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The power of produce

Anna Gosline, Los Angeles Times
Whether it fights cancer depends on which you eat, how you eat it — and your genes.

NO dessert until you finish your vegetables! Health experts probably wish they could use that line on the recalcitrant American public.

Fruits and vegetables are packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber and scores of phytochemicals that scientists are just beginning to understand, and studies have shown that people who eat more fruits and vegetables have a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes — and some kinds of cancer.

Since its inception in 1991, the 5 A Day campaign, led by the National Cancer Institute and Produce for Better Health Foundation, has upped its daily recommendation to as many as 13 servings under a new campaign name.

And in bestselling health books and the popular press, the talk of fruits and vegetables is sometimes breathless. Pomegranate juice is a “miracle medicine”! Blueberries are “the super berry”! Kale can keep you alive! Tomatoes for life everlasting!

Eat or drink this produce, we are told, and the powerful clout of super-antioxidants and tumor-fighting chemicals they contain will bash that cancer before it gets going.

In fact, the anti-cancer clout of fruits and vegetables is nuanced and complex, and a story still evolving in labs across the country. At times the science has proven to be murky. Small studies that rely on what people remember of their diets from years past often find a strong preventive effect of eating lots of fresh produce.

But recently, some large population studies — which follow tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people for years — have reported weak or nonexistent connections between produce and cancer. Scientists are still trying to understand these seeming contradictions.

This much seems to be true: When it comes to fighting cancer, the power of produce will depend on who — genetically — you are, the variety of vegetables or fruits you select and even whether you cook them or not.

You also have to eat the whole thing. Sorry, no shortcuts with pills containing lycopene, beta carotene or vitamin C.
(27 August 2007)

Farming the Concrete Jungle

Phoebe Connelly and Chelsea Ross, In These Times
In cities across the country urban farmers are growing communities, greening the landscape and revolutionizing food politics.

…The Food Project is part of a growing urban agriculture movement to improve access to quality food in cities by creating local sources of fresh produce. The movement is showing that sustainable, local food systems are not only a way to ensure food security but also a means of addressing social justice issues.

And the movement is getting stronger. Community urban agriculture programs are gaining support from city governments desperate to increase green space and capitalize on public interest in environmental responsibility. As In These Times went to press, the 2007 farm bill had passed in the House of Representatives with a $30 million appropriation for community food projects.

“The biggest crisis in our food system is the lack of access to good, healthy, fresh food, for people living in cities, particularly in low-income communities,” says Anna Lappé, co-founder with her mother Frances Moore Lappé of the Small Planet Institute. “Urban agriculture work is one of the most powerful solutions, because it brings food directly into the communities.”

In her book, City Bountiful: A Century of Community Gardening In America, Laura Lawson charts a movement that stretches back to the 1880s. Lawson, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, says that urban gardening programs have had three missions: bringing nature to the city, offering educational opportunities to low-income and immigrant children, and cultivating a self-help ethos in a democratic space. “The garden itself,” she writes, “is rarely the end goal but rather facilitates agendas that reach beyond the scope of gardening.”
(28 August 2007)

Study links CO2 to demise of grazing lands

Alan Zarembo, Los Angeles Times
Increased levels of the greenhouse gas may have a hand in converting the world’s grasslands to useless woody shrubs, a study finds.

Rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may be contributing to the conversion of the world’s grasslands — crucial for livestock grazing — into a landscape of useless woody shrubs, according to a study released today.

By artificially doubling carbon dioxide levels over enclosed sections of the Colorado prairie, researchers created a dramatic rise in Artemisia frigida, commonly known as fringed sage.

The study paints a harsh picture of what grazing lands could look like in 2100, when some project carbon dioxide levels will be double today’s.

