Featured stories in this issue...
- North Pender Tips Scales to Environment
- North Pender Island, B.C., has adopted an official community plan based on the "precautionary principle," meaning that when there are threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures will be taken even if the science is not fully established.
- Legislation For The Birds
- "Little recognized was the fact that for the first time in N.J. environmental law, the Legislature embraced a true precautionary principle. The scientific standard in the law should serve as a model and precedent."
- The Ethics of Embryology
- Health and safety regulation is now an accepted (although often criticised) feature of modern life, as is a version of the "precautionary principle" which obliges those proposing some technological innovation to provide reasonable scientific evidence that it will not cause great or irreversible harm to individuals or the environment.
- Op-Ed: Faiths Excepting Global Warming
- Religion and science come together on global warming in a contemporary application of both Blaise Pascal's Pensees and the "precautionary principle."
- Elk Sterilization Plan Now Unlikely
- "I'm really pleased with the consensus that sterilization is not consistent with the goal of maintaining ecological integrity and the precautionary principle," said Gaby Zezulka-Maillou.
- Mexico: New Rules Pave the Way for Transgenic Crops
- Aleira Lara, the coordinator of Greenpeace Mexico's sustainable agriculture campaign, told IPS that the entire regulatory framework is designed to promote biotechnology at the expense of the precautionary principle. "The Rules are one more step in that direction," she said.
- How Toxic Is Your 'Natural' Spa?
- Neal's Yard Remedies is another skincare manufacturer committed to restricting use of potentially risky substances. "We operate according to the precautionary principle, so we don't use substances such as parabens," explains Neal's Yard medicines director Susan Curtis.
NORTH PENDER TIPS SCALES TO ENVIRONMENT
By Judith Lavoie, Times ColonistThe fragile balance between the environment and human activity is likely to tip in favour of the environment on North Pender Island [British Columbia].
The new official community plan is based on the "precautionary principle," meaning that when there are threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures will be taken even if the science is not fully established.
"This OCP is groundbreaking in many ways and will likely be used as a template for other island communities," said Gisele Rudischer, chairwoman of the Local Trust Committee.
The plan, which includes measures to protect sensitive ecosystems and new policies to protect the island's water supply, came together after Islands Trust representatives heard from the community at more than 40 meetings over three years and looked at recommendations from 11 focus groups.
"We found there were recurring themes," said local trustee Gary Steeves. "This new OCP reflects what the community told us -- that we need a more enlightened, progressive approach to planning."
Key issues addressed in the plan are the importance of biodiversity, a zero-exclusion policy to protect Agricultural Land Reserve farmland, a policy of working with developers to ensure any development retains natural areas and that environmental impact is limited, recognition of the need to maintain a diverse community and the need to address climate-change issues such as dependence on vehicles.
"We've also retained an environmental planner to help with a public education program for landowners and the development community on how to mitigate impacts in these rare remaining fragments of intact natural areas," said trustee Ken Hancock.
The committee has appointed two new public advisory committees to make recommendations on transportation and affordable housing.
The aim is to create a better transportation plan and to ensure North Pender remains a place where people of varying ages, incomes and abilities can find a home, trustees said.
Copyright Times Colonist (Victoria) 2008
LEGISLATION FOR THE BIRDS
By Bill WolfeToday, governor Corzine signed legislation establishing a moratorium on the harvest of horseshoe crabs. The law is designed to protect the food supply of the red knot -- a migratory bird that stops to feed along the Delaware bayshore -- and hopefully prevent extinction of the species.
Little recognized was the fact that for the first time in NJ environmental law, the Legislature embraced a true precautionary principle. The scientific standard in the law should serve as a model and precedent. Driven by the steeply declining populations of the red knot, the new law shifts the scientific and legal burden from DEP to show that the species is harmed, to the fishing industry to show that any horseshoe crab harvest will not harm the recovery of the red knot and several other migratory birds. This is an important policy shift and thus far ignored aspect of what is otherwise a band aid on a dire situation.
