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7 Key Trends That Will Affect Your Health, and the Health of the Planet

Earth Day isn't just about the earth, it's about us, too. Here are seven important ways that global environmental trends will affect us all by the time next Earth Day rolls around.

By Emily Main and Leah Zerbe


RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA, PLANET EARTH—Whether you spend Earth Day planning an organic garden, foraging for invasive species to cook, or having fun at a festival or volunteer event, it's a good reminder to appreciate and enjoy what the natural world has to offer. But it's also appropriate to think about the ways that we—and the choices we make every day—are connected to the planet we live on.

A big part of that connection relates to our health, and on Rodale.com we spend a big chunk of our time talking about how the health of our planet and our own personal health—and the health of our families—are intertwined. And looking forward, it seems to us that the coming year holds both great promise and great challenges for nurturing and protecting those connections. Here are the seven biggest trends we're watching that are likely to affect the way all of us live healthy on a healthy planet, and the ways that you can take action to ensure a healthy future.

1: Higher food prices.

2: Natural gas fracking.

3: Hormone disruptors and obesogens.

4: Budget deficits and subsidy cuts.

5: Food shortage fears.

6: GMOs.

7: Healthy, ecofriendly, green, and local products.

Higher food prices: Despite food price increases, more people are going to buy organic.

We're experiencing the perfect storm for higher food prices. Rising crude oil prices is one reason you're experiencing sticker shock at the grocery store these days, but it's not the sole factor. According to Corrine Alexander, PhD, an associate professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University, higher food prices are also a result of:

• A stronger global demand for food as the economy recovers, and a rising middle class in developing countries that can afford to eat more meat.

• Supply problems due to weather, such as freezing in Mexico, poor weather in Florida, a cyclone and flooding in Queensland, Australia, a poor wheat harvest in the former Soviet Union countries and Canada, and lower corn yields in the United States.

So these price increases must spell doom for organic, which is already perceived by many as being pricey, right? Probably not. The Organic Trade Association is about to release its forecast for 2011 and 2012, and the sales numbers continue to climb. The organic food industry was valued at $26.7 billion in 2010, and analysts expect a 10 percent increase in 2011 over 2010 numbers. In 2012, the industry is forecast to grow an additional 11 percent. Why is this happening, even as so many of us are tightening our bugdets? Eating organic just isn't considered a luxury anymore. It's a must-have in terms of preventing chronic and even life-threatening disease. As one example, last year's President's Cancer Panel brought the danger of eating chemically treated food to the forefront when it recommended eating organic foods as one of the top ways to reduce environmental risk factors for the disease.

What it means for the Earth: A brighter ecological future. Modern organic farming, which yields just as well as farming with synthetic pesticides and genetically engineered crops—or better, in years of drought—builds soil quality, which create a diverse community of microscopic plant-boosters under the soil surface. Organically farmed fields have the ability to capture more carbon, which could serve as a tool to help stabilize our volatile climate. And keeping toxic agri-chemicals out of the environment will also help animals, particularly amphibians, recover.

What it means for you: Voting for organic food with your buying dollars is paying off. More demand for organic food means fewer farmers will use neurotoxic, carcinogenic, and hormone-disrupting chemicals that wind up inside of our food and in our drinking water. Studies have found that switching to an organic diet quickly causes pesticide levels in the human body to plummet. Pesticides, particularly Roundup, a.k.a. glyphosate, also zap a plant's ability to take up trace nutrients vital to human health, so eating organic could also help boost your natural defenses.

Natural gas fracking: The fight over fracking will continue, as ecological and health threats from the fracking process become more widely known.

It's not correct to call natural gas a clean, or cleaner fuel, and it's inaccurate to say that treated wastewater from the fracking (hydraulic fracturing) method of drilling for natural gas is safe. These are marketing claims that new studies are debunking on a fairly regular basis these days.

