Rachel's Precaution Reporter #5
Wednesday, September 28, 2005

From: EPA Report: The Science of Environmental Justice ...[This story printer-friendly]
February 11, 2005


[Rachel's introduction: An EPA report on "the science of environmental justice" recommends a precautionary approach to research, including consideration of multiple, cumulative exposures and stresses: "Achieving environmental justice for every community requires a different scientific approach, one that is rooted in communities and that can incorporate people's social stressors, economic stressors, unique needs and vulnerabilities."]

[RPR introduction: This is the Executive Summary of a report titled "Science of Environmental Justice: Participatory Research and Cumulative Risk," published by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) February 11, 2005. Get the full report (104 pages) in PDF format here and get EPA's Framework for Cumulative Risk Assessment here.]

Executive Summary

On May 24-26, 2004, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) New England, EPA's Office of Research and Development (ORD) and Boston University's School of Public Health (BUSPH) co-sponsored the Science of Environmental Justice (SEJ) Working Conference in Boston, Mass.

The title of the conference was: Science to Action: Community-based Participatory Research and Cumulative Risk Analysis as Tools to Advance Environmental Justice in Urban, Suburban and Rural Communities. The conference provided an interactive, educational forum and joined together stakeholders from across the country to discuss current efforts in community-based participatory research (CBPR) and cumulative risk analysis that are helping to assess, address and resolve environmental and public health risks in urban, suburban and rural areas.

The conference presented methods and facilitated discussion regarding needs and opportunities for EPA and other research entities to invest in innovative scientific paradigms in order to better protect human health and the environment in environmental justice communities.

The conference resulted from the awareness that many vulnerable communities and populations (i.e., communities of color, low-income communities, children, the elderly and subsistence fishers) face higher exposures or risks to their overall health and well-being from environmental sources.

Traditional research and risk assessment methods have played an important role in reducing significant environmental health risks to the American public, but must be improved to better protect vulnerable populations and to further reduce residual risks. Achieving environmental justice for every community requires a different scientific approach, one that is rooted in communities and that can incorporate people's social stressors, economic stressors, unique needs and vulnerabilities.

This conference proposed that community-based participatory research and cumulative risk assessment can form the core of this new science of environmental justice and explored, in-depth, the definitions, successes, needs and long-term opportunities for integrating this approach into EPA's research agenda.

The SEJ conference brought together 275 individuals, including scientists, technical experts, community and non-profit group leaders, academia and government representatives from 25 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. The first day of the conference featured a community tour of Chelsea and East Boston, Mass., which set the stage with a real-life context for discussing ways of better assessing cumulative risks and utilizing participatory approaches to research. The conference sessions included plenary panels on community-based participatory research and cumulative risk. Breakout groups focused on ways to incorporate CBPR or cumulative risk approaches to research on the following topics: Air Toxics, Asthma, Children's Environmental Health, Land-based Risks and Water Quality.

Framing Themes: Community-based Participatory Research and Cumulative Risk Assessment

Community-based Participatory Research

Community-based participatory research (CBPR) holds great potential to improve the accuracy, precision, reliability and relevance of data that are designed to represent real-life and to protect human health and the environment. Traditional challenges in environmental epidemiology, exposure assessment or environmental monitoring studies include accurately capturing data that represents a broad range of human activity patterns and taking precise, unbiased measurements.

CBPR is defined as research in which "scientists work in close collaboration with community partners involved in all phases of the research, from the inception of the research questions and study design to the collection of data, monitoring of ethical concerns and interpretation of the study results."[1]

To this basic definition conference panelists added that CBPR ultimately is about translating research, especially the most relevant and useful science, into better environmental and human health protection and promotion. One panelist stressed three basic principles of the related approach of participatory action research: 1) the participation of the community at every step; 2) equal distribution of power and results among partners; and 3) action-oriented outcomes.

Some specific recommendations for building strong partnerships to conduct CBPR and advance environmental protection included building the scientific capacity of community institutions to engage in research and encouraging long-term collaborations between academic institutions, government agencies and community-based organizations.

A panelist from the EPA's Office of Research and Development (ORD) noted that community involvement in ORD research projects was valuable in the design, implementation and actual conduct of studies, and in the analysis and communication of the resulting data. Other panelists noted that community involvement in environmental research becomes crucial for ensuring that public policy makes sense in real life, rather than getting lost in the minutiae of data details, and serves as a public interest counterweight to the increasing private funding of research.

Cumulative Risk Assessment

Traditional risk assessment methods that have been used by the EPA and other regulatory bodies are intended to identify and reduce the greatest risks to human health and the environment, and in many instances these methods have been effective. However, as the environmental justice movement has helped identify, many of these risk assessment approaches have focused on one chemical, media or exposure pathway at a time, or have relied on assumptions that are not validated on a regular basis. The consequence can be approaches to risk assessment that are not effectively protecting all groups.

Cumulative risk assessment (CRA) was defined in this conference as the "analysis, characterization and possible quantification of the combined risks to health and the environment from multiple agents or stressors." Cumulative risk assessment is characterized by its focus on place or populations and investigates the question, "What types of stressors are affecting this population?" It differs from traditional risk assessment methods that focus on specific, individual chemicals or stressors and asks, "What type of threat does this agent pose to human health?"