The legislatively imposed moratorium was made necessary by the veto of a DEP imposed regulatory moratorium by the NJ Marine Fisheries Council. Outrageously, that Council is unique because it has the legal power to block and over-rule regulatory decisions by the DEP Commissioner. Commercial fishing interests dominate the Council. In this case, those commercial interests recklessly ignored the science and arrogantly jeopardized the extinction of this magnificent migratory bird that feeds on horseshoe crab eggs laid on Delaware Bayshore beaches. (Read all about the red knot here.)
Unfortunately, the legislative moratorium is a piecemeal solution that failed to resolve the underlying causes of a much larger set of problems that adversely affect the entire marine ecosystem. Although the legislation was critically important, the red knot moratorium is an illustration of what's wrong with the Marine Fisheries Council and what must be fixed to reform that Council.
We should not have to drive species to the brink of extinction before acting. And we should not allow the fate of species and entire ecosystems to be controlled by narrow special interests. Fisheries, wildlife, coastal, water, and natural resources of the State are publicly owned resources that are held in trust and managed by DEP - the "public trust doctrine" is incompatible with the current powers and composition of the NJ Marine Fisheries Council.
The causes and real problems result from: 1) the veto power; 2) the dominance of the Marine Fisheries Council by commercial fishing interests; and 3) the failure to subject the Council's management decisions to scientific and public interest standards.
Commercial interests on the Council have abused their authority and acted for selfish economic reasons in defiance science and the public interest. No other industry has the power to veto regulations by DEP - it is absurd to continue to allow this veto power to be exercised for narrow economic interests, for arbitrary reasons with no accountability to science or the public interest.
The Legislature needs to act to revoke the Council's veto power; broaden and balance the composition of the Council; and subject the Council to scientific and public interest standards. These legislative changes are required to assure that the Council is a scientifically sound resource management body that acts in the public interest.
Copyright 2008 New Jersey On-Line LLC.
THE ETHICS OF EMBRYOLOGY
By Kenneth BoydShould deaf parents be prohibited from using reproductive technology to have a child with genes for deafness? Should an infertile couple be prohibited from using artificial sperm and eggs to have a child of their own? Should scientists be permitted to create hybrid embryos (animal eggs with human genetic nuclei) for research into human diseases? These are some of the highly controversial questions raised by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill currently being debated in the UK Parliament.
They illustrate just how rapidly medical research has developed since the original Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act of 1990. That Act allowed the strictly regulated use of human embryos in reproductive research related to infertility treatment -- research, that is, which might give other embryos in the future a better chance of developing safely. But before the decade had ended, embryos were beginning to be used in a different way, as a source of stem cells in research into what came to be called regenerative medicine -- potential therapies using stem cell technology to repair or re-grow bodily organs damaged by illness, accident or ageing. If this research is successful, many currently incurable conditions might become treatable by stimulating the body to heal itself: the shortage of donor organs might no longer be a problem, cancer and degenerative diseases might be held at bay, and the human lifespan itself might be healthily extended.
With these enormous potential benefits in prospect, shouldn't scientists just be allowed to get on with regenerative medicine research unrestricted by regulations, and shouldn't personal decisions about the use of reproductive technologies, such as those involving deaf or infertile couples, be left to the individuals concerned and their own doctors? Why should Parliament be involved in regulating and deciding about such matters? An obvious answer, of course, is that in a parliamentary democracy, parliamentary representatives need to heed the views of their constituents, and that many of their constituents belong to or share the views of significant scientific, religious, disability or other pressure groups, whose arguments for or against the use of particular aspects of reproductive or regenerative medicine research are often polarised and politicised. Parliamentary regulation of research can sometimes seem like a way of achieving the least socially damaging compromise between warring sections of public opinion. Underlying these political debates however, there are ethical questions and quandaries which many members of the public who do not hold such polarised or politicised views nevertheless find morally troubling.