Although industry ad campaigns continue to paint natural gas as a "clean" fuel, scientists have discovered that it's more of a threat to our climate than coal, which has long been touted as the filthiest fossil fuel source of energy on the planet. A Cornell study set for publication in the May issue of the journal Climatic Change found that gas escaping after natural gas fracking actually creates more greenhouse-gas emissions over a 20-year period than burning coal. And that's just one form of known air pollution that public health advocates are screaming about. Toxic hydrocarbons like benzene, toluene, xylenes, and ethylbenzenes waft into communities near the drilling sites, and if they do so at high enough levels, they lead to irreversible damage.

Award-winning researcher Theo Colborn, PhD, founder and president of The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, recently published a study in the International Journal of Human and Ecological Risk Assessment and found that of the volatile, airborne chemicals released, 93 percent result in organ, eye, or skin damage. And new data released from University of Pittsburgh researchers shows that treated fracking wastewater released into a river that serves as a drinking water source was laced with harmful substances. For instance, bromide levels that were 10,688 times higher than levels that normally concern authorities.

What it means for the Earth: Natural gas was once hailed as a solution to global climate destabilization, but the new Cornell data suggests that fracking is actually exacerbating the climate problem. Studies are also under way to determine how clearing swaths of forests and illuminating drilling sites 24 hours a day are affecting ecosystems and wildlife. In the near term, the fracking fight is likley to heat up as we approach July, when New York state's drilling moratorium expires.

What it means for you: On Wednesday, a year after the BP oil spill disaster began, we were once again reminded of the danger of drilling for energy. A huge natural gas well blowout in northern Pennsylvania leaked thousands of gallons of toxic water into farmland and nearby creeks. It is unclear how this will harm people and wildlife in the vacinity over the long term. Unconventional natural gas drilling continues even though the the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is in the midst of conducting a two-year study to look at groundwater contamination associated with natural gas drilling. While that's in progress, drilling companies are scrambling to obtain drilling permits before new legislation hits. The potential for contaminated drinking water isn't limited to drilling areas, either. About 15 percent of the wastewater flows back to the surface, and it's often shipped across state lines and inadequately treated in municipal treatment plants that aren't capable of removing industrial and radioactive contaminants. Heck, the University of Pittsburgh study suggests that even the plants set up specifically to do this are failing, so what chance does your local water utility have?

For more information, read 5 Facts about Fracking Every Family Needs to Know.

Hormone disruptors and obesogens: More research will deepen our understanding of the hormone disruptors, obesogens, pesticides, and other chemicals we're all exposed to in our daily lives, and how they influence chronic health problems, fertility, and child development.


Several decades ago, if someone suggested that soap, air fresheners, plastics, household bug sprays, and common cleaners could cause cancer, developmental problems, and even obesity, they probably would have been laughed at. But well-respected researchers are today piling up data showing that the everyday exposures to household products are making us sick, and possibly setting up the next generation for infertility, health problems, and obesity! Cutting-edge research is starting to ID certain chemicals as obesogens, meaning they can impact development during critical windows of prenatal and early life in such a way that people are set up for obesity and obesity-related diseases like diabetes and some cancers much later in life.

The good news is that this flood of new research is going mainstream, and consumers now have more choices in plastic-free alternatives and safer personal-care products.

What it means for the Earth: These ubiquitous chemicals aren't just affecting people, but are altering the development of wildlife and plants, too. Researchers at the University of California–Berkeley, last year found that a common weed-killing chemical, atrazine, actually turns male frogs into females. A study published last year in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives also found that some plants readily take up harmful chemicals found in shampoo and soaps.

What it means for you: As more people learn about the links between everyday toxic chemicals and health, safer alternatives will become even more readily available. For instance, knowing that most canned food contains harmful BPA, consumers can opt to buy fresh or frozen food instead. As public interest gains steam, Congress will face an increased pressure to update the inadequate Toxic Substances Control Act from the '70s that has not protected the public. Meanwhile, the EPA is facing increased pressure from public health and environmental groups to ban the use of harmful substances, such as the antibacterial chemical triclosan, which has been linked to a rise in hard-to-kill superbug germs, allergies, and thyroid problems. While government agencies look at regulating these problems, it's up to consumers to continue to demand safer products, and the better alternatives will wind up on more store shelves.