Cumulative risk assessment is notable for its focus on multiple exposures or stressors, its inclusion of non-chemical and nonphysical stressors and its integration of vulnerability or susceptibility factors. An additional development on traditional risk assessment methods is the attempt in CRA to conduct various elements of the assessment process simultaneously, or iteratively, rather than sequentially.

The Framework for Cumulative Risk Assessment identifies the basic elements of the cumulative risk assessment process and provides basic guidelines for conducting cumulative risk assessment, although it does not provide specific protocol or methodologies.[2]

The Mississippi River Industrial Corridor has multiple point and area sources of air and water pollution and diverse populations, many of which are characterized by severe health burdens and characteristics that many increase their exposures or susceptibility to environmental health hazards, and was presented as an illustration of why cumulative risk assessment approaches are crucial for protecting the health of all Americans. Three case studies, of the Merrimack Valley in Mass., the industrial community of Chester, Pa., and the local communities of Chelsea and East Boston, Mass., were presented to illustrate some key lessons learned regarding cumulative risk assessment. These lessons included: 1) the need to prioritize prevention and action and recognize that aggregate and multiple risks may never be accurately assessed; 2) that a better integration of quantitative and qualitative data is needed to assess actual risks; and 3) that community involvement and collaborative approaches provide tremendous advantages for the accuracy and applicability of risk assessment and management.

Specific Topics: Air Toxics, Asthma, Children's Environmental Health, Land-based Risks and Water Quality

Air Toxics

Exposure to hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) presents significant environmental justice and public health concerns. Hazardous air pollutants, also known as air toxics, have been associated with many adverse human health effects, including cancers, asthma and other respiratory ailments and neurological problems such as learning disabilities and hyperactivity.

Sources of air toxics include industrial emissions from chemical manufacturing, refineries, waste incinerators and smaller stationary facilities (e.g., dry cleaners), emissions from mobile sources (e.g., cars, buses and trucks) and consumer products.

This panel presented the results from the EPA's National Air Toxics Assessment, which modeled ambient levels of major hazardous air pollutants for every county in the United States, and the related National Scale Assessment, which calculated resulting risks to human health from these air toxics and characterized the contributions of various emission sources to human exposure and risk.

This assessment identified benzene, chromium and formaldehyde as national drivers of cancer risk, and arsenic, 1,3-butadiene, polycyclic organic matter and coke oven emissions as regional drivers of cancer risk in 1996. The National Scale Assessment will be used to address residual risk, or the risk remaining to human populations after the technology-based standards for emissions of hazardous air pollutants have been put into place.

Diesel exhaust was presented as an air toxic of great concern to many environmental justice communities, and the successful community-based participatory research efforts of a community group in West Oakland, Calif., was described in a case study illustrating best practices in CBPR.

One panelist presented study findings linking residential segregation to racial disparities in exposure to air toxics in Southern California. This led to a discussion on the importance of including socioeconomic and political factors, including zoning, land use and transportation investments, in attempts to reduce residual risks. In other words, without understanding how and why greater segregation is linked to higher exposures to air toxics, purely regulatory and technological approaches to reducing air toxics will never be effective in protecting the most highly exposed communities.


According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 20 million people, including 6.3 million children, have asthma. Asthma has increased sharply across the nation in the past two and a half decades, particularly in large cities. Asthma is particularly a public health crisis for some communities of color and for children, making it a classic environmental justice health challenge.

The CDC reports that African-Americans continue to have higher rates of asthma emergency room visits, hospitalizations and deaths than Caucasians. Americans with lower income levels report higher asthma prevalence than those at higher income levels.

Examples from schools in Connecticut, public housing in Boston, Mass. and a community-based participatory research project on asthma and air pollution in the South Bronx, New York City, were all presented to illustrate the various cumulative risks that might be contributing to the increased prevalence and the opportunities presented by community- based participatory research to reduce the harsh burden of asthma on the health of communities of color and children. Major research needs identified were:

1) Surveillance on asthma incidence and prevalence at the community- level;

2) Evaluation of the impact of primary prevention of asthma on the overall incidence;

3) Evaluation of the impact of building intervention on the severity and persistence of asthma in homes, daycare facilities and schools;

4) Detailed, multi-factorial exposure assessments of air pollution and social stressors such as violence and a better understanding of how each stressor may magnify the other; and

5) Evaluation of the efficacy of individual and bundled interventions, including interventions on environmental factors, in reducing asthma morbidity.

The value of community knowledge in asthma research was stressed. Evidence was provided to show that engaging communities in challenging inaccurate, and generally unstated, assumptions adds valuable practical knowledge and helps frame research questions in a manner that ensures the greatest chance of environmental health success.

Children's Environmental Health

Children have unique susceptibilities to environmental hazards and often face higher exposure to environmental pollutants. Their rapidly developing bodies, biological systems, differences in physiology and behavior make them vulnerable to environmental insults in ways that adults are not. At the same time, children do not have a defined role in decision-making to protect their health.

Risk assessment methods to date have essentially cast children as "tiny adults or big rats," without accurately assessing how environmental agents may be affecting their growth, development and health risks.

Children of color are especially at risk for increased exposure to pollutants such as lead and mercury. One panelist noted the importance of looking at the intersection circles of exposure, family and community in order to most accurately assess environmental risks to children's health.