These questions and quandaries are concerned on the one hand with safety and on the other with solidarity. Health and safety regulation is now an accepted (although often criticised) feature of modern life, as is a version of the "precautionary principle" which obliges those proposing some technological innovation to provide reasonable scientific evidence that it will not cause great or irreversible harm to individuals or the environment. Developments and occasional disasters in the 20th century chemicals and nuclear power industries ensured that a need for regulation in these contexts was generally recognised, and a similar need is now recognised in relation to genetic technologies. An important reason for this is that "genetic engineering," unlike conventional engineering, deals with materials which have a life of their own, and can respond to modification in many unpredictable and potentially unsafe ways. Public concerns about the potential harms as well as benefits of genetic modifications have been fed by a long literary tradition, typified by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Frankenstein, but also by the use and misuse of eugenics in the early twentieth century, especially in Nazi Germany.
If safety concerns raise troubling and divisive ethical questions, so too do those concerned with solidarity. In the 20th century, solidarity, or the recognition in practice of each individual's equal dignity, regardless of class, race, gender, wealth or poverty, was increasingly reflected in national and international declarations, conventions and legislation regarding rights, responsibilities, opportunities and unfair discrimination. Moreover, part of the impetus for this came from the recognition that the very opposite of solidarity had been all too evident in the same century. Even an activity as ostensibly humanitarian as medical research had been part of this: reputable doctors, in the USA and other countries as well as Nazi Germany, were discovered to have conducted harmful research without consent, especially on people who were racially, socially or psychologically disadvantaged.
Much of the perceived need for, and implementation of, regulation in medical research arose from such revelations, and in particular the insistence, in medical treatment as well as research, on informed consent. But the problem again, as in concerns with safety, is one of proportion. If solidarity is the recognition in practice of each individual's equal dignity, are the individuals concerned only human individuals, or are members of other species, especially those closest to humans, to be included? And are the human individuals concerned only human persons, defined by characteristics such as rationality, self-consciousness or moral agency, or do they include beings of the human species, from the earliest stages of human life?
Animals and now human embryos are regularly experimented upon in scientific and medical research in ways in which it would be considered totally unethical to experiment upon any being of the human species from the womb onwards. Intuitively, many of us are prepared to defend this. A favourite argument in support of this in the case of embryos, is that if there was a fire in a laboratory and you had the opportunity to save either a tray of a hundred human embryos or one child, whatever your beliefs about the moral status of embryos, you would still save the child. But the problem with this argument is that in experimenting upon embryos, or for that matter animals, the alternatives are far less clear cut.
By experimenting on the embryo or the animal, you might eventually come upon a cure which will save the life of one child, or indeed many children. But then again you might not. Everyone must hope that research in regenerative medicine will be successful. But there are no guarantees. There are no final, knock-down ethical arguments against those who claim that in using animals we are blinded by "speciesism," or against those who argue that in using embryos we are offending against human life and dignity. But there are also no final, knock- down ethical arguments to silence those who ask: "If a child, or many children, might be saved by such research, how can you justify not doing that research?" Ethics does not necessarily provide answers. Sometimes it just makes the questions more difficult.
Kenneth Boyd is Professor of Medical Ethics at the University of Edinburgh
OP-ED: FAITHS EXCEPTING GLOBAL WARMING
By John HartA few years ago, scientists testified confidently before Congress that there was no universally accepted scientific proof linking cigarette smoke and lung cancer.
Senators listened respectfully to Big Tobacco's witnesses, and concluded that since there was no scientific unanimity, they should take no action. But people in increasing numbers contracted smoke- caused cancer until a whistleblower from corporate tobacco released memos that demonstrated that companies knew about carcinogens in commercialized tobacco, but continued to prioritize profits over people. Finally, citizens won lawsuits and politicians passed effective laws.
Enter the global warming "debate." Big Oil now mimics Big Tobacco. Industry reps and their supporters argue that there is no conclusive scientific evidence that humans are causing, or even exacerbating, global warming. Some even deny that Earth is warming, despite evidence that since the time scientific instruments first began measuring Earth temperatures in 1850, eleven of the twelve hottest years on record occurred in the 1990s and into the present century.
Two recent news stories highlight the debate. "Lawmakers doubt science behind climate change issues," in the Helena Independent Record on March 11, reported on conflict at the Environmental Quality Council meeting when government action was proposed to address global warming. "Southern Baptists Back a Shift on Climate Change," in the New York Times on March 10, presented a contrasting decision, by Christian leaders, to take action on the issue. In its editorial "Climate denial is persistent" on March 12, the IR noted that no amount of science will convince people "when 'faith-based politics' based on the gospel according to the likes of Rush Limbaugh" take precedence over scientific evidence.
