Food Insecurity in the North – A Canadian Crisis

Food Insecurity in the North – A Canadian Crisis

gjoa-haven-map

A few months back, while I was working with Syrian newcomers in the GTA, a friendly Inuit man from Gjoa Haven, a small island hamlet around the 69th parallel, introduced himself to our Facebook group. The community group that I volunteered at were giving out warm winter coats and boots to Syrian refugees, while his family was in need too. It’s understandable that he would feel forgotten. The media pays little attention to their situation while all of the news coverage of the refugee crisis, while tremendously desperate and horrible in itself, does not negate the plight that my new friend’s community faces.

With the exception of the odd news item, I admit that I am just as ignorant as the next person when it comes to our northern Inuit population and the challenges that they face on a day-to-day basis. Most of us are just as ignorant about the amount of poverty, sometimes third world in nature, that these people live in despite Canada being one of the richest first nations in the world.

In a short period of time, I learned that everything is very expensive in many of the remote communities in Nunavut, especially fresh food. While the causes of poverty are much more complex than I can state in this brief article, there are two main reasons I can ascertain why the food crisis is the way it is: lack of country food and the enormously high food costs in local co-ops and grocery stores.

I contacted Leesee Papatsie, a mother of 5 from the Iqaluit, Nunavut, to help break it all down for me. About 4 and a half years ago,  she created the Feeding my Family Facebook group to protest the rising costs of food.  She says in an interview, “I wanted to organize a protest on the high cost of food in the north. Earlier before, some people wanted to have a protest on the high cost of food and on rotten food being sold.”

Nunavut

Papatsie says that Facebook is a common tool in the north since social media is a much cheaper option than travel and long-distance phone calls. The Facebook group easily swelled to over 24, 000 members, but Papatsie did encounter some resistance at the onset.

It was hard at first, because in the past, Inuit had to work together to survive in our harsh climate, everyone had to live in harmony, no one going against the grain. In the beginning, we got a lot of ‘this is not the Inuit way, why are you doing this?’

Her motivations were clear: kids in the north go hungry because of the high costs of food and “there are families that may go and eat at another family members because they don’t have an food in the fridge.” Papatsie explains what food insecurity is:

In the north, there are people who cannot afford to buy food, or a meal. We have heard that mothers will not eat meals so their kids can eat. We have heard mothers will feed babies canned carnation milk because they cannot afford to buy powered milk (e.g. Similac) or regular milk.

It is very common for lower income families to go without meals, they may be lucky to have a meal that day. Because food is so expensive, some people will buy what we call ‘stomach fillers’, such as KD, spaghetti, rice.

When you have to pay for 5 dollars for a loaf of bread, between 4 to 5 dollars for frozen Minute Maid concentrated juice, and something like 3 dollars for one box of KD, lower income families cannot afford that.

In most communities there are only 2 stores, and generally they are not a big in-size stores. You get what is brought in and you pay for what they sell it for. We don’t have a lot of choices in the north.

And yet, she tells me that there is no starvation. “Traditionally Inuit have shared their food… share their country food (harvested wildlife like caribou, seal, rabbit, birds, etc)”

Food insecurity isn’t the only issue facing our northern neighbours. Lack of housing and overcrowding are a common issue all over the north. With the high cost of living for rent and utilities, it is not uncommon for 5 to 9 family members to live in one house. She tells me, “Couch surfing is really a nice put words, it is more, is there floor place where I can sleep tonight?”

Because there are no roads leading to the northern communities, supplies and food have to be flown in during the winter, a very costly form of transportation, or brought in by sea barge in the summer.

Papatsie says that one of the biggest misunderstanding that southerners have about the north is that the solution to food insecurity is to hunt like their ancestors. In reality, the issue is much more complex than that because the high cost of food is merely a symptom of the extraordinary cost of living in Nunavut Territory. Hunting is expensive – for fuel and equipment – and not everyone is a trained hunter. Also, the Inuit were once nomadic and followed the animals while most northerners were forced to settle in one community. She says, “To be forced to live in one spot, automatically creates hardship to find wildlife and to find food.”

People of the south, people like me who live in large cities and towns across the country wonder why would these people choose to stay when to our way of thinking, with the high costs of importing food and the high costs of heating their homes and running their vehicles, they just wouldn’t move more south.

Papatsie explains in her own words:

Move? This is our home. We are connected to the land, it is our being. We live in a place where there is no noise; there is, but not like in a city. There is hardly any traffic, no big buildings. And in most places down south, people don’t look at each other and smile. To me that is a hostile environment. We are proud of where we live and who we are. If I had to move to [the] south, I think I would slowly die, eating me away slowly. It must be hard to live in a place where you are not connected to the place, where you don’t have a feeling of a sense of belonging. By choice, this is not an option for me.

Hear CBC Radio DNTO interview with Leesee Papatsie

I have kept in touch with my new friend and his family in Gjoa Haven, chatting often on Facebook and offering some help where I can while the family continue to struggle. My friend has just completed school and is awaiting a mining job that he hopes begins in April. In the mean time, it’s unbearable to me that a family would have to go hungry with empty cupboards and empty tummies. My friend reiterates what Papatsie has told me, that its their way to feed the children first, even if that means that the parents and the grandparents go without food for a day or two.

I believed that I could help in some small way. I wrote a letter to Nunavut’s federal MP Hunter Tattoo and contacted a lawyer in Iqaluit to help my new friend with some legal trouble his father was having. Nothing came of it. I also felt embarrassed at my own arrogance in thinking that I could change things when I know nothing of their way of life. I came to that realisation while I was speaking to a very soft spoken Inuit man, a contact that I made at the co-op in Gjoa Haven. How strange I must have come across, this southerner from Toronto trying to assert herself into their lives. I could feel my loudness, my dominance with him on the phone, a people who have been in Canada for about 800 years.

Inuit in the last 100 hundred years have gone through a huge cultural shock. We completely lived out on the land, now we have a totally different life style. Historically we did not have formal education, did not have formal work Monday to Friday, we did not have internet or TV and this life style, historically is something totally new to us. This is a whole different culture and custom to us Inuit. I do know one thing, Inuit have always been good at adaptations, we are going to find a way to adapt to this lifestyle while keeping our culture.