An overview of the National Children's Study was presented describing the Congressionally-mandated, multi-million dollar environmental epidemiology study that will track 100,000 children for 21 years to assess the impacts of environmental exposures on their health. Research results from the Columbia Center for Children's Environmental Health demonstrate that prenatal exposure to some air pollutants and pesticides is associated with decreased birth weight and size, and that "chronic material hardship" significantly exacerbated the effects of environmental tobacco smoke on children's development.

This last result illustrates the ways in which nonphysical stressors and exposures can aggravate the adverse impacts of environmental exposures. A panelist from the Lead Action Collaborative in Boston described a community-driven effort to eliminate childhood lead poisoning in Boston. This best practices approach utilized community participation and collaboration efforts to generate data on environmental conditions at an extremely high resolution -- lot-by-lot - with sophisticated technological tools or Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to identify and prioritize the highest risk housing in Boston for lead poisoning prevention efforts

Land-based Risks

Low-income and minority communities are often faced with a multiplicity of land-based risks ranging from lead contaminated of soils from lead paint use to pesticide contamination due to agriculture. The cumulative risks associated with the buildup of various chemicals have yet to be fully determined.

This panel looked at pesticide contamination in Georgia, lead contamination in Connecticut and the health and environmental impacts associated with industrial-scale animal agriculture in North Carolina. The case of the Woolfolk Chemical Works Superfund site in Fort Valley, Ga., was used to present the concept of "brown houses," which are homes in or near a Superfund site where there is known or perceived contamination -- in this case, by arsenic-containing dusts generated at the chemical works site.

The Connecticut case study focused on the potential of phytoremediation to reduce accumulated lead in dust in urban soil. Another case study from North Carolina illustrated environmental and human health impacts of industrial animal operations and the local political challenges that can frustrate efforts to prevent and remediate the enormous pollution generated by these operations. A panelist from the EPA Office of Environmental Justice presented a GIS- based assessment and compliance tool that allowed the EPA to incorporate environmental justice considerations into its identification of priority sites requiring environmental enforcement or other actions.

A detailed description of the guidelines in EPA's Cumulative Risk Assessment Framework for conducting human health risk assessments at specific contaminated sites was also presented, emphasizing the need for community collaboration at those sites to generate the highest quality data.

One recommendation that emerged from this panel was the need for collaboration between agencies, stakeholders and the community to determine the appropriate structure of response and identify and fill the regulatory gaps. Panelists also emphasized the importance of sustainable solutions that take into consideration both economic and health problems associated with contamination. Finally, they expressed the desire to strengthen partnerships and increase educational awareness within effected communities.

Water Quality

In recent years, water quality problems have become serious environmental issues -- particularly for low-income communities and communities of color. In urban, suburban and rural settings across the United States, these communities have had particularly low access to adequate drinking, surface and sewer water resources.

Many people in these communities rely on fish and other seafood as a significant part of their diets and are therefore threatened by a disproportionately high risk of exposure to contamination from substances such as mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls and dioxin, which have entered the aquatic habitat and have bioaccumulated in the fish.

Panelists described the EPA's efforts to develop improved surface water sampling methods, more rapid analysis and further health studies to create improved surface water quality indicators.

A panelist from the Virgin Islands presented on the challenges of maintaining high drinking water quality and how community-based participatory research had improved drinking water quality. A panelist from EPA's Office of Water described the revisions and improvements to EPA's human health criteria methodology, including more accurate fish consumption estimates and a greater reliance on site-specific conditions rather than default values for assessing risk.

The environmental cycling and bioaccumulation of mercury in fish was discussed, and the human health threat created by the consumption of mercury-contaminated fish was noted as a concern for all Americans.

Lessons from Puerto Rico in community capacity-building and the development of better communication between regulators and the public were presented.

Specific recommendations included: 1) the development of a surveillance system to identify the factors that make various communities vulnerable to environmental contaminants; and 2) the creation of data banks at the community-level to provide practical experience and information to build community capacity to engage in water quality protection efforts.


1) Adopt a precautionary approach to research.

2) Adopt collaborative approaches to research.

3) Incorporate community involvement in all stages of research.

4) Build capacity and empower communities, academic institutions and government agencies to assess and address environmental health risks.

5) Develop place-based, flexible approaches to research and risk assessment.

6) Incorporate socioeconomic factors into risk assessment.

7) Develop a better understanding of vulnerability that includes both physical and nonphysical factors.

8) Create interdisciplinary, holistic approaches to risk assessment, combining quantitative and qualitative data.

9) Promote innovative technologies and research methodologies.

10) Emphasize action to protect communities in the application of research.

Next steps

This working conference represents the beginning of an essential dialogue between critical stakeholders. Three days of discussion cannot integrate all that is needed to develop a new scientific approach to EPA's research agenda. It was evidenced by conference participants that the need for a paradigm shift is necessary and that the will for action is strong.

The current challenge is in finding a way to build an infrastructure that can allow the dialogue that was begun at the conference to continue on a national and regional level throughout the country. EPA has done much to address the issues and concerns facing environmental justice communities, but there is still more that the agency can and must do to protect these vulnerable communities. The agency must maintain a leadership role in keeping this dialogue alive and, furthermore, must demonstrate a way to implement the recommendations contained in this report.

One way to translate our collective will into action is to find and support a forum where the same stakeholders that met on a national level can meet on a regional level to focus on specific issues, needs and opportunities for investing in appropriate science and research that meets community needs.

