15 May 2018

Nourishing or poisoning? What is the role of food in our productive, social and economic systems?

The answer to this question seems apparently easy. However, the formulation of the question itself highlights a trend that can be observed worldwide. “Nutrition – as Vandana Shiva has explained in view of the upcoming  event organized by Navdanya International in Florence - is now emerging as a crucial element for well-being ; we are facing an epidemic of chronic diseases, such as cancer and diabetes, cardiovascular and neurological diseases, increase of infertility and hypertension. New researches – the Indian scientist underlined – show the close connection between our health and the way in which our food is cultivated and processed; the health of the earth and that of the people, are to be considered as one”. Big multinational companies however increasingly are aiming to control the entire production and distribution chain by maximizing private profits without taking into account the obvious, and now established, damages to the environment, workers in the sector and consumers.

The alarms raised by scientists, or at least by those independent ones, whose research does not depend on agribusiness funding, are shocking . According to the latest researches, many of the recent health crises of the current decades, from those related to mental health up to the emergence of tumors, would be directly related to environmental and food contamination linked to industrial production models.

The latest alarm has been raised by Ispra, Superior Institute for Environmental Protection and Research, which presented their National Report on pesticides in waters, highlighting the presence of over 259 agro-toxics in Italian water bodies. Pesticides residues have been traced in 67% of the monitored superficial waters and in 33,5% of groundwater. This trend is increasing when compared to 2003: the Ispra Report, in fact, reveals how the number of substances that are present in waters, together with the number of contaminated areas, are increasing by 20% in superficial waters and 10% in groundwater. It is glyphosate in particular, together with its metabolite AMPA, that has been detected  in Italian waters: both substances, as the Ispra report points out, revealed to be present in higher percentages than those set by environmental quality standards for waters (SQA), as established by regulations, by respectively 24,5% and 47% of the monitored locations for superficial waters .

“The Ispra report – commented Navdanya International director, Ruchi Shroff – represents a further confirmation of the worries expressed by Navdanya and many other civil society organizations, regarding industrial agriculture productive systems, highly based on chemical inputs. The Ispra report shows how agrotoxics do remain in the soil and contaminate superficial and ground waters. We thus need to reflect on the process through  which pesticides are approved, what is effectively evaluated for their approval and how it is possible that the use of these agrotoxics can be considered safe for both the environment and human health.

We must reclaim independent scientific research on the interaction of one single pesticide with  its co-formulants and of various pesticides among one another: much more attention is needed to be given to  these aspects by the controlling authorities.

We cannot accept to passively watch the contamination of the environment and the risks posed to our health, just for the profits of large agribusiness companies. We must work to create regions and cities that are free from the poisons of multinational corporations .

For this reason, and with the aim of discussing and proposing alternatives to the industrial production model,  a Group of Experts on Food and Health met in Florence on 16 May. The group counts  some of the best known international figures in the sector, such as Vandana Shiva, President of Navdanya, Hilal Elver, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Patrizia Gentilini, member of  Isde Scientific Committee – Association of doctors for the environment, among others. The aim of this meeting is to draft  a Manifesto, which would highlight the inseparable connections between food and health,  as well as elaborate global strategies to overcome the industrial agriculture model and encourage synergy and action among the agroecology and public health movements around a common vision of a sustainable, fair and inclusive development.

We thus need a new global strategy to go beyond a system that has now become unsustainable and re-launch the agroecological model, through scientific innovation. But how did we come to this point? Industrial agricultural production had its golden age during the so-called Green Revolution, based on the production paradigm, fostered by the rhetoric of the necessity to feed the increasing world population. After over fifty years we can affirm, supported by UN data, that the Green Revolution has failed its goals. The number of people suffering from hunger in the world has not decreased at all and the results of  agricultural practices base on high use of chemical inputs have contributed to environmental contamination, posing a threat to the health of millions of people worldwide. FAO general director, Graziano da Silva, on the occasion of the recent Symposium on Agroecology, has talked about an “expired” model, which has not solved the problem of world hunger, which is still affecting 815 millions of people  – 2016 data.  Furthermore, the FAO DG has also underlined that the mantra of productivity at all costs , has proved to bring an unsustainable environmental cost, due to the massive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, that have contributed to soil and groundwater contamination and an immense biodiversity loss.

FAO conclusions represent the final signal of the myth that the use of agrotoxics is necessary to feed the world’s population. This myth had already been debunked by UN Special Rapporteur , Hilal Elver, who had pointed out how the problems related to hunger are more linked to poverty, inequity and distribution, than to production itself. On the contrary, Elver reported, the indiscriminate use of pesticides is related to the death of about 200 thousand people per year, due to poisoning. These data are worrying , nonetheless, they should not be surprising, considering that it is now clear that  health problems related with  chemical substances contained in food, cover the whole value chain, from the fields to consumers’ tables. Pesticides exposure can, in fact, occur in many ways, including direct exposure, among workers in pesticides production factories ,  salesmen and, particularly, farmers who use them in the fields. Moreover, exposure can occur through residues in superficial waters from agricultural run-off, wells and groundwater contamination, diffusion through wind following aerial irrigation, and finally through residues on fruit and vegetables. The processing phase between field and  table  is apparently the moment in which the majority of  chemical synthetic substances enter in our food: plastic materials, preservatives, organic solvents, hormones, flavour enhancers and other food additives are all commonly introduced in our diet during this phase.

Scientific and empirical evidence confirms how the time has come for a paradigm change, as Vandana Shiva argues: “After years of chemical and industrial food production, which produces toxic and nutritionally empty products, we are increasingly facing the insurgence of diseases linked with lack of micronutrients, while malnutrition, hunger and obesity keep  increasing; we need a new paradigm – Navdanya founder concluded - a new way of thinking about health, which is ecological and based on systemic thinking, not mechanistic reductionism”.



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