So despite my feelings on ignorance and arrogance and a little bit of hopelessness at the enormous task, I think I am on the right path when Papatsie offers ideas on how we can help:

Talk about this, to your family, to your friends, let me them know what is happening in the north. Write to your MP about what is happening in the north. What can you do? What do you have as a skill that can be useful to help the north? Use your imagination, creativity and just do what is right in your heart. You can’t go wrong with that.

Papatsie thinks that there is no reasonable reason why some items are so expensive and she would like to see the cost of food in the north come down (although she knows some items will remain expensive) She hopes, “more Inuit speak out, and as I mentioned, traditionally we had to live in harmony and work together to survive. I am seeing this slowly and it is happening. I would like to see other Inuit to speak up when something is not right. I want to see us Inuit, survive in success in this new culture and keeping who we are live.”

 

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GMO Science Is Not All Black and White

GMO-science-settleIt’s interesting, as of late, that journalists, most notably at the CBC, are coming under fire for conflict of interests – the most recent case being the firing of Evan Solomon.

I have no conflict of interest, because, 1. I don’t work for anyone and 2. I am not paid. I do, however, have my bias, which as always I am open about (see the title of my blog).

So this brings me to this posting, for which I might be accused of being anti-science. I can clearly state that I am not. What I am is anti-corporatization, and that’s an entirely different beast altogether.

Often times, writers, bloggers and journalists will take the lazy way out by citing unreliable sources. If you dig a little deeper, you will find big corporate money is behind the whole thing.

Case in point – an Inside Agenda blogpost by Iman Sheikh, Digital Media Producer at TVO: Chipotle’s non-GMO claims are about marketing, not health.

I don’t doubt that the title of her essay is true, but she stops the whole argument shortly after paragraph two, going on to disprove, in a rather flimsy way I might add, the anti-GMO movement altogether. She never even returns to why this is a marketing issue, and not a health issue.

So I called her out on it, even referred to her at worst a shill (A person who pretends to give an impartial endorsement of something in which they themselves have an interest) in the comment section below the article or at least just lazy. I’m not sure what her motivations are, or her own personal bias, but I believe she set out to discredit the anti-GMO movement as anti-science.

I have no idea if Sheikh has ties to the industry, but she has previously worked for two right leaning publications: The National Post and the on-line aggregator the Huffington Post.

I personally, have nothing to gain from any of this but to be skeptical of both sides of the GMO coin, with a definite tilting toward public health and safety of consumers. I also continue to be dubious of both the claims from the corporations themselves, and even Health Canada, considering that our current government has muzzled our scientists.

So for the specific purpose of addressing Ms. Sheikh, let me break it down her blog post, one section at a time:

Sheikh writes in her article:

In Canada, the scientific consensus is clear: according to Health Canada, there’s no definitive evidence GMO food is unsafe.

That’s not exactly true. Canadian Epidemiologist John McLaughlin, chief science officer for Public Health Ontario and most recently offered his expertise to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). After examining the data from peer-reviewed studies he says evidence from lab tests swayed the decision to reclassify glyphosate, the main ingredient in the herbicide Roundup used for many GMOs, for the first time in 20 years.

In a CBC interview he stated, “It’s important to know that the agent may possibly, or in this situation, probably be, a cancer causing agent, at least for a cancer, such as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma”, also noting that there aren’t enough studies on the effects on humans.

While Health Canada did not agree with the WHO’s final report, they took it seriously enough. Health Canada proposed a Re-evaluation Decision on Glyphosate, opening it up in April of this year to public consultation.

In an article about the safety of GMOs, Patrice Sutton, MPH, a researcher with UCSF’s Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment, states, “Many people could rightly look at the existing science and see that it’s extremely weak. However, weak science does not prove safety; it just demonstrates that the public health impacts of GMOs are uncertain. It’s an overall public health principle that in the face of scientific uncertainty to expose everybody to something is a legitimate concern that should give us pause.”

In another excerpt from Sheikh’s Inside Agenda blog post, she writes:

(Bt delta endotoxin as one example, which is derived from a natural soil bacterium and added to corn and potatoes to ward off pests. Smith [documentary filmmaker Jeffrey M. Smith]says Bt damages human cells, citing a 2012 study in the Journal of Applied Toxicology, but no toxic effects have actually been detected in 70 years of its use. The pesticide is even considered acceptable for the organic food industry.

It’s true that organic farmers uses Bt (bacillus thuringiensis) toxin to kill off pests, which breaks down naturally in the environment. Bt is not harmful to mammals and according to the National Pesticide Information Centre, when eaten, Bt is confined to the gut; it does not reproduce, and the toxin is broken down like other proteins in the diet, leaving the body within 2 to 3 days. (SOURCE: National Pesticide Information Centre)

But the Bt toxin produced in GM crops is NOT the same as the naturally occurring soil bacterium Bt – the one used in organic farming. (SOURCE: GM Watch) Using genetic engineering, the Bt protein genes isolated from bacillus thuringiensis are transferred to plants (such as Bt Corn) and if the Bt protein gene isolated from bacteria is inserted into the DNA of a plant, the plant itself produces Bt toxin. (Source: GMO-Safety)

The implications that Bt endotoxins are present in the stomach are huge because Bt Toxin can change the gut flora, leading to a whole host of problems such as allergic reactions and antibiotic resistance. In a 2003 study where researches fed cows Bt Corn, the researchers found that a “remarkable amounts of Bt toxin were found in all contents of the GIT and the protein was still present in faeces”.

In another study, two researchers from Sherbrooke University in Quebec conducted a study in 2010 on maternal and fetal exposure to pesticides associated to genetically modified foods.

In the study, they used two groups: 30 healthy pregnant women recruited at delivery and 39 healthy fertile non-pregnant women, recruited during their tubal ligation. The researchers discovered that Cry1Ab toxin, an insecticidal protein produced by Bt (bacillus thuringiensis) was “detected in 93% and 80% of maternal and fetal blood samples, respectively and in 69% of tested blood samples from non-pregnant women.”

“There are no other studies for comparison with our results,” the researchers stated in their conclussion. “However, trace amounts of the Cry1Ab toxin were detected in the gastrointestinal contents of livestock fed on GM corn, raising concerns about this toxin in insect-resistant GM crops; (1) that these toxins may not be effectively eliminated in humans (unlike the organic use of Bt – which leaves the gut within 2-3 days) and (2) there may be a high risk of exposure through consumption of contaminated meat.”