As we implement these conference recommendations, community-based participatory research and cumulative risk assessment will become a standard practice within EPA's approach to research and will be integrated into the research agenda and projects across the country.


[1] Shepard PM, Northridge ME, Prakash S, Stover G. "Advancing Environmental Justice through Community-based Participatory Research." Environ Health Perspect 1 10(suppl 2): 139-140 (2002).

[2] Framework for Cumulative Risk Assessment. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Research and Development, National Center for Environmental Assessment, Washington Office, Washington, DC, EPA/600/P-02/001F, 2003


From: New York Times .....................................[This story printer-friendly]
September 9, 2005


[Rachel's introduction: "Mr. Canada and his staff hope that the Promise Academy will prove the importance of a serious school food program, much as data from the national Head Start program was used to prove the effectiveness of early education and support for children."]

By Kim Severson

Ebony Richards, a confirmed hamburger and Tater Tots girl, knows the rules of the lunch line at her school, the Promise Academy in Harlem.

When confronted with whole-wheat penne covered with sauteed peppers and local squash, she does not blurt out "That's nasty." If she does, she goes to the end of the line.

Although seconds on main courses are not allowed -- someone has to show children what a reasonable portion is -- Ebony can fill her tray with a dozen helpings of vegetables or bowls of Romaine lettuce from the salad bar. Any time in the school day, she can wander into the cafeteria for a New York apple.

Ebony, 12, had never seen Swiss chard until a month ago. She ate three helpings. "I was like, 'I don't want to eat that," " she said of her first few months of meals at the Promise Academy. "But I had to, because there was nothing else. Then it was like, 'This is good." "

Now she demands that her father, Darryl Richards, pick up chard at the makeshift farmers' market held once a month in the school cafeteria. They may even take one of the school's cooking classes together.

As this school year begins, it is a rare administrator who is not reconsidering at least some aspect of lunch, as a way to confront increasing obesity and poor eating habits. Some steps are as simple as shutting off soda machines. Others involve writing new, comprehensive nutrition policies.

But perhaps no school is taking a more wide-ranging approach in a more hard-pressed area than the Promise Academy, a charter school at 125th Street and Madison Avenue where food is as important as homework. Last year, officials took control of the students' diets, dictating a regimen of unprocessed, regionally grown food both at school and, as much as possible, at home.

Experts see the program as a Petri dish in which the effects of good food and exercise on students' health and school performance can be measured and, perhaps, eventually replicated.

"The Promise Academy model is probably the most intensive anybody is working with," said Janet Poppendieck, a professor of sociology at Hunter College who is working on a book about school food for the University of California Press.

Almost 90 percent of the students at the school come from families poor enough to qualify for free government lunches, and 44 percent are overweight. Most had never tasted a fresh raspberry or eaten a peach that wasn't canned in sugar syrup before they picked up a cafeteria tray at the school.

"Our challenge is to create an environment where young people actually eat healthy and learn to do it for the rest of their lives," said Geoffrey Canada, the teacher and author from the South Bronx who developed the Promise Academy. Mr. Canada created his school kitchen as part of the larger Harlem Children's Zone, an assault on poverty being watched by social service experts and policy makers across the country.

Promise was one of nine charter schools opened in the city last year. The Bloomberg administration has pledged to open 50 such schools, including 15 that are opening for this school year.

Mr. Canada, who has a master's in education from Harvard, drew a circle around a 60-block area in central Harlem to create the children's zone, a tight web of social, health and educational programs that start with a "baby college" for new parents and will end, he hopes, with the well-fed collegebound graduates of the Promise Academy.

The school has longer hours than most public schools and runs through most of the summer because the founders believe that its students need help catching up with those born into better circumstances.

School officials regularly measure the children's weight and fitness along with their academic progress. Mr. Canada and his staff hope that the Promise Academy will prove the importance of a serious school food program, much as data from the national Head Start program was used to prove the effectiveness of early education and support for children.

That will take time. When the Promise Academy opened last year, kindergartners and sixth graders were the only students. This year they are moving up a grade, and another batch of kindergartners and sixth graders is starting. In five years, when every grade level is filled, 1,300 students will be eating two meals and two snacks a day from the Promise Academy kitchen.

"We want the children to get to a point where they're looking forward to that apple, and the parents provide it for them," Mr. Canada said. "Now we say, 'Eat fruits and vegetables," and we have kids who come back and say, 'My moms ain't buying that." "

The team at the school uses strict guidelines, education and a little psychology to change young palates. One key is to teach resistance to marketing come-ons from fast-food and candy manufacturers.

"They've got to hear they're being conned," Mr. Canada said, "or they're not going to be open to this."

Eating at the Promise Academy is about more than just the food. Children learn to respect where it comes from and who serves it, as well as whom they eat with. They must use tongs to pick up their morning bagels. They may not bang their trays down on the cloth- covered cafeteria tables. No one is allowed to toss out whole peaches or to cut in line.

To make it all work, Mr. Canada relies on Andrew Benson, a young chef with a culinary degree from Johnson and Wales University. Mr. Benson, a veteran of three public school cafeterias in Harlem, said he was defeated by the city's school food bureaucracy. (Actual cooking from scratch is done in less than half of the city's 1,356 schools.)