In contrast to conservatives living by their political "faith," members of religious faiths have increasingly accepted scientific findings related to global warming, and urged their followers to "care for Creation." Southern Baptist leaders, not exactly flaming liberals, called for a greater response to climate change from their members, who comprise the second-largest U.S. Christian church. Their current president and his two predecessors, along with 41 other leaders, signed "A Southern Baptist Declaration on the Environment and Climate Change," which was issued officially on March 17. The document states: "Our cautious response to these issues in the face of mounting evidence may be seen by the world as uncaring, reckless and ill- informed." The document calls for "prudent action" by individuals and governments, which should include "responsible policies" in response to global warming. Acceptance of such responsibility was evident in the policies proposed to the Environmental Quality Council.
The Southern Baptists are not alone. In 2001, the U.S. Catholic bishops, leaders of the largest Christian church, had issued "Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence and the Common Good." Each year since then, representatives of the bishops have written letters to and testified before congressional committees calling for responsible governmental action to address global warming. Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have proposed international responses to planetary warming.
Two years ago this month, the National Association of Evangelicals promulgated "Climate Change: An Evangelical Call to Action." The document observed at the outset: "As evangelicals we have hesitated to speak on this issue until we could be more certain of the science of climate change, but the signatories now believe that the evidence demands action." The NAE statement resulted from the pleas of an evangelical British scientist that Christians in the U.S. should address global warming issues. Evangelical leaders noted when issuing the statement that while they ordinarily agreed with President Bush on social issues, on this one they disagreed with him.
In these church documents, the scientific basis for religious teachings has included the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an association of some 2,500 scientists from around the world. The IPCC was a co-recipient, with Al Gore, of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. The IPCC findings corroborate findings and statements by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), whose members include Nobel laureates in the sciences. All three churches' statements, the IPCC report, and the UCS express concern that global warming will especially harm the world's poor.
Over the centuries, conflicts have occurred periodically between religion and science. In recent decades, however, and in regard to environmental issues, theists and atheists have been able, in the words of Harvard biologist (and atheist) E.O. Wilson, to "meet on the near side of metaphysics." Church members have increasingly worked to take care of God's creation.
Religion and science come together on global warming in a contemporary application of both Blaise Pascal's Pensees and the "precautionary principle."
In the seventeenth century, philosopher-mathematician Pascal pondered the relationship between believing in God and doing good works. He proposed that we can wager on whether or not God exists, and act accordingly. We could act as if God exists and live a morally good life, and lose nothing if we are wrong. We could act as if God does not exist and live a reprobate life, and lose everything for eternity if we are wrong. He suggests that the prudent thing to do is to wager that God exists, even if we are uncertain.
The precautionary principle in science states that if a possible course of action has unknown consequences, which might be either minimal or catastrophic, prudence would dictate that we not take a chance (a wager) with catastrophe, but reject the action. If we choose to act while hoping that no harm will result, and we are wrong, then there will likely be terrible consequences. But if we act to avoid catastrophe, ultimately we will be better off.
In the global warming debate, will we wager that we need do nothing, and throw caution to the winds? If we're wrong, global catastrophe will result. But if we wager that it's better to be careful, whether we're right or wrong, we and our descendants will benefit because we'll take better care of our Earth home.
As we think about global warming, two questions confront us: "Who's your scientist?" and "What are you willing to wager?" The vast majority of scientists studying the issue, including Nobel laureates, warn of warming's impacts, and urge caution; a handful of politically motivated scientists are in denial and advocate inaction. Our responses to these questions will affect Earth and all life now and for generations into the future. How will we wager?
John Hart teaches and writes about environmental issues in Helena and Boston, and serves as president of the Montana Environmental Information Center. His latest book is "Sacramental Commons: Christian Ecological Ethics."
Copyright Helena Independent Record; a division of Lee Enterprises
ELK STERILIZATION PLAN NOW UNLIKELY
By Cathy EllisA controversial experiment to sterilize 10 female elk in Banff [Alberta, Canada] to test the effectiveness of birth control as a way of reducing the burgeoning elk population around the townsite is likely off the table for this year.