Sheikh writes:

A 2012 study by French molecular biologist Gilles-Éric Séralini revealed rats eating Monsanto’s genetically modified corn developed large cancerous tumours. But soon after publication others in the scientific community questioned the results, and the journal was forced to retract the original study.

In Seralini’s research, 50% of the male rats and 70% of the female rats died when consuming GMO seed or drinking Roundup-laced water. Many of the rats also experienced tumors the size of golf balls that inhibited them from movement.

Sheikh cites the Genetic Literacy Project, whose director is Jon Entine, Shill #1 in the industry with ties to both Monsanto and Syngenta. (SOURCE: propagandists.org) Jon Entine, using his position at Forbes, authored probably more articles to date attacking Séralini than any other commentator.

Ditto for Shill #2, Henry Miller at Forbes. Miller is a former Tobacco and pesticide defender and climate change denier. (Source: USRTK)

Add in shill #3, Bruce M. Chassy, is co-author of a 2010 GMO study in Food and Chemical Toxicology that was supported by Syngenta, Monsanto, Dow, DuPont and Bayer. Chassy and his pro-GMO friends, have done everything in their power to discredit the two year study by pressuring Food and Chemical Toxicology to retract the study only on the inconclusiveness of this one paper. You’ll find Chassy’s own letter speaking against the study on the Genetic Literacy Project website.

On the main page of the Food and Chemical Toxicology website you will find a letter about the Séralini study retraction that in it states:

…the Editors and Publisher wish to make clear that the normal thorough peer review process was applied to the Seraliniet al. paper. The paper was published after being objectively and anonymously peer reviewed, with a series of revisions made by the authors and the corrected paper then accepted by the Editor.

Scientists took issue with the sample size and the use of Sprague-Dawley rats, which were the same rats that Monsanto used in their own 90 day study and are recommended for chronic toxicology tests by the National Toxicology Program. Meanwhile, another group of scientists have criticised the retraction, supporting the publication as the only independent and long term study to date.

And why did they wish to discredit Séralini and his team? Because up to this time, all short term non-independent studies to date showed no adverse health risks from GMOs and Roundup. Interestingly, Jack Heinemann, professor of molecular biology and genetics at the University of Canterbury New Zealand, whose letter they post on the Genetic Literacy Project website, was actually against the retraction. He says:

The first publication of these results revealed some of the viciousness that can be unleashed on researchers presenting uncomfortable findings. I applaud Environmental Sciences Europe for submitting the work to yet another round of rigorous blind peer review and then bravely standing by the process and the recommendations of its reviewers, especially after witnessing the events surrounding the first publication.

This study has arguably prevailed through the most comprehensive and independent review process to which any scientific study on GMOs has ever been subjected.

The work provides important new knowledge that must be taken into account by the community that evaluates and reports upon the risks of genetically modified organisms, indeed upon all sources of pesticide in our food and feed chains. In time these findings must be verified by repetition or challenged by superior experimentation. In my view, nothing constructive for risk assessment or promotion of GM biotechnology has been achieved by attempting to expunge these data from the public record.

In a Letter to the Editor at Food and Chemical Toxicology, Marcel Roberfroid, Professor of Biochemistry and Toxicology, Université Catholique de Louvain, Belgium and former member of the editorial board of Food and Chemical Toxicology writes:

I [also] feel ashamed because your decision gives support to those who argue and even claim that scientific research (especially in bio-sciences) is less and less independent and more and more subject to industry pressure. Your decision which can be interpreted as a will to eliminate scientific information that does not help supporting industrial interests is, in my view, unacceptable. If you and your colleagues of the editorial board had some questions about the conclusion of Séralini’s study, the only scientific attitude would have been to ask for additional studies. Retracting data creates questions and suspicion and it is not a scientific attitude.

With some modifications, the Environmental Sciences Europe Journal eventually republished the Séralini study, but not before the damage was already done.

In another section Sheikh’s article, she writes:

The anti-GMO camp also decries the use of glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup, an herbicide used in many of the company’s GMO food crops. (Caffeine is 10 times more toxic than glyphosate—but that doesn’t necessarily mean people should stop drinking coffee. As is the case with glyphosate, the typical dose of caffeine is not high enough to cause toxicity.)

Sheikh again cites and lifts this pretty much verbatim from pro-GMO site the Genetic Literacy Project.

I’m not sure where the claim about caffeine being 10 times more toxic than glyphosate comes from (there’s no link on the Genetic Literary Project website), but I suspect it refers to a co-authored study by a well-regarded American Biochemist Bruce Ames. Pro-GMOs refer to it frequently, since Ames is one of the earliest defenders of pesticides including DDT, critical of the 1962 book Silent Spring by author and biologist Rachel Carson. Carson, who highlights in her book the dangers of DDT, is considered one of the earliest pioneers of the environmental movement.

It took me a while to find Ames 23 year old study, titled Rodent Carcinogens: Setting Priorities. I had a terrible time trying to see how he came to his conclusions that I actually had to consult a neuroscientist friend to help me make heads or tails of the thing. But basically what the study says is, when we separately look at individual chemicals (synthetic or naturally occurring) and do a toxicology study where we give this chemical alone in LARGE chronic doses to rodents, lots of these chemicals will cause cancer in the rodents and kill them… BUT, this doesn’t scale up easily to what the safe dosages are in humans. We isolate some of those chemicals and give them in high chronic doses to rats, they will cause cancer. That doesn’t mean drinking coffee in natural amounts causes cancer.

And what I was able to come up with on my own is that Ames is an odd guy. He is well respected in the scientific community and has won numerous awards for his research. And yet, he is in bed with big-tobacco and climate change deniers. Most recently, he was interviewed in a pro-fracking documentary, Fracknation, seeking to address the concerns surrounding the process that were highlighted in the Oscar nominated anti-fracking film Gasland.

While the risk of glyphosate alone is relatively low, another study finds that, “inert ingredients of the popular pesticide product Roundup work synergistically and have greater endocrine disrupting effects than the active ingredient, glyphosate, alone.”