Budget deficits and subsidy cuts: Deficits will force cuts to subsidies for chemical farming and biofuels—or at least there will be debate about it.

The recent budget debates over the this year's federal budget, and the debates heating up over the 2012 budget, have already shown that politicians are more than willing to cut funding for sustainable and organic agriculture in favor of funding the industrial farm system. But as the five-year Farm Bill comes up for renewal in 2012, turnabout may be fair play. Total subsidies to large agribusinesses rang up at more than $16 billion in 2009, according to figures compiled by the Environmental Working Group.

And it simply doesn't make sense to continue those massive contributions in light of the current deficit debates, says Greg Fogel, policy associate at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. "If this new Congress is serious about reigning in the deficit, you have to look seriously at commodity supports and think about what's really necessary," he says.

What it means for the Earth: As environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. wrote in his book Crimes Against Nature (Harper Collins, 2004), "You show me a polluter and I'll show you a subsidy." Thus, eliminate farm subsidies and chances are the pollution from all that chemical farming—the high levels of synthetic nitrogen that were killing aquatic life in the Gulf of Mexico long before the BP oil spill and the dangerous doses of atrazine, glyphosate, and 2,4-D pesticides being applied to genetically modified, subsidized crops—will lessen. Why? Because pulling subsidies will move farmers away from increasingly expensive pesticides and biotechnologies. According to a recent report from the nonprofit Organic Center, soybean farmers spent 4 to 8 percent of their crop income on seeds between 1975 and 1990, before biotech varieties were introduced. Now that 90 percent of all soybeans in this country are genetically modified, they're spending 22.5 percent of their income on GE (genetically engineered, a.k.a. genetically modified) seeds. And the operating costs per acre for biotech seeds are 15 to 22 percent higher than conventional varieties. The only way such price premiums are affordable is through government subsidies.

What it means for you: Less of a price difference between healthy and unhealthy foods, and lower medical bills. Another disastrous side effect of government subsidies is that they make junk food cheap, fueling the nation's obesity epidemic and making healthcare costs more expensive for all of us. If we can pull the subsidies that are propping up cheap food, more farmers will start growing food that we actually eat, instead of corn and soy that are processed to make junk food and additives like high-fructose corn syrup. That leads to greater selection and lower prices on truly healthy fruits and vegetables at the grocery store.

Food shortage fears: Food shortage talk, and the growing threat of climate change, will become justifications for supporting chemical agriculture and all its unhealthy, unsustainable practices. The "organic can't feed the world" myth will keep surfacing.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization reported in November 2010 that commodity prices worldwide have "risen alarmingly," though the organization added that supplies of major food crops in 2010 and 2011 are more adequate than two years ago, when a rapid rise in food prices sparked riots and food shortages around the world. Despite those reassurances, Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant continues to make speeches to human rights groups insisting that biotechnology is the only solution to rising food prices and food shortages. What's more, "the climate change debate has been a venue for chemical companies to use GMOs as an antidote to greenhouse-gas emissions," says Debi Barker, international program director for the Center for Food Safety. "But the irony is that 30 percent of global-warming greenhouse-gas emissions are caused by industrial agriculture, and 60 percent of nitrogen oxide [a smog-forming greenhouse gas] emissions are produced from the synthetic nitrogen fertilizers used on GE crops."

Chemical companies will continue to perpetuate these myths as their sales decline, in part because of the development of pesticide-resistant superweeds that don't die when exposed to the company's Roundup pesticide. That problem has gotten so bad that Monsanto has paid farmers to use its competitors' more toxic pesticides to keep farmers from abandoning Monsanto's GE seeds.