The new kitchen at the academy rivals many in good New York restaurants. Mr. Benson does not use foods like processed cheese and peanut butter from the commodities program, choosing to spend part of his budget on fresher food.

He feeds the children breakfast, lunch and an array of after-school and Saturday snacks at a daily cost of about $5.87 per student. The amount, almost twice what some public schools spend, comes from a mix of government reimbursements and a school budget pumped up by grants and other private donations.

To get things rolling, Mr. Canada first turned to Ann Cooper, the chef who gained a national platform reworking the lunch program at the private Ross School in East Hampton. She helped stock the kitchen, find food purveyors and plan menus. But the Promise Academy program is much less fancy than Ross's, in both food and financing.

The Promise menu and the per-pupil budget are the envy of Jorge Leon Collazo, who was hired last year as the first executive chef of the New York City public schools, in one of several efforts to improve the 860,000 meals that are pumped out each day in the school system.

"I can't put turkey lasagna with fresh zucchini on the menu for all the schools in the city," Mr. Collazo said. "I'd get killed. No one would eat it. If I did something esoteric like that -- esoteric for a public school -- you'd also have to have something like pizza."

Even at the Promise Academy, getting students to embrace healthy eating has been a struggle. At first, they went home complaining that they had not had enough to eat or that the food was terrible, so Mr. Benson brought parents in for a meal.

The food impressed Jacqueline Warner, whose son, Chuck Cherry, 11, used to come home from school complaining that he was hungry. "It's just that he wasn't used to eating healthy portions," she said.

Ms. Warner, 40, has diabetes. She grew up in Harlem, eating what her mother could afford and knew how to cook. Often that meant fried foods, macaroni and cheese and lots of rice and potatoes. She loved it, but attributes her disease, in part, to that diet.

"I'm just glad he has a chance now to know the difference between the food we grew up on," she said, "and the healthy kind of food they serve in this school."

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company


From: Environment News Service ............................[This story printer-friendly]
March 23, 2005


[Rachel's introduction: A protest letter signed by numerous groups -- including co-ops, social movements, and rural labor unions -- states that the bill violates "the precautionary principle of the Biodiversity Convention"...]

By Carmelo Ruiz Marrero

SILVER CITY, New Mexico, March 23, 2005 (ENS) -- Latin America is being invaded by genetically engineered (GE) crops. The promoters of these crops say they will help fight hunger, reduce agrochemical use, and bring prosperity to farmers and rural communities in Latin America. But so far experience has demonstrated that these novel crops do not fight hunger, do not reduce agrochemical use, do not benefit small farmers, and also create new forms of economic dependence.

Argentina: Soy Republic

No Latin American country has embraced GE crops as wholeheartedly as Argentina. Recent years have witnessed an explosive growth in Argentine farmland devoted to soybeans. Soybean production has risen from 9,500 hectares in the early 1970s to 5.9 million hectares in 1996. The introduction of GE soy in the late 1990s sparked a further expansion of soy production, which now surpasses 14 million hectares. At least 95 percent of all this soy is genetically engineered. All GE soy grown in Argentina is of the Roundup Ready variety, a product of the U.S. based biotechnology corporation Monsanto.

Neoliberal ideologues and agribusiness people consider soy to be a complete success and an economic boon for Argentina. They point out that this crop brings large sums of badly needed foreign exchange to pay the foreign debt. But the consequences of this "success" have been wrenching for the environment and for the lives of the majority of Argentines.

Other agricultural production is being displaced and pushed to extinction as the country's farmland converts to soy monoculture. Fields of lentils, yams, cotton, wheat, corn, rice, sorghum, leafy greens, vegetables, fruit, dairy farms, and even the country's world- famous cattle ranches are disappearing before the advance of soy.

This country, that once could feed itself and export prime-quality beef, now imports basic food staples. Imported food is more expensive and out of reach for much of the large, poor population. From 1970 to 1980 the percentage of Argentines living below the poverty line rose from 5 percent to 12 percent. After the implementation of neoliberal structural adjustment policies, the percentage went up to 30 percent in 1998, and reached 51 percent in 2002. Today 20 million Argentines live in poverty and 10 million of them go hungry.

More than 99 percent of Argentina's soy is exported to Asian and European markets to feed cattle. The country has in effect sacrificed its own beef production, prized all over the world for its singular quality, for the benefit of its European competitors. From 1998 to 2003 the number of dairy farms decreased from 30,000 to 15,000.

In the words of agronomist and geneticist Alberto Lapolla, "The Argentine nation has metamorphosed from being the world's breadbasket to transform itself into a soy republic, a producer of forage crops, so that countries with serious development policies can feed their cattle and don't have to import it from other countries like ours."

Farmers and landowners switch to soybeans in response to a number of economic pressures. First, local producers cannot compete against massive and cheap agricultural imports that result from free trade policies. Moreover, the structure of government incentives and subsidies favors soybean growers. To further tip the balance, Monsanto provides producers with expert advisers, seeding machinery for mass soy production, and herbicide--all on credit.

The Roundup-Ready GE soy is modified to be immune to glyphosate, the active ingredient of Monsanto's Roundup herbicide. The environmental effect of this new agriculture has been devastating.