An advisory group to Parks Canada on Tuesday (March 11) recommended against the fertility control experiment at this time, although the superintendent of Banff National Park does have the final say.
The group also ruled out establishing off-leash dog areas outside town boundaries aimed at keeping elk at bay, or erecting permanent fences designed to keep elk out of certain areas, such as the recreation grounds and Banff Springs golf course.
They indicated they would prefer to continue with an experiment next winter of using semi-permeable wooden fences at five wildlife underpasses to trap elk on the north side of the highway, where they are more likely to be hunted by wolves and cougars.
Banff-based UTSB Research, which holds a seat on the committee and has loudly voiced its opposition to using the birth control drug Gonacon, was happy with the recommendations to come out of Tuesday's meeting.
"I'm really pleased with the consensus that sterilization is not consistent with the goal of maintaining ecological integrity and the precautionary principle," said Gaby Zezulka-Maillou, of UTSB Research after the meeting.
"We felt introducing sterilization in a wild population, particularly using a relatively untested product was not prudent and was costly. The substance Gonacon has not been rigorously tested."
The birth control plan was part of the bigger picture to reduce the growing number of elk around the Banff townsite to avoid a public safety threat and widespread environmental damage.
Elk numbers have more than doubled in the last three years, with a count last year estimating there to be at least 204 individuals in areas around the Banff townsite. The animals are likely seeking a safe haven from cougars and wolves.
Parks wants to avoid the situation of the 1980s and 1990s when hundreds of urban elk moved into town, often seen strolling downtown, holding people hostage in their homes as they feasted on lawns and charging and attacking residents and tourists.
On an environmental level, the unusually high density of elk led to severe ecological problems for other species such as birds and beavers, as the ungulates overgrazed shrubs and aspen and made it difficult for rejuvenation.
In reaching its recommendation to cancel the sterilization project of 10 elk cows, the montane advisory group considered the advantages and disadvantages of fertility treatment.
It was told the advantages of sterilization would help prevent the population from increasing, would allow animals to live without contributing to a population increase and may only partially reduce elk-human conflicts, as there would be no calves to defend.
On the downside, however, was the concern that fertility control does not affect elk behaviour or distribution, nor does it address ecological effects of high elk densities, such as elk grazing, and it does not fully address concerns about elk-human conflicts.
As well, the drug Gonacon is relatively new and would prove costly. From handling the elk, to injecting them with the drug by hand and fitting them with a collar for monitoring purposes was estimated to cost about $500.
Parks Canada officials say there is a chance the elk population could be slightly down, especially considering wardens destroyed 20 high habituated elk this winter, 13 more were killed on the train tracks and the cow-calf ratio was unusually low at 16 per cent.
But they say they will continue monitoring the elk population around town and try to get a better handle on the numbers during the spring survey, scheduled for sometime in May.
They plan to bring the dog handler back this spring to chase elk out of town during the calving season and do ongoing hazing of elk on the Banff Springs golf course in the summer.
As well, they will also put up more signs to try and keep people, including those walking their dogs off-leash in the area of the airstrip, out of the Cascade corridor to encourage wary carnivores to use the area.
They also plan to put the semi-permeable fences back up next winter.
The experiment to put the six-foot high wooden fences at five underpasses was not deemed overly successful this year, as the elk stampeded through one of the fences back to the south side of the highway, where they spent much of the winter.
In addition, the area's two main wolf packs did not travel through the Cascade wildlife corridor. There was, however, a known cougar kill in the wildlife corridor and another in the Minnewanka Loop region.
Jesse Whittington, a wildlife specialist with Banff National Park, said this winter's results did not quite prove themselves, but the experiment can't be judged on one year alone and needs to be given more time.
"There was lots of cougar activity this year, but the elk were relatively safe from wolves. If the Cascade pack was travelling through there, it might have been more effective," he said.
"Wolf use in there changes over time. In previous winters there have been wolves, but not the last two winters."
Mike McIvor, president of the Bow Valley Naturalists and a member of the advisory group, said it is important to give the
experiment of using the semi-permeable fences to keep elk on the north side a chance to work.
