Blog Posts: Consumers

February 23rd, 2015

Why Are We Still Talking About Cloning? Because We Have To.

Cows

Cloning for food is on the move again in the EU. This is not good news. It is an intolerable and unnecessary practice that has no place in a civilised food system.

By Eve Mitchell

The facts show that Europeans roundly reject clones for food:

  • 61% think all cloning is morally wrong,
  • 58% say it can never be justified for food production,
  • and a whopping 83% say that any clone use in the food chain MUST be labelled.

What’s more, under considerable pressure for years, the EU Parliament admirably demands a full ban on all clones — and, critically, their offspring — in our food.

So what’s the point of this February 23 public meeting of Parliament’s Environment and Agriculture Committee, titled “Cloning of animals for farming purposes”?

Sadly, the Parliament’s wishes for a ban on clones are still being fought by two of the three branches of the EU system. Read the full article…

January 28th, 2015

Oil, Gas and Water Just Do Not Mix

By Geert Decock

Oil, Gas and Water Don't MixKids learn in a basic science experiment that when you try to mix oil and water, oil will float to the top, because the two substances don’t mix. I had to think back to such experiments when reading a report on Water Innovation in Oil and Gas 2014, published by the London Environmental Investment Forum and sponsored by Veolia.

The water sector sees a major new growth opportunity in the development of unconventional fossil fuels, such as shale gas, tight gas and coal-bed methane. These oil and gas resources can only be extracted by the use of fracking, which involves injecting millions of litres of water at high pressure underground, mixed with sand and (at times toxic) chemicals. Read the full article…

September 2nd, 2014

Citizens Won: Greek Water Remains in Public Hands

By David Sánchez

Referendum about water privatization in Thessaloniki, Greece. Credit: Save Greek Water

Referendum about water privatisation in Thessaloniki, Greece.

Credit: Save Greek Water

There is an ongoing struggle in southern Europe, where water privatisation is promoted as a way out of the economic crisis. But this summer, a turnaround victory was achieved in Greece: the Council of State ruled against the privatisation of Greek public water companies. Citizens have shown, again, that privatisation can be defeated through a combination of grassroots mobilisation, legal actions and international solidarity.

The story goes back some years ago. Under conditions imposed by the Troika (which includes the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission and the European Central Bank) to reduce Greece’s debt, public water companies in Athens and Thessaloniki were about to be privatised by the government, among other painful and socially unfair measures.

The mobilisation against this measure was massive, and great campaigns were launched in Athens, with a great success in media, and Thessaloniki, where a popular referendum showed an overwhelming opposition to water privatisation. A solidarity effort was coordinated by the European Water Movement (Food & Water Europe is an active member). Over 130 civil society organisations and trade unions teamed up with 50 members of the European Parliament to send a letter to the bidders of the public water company in Thessaloniki urging them to drop their bid. Those companies included French multinational Suez Environnement and Israeli group Mekorot. The situation in Greece was central in the campaign for the European Citizen’s Initiative that collected nearly 1.9 million signatures to support the human right to water and to stop liberalisation in the water sector.

This victory in Greece sends a clear signal to the European Commission and to the transnational water companies that were trying to make profit out of Greek crisis. The myth that people cannot resist against the Troika’s demands has collapsed. And as our colleagues from Save Greek Water say: “we can all, without exceptions, feel proud of this major victory.”

While we definitely celebrate this new major step to stop water privatisation in Europe, we are aware that we cannot be naïve. Public water management is still under threat in Greece and the rest of Europe as long as the European Union and the U.S. negotiate a new free trade agreement (known as TTIP or TAFTA), as long as the Troika pushes for water privatisation in many other countries, and as long as the European Commission goes on with their liberalisation agenda. These threats will require renewed mobilisation for the recognition of water as a human right and a common good.

January 22nd, 2014

Happy Birthday, Horsemeat Scandal

By Eve Mitchell

It’s been a year since we were first told the beef we buy may actually be horsemeat, but we still don’t really know what happened, how far it spread, who is responsible, or how they will be called to account for themselves.

We’ve seen a smattering of arrests, notably the September 2013 arrests of eight managers of the French company Spanghero on charges of aggravated fraud and mislabelling of food products. French authorities say they “knowingly sold” 750 tonnes of horsemeat mislabelled as beef. Around two-thirds of this went to French firm Comigel’s Luxembourg subsidiary Tavola and found its way into some 4.5 million products that were then sold again to 28 companies operating in 13 European countries. This may be the source of the tainted Findus “beef” lasagne (100% horsemeat) found on UK supermarket shelves.

Sound complicated? It is, but if you’re going to buy heavily processed foods you need to know this stuff – unless you’re happy to just pinch your nose and swallow.