Following Quebec’s lead and using a precautionary principle, the Province of Ontario banned glyphosate, one of three class 9 chemicals, and all products containing glyphosate including Roundup from cosmetic lawn care use in 2009 “because they may pose an unnecessary risk to human health, particularly children’s health”, the government website states. Other provinces are following Ontario’s lead, now considered to have one of the most comprehensive bans in all of North America. As usual, like the smoking ban in public spaces, the municipalities and provinces are well ahead of the federal governement regulators.

Environmentalists and farmers have sounded alarms about the sprouting of so-called “superweeds” that have developed resistance to Roundup and its active ingredient glyphosate. A study reviewed the regarding the development of glyphosate resistant weeds. The researchers discovered that “the widespread adoption of GR crops has not only shifted weed species in these crops towards naturally resistant species, but it also resulted in evolution of GR weed biotypes. To date, a total of eight weed species have evolved resistance to glyphosate.”

The WHO states under its FAQ section of their website, while they back the safety of GMOs, that there are three areas of concern for human health with Genetically Modified Organisms: potentials to provoke allergic reaction (allergenicity), gene transfer, particularly relevant if antibiotic resistance genes that are used as markers when creating GMOs were to be transferred and outcrossing, the migration of genes from GM plants into conventional crops or related species in the wild.

Sheikh makes creates an image of the anti-GMO camp falling into the same group as the anti-vaxxers:

According to University of Guelph professor Andreas Boecker, the answer lies in the public’s general skepticism toward science. Another example of the same phenomenon: the anti-vaccination movement.

These are not the same phenomenon, and here’s why.

In a 2014 survey by the Pew Research Center, the Princeton Survey Research Associates International conducted 2,002 phone interviews in all US states.

According to the survey, 57% of the general public say they believe that eating genetically modified foods is unsafe with almost half of those surveyed holding college degrees believing that GMOs are generally unsafe. Meanwhile, a whopping 67% say that scientists do NOT have a clear understanding of the health effects of genetically modified crops while this.

When the same group was asked about whether vaccines for childhood diseases such as measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) and polio should be required or left up to parental choice, the vast majority of adults, like 68%, said such vaccines should be required.

And according to a 2011 Ekos poll, “findings indicate that Canadian parents generally perceive little difficulty in making the decision to immunize their child, with 89 per cent of respondents rating the decision making process as easy – With childhood vaccines for tetanus/diphtheria/Hib/pertussis/polio, meningococcal disease, measles/mumps/rubella and pneumococcal disease in particular are seen as highly important.

So the anti-vaxxers, still largely remain in the lunatic fringe.

Sheikh’s  writes:

GMO foods might even solve health crises rather than create them. For example, Golden Rice is a genetically engineered grain designed to combat widespread human micronutrient deficiencies from lack of iron, zinc and vitamin A.

Golden Rice is always brought into the discussion when defending GMOs, like, it’s the holy grail of genetically modified foods, or something. The scare tactics used by the pro GMOs are especially disconcerting, like in the case of this intentionally provocative National Post article: Trashing rice, killing children

According to a study conducted by the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines and Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics at the University of Illinois in 2002, Golden Rice 1 was found to “deliver amounts of VA (Vitamin A) that are modest, and unlikely to fulfill requirements” compared to two other interventions: wheat fortification and supplementation. “Thus, it should be viewed as a complement to existing interventions.”

It wouldn’t be until 2005 when Syngenta developed GR2 and observed “an increase in total carotenoids of up to 23-fold compared to the original Golden Rice and a preferential accumulation of beta-carotene”.

Meanwhile, the WHO states that, “Since breast milk is a natural source of vitamin A, promoting breastfeeding is the best way to protect babies from VAD.” Post breastfeeding, “the periodic supply of high-dose vitamin A in swift, simple, low-cost, high-benefit interventions has also produced remarkable results, reducing mortality by 23% overall and by up to 50% for acute measles sufferers. The WHO also suggests that for “vulnerable rural families, for instance in Africa and South-East Asia, growing fruits and vegetables in home gardens complements dietary diversification and fortification and contributes to better lifelong health.”

Nutrient rich orange sweet potatoes are high in vitamin A and grow well in drought ridden countries such as in the continent of Africa. International Development Secretary Justine Greening unveiled in 2013 a £30 million plan to develop the potato, the crops being bred without the use of genetic modifications. She said, “Ending malnutrition is the first step to ending aid dependency through jobs and growth.” Source: ‘Super potato’ could save millions from blindness

I could keep going with this, but then this blog post would be even longer, so I will leave it here. If you wish to read further, you can read an earlier article I wrote: No Label, No Problem.

Note about this blogpost: This article was originally posted on June 16, 2015 and feeling that I didn’t cover all of my points thoroughly, I have elaborated more extensively and edited the original post.

 

Feeling Food Insecure?

Grocery StoreHey Canada! Did you know that just a handful of food giants produce the majority of the food you eat? In fact, Nestle and Pepsico are the number one and two biggest food companies in the world, respectively, Nestle alone with 8000 brands and $99 billion in sales in 2013.

According to Oxfam’s Behind the Brands, only ten companies are part of an industry valued at $7 trillion, larger than even the energy sector and representing roughly 10% of the global economy. In their report, they state:

“…the food and beverage industry has used cheap land and labor to produce the least expensive products possible – often of low nutritional value while maximizing profits. Costs like the impact of drained water resources, rising greenhouse gas emissions, and exploitative working conditions have remained off company ledgers, while the industry and its shareholders have prospered.” Source Oxfam

In a press release on Tuesday, March 24th, the Brazilian Investment Firm 3G Capital, part owners of H.J. Heinz, announced their plan to purchase Kraft Foods for $40 billion US and merger with Heinz. CEO Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. helped orchestrate the deal and with a combined income of about $28 billion, the Kraft Heinz Company will be the 3rd largest food and beverage manufacturer in North America and the fifth largest in the world. (Pepsico Inc. and the little known but massively successful Tyson Foods Inc. place first and second North America). Food_Insecurity

Warren Buffett is no stranger to the food and beverage industry. He has a net worth of $70 billion and was named the richest person in the world by Forbes, before giving away a portion of his vast fortune. Meanwhile, Berkshire Hathaway Inc., of which Buffett is the majority stock holder, is the fifth largest public company in the world. It wholly owns Dairy Queen, half of Heinz, an undisclosed percentage of Mars Inc. and has a 9% minority holding in the Coca-Cola Company.