"One of the things we all have to come to terms with is that the natural world functions on a completely different timetable than the frenzied immediate one that we're part of," he said.
"When we're trying to change things and trying to learn from what we're doing, I think we have to demonstrate some patience and I think it's completely wrong to expect instant results."
Susan Webb, a representative for the Town of Banff on the committee, concurred, saying she agrees more time must be given to see if the experiment of using the semi-permeable fences needs more time to get results.
She also said she was glad Parks was not moving ahead with sterilization.
"I think of Banff National Park as a leader in the national parks in Canada. It's a flagship park, and it's always wise to act on more information than less information," said Webb.
"If some other national park in the United States is doing the research with birth control, let's benefit from that. We should go with proven science. It feels right not to experiment when we're not sure what the results would be."
MEXICO: NEW RULES PAVE THE WAY FOR TRANSGENIC CROPS
By Diego CevallosMEXICO CITY -- After a three-year-long process, Mexico is about to clear the way for legal cultivation of transgenic crops, in spite of resistance from environmentalists and several small farmer associations.
The Rules for the 2005 Biosafety Law on Genetically Modified Organisms were published Wednesday, and by the end of this year a national biosafety system and special guidelines for experimental sowing of transgenic maize will be in place.
According to some scientists and the government, constructing this legal edifice was appropriate and necessary, as in their view it ensures legality and regulates the study, experimental planting, and potential sale of genetically modified (GM) crops.
Trangenic organisms are modified in the laboratory by introducing genes from other plant or animal species, in order to improve their characteristics, such as yield or resistance to environmental conditions.
In the natural environment, GM crops can cross-fertilise with wild, native species or traditional hybrids and alter their genes, which environmentalists call "genetic pollution."
There is no conclusive evidence about the health effects of consuming foods containing GM ingredients, although there have been a few cases of health problems.
Environmentalists and several campesino (small farmer) groups say that Mexico could pay a high price if the wealth of its biodiversity were adversely affected by the release of transgenic crops.
Aleira Lara, the coordinator of Greenpeace Mexico's sustainable agriculture campaign, told IPS that the entire regulatory framework is designed to promote biotechnology at the expense of the precautionary principle. "The Rules are one more step in that direction," she said. The precautionary principle advocates avoiding the possibility of harm to the environment or human health, by prohibiting actions when doubts remain about their safety.
Environmentalists refer to the Mexican biosafety law as the "Monsanto Law", after the U.S. biotech giant that is the world leader in transgenic seed production, which has publicly backed the legislation.
Miguel Colunga, leader of the Democratic Campesino Front of Chihuahua, a state in northern Mexico, says his country "is still in time to reverse" the authorisation of GM crops.
"Transgenic crops are not safe, and we will lose our sovereignty, because the GM seeds belong to just a few transnational corporations," Colunga told IPS.
Using seeds patented by companies like Monsanto forces farmers to buy seed every planting season, paying the corporations each time, and puts an end to thousands of years of the traditional practice of saving the best seeds from the harvest to use for the next sowing.
The Biosafety Law on Genetically Modified Organisms, with its 124 articles, 33 pages and dozens of footnotes, and the 64 articles and 30 pages of Rules that accompany it, lay the basis for biotechnological research and create monitoring mechanisms for importing GM products and growing GM crops.
They also establish the intention of confronting the potential negative environmental impacts of GM organisms, while benefiting from their presumed advantages. The scheme under which transgenic crops will be authorised to enter Mexico is "case by case, and step by step."
The Biosafety Law and its Rules are adequate, because they ensure and guarantee that what happened in Brazil will not happen in Mexico, Luis Herrera, a renowned Mexican biotechnologist, told IPS.
The Brazilian government accepted GM crops after discovering that they were already being grown, illegally and without prior research, he pointed out.
The Mexican regulations will allow experiments and assessments to be carried out, to establish with certainty the safety of planting GM maize, soybean, cotton or any other transgenic crop, said Herrera, who is avowedly in favour of the technology.
