The landscape of health has changed. No longer are our families guaranteed a healthy livelihood, not in the face of the current rates of cancer, diabetes, obesity, Alzheimer's and allergies. In the words of Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard University law professor who is head of the Congressional Oversight Panel, "We need a new model," and we need a new food system. It's our health on the line.
1. Evenly distribute government moneys to all farmers.
The current system allocates the lion's share of our tax dollars (approximately $60 billion) to farmers growing crops whose seeds have been engineered to produce their own insecticides and tolerate increasing doses of weed-killing herbicides. As a result, these crops, with a large chemical footprint, are cheaper to produce, while farmers growing organic produce are charged fees to prove that their crops are safe and then charged additional fees to label these crops as free of synthetic chemicals and "organic." If organic farmers received an equal distribution of taxpayer-funded handouts from the government, the cost of producing crops free from synthetic chemicals would be cheaper, making them more affordable to more people, in turn increasing demand for these products -- which would further drive down costs. If we were to reallocate our national budget and evenly distribute our tax dollars to all farmers, clean food would be affordable to everyone and not just those in certain zip codes.
2. Reinstitute the USDA pesticide reporting standard that was waived under the Bush administration.
In 2008, the USDA waived pesticide reporting requirements (a procedure that has been in place since the early 1990s) so that farmers and consumers would know the level of chemicals being applied to food crops. Given a report just released that reveals a 383-million-pound increase in the use of weed-killing herbicides since the introduction of herbicide-tolerant crops in 1996 and the potential impact that glyphosate is having on both the environment and on our health, perhaps the "don't ask, don't tell" policy assumed under the previous administration should be reversed.
3. Reinstate the pre-Bush administration dollar value that the EPA places on the life of every American.
in May 2008, the Bush administration lowered the value placed on the life of every American by almost $1 million, benefiting corporations who use this figure in their cost benefit analyses, marking down our lives from $7.8 million to $6.9 million the same way a car dealer might markdown a '96 Camaro with bad brakes. The EPA figure is used to assess corporate liability when a company's actions put a life at risk. While this figure benefits the corporations conducting the cost benefit analysis when assessing the health impact of their chemicals, the costs of these chemicals are being externalized onto the public in the form of health care costs.
4. Allow public debate over the nomination of pesticide lobbyist Islam Siddiqui for Chief Agriculture Negotiator at the office of the United States Trade Representative.
As addressed in a letter sent to Chairman Max Baucus and Ranking Member Charles Grassley of the Senate Finance Committee, Islam Siddiqui, nominated for Chief Agriculture Negotiator at the office of the United States Trade Representative, was formerly employed by CropLife America, whose firm challenged Michelle Obama's organic garden, has consistently lobbied the U.S government to weaken international treaties governing the use and export of toxic chemicals such as PCBs, DDT and dioxins, and blocked international attempts to help regulate pesticides that increasingly are linked to chronic skin and respiratory problems, birth defects and cancer in our communities. Given that a growing body of scientific evidence supports the theory that chemicals in our food are contributing to the rise in health problems, particularly in children, the appointment of an industry lobbyist to export our challenged food system to the rest of the world may be in the best interest of agrichemical corporations, but consideration should also be given to the health implications that these novel chemicals, proteins and allergens may have.
5. Encourage climate change advocates like Al Gore to discuss pesticide use by Big Ag and its chemical footprint.
While speaking openly about the petroleum industry's impact on global warming, leading environmental advocates like Al Gore have been relatively quiet about the chemical contribution that the recent introduction of crops genetically engineered with pesticides play on global warming despite scientific evidence from the Royal Society of Chemistry highlighting their impact. New reports based on USDA data show a 383 million-pound increase in the chemicals being applied to these crops since their introduction in 1996. According to the Royal Society of Chemistry, "growing biofuels is probably of no benefit and in fact is actually making the climate issue worse," given that glyphosate, being applied in increasing doses to these crops, breaks down into nitrogen.
6. Update the Consumer Protection and Food Allergen Labeling Act to inform consumers of newly engineered corn allergens.
The recent engineering of novel food proteins and toxins in the U.S. food supply has enhanced profitability for the food industry by allowing commodities like corn to produce their own insecticides. As a result, corn is now considered an insecticide and regulated by the EPA. For this same reason, this corn has been either banned or labeled in products in other developed countries because the new toxins and novel allergens that it contains have not yet been proven safe. Despite the lack of evidence, this corn is in the American food supply. The increase in the rate of food allergies as demonstrated in the December issue of Pediatrics and the growing number of people with this condition -- whose bodies recognize food as "foreign" and launch inflammatory reaction in an effort to drive out these "foreign" food invaders, speaks to the need to update and amend the food allergen labeling act to label these newly engineered genetically enhanced proteins and allergens as governments around the world do.
7. Ask the SEC to join the Department of Justice in its investigation into trade practices in the agrichemical industry.
As the Department of Justice begins its investigation into the impact that Monsanto's monopoly is having on farmers, their financial situation and the food supply, research out of the USDA highlights that the biotech industry is not delivering on what some are calling their "hype-to-reality ratio." As farmers are charged premiums for seeds that have been engineered to produce greater yields, research out of the USDA and Kansas State University shows that these products are not delivering as promised, directly impacting the cost structures of farmers in a razor to razorblade scenario. As farmers purchase genetically modified seeds in the hopes that they will increase yields and drive down cost structure and their dependency on weed killers, studies now suggest that since the introduction of the "razor"-- these biotech crops introduced 13 years ago -- farmers are actually spending more on the "razorblade" -- the herbicides and weed killers required to manage them, driving farmers' debt to asset ratios to record levels. Given that Monsanto's CFO, treasurer and controller are all leaving the company by year's end, the Securities and Exchange Commission could interview these three exiting executives and learn more about the financial predicaments of Big Ag's customers, the farmers, and the greater ramifications that this monopoly will have on food prices.
8. Appoint a Children's Health Advisor to serve on the USDA's National School Lunch Program.
The landscape of children's health has changed. No longer are American children guaranteed a healthy childhood, not in the face of the current rates of obesity, diabetes and allergies. Perhaps it is time that we follow the lead of governments in other developed countries and create a Chief Advisor for Child and Youth Health, whose responsibilities might include, but not be limited to, serving in an advisory capacity to the USDA on the National School Lunch Program. Under the USDA's current budget for the National School Lunch Program of approximately $8.5 billion (in comparison to the Pentagon's 2009 budget $600 billion), less than a dollar is available per meal for the purchase of healthy food once overhead costs are taken out. Given that one in three American children now has allergies, ADHD, autism or asthma and according to an October 2008 study from the Centers for Disease Control, one in three fourth graders is expected to be insulin dependent by the time they reach adulthood. As a result, dietary concerns are becoming increasingly prevalent for the estimated 30.9 million children and approximately 102,000 schools and child care institutions that participate in the National School Lunch Program. Given that increasing scientific evidence points to the roles that environmental insults like synthetic growth hormones in milk and trans fats in processed foods are having on our health, investing in a children's health advisor may provide long-term benefits to the future of our health care system.
It's our food system on the line. And if our children are any indicator, our health and the economic burden that it presents are on the line, too.
Robyn O'Brien is the founder of AllergyKids, which is working to help people protect the health of their families. She has been named one of the 2009 Women Who Shaped the World, along with Michelle Obama, by Shape Magazine.
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