Buffett bought up Coca-Cola Company stock back in 2008, eventually purchasing up to 7% of the company for $1.02 billion. It would turn out to be one of Berkshire’s most lucrative investments, and one which it still holds. Oh yeah, and Berkshire Hathaway also own 5% of Restaurant Brands International, the fast food restaurant company that 3G Capital created after the merger between Burger King and Tim Hortons. And back to Tuesday’s press release, which states that Heinz shareholders will collectively own 51% of the new company OR Warren Buffett holds that 51%. See where I’m going with this?

Oxfam conducted a study in 2013 that found that roughly 67% of US respondents were concerned about how their food is produced, (I don’t have Canadian stats for this)which shows that most of us really care about what we eat but also, at what costs those cheap and tasty foods come to market.

But even if you think you are choosing store brands that represent your core values, those same mega corporations may actually still own them? For example, White Wave, producers of Silk, acquired Earthbound Farm Organic, America’s largest grower of organic produce in 2013, Hain Celestial owns Earth’s Best Organics and Arrowhead Mills and General Mill’s recently purchased Annie’s Homegrown in 2014. (See link here)

General Mills, who purchased Annie’s Homegrown last year, was the same corporation that lobbied against GMO labelling in Oregon and Colorado with $1.5 million dollars just for lobbying at their disposal. By comparison, Annie’s put up $135,000 supporting the measure before the General Mills Borg swallowed them up. (See link here)

With these food conglomerates continually snowballing and picking up acquisitions along the way, the 1% of the world’s wealthiest own these food giants and control what the rest of us 99% eat.

According to the US based consumer protection group, Food and Water Watch, they state:

“Bigger food companies…actively target smaller and local brands as well as the lesser brands of their competitors for acquisitions or mergers.”

Even as I sit here, eating from a partial bag of Humpty Dumpty Cheese Sticks, I’m cognisant of the fact that some bigger company might swoop in and buy up privately owned Old Dutch before this blog post goes up. The same independent watch dog also states:

“…many firms sell multiple brands of the same product, which leads consumers to believe that they are choosing among competitors when they are actually just choosing among products made by the same firm that may have been made at the same factory.”

You see examples of this in our own country. Weston, Canada’s largest food processing and distribution company and owners of Loblaws, No-Frills and Shopper’s Drug Mart, stocks their shelves with Country Style, Old Mill and Wonder breads, bagels and English muffins, appearing that they offer a selection of products to the consumer.

In actuality, Weston foods, including Wonder for which they hold the license for in Canada, produces all of these products. By their own words, Weston foods refer to the bread market as oligopolistic. (See link here Slide 10) I’m no economist, so I had to look that particular word up, but what it means is that the market is concentrated with very few players. That’s not an ideal thing in a free market.

You won’t find any of Weston Foods’ direct bread competitor in any of Loblaws’ stores either: Canada Bread, the makers of Dempster’s. The largest Mexican-owned baking company Grupo Bimbo (named in 1945 by mixing the two words bingo and Bambi – I’m not making this shit up!) just purchased Canada Bread and former subsidiary of Maple Leaf Foods. Will the newly minted Dempster’s producer dump the maple leaf logo and rename it Mexican Bread? Doesn’t have the same ring to it.

According to Oxfam International, the wealthiest 1% will soon own more than the rest of the world’s population by 2016. Members of this global elite had an average wealth of $2.7 million per adult in 2014. The siblings and owners of the family business Mars, Inc. have a combined total worth of almost $80 billion dollars. That’s just for candy and gum. But Oxfam also calculated that the top 80 wealthiest individuals who it turns out have a combined wealth of $1.9 trillion dollars, equal to Canada’s GDP. And Warren Buffet and the Mars siblings have half of that!

Consumers, of course, can create change on their own. According to Food and Water Watch, shopping the perimeter of the store and avoiding processed foods and choosing whole foods can make a huge difference not only in your health, but also your grocery bill. My sage advice to you is do your own research and while we cannot control the vast majority of things in this world, we as consumers can control what we purchase and put in our mouths.

Male Circumcision: Hashtag Campaign Raises Awareness of Bodily Integrity

circumcision-banner2A Florida mother has fled with her son Chase after a court ordered that she follow through on a signed a legal agreement between herself and the boy’s father Dennis Nebus, that the boy would receive a routine circumcision. The problem is that back in December 2011, Chase’s mother Heather Hironimus never followed through with the operation for which the father would arrange and pay for and she and her son are now opposed to the operation, despite the father’s wishes. Heather and Chase’s supporters and anti-male circumcision activists have created a Saving Chase fundraising and awareness campaign and matching twitter hashtag.

This topic isn’t anything new, and it will most likely be argued for decades to come, in such the way that vaccination or global climate change are the topics that are always hot button at the moment.

I always state, and I will reiterate again, that I am highly biased on many topics, including this one. However, in this particular situation, I don’t just believe that I am right, I know I am.

Some of you many know that I am a feminist, and as such, I am vehemently against any form of female genital cutting, culture and religion be damned. So then I wonder, how is it not possible for me to be just as outraged that we as a society, for merely a marginal improvement on health, can support and condone the ancient and ritualistic mutilation of an intact penis?

While trying not to impose my own western values upon other cultures, I am really torn on this issue. Political Scientist Rebecca Steinfeld reconciles my misgivings in an interview with Tove Lyssarides titled: Hysteria -– Male Circumcision is a Feminist Issue Too. She states, “To preserve the community, one sacrifices some individual rights, in this case those of the individual boy. The problem is that sacrificing basic concepts like individual rights and bodily integrity to a particular worldview focused on community could be a slippery slope. Plus, it would require re-thinking opposition to FGC, and perhaps even re-allowing it on the basis of parents’ religious beliefs or cultural preferences. In my opinion, this should be unconscionable.”

The ancient practice of male circumcision dates back to the Egyptians. After failed attempts at castration, which resulted in hemorrhaging and death, they discovered that male circumcision had safer outcomes and yet still emasculated the male slaves with “the indestructible marking and the distinctive feature of the slave”. (SOURCE: History of Circumcision from the Earliest Times to the Present, by Peter Charles Remondino).