The scientist, who along with other researchers produced the first transgenic plant at the University of Ghent, Belgium, in 1983, is now the director of the National Laboratory of Genomics for Diversity at the state Centre for Research and Advanced Studies.
Limited trials of transgenic potatoes, squash, papaya, soybean and other crops have been carried out experimentally in Mexico over the past few years, without any clear rules to regulate them.
The main concern of opponents of GM crops is the possibility that transgenic maize will be introduced and released in the country, an action which has been expressly prohibited by law since 1999.
One of the transitory rules attached to the biosafety law stipulates that by May 19 specific regulations should be drawn up to define where and how experiments may be carried out with GM maize.
The possibility that transgenic maize may be grown in Mexico, even on an experimental basis, raises hackles among opponents of GM foods. Maize is the staple food in Mexico, where it was domesticated 9,000 years ago, and is of immense cultural value.
"We are hoping that Mexico as a whole will be declared the centre of origin of maize, so that experiments and cultivation of GM maize are banned in the country," said Greenpeace activist Lara.
Mexico produces about 20 million tonnes of maize a year, on an area of 8.5 million hectares. Over three million local campesinos, most of whom are poor, grow maize using native seeds, or seeds that have been improved by methods other than genetic manipulation. There are dozens of sub-species of maize.
IPS was informed by official sources that the authorities and their advisers intend to allow experiments with transgenic maize to be carried out in the north of the country, where there is less biodiversity, and the connection between farmers and maize is not as strong.
In addition, campesino associations in the states along the border with the United States have been asking for several years to be allowed to grow GM maize, on the grounds that it is the only way they can compete in the marketplace with U.S. farmers.
"It's a myth that transgenic crops are more productive. Here in Chihuahua, many of us grow hybrid maize (improved by traditional techniques) and we can prove that it's better than the transgenic kind," said Colunga, of the Democratic Campesino Front.
"We can modernise our farming with our own maize. It's safe, it doesn't harm the environment, and it doesn't make us dependent on Monsanto or other companies," he said.
These companies take legal action against those who use their seeds without contracts and payments.
The companies state that GM crops do not harm the environment and are suitable in every way, and millions of hectares all over the world are now planted with transgenic crops.
However, there are documented examples of potentially dangerous GM maize. In the United States, Starlink maize was withdrawn from the market in 2000 after consumers experienced allergic reactions.
And transgenic MON-863 maize, belonging to Monsanto, which was authorised for human consumption in Mexico, harmed rats in experiments, according to a confidential report by the company itself which was made public in 2005 by a court order.
In 2007, the worldwide area sown with transgenic crops amounted to 114.3 million hectares, "benefiting 12 million farmers," according to a report by the International Service for Acquisitions of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), a U.S. not-for-profit organisation that promotes GM crops.
Less than 20 years ago, the area sown with transgenic crops was insignificant.
In the U.S. where, unlike in Mexico, transgenic maize as well as traditional varieties are grown, maize occupies 32 million hectares and production is over 300 million tonnes a year, 15 times more than in Mexico.
Mexico imports large quantities of maize from the United States to make up for the deficit in its own production. GM maize is included in these purchases, and the authorities do nothing to prevent it, environmentalists complain.
If the deadlines are met, by the end of 2008 trials of transgenic maize will be under way, which is good news, Monsanto spokesman David Carpintero told the Reforma newspaper.
Copyright 2008 IPS-Inter Press Service
HOW TOXIC IS YOUR 'NATURAL' SPA?
By Erin GillGoing to a spa is all about forgetting your worries and responsibilities, letting your mind float and focusing, instead, on your body. Anyone who has emerged from a spa rejuvenated and ready to take on the world again knows that a good spa offers something genuinely valuable amid all the luxury bathrobes and poolside wicker furniture.
Before you let your mind switch off, there is one niggling worry that might be worth investigating. What goes into all those body wraps, scrubs, lifts and refreshers ? Is that facial made from 100 per cent fresh papaya or are there other less natural ingredients in it too?
The short answer to that question is yes. In many cases the products used during spa treatments are not nearly as natural as all those references to algae and rose essence imply. Depending on what the products are designed to achieve, they may include detergents, synthetic fragrance, a range of preservatives... the list goes on.