"The direct seeding system, with its high use of agrochemicals (Roundup), has already produced in the monoculture zone a noticeable biological desertification, with the disappearance of birds, rabbits, crustaceans, mollusks, insects, etc... particularly affecting the soil's microflora and microfauna, altering the microbiology of the soil responsible for the processes that develop and recover the soil's natural fertility by exterminating bacteria and other microorganisms, allowing their replacement by fungi," warned Lapolla.

The expansion of soy has come at the expense not only of other crops but also of forests and wilderness areas. To expand the monoculture, land owners and agribusinesses are deforesting broad swaths of the forested mountains at the foot of the Andes, known as the Yungas, and of the Chaco, on the border with Bolivia and Paraguay.

In the province of Entre Rios, north of Buenos Aires and bordering Uruguay, over one million hectares were deforested between 1994 and 2003 to make way for soy. This deforestation has caused disastrous and unprecedented floods, especially in the province of Santa Fe.

The economic effect has been no less devastating. The direct seeding of Roundup Ready soy monocultures creates unemployment since it hardly requires any labor. While a hectare of apricots or a lemon grove of the same extent require from 70 to 80 farm workers, soy employs two people at most.

Those who have turned their backs on the soy model to engage in traditional subsistence agriculture have found it nearly impossible since the clouds of airplane sprayed glyphosate travel great distances, leaving trails of death and destruction in their wake.

In Colonia Los Senes, in the province of Formosa, families that grew peanuts, beets, and plantains, and had chickens, ducks, and hogs, saw their lives changed in 2003 when they were flown over by airplanes spraying herbicide on nearby soy fields. The inhabitants suffered nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, stomach pains, allergies, and skin eruptions. Painful spots and sores appeared on the children, sometimes so painful they could not get up. Plantain plants grew abnormally, animals died or gave birth to deformed offspring, and there were reports of lakes filled with dead fish.

Facundo Arrizabalaga and Ann Scholl, lawyer and social anthropologist respectively, note, "Soy is causing disintegration not only of the very essence of the land but also of society. Shanty towns are expanding on the outskirts of major cities with farmers displaced by airplanes loaded with glyphosate, while agroindustrial giants take over the land. Soy does not generate jobs, it is an agriculture with no people, no culture. The rural exodus in recent years has increased at an alarming rate: 300,000 farmers abandoned the countryside and almost 500 towns have been left deserted. As a consequence, crime and violence are increasing day by day, and with that, marginalization increases."

Brazil: Lula's Pragmatism

The Roundup Ready soy monoculture is crossing Argentina's borders and penetrating neighboring countries. In recent years, Brazil, the grain's second worldwide producer, has experienced widespread smuggling of RR soy seed from Argentina to the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul, where soy production is concentrated.

This illegal seed contraband has enjoyed the complicity, at least passive, of agribusinesses and land owners, although importation is clandestine and does not go through the normal procedure of government approval.

Civil society groups like the Landless Workers Movement hold that GE crops should be submitted to an environmental evaluation, as required by the Brazilian Constitution. They also point out that Brazil is obligated to carry out such assessments since it signed the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, an international agreement that addresses the possible risks of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Another concern is that this GE crop invasion could spoil the competitive advantage of Brazilian produce in international markets, since GMO-free products command higher prices.

During his electoral campaign, President Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva promised to address the concerns of sectors that denounced the illegal entry of GMOs into the country. Once in power, however, he leaned in favor of pragmatism, and in October 2004 signed a bill that civil society organizations claim favors the biotech industry and legitimizes the violations of law committed by smugglers and illegal users of Roundup Ready soy.

A protest letter signed by numerous groups -- including co-ops, social movements like the Landless Workers Movement, rural labor unions like the Family Farm Workers Federation, the Consumer Defense Institute, ActionAid Brazil, and Pastoral Commission of the Earth -- states that the bill violates "the precautionary principle of the Biodiversity Convention" by liberating GE crops "with no previous study of the environmental impact and risk to the health of consumers."

According to the letter's signatories, the clandestine introduction of Monsanto's Roundup Ready seed "prevented the Brazilian population from having the opportunity to choose whether or not it wanted to consume GMOs and expose them to the environment. It also prevented measures to guarantee the segregation an labeling of GE products and in that way protect farmers who want to plant conventional seeds or promote agroecological farming."

Landless Workers Movement leader Joao Pedro Stedile describes the conflict, "On the one hand we have the profit and control motives of the multinational companies' seed monopolies, like Monsanto, Cargill, Bung, Du Pont, Syngenta, and Bayer. On the other we have the interests of honest farmers and of the Brazilian people. That is the true confrontation that brews in the matter of GMOs."

"If we can feed our people with products from other, safer and healthier seeds, why take a risk with GMOs? Just to guarantee Monsanto's profits?"

Paraguay: The Invasion of the Brasiguayans

Paraguay, the world's fourth exporter of soy, is already suffering from the onslaught of GE monoculture, in spite of the fact that to this day its government has not legalized such plantings.

This country has two million hectares planted in soybeans, of which over half belong to the so-called "brasiguayans," as the tens of thousands of medium and large landlords who migrated illegally from Brazil are referred to. They break the law not only by settling illegally in the country and setting up commercial farming operations, but also by planting GMOs, which in Paraguay are illegal.

With the soy monoculture came intensive glyphosate sprayings, repeating the experience of deforestation, contamination, and poisoning that Argentina is living.

Particularly dramatic is the case of the colony of Kaaty Miro, an indigenous hamlet of 16 families in the department of San Pedro practically surrounded by soybean fields.