Aside from religious rites, it has been used for many reasons including cleanliness, coming of age and to curb sexual urges, as written by J.H. Kellogg, the insane Victorian doctor and author of The Plain facts for young and old: Embracing the natural history of hygiene and organic life. There he states: “A remedy which is almost always successful in small boys is circumcision, especially when there is any degree of phimosis. The operation should be performed without administering an anaesthetic, as the brief pain attending the operation will have a salutary effect upon the mind, especially if it be connected with the idea of punishment, as it may well be in some cases. The soreness which continues for several weeks interrupts the practice, and if it had not previously become too firmly fixed, it may be forgotten and not resumed.”

While I can’t find conclusive data, the circumcision rate in Canada is about 30%, with very almost nil stats from Newfoundland and Labrador with the highest rates in Albert and Ontario. (SOURCE: Wikepedia).

My own family tried to persuade me toward circumcision of my two boys with an old story of dear uncle of mine who was in the war (not Afghanistan or Korea, I mean like World War II). He was never circumcised as a child because my mother’s family were Catholic, but while stationed for 2 years in India, he developed an infection during the war. This is an extreme case, I’ll tell you; my mother recalling pictures of him covered from head to toe with boils.

Infant circumcision takes away the choice from that human being, to decide for themselves what they want to do with their body when they are old enough to make that decision for themselves, for non-medical reasons such as aesthetics or religious beliefs.

Well, that’s what those who support male genital cutting are trying to sell. And for what reason? Health.

Why are they selling heath now as a reason to circumcise? Because, that is science and that is what any first world western nation stands by.  And yet, The Canadian Paediatric Society considers circumcision a non-therapeutic procedure and does not recommend routine circumcision for newborn boys, is no longer covered by most health care plans and fewer paediatricians are offering this paid service. The looked at both sides of the equation and formulated an opinion based on science. Here are the stats for the uncircumcised male so you can see for yourself (SOURCE: Canadian Paediatric Society):

• .7 % will be admitted to hospital for a UTI before they are one year old.
• .10 % will have a circumcision later in life for medical reasons. Older children who are circumcised may need a general anesthetic, and may have more complications than newborns.
• Circumcision slightly lowers the risk of developing cancer of the penis in later life. However, this form of cancer is very rare. One of every one million men who are circumcised will develop cancer of the penis each year. By comparison, 3 of every one million uncircumcised men will develop penile cancer each year.
• Will have a decreased risk of urinary tract infections.
• Will have a reduced risk of some sexually transmitted diseases in men. The CDC states that the benefits of male circumcision outweighs the risks, based upon rates of HIV transmission of uncircumcised men in Africa. While it America it states, “heterosexual transmission accounted for only 5% of infections. The potential impact of MC (male circumcision) on the U.S. epidemic through prevention of heterosexual transmission to men is, therefore, currently limited.
• Circumcision also makes it easier to keep the end of the penis clean.

There are anatomic contraindications (procedure should not be used as it may be harmful to the patient) for routine circumcision that includes some conditions such as webbed penis, hypospadias (present but malformed foreskin), chordee (curvature), ambiguous genitalia (genital ambiguity) and buried penis, but with an otherwise healthy child, here are an abridged list of rare complications from routine circumcision.(SOURCE: Stanford School Of Medicine):

• Bleeding is the most commonly encountered complication of circumcision with an incidence of 1% in a large retrospective review. (SOURCE: PubMed Central) The expected blood loss during neonatal circumcision is just a few drops, so bleeding that exceeds this expectation is a complication. Fortunately, almost all cases of bleeding with neonatal circumcision are very mild.
• Infection: Because newborns are relatively immunocompromised, infections in this age group can become serious problems. Although rare, meningitis, necrotizing fascitis, gangrene, and sepsis have all been reported as complications of infected circumcision sites.
• Insufficient foreskin removed: A more problematic situation can occur if the redundant foreskin slides back over the glans and scars down, creating a phimosis. In this case, surgical repair is necessary.
• Excessive foreskin removed: Because the foreskin is attached to the glans on the inner surface, it is possible to draw skin from the penile shaft up into a circumcision device and remove too much. In most cases the denuded area will epithelialize spontaneously and give a satisfactory end result, but the inital appearance can be quite distressing to both parents and practitioner.
• Adhesions/ Skin bridges: During the process of circumcision, these adhesions need to be lysed in order for the foreskin to be completely removed. If adhesions are not completely removed, the circumcised edge of the foreskin may be drawn up over one section of the corona and create an asymmetric appearance.
• Inclusion cysts: As the circumcision site is healing, inclusion cysts may form along the cut edge. These cysts are thought to either result from smegma accumulating in the incision or from the epidermis rolling in at the time of the procedure. Inclusion cysts may be asymptomatic or may become infected. If size or infection are problematic, surgical excision may be necessary.
• Abnormal healing: As with any wound, the possibility for abnormal healing is present with circumcision.
• Meatitis: When the urethral opening becomes red and inflamed, the condition is known as meatitis. This is typically a self-limited condition which resolves as the epithelial surface of the glans thickens post-procedure.
• Meatal stenosis: Meatal stenosis, a narrowing of the urethral opening, is an uncommon complication of circumcision that usually does not require treatment. It is thought to result either from chronic meatitis that leads to scarring or from mild ischemia of the glans during circumcision.
• Phimosis: When circumcision is performed on a boy with penile web or buried penis, the circumferential edge can pull together in a purse-string fashion and result in the penis being trapped under circumcision site, creating a secondary phimosis. In some cases, good outcomes have been reported with watchful waiting, but surgical correction may be necessary.
• Chordee: When chordee is not present at birth but develops as a complication of circumcision, it is thought to be due to uneven amounts of foreskin removal from the ventral and dorsal surfaces. In this case, the corporal bodies are normally formed — unlike “true chordee” — but the healing of the asymmetric edge causes the glans to deviate. Surgical correction may be necessary.
• Hypospadias: When not present at birth and noted as a complication of circumcision, it is thought to be related to injury from a clamp device that results in avulsion or splitting of the ventral glans. Surgical correction may be necessary.
• Epispadias: As a complication of circumcision, it is also rare but is possible if the device used to create a dorsal slit in the foreskin is inserted into the urethra inadvertently. Surgical correction may be necessary.
• Urethrocutaneous fistula: The creation of a fistula between the urethra and the skin is another rare complication of circumcision. It occurs when there is injury to the urethra. This is thought to be most likely if there is aggressive clamping or suturing on the ventral surface of the glans or penile shaft as the urethra lies quite close to the skin in this area. Surgical correction is necessary.
• Necrosis of the penis: Necrosis is also a rare complication, but it has been reported as a complication of circumcision in the setting of infection or injudicious use of an electrocautery device to control bleeding.
• Amputation of the glans: This is a rare but devastating complication of circumcision which has been reported with inappropriate placement of the Mogen clamp. The clamp is designed to allow the device to open only enough to allow the foreskin, and nothing else, into the area of compression, but if placed incorrectly with all or part of the glans admitted into this area, amputation will occur.
• Death: Death is an extremely unlikely complication of neonatal circumcision, but it has been reported. During a five-year period at the Massachusetts General Hospital, 7.4% of all visits to a pediatric urologist were for circumcision complications. This translated to an average total cost per patient for redo procedures of $1,617 and an estimated annual cost of $137,122 to the institution. (SOURCE: PubMed Central)