You're not being lied to about the natural ingredients, you're simply not being told about everything else that is in that delicious cream now covering you from neck to toe. And you won't find product ingredients listed on spa websites or even on the websites of manufacturers of spa ranges, such as Elemis, Decleor and Clarins.
There is no question of illegal substances being used, although it is possible that the use of some ingredients that are legal today will be more restricted in a few years' time. A n overhaul of the way chemicals are regulated across Europe, called Reach (Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals), is under way. After years of wrangling, Europe's political leaders agreed to proceed with Reach in 2006, having realised that the shortcomings in existing chemicals regulation couldn't be ignored any longer. The key motivation for the project is concern about the absence of safety data for tens of thousands of chemicals that have been on the market for years.
What regulators are increasingly seeking from the skincare and cosmetics industry is better data about the penetrative power of skincare ingredients, plus more information about the possibility that exposure to particular substances could make conception more difficult, or cancer, genetic change or weakened immunity more likely. Our skin is not an impermeable shield that separates us from the world we live in.
Depending on whom you ask, either no one is asking spas what is in the treatment products they use or spas are facing questions from customers on a regular basis. Suki Kalirai, chairman of the Spa Business Association, has not heard of any spa being asked to discuss formulations. He doesn't think it is a concern and says that if it ever becomes one it will be the job of product manufacturers to provide information. Meanwhile, Fiona Brackenbury, head of UK training and education for spa range manufacturer Decleor, tells a different story. "The situation today is very different from even five years ago," she says. "Now, when a new spa is opening and all the brands are invited to present their products, we are asked much more technical questions. Spa managers want to know what is in our formulations."
A few skincare brands won't face a struggle to reformulate because they already exclude many substances of potential concern. REN Skincare is one such brand and its marketing bumf is crystal clear: "No petrochemicals, sulfates, parabens, synthetic fragrance, synthetic colours, TEA, DEA, glycols, silicones, PEGs et al."
Rob Calcraft, one of REN's founders, explains: "It has to be possible to bridge the gap between eco skincare -- which so often is heavy, bad?smelling and offers so little pleasure and modernity -- and the high-tech, well-packaged mainstream brands. The market has become so polarised, with natural brands focused on high-quality ingredients versus the big, synthetic boys who, at best, are inching towards a more natural approach. Bridging that gap is what we're trying to do with REN."
Neal's Yard Remedies is another skincare manufacturer committed to restricting use of potentially risky substances. "We operate according to the precautionary principle, so we don't use substances such as parabens," explains Neal's Yard medicines director Susan Curtis. However, like many in the business, Curtis acknowledges that completely natural skincare is not a realistic aspiration. "Unless you want to make up a product fresh every day, then some type of preservative is needed, and if you want to make an effective shampoo you do need a mild detergent. There are a lot of questions about potential health risks but not a lot of evidence. Not enough research is being done." Some of the substances under suspicion may prove benign, but there isn't enough solid data yet to know one way or another.
Finding a spa that uses fewer chemical-intensive products in its treatments isn't easy. A few British spas use REN products, including Barnsley House, Bamford Hay Barn, Royal Day Spa and the male-specific treatment rooms at Wholeman, W1. Neal's Yard has its own treatment rooms. Tucked away in the New Forest, SenSpa is one of the few British spas to ensure that all its treatment products are as natural as possible. Spa director Lina Lotto, who is in the process of developing SenSpa's own range of organic skin therapies, says: "Everything will be Soil Association-certified, there will be no synthetics, and even some preservative systems approved by the Soil Association are excluded."
SenSpa's natural approach is the exception. The British spa sector appears content to stick with conventional brands, at least for now. Champneys spokesperson Sharon Scott is refreshingly honest when she says that product formulations "are not something we worry too much about". However, she adds that Champneys would "do something if public concern grew". Time will tell.
European Health & Environment Alliance
US-based Campaign for Safe Cosmetics' database
Women's Environmental Network's cosmetic campaign
Chemical Watch, news service focusing on chemicals regulation:
SenSpa, Brockenhurst, Hampshire
Neal's Yard Remedies
Copyright Telegraph Media Group Limited 2008
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