Thursday, May 06, 2010

Cancer, Chemicals, And Capitalism

A few related stories this morning...

1. Nicholas Kristof directs our attention to an upcoming report by the well-regarded President's Cancer Panel. Kristof says:
"I’ve read an advance copy of the report, and it’s an extraordinary document. It calls on America to rethink the way we confront cancer, including much more rigorous regulation of chemicals."
The members of the panel were appointed by President George W. Bush.

The Panel's recommendations:
  • Particularly when pregnant and when children are small, choose foods, toys and garden products with fewer endocrine disruptors or other toxins.
  • For those whose jobs may expose them to chemicals, remove shoes when entering the house and wash work clothes separately from the rest of the laundry.
  • Filter tap and other drinking water.
  • Store water in glass or stainless steel containers, or in plastics that don’t contain BPA or phthalates. Microwave food in ceramic or glass containers.
  • Give preference to food grown without pesticides, chemical fertilizers, antibiotics, and growth hormones.
  • Avoid meats that are cooked well-done. (Dr. Sanjay Gupta adds: Minimize consumption of processed, charred or well-done meats, which contain carcinogenic heterocyclic amines and polyaromatic hydrocarbons.)
  • Check radon levels in your home. Radon is a natural source of radiation linked to cancer.
  • Also from Gupta: Reduce radiation from X-rays and other medical sources.

2. That advice to eat food grown without pesticides leads me to my next story, also from the New York Times:

Farmers Cope With Roundup-Resistant Weeds

Genetically engineered crops that were designed to resist application of herbicides and pesticides were supposed to reduce those chemicals' use - a little would go a long way. This story informs us that weeds have become resistant to certain herbicides, particularly Monsanto's RoundUp, requiring heavier applications, applications of stronger chemicals, and return to the erosion-promoting practice of plowing:
"Farm experts say that such efforts could lead to higher food prices, lower crop yields, rising farm costs and more pollution of land and water."

3. So, on one hand we have the President's Cancer Panel telling us to eat fewer pesticides, and on the other hand we have our farmers growing crops with more pesticides. Should we have stronger regulations? This leads me to my last story.

Regulation has the potential to limit growth. If our businesses make money, our country makes money, and money affects one's standing in the world. Our government treads lightly with regulation knowing that too tight a reign could limit growth, reduce the tax base, upset international trade ... it's essentially biting the hand that feeds it. (Perhaps this is why Obama backtracked on his campaign promise to label genetically engineered food?)

But can the world, can all the businesses and all the countries that depend on business, continue to grow ad infinitum? Eventually something gives. We use up our resources, our clean water, our fertile arable land. We dump wastes - health-robbing chemicals - into our environment with insufficient forethought except how it might make us "richer." We fight over those resources and dumping rights. (I see the violence in Greece right now as an outcropping of these pressures. A Greek economist yesterday described it: "The have-nots are ending up footing the bill," a bill created by the haves. And the have-nots are not happy about it.)

Professor David Harvey says this kind of unchecked growth cannot be infinitely sustained and that we need to have discussions about alternative ways of living.

Here's a clip of Professor Harvey speaking with BBC's Sarah Montague yesterday about capitalism, how it's straining our people and our planet, and what alternatives might look like.1

Here's The entire interview:
Part 1, Part 2, Part 3
1 Although Harvey teaches economic theory, including Marxism, he also argues that capitalism is the primary force behind innovation. I'm not promoting this for any reason other than I happened to see it on BBC's HARDTalk yesterday and found it thought provoking.


Dr. Mel said...

I *just* read both the above articles, so I'm very glad you're posting on them--I always like to get your perspective on these things.

Dr. Mel said...

I think this article contending that organic practices can, in fact, feed the world, is a good counterpoint to the Roundup Ready essay:,0