In conclusion, it is heartening that this topic has been brought into the forefront. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t think that it will be easily solved, and while I would personally like to see an outright ban in Canada of infant male circumcision, I don’t know if that will happen any time soon.

I Want My Canopy Back or Why Trees are Vital to Toronto

cropped-view-over-highpark.jpgOne generation plants the trees under which another takes its ease

(Chinese Proverb)

The terms tree canopy and urban forest has come into the forefront lately, and for good reason. The city of Toronto has undergone a devastating setback with our own tree canopy.

In 2007, Toronto City Council under then mayor David Miller, adopted a plan to significantly expand the city’s tree canopy to between 30-40%. It was one of the more ambitious goals the city had set for itself, but now it looks like it will be an impossible task and here’s why.

A study conducted back in 2008 by Toronto Urban Forestry determined that the city of Toronto had a 20% forest cover representing 10.2 million trees with an estimated structural value of $7 billion. (Source: Every Tree Counts)

Maintaining the existing canopy, that is, saving the trees that we already have is growing more and more difficult. The Emerald Ash Borer (an introduced insect pest) poses a significant threat to Toronto’s tree canopy. The loss of all ash trees in Toronto would reduce overall forest cover in the city from 19.9% to about 18.3%. In 2013-14, a particularly harsh winter followed by an ice storm was thought to have damaged tens of thousands trees or up to 20% of the existing tree canopy. That is well below the North American average, and more than 50% less than David Miller’s target.

It doesn’t help when municipal politicians cannot even agree on how to address the situation. Mayoral candidate John Tory says he would double the city’s tree-planting budget, investing an extra $7 million per year in a campaign to plant 3.8 million more trees (380,000/yr)over the next decade. (note to readers that the math doesn’t add up). Olivia Chow has agreed to commit 1 million trees (200,000/yr). She said that as mayor, she’d pay for the new trees and hire 500 youth over five years by “changing the way polluting businesses pay for the city to treat environmentally harmful discharges in the sewage system.” (Source: The Star)

Just after the December ice storm at the 2014 budget vote, current Mayor Rob Ford suggested cutting the $7-million budget earmarked to plant 97,000 trees. “If you want to go plant trees, knock yourself out. But don’t use taxpayers’ money,” he said to fellow city councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon. In February, on his broadcast on You tube he said, “I do not support planting 97,000 trees at a cost of $7 million. Would you rather have your road paved – more than one, for $7 million – or plant 97,000 new trees? We can’t even take care, as you saw during the storm, of our existing canopy.”

From 2004-2009, an average of 84,000 trees/year were planted through City programs. Forest cover would start to decline if tree planting in Toronto stopped. Loss of tree canopy would range from 8% to 16% over the next 100 years depending on tree mortality rates. (Source: Every Tree Counts)

Toronto’s tree canopy is not only beneficial to the life and vitality of our city, but it also saves us money. Toronto has approximately 20% forest cover representing 10.2 million trees. Toronto’s urban forest provides the equivalent of at least $60 million in ecological services each year. The benefits derived from the urban forest significantly exceed the annual cost of management (Source: Every Tree Counts)

Some of the benefits that we derive from the urban forest are (Source: Faculty of Forestry, U of T):

Improved air quality: Some of the more problematic gaseous pollutants in our cities are: sulphur dioxide, nitrous oxide, carbon dioxide and ozone. While individual trees may remove only small amounts of pollutants from the air, the urban forest as a whole can have a significant mitigating effect on air quality. The trees in Toronto store 1.1 million metric tonnes of carbon annually or the equivalent of annual carbon emissions from 733,000 automobiles.

Energy conservation: Trees provide natural cooling in summer and winter winds can cause substantial energy loss from buildings, but strategically planted trees and shrubs can act as windbreaks to lessen these effects.

Improved Water quality: The high percentage of hard surface in the urban environment reduces the ability of storm water to infiltrate the soil, and thereby increased the level of runoff into storm sewers.

Reduced Noise pollution: Substantial tree buffers (greater than 30 metres wide) along highways and industrial sites can reduce the harmful effects of noise pollution.

Improved Wildlife Habitat: Trees and shrubs along streets, in parks, and in our yards provide crucial nesting and other life functions habitat for resident bird populations, as well as stopovers for migratory birds.

Increased Property value: Evidence from Canada and the United States suggest that residential properties with substantial tree cover may sell for between 5% to 25% more than similar properties without trees. Similarly, homes in well-treed communities tend to sell more quickly.

Improved appearance: A diverse urban forest can break up the hard lines of built structures, reduce glare from hard surfaces, and provide a more pleasing “natural” appearance.

Enhanced Psychological well-being: Research in hospitals has shown that patients in rooms that overlook green space tend to recover more quickly than those with rooms that overlook hard surfaces.

If this is something that interests you and you want to get involved, here are some resources:

Tree Planting: Trees Across Toronto

Tree Planting: Toronto Tree Community

TD Tree Days

How to plant a tree: The Value of Trees

Getting a free tree from the City of Toronto

Hey Conservatives, We Want Our Bowties Back!

