About IATP

The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy promotes resilient family farms, rural communities and ecosystems around the world through research and education, science and technology, and advocacy.

Founded in 1986, IATP is rooted in the family farm movement. With offices in Minneapolis and Geneva, IATP works on making domestic and global agricultural policy more sustainable for everyone.

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About Think Forward

Think Forward is a blog written by staff of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy covering sustainability as it intersects with food, rural development, international trade, the environment and public health.

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Healthy Food Action

January 06, 2011

Are genes for disease a mirage?

Is chronic disease mostly a product of environment, and not genes, as we've been led to believe? That provocative question is the focus for a new report by The Bioscience Resource Project. The report, "The Great DNA Data Deficit: Are Genes for Disease a Mirage?", concludes that for common diseases, including heart disease, stroke, cancers, diabetes and others, "a significant role for genetic causation can now be ruled out with a high degree of confidence." This finding indicates that other environmental factors, like food, pollution, stress and tobacco use, likely play a larger role than previously thought. Interestingly, the four mentioned diseases—among the six leading causes of death—are all closely linked to an unhealthy food system and unhealthy eating.

David Wallinga, MD

December 15, 2010

A victory on mercury and HFCS

In my more desperate hours, I sometimes wonder whether raising my physician voice is enough to foster change, to make the food system healthier and more sustainable.

This week brought fresh evidence that it is. Early last year, I teamed up with other scientists to release data indicating that both commercial high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), and processed foods that contained high amounts of HFCS could be contaminated with mercury.

We surmised the likely problem was that some of the latter products were made using HFCS created from caustic soda produced in so-called “mercury cell” chlorine factories. In fact, the food industry referred to this as “mercury-grade” or “food-grade” HFCS. A few American chlorine factories continued to make cell mercury–grade caustic soda despite these problems.

Our reports were the first published information pulling the curtain from this scary practice. Now it appears the chlorine industry took notice. The giant chemical maker, Olin, announced it was spending $160 million to convert its dirty mercury cell chlorine plant in southeast Tennessee to non–mercury polluting technology. Another Olin plant, in Augusta, Ga., will also stop using mercury for manufacturing in 2012. Wahooo!

What changed their minds? Let’s listen to Olin CEO, Joseph Rupp: "Over the past 18 months we have experienced a steady increase in the number of our customers unwilling to accept our products manufactured using mercury cell technology," he said.

IATP’s work on mercury in high fructose corn syrup came out January 2009.

David Wallinga, M.D.

Ben Lilliston

December 07, 2010

Practical nutrition for physicians

Last month, the journal San Francisco Medicine published what we hope will become an annual nutrition issue, titled Food for Thought: Practical Nutrition for Physicians. Some of the gems include a piece from our own David Wallinga, MD on "An Unhealthy Food System: Suggestions for Physician Advocacy" and another from Brian Raymond, MPH of Kaiser Permanente called "Taking Action: A Health Sector Guide to Food System and Agricultural Policy."  

Read the entire issue (.pdf).

Ben Lilliston

December 03, 2010

How health professionals can green their practice

There is growing scientific evidence that environmental exposures affect both individuals' health and the health of the population as a whole. Our health professionals are on the front lines treating diseases associated with a variety of environmental contaminants.

In a new article for Medscape titled "Greening Your Practice," IATP's David Wallinga, M.D., outlines how clinicians can address two critical environmental issues with important health consequences: the daily exposure of people to combinations of toxic chemicals, and an unhealthy "obesogenic" food environment. Dr. Wallinga writes, "Because chemical and food environments are inherently community issues, clinicians may find advocacy for healthier chemical and food policies to be an essential component for reducing the unhealthy food and chemical exposures already affecting their patients."

You can read the full article here.

Ben Lilliston

November 30, 2010

Animals and our obesogenic environment

Many things “cause” the obesity epidemic, acting together. But the general consensus around how to respond to this fact has changed significantly.

For years the focus within academic medicine was on changing lifestyle or behavior—in short, approaches that focus on the individual. The approach didn't work very well. 

The new approach is to change the default environment that appears to constrain individuals to make bad choices and become obese in the first place by eating more calories than they can burn. A permissive culture that allows even the youngest, most vulnerable children to be bombarded with soda and other junk food ads is one example. Local zoning that leaves many neighborhoods lacking in sidewalks or bike lanes—or virtually any way of getting from point A to B except by car—is another.

But might there be some other mysterious factors like environmental chemicals or contaminated food? Science pointing in that direction is mounting.