The National Coordinator of Indigenous and Rural Women Workers accuse that in 2004, glyphosate sprayings resulted in the deaths of three children and have also caused stomach and lung problems, headaches and throat aches, diarrhea and skin eruptions among its inhabitants. Premature births and babies born with various illnesses have also been reported. The colony also lacks access to clean water because the creek they used to get the liquid is now poisoned with glyphosate.

The newsletter of the organization Rel-UITA describes a trip to Kaaty Miro, "As we moved toward the colonies, the landscape changed drastically. There are hardly any more forests or areas with trees, only endless hectares planted with GE soy.

The small plants [cotton, cassava, and wheat] struggle to survive and not die, destroyed by the highly poisonous effect of toxic agrochemicals, while the [soy] crop enjoys good health. It was pitiful to see how some of the cotton leaves were 'burnt," wilted and dry because of the poison's action. Meanwhile, the growth of cassava plants stopped and now are no larger than 10 to 15 centimeters, when what is normal in that season is over 35 centimeters, according to the peasants."

Mexico: Illegal Immigrants from the North

In Mexico the GMO invasion is manifesting itself in a different way. The furtive arrival of GE corn from the United States to local farm fields has been documented since 2001. Farmers used samples of the imported grain as seed without knowing what it was, and now it is spreading uncontrolled, crossing with native and criollo maize varieties.

Peasant, environmental, progressive, civil society sectors, and indigenous organizations warn that the consequences of this genetic pollution for the environment, human health, and global food security could be dire.

Previous IRC Americas reports have described the impacts of GE corn in Mexico and civil society responses. Here we present an update. In December 2004 the Mexican Senate passed a biosafety bill that, like the one signed by the Brazilian president, is highly favorable to the biotechnology industry and legalizes genetic contamination, according to Mexican civil society sectors.

The bill "is an aberration because it does not create a framework of security for biological diversity, food sovereignty, or protect the crops and plants of which Mexico is center of origin and diversity and that form the basis of nourishment of the campesino and indigenous cultures that created them. Instead, it offers security to the five transnational corporations that control GMOs worldwide, of which Monsanto has 90 percent," accuses Silvia Ribeiro of the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration.

Critics also point out that the approved law does not provide for public hearings and yet gives corporations the right to appeal if their applications for GE crop authorization are not approved. It also exempts companies from any liability for the genetic pollution caused by their seeds. "It does not even consider notifying those who could be contaminated and, in fact, holds the victims responsible with no safeguard," according to a report in the magazine Biodiversidad, Sustento y Culturas.

In June 2004 the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation, an entity created by the North American Free Trade Agreement, finished a scientific report on the contamination of Mexican corn. The report, titled "Maize and Biodiversity: The effects of genetically engineered corn in Mexico," proposes strengthening the moratorium on the commercial planting of GE corn in Mexico and keeping U.S. corn imports to a minimum, as well as strengthening a monitoring system of traditional crops and labeling GE products.

It also recommended improvements on the methods for detecting and monitoring the advance of genetic contamination of corn and its wild relatives; that U.S. GE corn be labeled as such; and that those grains that cannot be guaranteed as GMO-free be ground up so that they cannot be used as seed.

Puerto Rico: Good Political Climate

Puerto Rico is one of the biotechnology industry's favorite sites for GE crop experiments. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, the island hosted 2,957 GE crop field tests between 1987 and 2002. This figure is surpassed only by the states of Iowa (3,831), Illinois (4,104), and Hawaii (4,566).

The enormous size difference must be taken in account: Illinois and Iowa each measure over 50,000 square miles while Puerto Rico has less than 4,000 sq. miles. Experiments with GMOs in Puerto Rico are higher in number than those carried out in California, which had 1,709 experiments, although it is 40 times larger than Puerto Rico and has a much bigger agricultural output.

"These are outdoor, uncontrolled experiments," affirmed Bill Freese of the environmental group Friends of the Earth, commenting on the situation in Puerto Rico. "These experimental GE traits are almost certainly contaminating conventional crops just as the commercialized GE traits are. And the experimental GE crops aren't even subject to the cursory rubber-stamp 'approval' process that commercialized GE crops go through, so I think the high concentration of experimental GE crop trials in Puerto Rico is definitely cause for concern."

Why Puerto Rico? Various answers to this question were offered in a symposium organized by the Agricultural Extension Service on biotechnology held in the town of San German in 2002. According to "Claridad," a local newspaper, several symposium participants stated that the island's friendly tropical climate allows up to four harvests a year, which makes it ideal for agronomists and biotechnology corporations like Dow, Syngenta, Pioneer, and Monsanto. These four companies joined together in 1996 to found the Puerto Rico Seed Research Association.

One of the participants gave a much more provocative reason -- he said that Puerto Rico has a "good political climate." The island's general population is ignorant of the existence of GE crops and foods in its diets and fields, which contributes to the "good political climate" that the speaker alluded to.

Resistance and Alternatives

Resistance against GMO agriculture is manifesting in almost all Latin American countries from diverse sectors: from indigenous peoples who work to preserve their millenarian farming traditions and protect their seeds from genetic contamination, from environmental sectors that warn about the environmental impacts of GMOs and industrial agriculture, from farmers who seek to practice a truly ecological agriculture, and from progressive organizations and agrarian reform movements.