What it means for the Earth: Both good and bad things. On the downside, as the Roundup-resistant superweeds continue to take over America's farmland, Monsanto and other biotech companies will petition the government to approve more GE seeds resistant to even more toxic pesticides, including 2,4-D, a component of Agent Orange, and dicamba, a developmental toxin. Which means more toxic chemicals in our soil and water.

On the upside, organic agriculture will continue to outpace GE crop varieties (which have never lived up to chemical companies' promises in terms of survival rates and crop yields). "At the moment, no credible evidence exists that GE seeds provide a higher yield," Barker says. And, as it has since 2002, the United Nations will continue to push organic and sustainable farming as the solution to the world hunger problem. Just last week the organization's Conference on Trade and Development released a study finding that yields of crops in sub-Saharan Africa increased 214 percent using "agro-ecological" (translation: organic) methods over a period of three to 10 years, "far more than any GM [genetically modified] crop has ever done," the author wrote. "Today’s scientific evidence demonstrates that agroecological methods outperform the use of chemical fertilizers in boosting food production where the hungry live—especially in unfavourable environments," the report states.

What it means for you: In the U.S., high food prices aren't due to food shortages. Rather, higher energy prices, higher commodity prices, and natural disasters drive up the costs, says Chad Hart, PhD, assistant professor of economics at Iowa State University. And likely, both organic and conventional food prices will rise in 2010, even though organic farming uses fewer inputs, such as pesticides and fertilizers. "Organic producers may have a slight relative cost advantage to conventional producers given higher oil prices," he says. "But given higher prices for oil-based fertilizers, conventional producers have likely shifted to using non-oil-based fertilizers, competing with organic producers for those supplies." That makes it all the more important to continue buying organic food—so organic farmers have the income they need to compete with chemical farmers, who are starting to realize how unsustainable it is to rely on fossil-fuel–derived fertilizers and pesticides.

This merely proves the UN's point that organic and sustainable farming is the only successful way to feed the world's growing population. As chemical companies realize this, they'll try to perpetuate the myth that GMOs and chemical farming are necessities, but as energy prices continue to rise, their argument just won't hold up.

GMOs: As the debate about genetically modified food (GMOs) reaches a tipping point, we may we see a labeling law that will change the game.

Gary Hirschberg, CEO of Stonyfield Farm, calls the USDA's January approval to allow unregulated planting of GE alfalfa "the most horrifying development yet" in the world of GMOs. Alfalfa, more commonly known as hay, wasn't even in need of improvement, he adds—it was relatively easy to grow without being altered in the lab. "Only 7 percent of alfalfa in this country was being grown with herbicide," he notes. But approved it was. Once planted, GE alfalfa is likely to contaminate fields of non-GE and organic alfalfa. Alfalfa is essential to the survival of organic livestock operations, and dairies that rely on organic alfalfa as a staple in their animals' diets.

Since USDA organic certification requires that the food be free of GMO ingredients—and avoiding GMOs is one reason consumers buy organic—expect every organics advocacy group, organic dairy, and organic rancher to petition the Obama administration to withdraw its GE alfalfa approval. And expect consumer rights groups to step up their efforts to push the labeling of GE foods and ingredients. "This is a consumer right-to-know issue," Hirschberg says. "This is about choice—we are being denied choice here."

What it means for the Earth: A consumer right-to-know law that would require labeling of GMOs would, in essence, doom the existence of transgenic crops, as it has in much of the European Union, Australia, and South Africa, where labeling laws already exist—and consumer demand for GMOs is practically nonexistent. As farmers begin planting non-GMO seeds, we'll see fewer superweeds that have be controlled with toxic pesticides and less of a reliance on air- and water-polluting synthetic fertilizers, and an increase in biodiversity, which is often lacking on GE crop fields.