Justice is elusive. Accused of netting some €500,000 over six months of fraud (£425,000 or US$681,000), Spanghero had been stripped of its operating license in February 2013. It then closed in June, changed managers, sacked nearly 60% of its workforce, renamed itself La Lauragaise, refinanced and was trading again by the end of July – protesting its “innocence” all the way. Then came the arrests in September. The company’s new tagline “Saveurs des terroirs” (“The flavours of the land”, with heavy overtones of traditional cultural quality) feels like a bad joke.

Flagship arrests, while welcome, are not enough. Supermarkets sold us this stuff but are not feeling the heat. The UK Parliamentary inquiry into the affair quizzed supermarket bosses, pointing out to Tesco that it is “notorious” for rejecting misshapen apples but somehow managed to miss the fact that products labelled beef were actually up to 29% horse. The Tesco representative attempted to blame consumers, saying the company does what they want, but this didn’t wash with the committee, which retorted, “You obviously don’t [do what your customers want] on horse.”

The inquiry pressed that if beef is trading at a premium to horse, and with “unscrupulous people out there, as obviously there are,” surely supermarkets should watch cheaper products more closely. Tesco said each of its suppliers is scrutinised with the same ”rigour” (Tesco does one DNA test per year at each meat production site). Horsemeat was still being found in Tesco products as late as June, but as the Food Standards Agency only reports results over 1%, for all we know horsemeat is still masquerading as beef all over the place. At this stage it isn’t in anybody’s interest to say differently, and consumers have to take what they can get.

Supermarkets sell UK shoppers 80% of our food, so when they fail us, it is a big deal. Tesco pleads innocence, saying its supplier used unapproved suppliers further down the chain. The Committee’s July 2013 report concluding its inquiry said while some retailers may have been misled, the big ones “need to ‘up their game’”, and the costs should rest on companies, not consumers. The inquiry concluded, “Retailers and meat processors should have been more vigilant against the risk of deliberate adulteration,” instead of taking everything “on trust”. The Committee continued, “We are dismayed at the slow pace of investigations and would like assurance that prosecutions will be mounted where there is evidence of fraud or other illegal activity.” That was in July 2013. 

So what has the UK Government done? Testifying before the inquiry in January 2013 Minister for Agriculture and Food David Heath MP announced a wide-ranging review of the crisis, but the report was kicked into the long grass and is not due before an unnamed point in 2014, with actual action who knows when after that. Meanwhile the inquiry heard the Government is proposing to decriminalise food labelling violations amid a declining number of public analysts and labs able to carry out food testing and budget cuts to the local authorities responsible for food testing.

UK Secretary of State for Food and Farming Owen Paterson said of the horsemeat scandal: “I think we came out of it very strongly.” On addressing the scandal he said, “Firstly we are bound by the rules of the European market,” although this is a notable departure from his feelings in other areas (Paterson calls Europe’s rules on GM food “medieval” and compares them to “witchcraft”). The annual review of his department showed that fewer than a third of his staff have confidence in managerial decision making and fewer than a quarter think their management have a clear vision of the future. They are not alone.

Some say all this is proof that “Big Retail has government in an armlock”. It sure feels like they have shoppers under the other arm.

On 14 January 2014 the European Parliament passed a motion on food fraud that “deplores” that it has never been an EU enforcement priority and reiterates that “the retail sector has a special responsibility to guarantee the integrity of food products”. With supermarkets claiming innocence and the UK Government playing “hurry up and wait,” maybe the EU can force some action on our behalf.

March 22nd, 2013

UK Focus: Three Questions for the NFU on GM Animal Feed

By Eve Mitchell, Food & Water Europe

Click to see a larger image.

Click to see a larger image.

Watching UK’s National Farmers Union (NFU) President Peter Kendall testify to the UK Parliamentary Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ inquiry into horse meat contamination of the EU beef supply on March 5, I was struck again by the inconsistencies in the NFU approach when it comes to GM animal feed.

I have three questions for the NFU:

1) In his testimony, Mr. Kendall repeated the position that short supply chains are the answer to predictable control of our meat supply and regaining consumer confidence. How does this tally with the repeated insistence that UK livestock farmers need industrial GM feed from the Americas traded through complex international commodity markets?

Much is made about the allegedly dwindling availability of non-GM soy (known in the UK as soya), but the non-GM soya industry itself paints a rather different picture. On February 26, Augusto Freire, Managing Director of Cert-ID (a company certifying non-GM soya supplies), said, “20-25% of Brazilian soybean production is free from genetic modification for the 2012/13 crop. China’s and India’s soy production is 100% Non-GMO….Estimates for 2013 are strongly up compared to earlier years due to adoption of the CERT ID and ProTerra [non-GM certification] programs by new operators in Brazil, as well as increased demand in Europe.”