“To the extent that CO2 is driving this conversion, this suggests the problem is going to become more intractable in the future,” said Jack Morgan, a plant physiologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and lead author of the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Scientists believe the degradation of range lands, which cover about 40% of Earth’s land surface, is mostly because of overgrazing and the modern practice of putting out fires rather than letting them burn, which destroys woody vegetation. But researchers have long suspected that rising carbon dioxide levels also play a role.
(28 August 2007)

Zimbabwe: Give Fertilizer Sector Priority On Power

Unnamed author, The Herald (published by the goverment of Zimbabwe)
ZIMBABWEAN farmers require large amounts of artificial fertilizers if they are to produce decent harvests.

It makes sense, where the raw materials exist locally, to produce these fertilizers in Zimbabwe.

Local manufacture minimises expensive transport, makes the best use of limited hard currency, boosts local industry and provides jobs for Zimbabweans.

It also ensures that the actual chemical make-up and the formulas are exactly what the farmers need and want.

Zimbabwe built up a major fertilizer industry, centred around the phosphate deposits at Dorowa and the air liquefaction plant in the Midlands.

The country is fortunate in having phosphates among the scores of minerals it is blessed with.

These rocks are valuable, and were the cause of colonial wars in the 19th century and have made the solution of the Sahawari conflict in north-west Africa, a major headache for decades.

But the owner of the mine, Chemplex Corporation, has closed it temporarily citing persistent power cuts.

Considering just how crucial this mine is to Zimbabwe, providing one of the three major fertilizers that the entire agricultural sector requires, it seems there is a good case for it to be given a high priority when it comes to allocating electricity.

…Power is now scarce and expensive.

But a whole chemical industry has been built from that day using this plant, the liquid nitrogen largely going to fertilizer and the liquid oxygen and the rare gases being used in other industrial and chemical processes.

Here we suggest a cost-benefit study, comparing the costs of importing electricity to make fertilizer and oxygen with the costs of importing other nitrogen feed stocks. We suspect that local production will remain the better option, especially once the scarcity of foreign currency is factored in.
(28 August 2007)

Useful Mutants, Bred With Radiation

William J. Broad, New York Times
VIENNA – Pierre Lagoda pulled a small container from his pocket and spilled the contents onto his desk. Four tiny dice rolled to a stop.

“That’s what nature does,” Dr. Lagoda said. The random results of the dice, he explained, illustrate how spontaneous mutations create the genetic diversity that drives evolution and selective breeding.

He rolled the dice again. This time, he was mimicking what he and his colleagues have been doing quietly around the globe for more than a half-century – using radiation to scramble the genetic material in crops, a process that has produced valuable mutants like red grapefruit, disease-resistant cocoa and premium barley for Scotch whiskey.

“I’m doing the same thing,” he said, still toying with the dice. “I’m not doing anything different from what nature does. I’m not using anything that was not in the genetic material itself.”

Dr. Lagoda, the head of plant breeding and genetics at the International Atomic Energy Agency, prides himself on being a good salesman. It can be a tough act, however, given wide public fears about the dangers of radiation and the risks of genetically manipulated food. His work combines both fields but has nonetheless managed to thrive.

The process leaves no residual radiation or other obvious marks of human intervention. It simply creates offspring that exhibit new characteristics.

Though poorly known, radiation breeding has produced thousands of useful mutants and a sizable fraction of the world’s crops, Dr. Lagoda said, including varieties of rice, wheat, barley, pears, peas, cotton, peppermint, sunflowers, peanuts, grapefruit, sesame, bananas, cassava and sorghum. The mutant wheat is used for bread and pasta and the mutant barley for beer and fine whiskey.

The mutations can improve yield, quality, taste, size and resistance to disease and can help plants adapt to diverse climates and conditions.

Dr. Lagoda takes pains to distinguish the little-known radiation work from the contentious field of genetically modified crops, sometimes disparaged as “Frankenfood.” That practice can splice foreign genetic material into plants, creating exotic varieties grown widely in the United States but often feared and rejected in Europe. By contrast, radiation breeding has made few enemies.
(28 August 2007)