Hey Conservatives, We Want Our Bowties Back!

bowties

I begin this rant about bowties, which has really nothing to do with the actual subject matter of this blog post. It’s just for some weird reason, the conservative-right are wearing an “academic costume” consisting of a button down collar, bowtie and sometimes even glasses. I was puzzled at first by this choice of clothing, as I mention it has the appearance of a nerdy professor or scientist (think Bill Nye – the science guy or Dr. Who), something the right hates. Smart people. So why would they borrow this costume, and then it dawned on me. They want to be taken more seriously.

Well, it’s not working. Case in point: CBC Shock Jock Michael Enright (the old dude above with the round, tortoiseshell glasses). Yes, I’m calling him out on this because he likes to drop little bombs like: in a ’97 Globe and Mail article referred to the Catholic Church as “the greatest criminal organization outside the mafia”, wrote an essay on his CBC blog “Could Atheists please stop complaining?” and most recently “Exploding the myth that second-hand smoke causes cancer”.

I’ll admit my own bias here, as I always do. I hate smoking and second hand smoke. After working as a server in many smoking sections of restaurants and lounges while I made my way through university, my uniform and my hair reeked of it. Exposed to years of second hand smoke and myself smoking since high school, I finally gave up the filthy habit about 15 years ago. It wasn’t until I finally gave up the habit and my smell and taste sensors were fully restored that I realized how nasty the stuff stinks: a bitter, chemical odour.

So let me break down his essay: Exploding the myth that second-hand smoke causes cancer.

At first, I thought it was a joke. He starts his essay off by mentioning the 50th anniversary of the special report on smoking by pioneer Dr. Luther Terry, then Surgeon General of the United States. He states that the Surgeon General saved countless lives in America by making the connection between cigarette smoking and lung cancer, cardiovascular diseases and emphysema. But then he digresses into a conspiracy theory that the anti-smoking lobby have created a myth about the dangers of second hand smoke to ban smoking in public places and uses a recent study to prove his theory.

Here’s my biggest issue with it. It has no references or citations, which makes me believe one of two things: he’s making it up OR he’s too lazy to provide the links.

After asking the question in his essay: “How could a few wisps of smoke not inhaled deeply cause lung cancer?” he refers to an old radio interview on As It Happens where he writes: “I put these and other questions to a researcher for the Environmental Protection Agency. After some heated back and forth, he admitted: ‘Sure it’s crappy science, but look at the outcome–a smoke-free America.’” Sorry, who is this nameless researcher from the EPA, what year was this broadcast and is this actually quoting from the original radio broadcast or is he just paraphrasing.

He states, “Anti-smoking activists were quick to pronounce that “Second Hand Smoke Kills.” Well, no, it doesn’t, actually.” Then he proceeds to debunk the theory that second hand smoke causes cancer by referring to a recent article in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. No link, no citation, but after some digging, I found the actual study:

No Clear Link Between Passive Smoking and Lung Cancer

My issue with this whole thing is because I think Michael Enright is being intentionally provocative in his statement. There is such a vast amount of knowledge to be filtered, and as someone with no science or clinical background, the sea of information can be overwhelming. But like with climate science or GMO’s, I can try and sort through the info to get some sort of truth:

  • The Women’s Health Initiative Observational Study (WHI-OS) involves only post-menopausal women between the ages 50-79. No men, no children and no women under 50. The original enrollment number of 93,676 had a high drop-out rate, leaving 76,304 participants.
  • The study states that there is no clear link between passive smoking and lung cancer, but further reading in the article showed that there was an increased risk of lung cancer living with a smoker for 30 years or more.
  • From the same study, an increased risk of breast cancer when exposed to second hand smoke :  Association of active and passive smoking with risk of breast cancer among postmenopausal women
  • An Assessment of the NIH Women’s Health Initiative was written in 1993, looking at four aspects of the observational study: topics considered, methodology, costs, and justification, concluded: “The committee thought it likely that much of the information could be obtained in better designed, smaller, more focused studies that could have a greater chance of success and probably be less costly.”
  • The study was observational rather than clinical. Dr. Richard Nahin states in his article Observational Studies and Secondary Data Analyses: “Well-designed pragmatic clinical trials are the most rigorous way to study effectiveness,” and while observational studies “provide information on “real world” use and practice… observational studies cannot provide definitive evidence of safety, efficacy, or effectiveness”.

I happened upon another non-clinical study from 2010, headed up by Dr. Alisa Naiman of University of Toronto that: “studied rates of hospital admission attributable to three cardiovascular conditions (acute myocardial infarction, angina, and stroke) and three respiratory conditions (asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and pneumonia or bronchitis) after the implementation of smoking bans”. The results from the abstract state: “…admission to hospital because of cardiovascular conditions decreased by 39% and admissions because of respiratory conditions decreased by 33% during the ban period affecting restaurant settings.”

As well, there are hundreds of studies that have concluded that while passive smoking to a lesser extent is somewhat risky, exposure to long term and frequent second hand smoke is deadly:

Non-smoking wives of heavy smokers have a higher risk of lung cancer: a study from Japan

Passive Smoking and the Risk of Coronary Heart Disease

Lifetime environmental exposure to tobacco smoke and primary lung cancer

Effect of household passive smoking exposure on the risk of ischaemic heart disease in never-smoke female patients in Hong Kong

Passive smoking as well as active smoking increases the risk of acute stroke

Update 30/03/2014: Another study related to childhood asthma

And just one more thing to conclude before I sign off. Who has the most to gain from all of this? Why are conservatives all over this like a bad stinky-ashtray smell? Because they have something to gain by all of this. More money and less government. Now that the ship has sailed correlating smoking with lung cancer and cardiovascular death, the last bastion for the tobacco lobby is second-hand smoke.

In the press release Tobacco Industry Interference with WHO’S Research on Passive Smoke and Cancer from the World Health Organization – International Agency for Research on Cancer website states: “The documents provide evidence that the tobacco industry has closely monitored and tried to actively interfere with the conduct of an international epidemiological study on lung cancer in non-smokers following exposure to passive smoking.”

Put that in your pipe and smoke it. Or don’t, it might give me cancer.

Update May 3, 2014: After a complaint was lodged against Michael Enright, he wrote a sad-assed clarification found here:

an update on second hand smoke and cancer