The UK’s Daily Mail reported last week on the massive proportion of the UK’s supermarket food that is contaminated with pesticides—almost half of all fresh produce and much higher rates with some processed foods such as flour (97 percent) and bread (73 percent). It’s startling how much more residual pesticide is found on supermarket food: the rate has doubled in a decade. As the newspaper reports, “In most cases the traces were below internationally recognised safety levels, however critics argue many of the substances are a known risk to human health and warn that the cumulative ‘cocktail effect’ of even very low levels may be harmful.”

Cyclospora outbreak. In a CDC investigation that has already dragged on for two months, it’s unclear whether outbreaks of a parasite known as Cyclospora are related or unrelated. (The outbreaks of the rarely-seen-in-the-U.S. parasite occurred in Nebraska, Iowa, and Texas, and there are illnesses reported in 19 other states.) This Politico story reports that the CDC is hindered because it does not have the technology it needs to determine the genetic fingerprint of the parasite and resolve the issue of whether the outbreaks are linked; the sequester may be the main hindrance. The Obama administration is seeking $40 million in additional funding for CDC in fiscal year 2014 to address these kinds of issues—but how likely is a boost of funding at any agency?

Poisoned seafood. The Los Angeles Times reports that, “Mercury found in high levels in deep Pacific Ocean fish such as swordfish has a chemical fingerprint, and it implicates coal-burning power plants in Asia, according to a new study.” As CLF’s Jillian Fry notes, “This is an important issue for wild and farmed seafood because small fish are ground up and fed to many fish species used in aquaculture. Studies have shown that farmed fish can have higher contaminant levels than wild fish.” Truly, our global use of fossil fuels is poisoning us. (Which brings to mind another issue on which we are still awaiting evidence—the effect of the 2011 Fukushima Daichi power plant failure on the seafood supply reaching the West Coast of the U.S.) The authors of the new study recommend that consumers eat fish such as yellowfin tuna and mahi mahi, which live in shallower waters where sunlight can break down monomethylmercury, the most hazardous form.

Nudging the shopper. This New York Times article discusses a few interesting in-store interventions that might nudge shoppers into buying more produce. The interventions are refreshingly low-tech and encouragingly successful. But “nudge marketing,” as it’s called, has to be done just right to work. CLF has experimented in supermarket interventions, and the researchers will publish their results soon; click here to read more about the study done at Food Depot in Southwest Baltimore.

Google’s M&M problem. Last year, Google execs began to suspect that the free candy it offered to employees might be interfering with its goal of keeping employees healthy and happy. As the Washington Post reports, “So in what could be called Project M&M, a special ops force of behavioral science PhDs conducted surveys of snacking patterns, collected data on the proximity of M&M bins to any given employee, consulted academic papers on food psychology, and launched an experiment.” After data analysis, the company displayed new kinds of snack foods and reports a reduction in calorie consumption. Does this mean that the employees are healthier and happier? There’s only so many questions that data can answer. But as one of their senior vice presidents said, “Data can be a way of getting at the truth.”

RIP and thank you, Dick Thompson. Mark Bittman wrote another great piece, of a kind of obituary, actually, for Practical Farmers of Iowa co-founder Dick Thompson, who died last month at age 81. One of Mr. Thompson’s great contributions was proving wrong the supporters of “intensive” agriculture, who say that big, monocultural farms make more money because they’re able to make better use of labor and capital resources. He added a critical consideration to the “make more money” equation: the effects this kind of agriculture has on the environment, the human race and other animal species. As Bittman writes, we should take to heart “what Dick Thompson was about: he tried to figure out a system that would work for the farmer, the land, the animals and the customer. This is not an intractable balance, if you think about it.”

New fellows. I am happy to announce our 16 new CLF Lerner doctoral fellows for 2013-2014. Congratulations to all of them!

Photo: Fisherman with catch, Tallahassee, 1920; State Library and Archives of Florida.

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