These voices of protest are integrated into the movement of opposition to the Free Trade Area of the Americas and the neoliberal agenda.

Ecological or organic agriculture is positioning itself as an alternative to GMOs and to the whole industrial monoculture agriculture model controlled by transnational agribusinesses. Brazil in particular has carved out a lucrative niche in the international market for organic tropical produce, becoming a veritable export powerhouse.

Agribusiness corporations and their spokespeople allege that organic farming is perfectly compatible with GE crops and that therefore both can be employed. But organic producers and GMO opponents believe that the two models of agricultural production cannot coexist and that as the GE monoculture and agroecological production grow, the moment will come when Latin America will have to choose between one of the two paths.

[Published in cooperation with the Americas Program at the International Relations Center, formerly Interhemispheric Resource Center, online at www.irc-online.org.]

Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero is an analyst on biodiversity issues for the IRC Americas Program. He is a Puerto Rican journalist, senior fellow of the Environmental Leadership Program, a research associate of the Institute for Social Ecology, and founding director of the Puerto Rico Project on Biosafety.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2005.


From: Tech Central Station ................................[This story printer-friendly]
September 27, 2005


[Rachel's introduction: This author claims that the precautionary principle, or foresight principle, "forces us" to ignore the full costs of all the alternatives we consider, which of course is nonsense.]

By Xavier Mera

[RPR comment: Tech Central Station, or TCS, hosted by James K. Glassman, routinely attacks the precautionary principle, or foresight principle. Here TCS claims that the principle "forces us" to ignore the full costs of all the alternatives we consider -- which of course is nonsense.]

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have a notoriously bad reputation in France. In such a hostile environment, some people have not hesitated to destroy the few authorized fields of genetically modified plants in the name of the precautionary principle. This summer, three attacks occurred in the Puy-de-Dome department, and responsibility for some of them claimed by the Collectif des faucheurs volontaires (or, "the volunteer reapers"). The company Meristem, French leader in the development of medicines made from genetically modified plants, was the target of this last wave of anti-GMO violence, without much media coverage.

But one group that did object to the anti-GMO vandalism was the organization Defeating Cystic Fibrosis. It turns out that the plants destroyed were meant to be used to develop drugs to relieve secondary effects of cystic fibrosis and to produce anti-cancer antibodies.

First of all, this is an obvious illustration of the dangers of the precautionary principle. By focusing only on the possible risks of GMO production, this principle also forces us to ignore the costs of abandoning it. Every choice has a cost, even if it is guided by this principle. In this case it is the availability of such medicines and the income they would represent for their producers -- which have to be abandoned if the naysayers have their way. This is what "precaution" means for patients and pharmaceutical manufacturers.

Obviously, GMO opponents refuse to be seen as neglecting the interests of patients. They claim that such interests do not require the production of genetically modified plants. They claim that alternative techniques exist and that the only reason why GMOs are chosen is for greater profit. They are probably right: most of the time there are various technologies available for reaching a same result, and the choice of one or the other is generally not based on humanitarian reasons. So what? What is so sinister about financial considerations?

When a cheaper technique is found for using the soil more productively, as is typically the case with GMOs, it is good news for consumers because competition, if we let it do its job, will bring the prices down. Producing more by spending less means a more profitable investment. When investors come to understand such an opportunity for making money, they tend to turn towards the sector concerned by choosing this technique, thus increasing the production and lowering the price of the product. The choice of technique is thus not unconnected to the well being of patients. As long as free competition works, it is such financial considerations that guarantee patients wider access to treatments.

What about risks linked to GMOs? Perhaps we might agree with a statement made by the "voluntary reapers" claiming that "no scientific or therapeutic reason can justify the use of farmers' fields as laboratory fodder". Then the group referred to the risk of genetically modified cornfields "contaminating" the neighboring crops. According to Meristem, their plants are sterile and do not expose the neighboring properties to a change in the nature of their production. Even if we imagine that such deterioration is possible, this does not lead directly to the conclusion that GMOs should be banned, contrary to critics' claims. In reality this argument has nothing to do with GMOs, but rather with trespassing on other people's property. Owners of genetically modified plants "contaminated" by neighboring fields could just as well use it. And it would have to be proved that such trespassing had occurred, unlike self-appointed "reapers" who do not wait before acting.

In fact, it is not necessary to ban GMOs to prevent farmers' fields being turned into laboratory fodder. Instead of resorting to vandalism, these reapers could fight for the government to take more seriously article 2 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, enshrining the right to own property. If acts of pollution like "contamination" of fields were considered by lawyers as what they really are, trespassing on private property, GMO producers would tend to settle far away from possible plaintiffs or would invest in means of protection, such as greenhouses. In any case, the possibility of legal proceedings would push investors to better estimate the real risk of GMOs. Defending farmers does not call for banning GMOs, and destroying plants can only put a halt to the process of discovery about the risks linked to them.

Xavier Mera is an associate researcher at the Molinari Economic Institute in France.

Copyright 2005 Tech Central Station


Rachel's Precaution Reporter offers news, views and practical examples of the Precautionary Principle, or Foresight Principle, in action. The Precautionary Principle is a modern way of making decisions, to minimize harm. Rachel's Precaution Reporter tries to answer such questions as, Why do we need the precautionary principle? Who is using precaution? Who is opposing precaution?

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