In the current climate, before supply and demand reduce the cost of non-GM feed, it may well be a bit more expensive per tonne, but according to our calculations if non-GM feed costs an extra £14/tonne (about $21.00), this works out to be a mere 3p/dozen eggs (about 5 cents). Mr. Kendall asks, “Are we going to produce chickens in this country that are non-GM, but buy them in from Asia because they are 20% cheaper and they are fed on GM [feed]?” Is he perhaps confusing feed costs with the poor animal husbandry that keeps meat from many non-European factory farms cheap?

We also need to be careful in working out how much animal feed is actually GM – any amount of GM feed comingled with an otherwise non-GM shipment means the entire quantity, and all subsequent feed bags, are labelled GM. This does not mean that feed is anything like 100% GM, and in fact the bulk of any animal feed is probably non-GM.

2) If, as Mr. Kendall says, UK farmers need “confidence” in the market to invest and improve UK beef production levels, why does this logic not apply to the farmers in Brazil already growing non-GM soya but unable to risk the costs of certification without confirmed advance orders from the EU to ensure they gets a return?

Augusto Freire notes, “An additional volume of Brazilian soy meal representing 1.5 million metric tonnes of soybeans could have been certified [as non-GM] if EU buyers had expressed their demand early in the year.” The non-GM soya is there, and more can be grown, we just need to say we want it. It’s not hard.

Consumer demand should boost confidence enough to take this step. A 2010 GfK/NOP poll showed fewer than 40% of supermarket shoppers were aware that imported GM animal feed fuels British factory farming, and 89% wanted these products to be clearly labelled. In January of this year the UK Food Standards Agency published research showing again that two-thirds of respondents want all use of GM feed to be labelled. Even among those undecided about GM food and crops respondents felt “some form of labelling should be in place to help them determine GM content and avoid choosing foods containing GM if they so wish”. Overall there is a clear indication this need to identify GM use applies to animal products in particular. People don’t want GM feed in the food chain, and they want clear labels to help them see where it is – or isn’t.

3) I completely agree that there is, as Mr. Kendall told the Committee, “too much focus on price” in the food industry. If this is the case, why are industrial crops feeding industrial megafarm production to produce cheap meat worthy of such vocal support?

True, there are vested interests on both sides of the discussion, and there are rumours that Indian soya is less desirable than Brazilian. Overall we’d be far better off moving away from the industrial meat model. Yet this does not explain why supermarkets can’t do their part in delivering what the market demands now by placing clear orders for non-GM soya (or non-GM fed products) to give Brazilian farmers the confidence they need to grow and certify non-GM crops. The NFU position invokes the market, but goes directly against the basics of supply and demand. The more non-GM feed is demanded, the more will be supplied, and the costs will come down—unless vested interests interfere with the market. Large supermarkets and dairies in other parts of Europe seem to be able to manage it, so it is very difficult to see why the UK is different.

Mr. Kendall told the NFU 2013 conference, “Today I want to talk about a pact with the great British consumer to get things changed…We now need supermarkets to stop scouring the world for the cheapest products they can find and start sourcing high quality, traceable, product from farmers here at home…That may mean more dedicated supply groups. It will certainly mean longer-term thinking and a shorter supply chain.” We agree, and we’re here to help.

Mr. Kendall, if you truly “Do not want food safety and standards to be politicised,” as you told the Committee, why do you say GM skepticism is “directly comparable to Nazi book-burning in the 1930’s”? Why do you not support your members in providing what the market clearly wants?

The situation with regard to GM animal feed looks increasingly like lucrative supply lines controlled by shippers and importers, not farmers, attempting to force an end to non-GM supplies on an unwilling market. The NFU position, which wedges farmers uncomfortably between their market and these vested interests, remains very difficult to understand. The sooner the NFU applies the logic it uses in the meat chain to the feed chain, the sooner consumers will begin to regain confidence in our food.

Mr. Kendall also told your 2013 conference consumers should demand answers from the people they buy from. We agree European consumers can and should get what they want.

This action is a good first step.

September 17th, 2012

Video: Global Frackdown, September 22, 2012

By Mark Schlosberg

The Global Frackdown will unite people on five continents in over 100 events on September 22 to call for a ban on fracking in their communities, and to advocate for the development of clean, sustainable energy solutions. Initiated by Food & Water Watch, over 150 consumer, environmental and public health organizations including CREDO Action, Environment America, Democracy for America, Friends of the Earth and 350.org are taking part in the Global Frackdown.

Endorse the Global Frackdown.

Don’t forget to check out the frackdown on Facebook and Twitter.

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