This week, Nature reports on a study that looks at the obesity epidemic of the four-legged kind. (Though it’s hard to see how pets and laboratory animals would be as impacted by marketing or zoning as are kids.)
The study, called "Canaries in the Coal Mine," and published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, looks at statistics on more than 20,000 animals and finds an epidemic of obesity in family pets, among laboratory animals and even among wild animals living near people.

The study raises as many questions as it answers. The authors acknowledge that there are many conceivable explanations for what they observed. Perhaps rats are fatter because our garbage has become richer as we have. However, an NIH-funded workshop on the “Role of Environmental Chemicals in the Development of Diabetes and Obesity,” is being held January 11–13, 2011in Raleigh, North Carolina.

This promises to be a story we’ll be hearing more about.

David Wallinga, MD

November 22, 2010

NYC’s ‘FoodWorks’ leverages food system for health, job creation and the environment

New York City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn today announced "FoodWorks New York," a new effort by the city council to produce a comprehensive plan to use the city’s food system to create jobs, improve public health and protect the environment. Over the next six months, the city council will work with experts from government, industry, labor and academia, as well as hunger and environmental advocates and community leaders to examine every step in the city’s food cycle. In a speech, Speaker Quinn outlined five outcomes for the plan:

  1. Improve the city’s food infrastructure
  2. Create new and better jobs in the food industry
  3. Keep more local food dollars in the local economy
  4. Reduce diet-related diseases like obesity, heart disease and diabetes
  5. Reduce environmental damage from the production, transport and consumption of food

As part of developing the plan, the council will require city agencies to report back on food-related measures. The data will be used to set goals and better coordinate efforts across city government.

Jennifer Billig

November 09, 2010

Fast food advertising to children is relentless

FastFoodFACTS_LogoYesterday at The American Public Health Association (APHA) Annual meeting in Denver, researchers from Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity released Fast Food FACTS (Food Advertising to Children and Teens Score). They found that children as young as two are seeing more fast food advertising than ever before and that children are targeted through various media and in the restaurants themselves.

Read this summary of their findings and a rundown of the best and worst kids meals available at popular fast food restaurants. If you're going to visit one, be sure to ask for the healthy sides (milk, fruit, yogurt). The study found that if you leave the choice to the restaurants, most will serve your kids french fries and soda.

Jennifer Billig

October 04, 2010

Health issues limit agricultural exports

The Obama administration has pledged to double exports by 2015. The administration will have trouble reaching that goal for agriculture if it continues following the lead of the big meat companies and ignore health issues raised by top U.S. trading partners.

The largest U.S. meat companies, and now Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, continue to disappoint by downplaying the now indisputable science linking antibiotic overuse in livestock to worsening epidemics of antibiotic-resistant infections in people.

In case you missed it, Vilsack kicked off the recent debate when he told the National Cattleman's Beef Association that the USDA thought America's livestock producers already use antibiotics "judiciously."

Of course, Vilsack is a lawyer and not a doctor who treats life-threatening infections in people. If you listen to the latter, you get a different picture.

The New York Times notes that Center for Disease Control Director Thomas Frieden—a physician—wrote to Congress last July about “compelling evidence” of a “clear link between antibiotic use in animals and antibiotic resistance in humans.” Much of that evidence shows that antibiotic overuse on farms helps create reservoirs of antibiotic resistant superbugs that can cause food poisoning in people when they eat the meat from those animals.

Minneapolis infectious disease expert Dr. James Johnson, also quoted by the Times, notes "the evidence is unambiguously clear. Most of the E. coli resistance in humans can be traced to food-animal sources.”

The best estimates still available are that over 70 percent of all antimicrobials used in the country are given to healthy animals—not because they're sick, but for growth promotion and other avoidable uses. Many of these antibiotics are also common human drugs, like tetracyclines or erythromycins.

What's this have to do with the success of meat industry exports? Well, many U.S. trade partners have banned—or are threatening to ban—U.S. meat imports because of our overuse of antibiotics, and the food safety risks it helps to create. In 2008-09, for example, Russia refused pork imports from U.S. plants—including those owned by Tyson and Smithfield—due to traces of tetracycline and oxytetracycline in tested pork. Russia previously banned U.S. poultry because of tetracycline residues. This was a blow because in many years Russia has been the largest importer of U.S. chicken—a multi-billion dollar industry.

So, it seems like Secretary Vilsack and the big meat industry players have something of a shared delusion going on. They may want to continue believing that current overuses of antibiotics are "judicious." But if U.S. trade partners listen our nation's physicians, instead of our big meat companies, doubling agriculture exports may be yet another shared delusion.

David Wallinga, MD