What it means for you: As a consumer, you'll finally get what you want. Survey after survey has shown that 85 to 90 percent of Americans want GMOs labeled, and 63 percent of us don't want to be eating GMOs at all. Of course, to get this labeling, we'll need to speak up. "You need to let your president, your congressmen, your representatives know what you want," Hirschberg says. And don't stop there. "Vote with your dollar," he adds The organic industry is the fastest growing sector of the market, and when major companies—the Krafts, the Unilevers, the Danones of the world—see that type of growth, they want in, and they'll stop using GMOs in their products if that will satisfy their customers.

Healthy, ecofriendly, local products: The market for healthy, ecofriendly, green products will continue to surge despite a tough economy. And along with it, an increased interest in d-i-y, local economy, and general self-reliance.

Organic food is the fastest-growing sector of the food industry, and the "GMO-free" label is the fastest-growing health and wellness label tracked by the market-researcher Nielsen. Expect both of those segments of the food market to continue to grow as awareness of the dangers of pesticides and GMOs increases. Still riding a decade-long wave of popularity, farmer's markets will continue to increase in number this year, after seeing a 16 percent increase in 2010.

You may even notice more markets in the coming winter. The USDA is reporting a 17 percent increase in the number of farmer's markets that operate between November and March. And it's not just food: The natural products industry, ranging from healthy personal care and cleaning products to green pet products and organic bedding, grew 6 percent in 2010, despite a sluggish economy.

It's obvious that people are reexamining how, and where, their dollars are being spent, a sign that we no longer want the anonymous, big-box–driven economy that's been built for the past few decades. "The globalization that occurred in '80s and '90s, which was embraced rather uncritically by both political parties, has led to a lot of second thoughts about how we construct the economy," says Michael Shuman, director of research and economic development for the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE). Rising oil prices and the financial crisis in 2008 have also exposed weaknesses in the assumption that bigger superstores, bigger banks, and bigger businesses are always better. "It's rare nowadays to visit any downtown that doesn't have some sort of 'Buy Local' campaign going on," he says. "There's a growing body of evidence that suggests local businesses contribute more to local development than nonlocal businesses," he says. What began as an offshoot group of "homesteaders" and people who relish the idea of DIY over store-bought, local economies are expanding beyond just Buy Local campaings to financial investments, in the form of stocks and mutual funds, in local farms and businesses, as well as public policies that support the growth of local development.

What it means for the Earth: One of the biggest drivers of interest in local economies has been high oil prices, Shuman says. When those spike, the economics of importing large volumes of goods from places like China become unsustainable, he says, and give local businesses a competitive edge. Having products made locally means less oil consumption, and therefore fewer polluting greenhouse gases in the air.

What it means for you: With consumers clearly willing to spend on products that have a sustainable, ecofriendly, organic, and/or local pedigree, we can expect more options to become available. But it also means more marketers will try to greenwash their wares and gain unearned eco-credibility. So we all need to do our homework and avoid the fakes.

But there are deep benefits to rethinking where we do our shopping and spend our money. "There is this yearning for community and trying to bring relationships back into daily life," says Shuman. "It's a sense that if I buy local, invest local, I will be supportive of civil society." That includes not just business, but public policy as well. In Pennsylvania, where hydraulic fracturing for natural gas is proceeding free of oversight by state and federal politicians, a number of small towns and municipalities have banded together to keep natural gas companies out by successfully passing local zoning ordinances and "right to live" laws. In British Columbia, Canada, similar ordinances have kept GMO crops out of farmlands and local stores, despite some support for GMOs at the national level. "This is happening across the political spectrum," Shuman says. "Because if I identify the fundamental values of BALLE—free market economies that level the playing field for local businesses, democracy in communities around the country—it really draws equally from left and right."

Filed Under: CHEMICAL FARMING, CLEAN ENERGY, EARTH DAY, FOSSIL FUELS, FRACKING, ORGANIC FOOD, WATER POLLUTION

Published on: April 20, 2011



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