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Contagion on a Small Planet

Andrew C. Revkin, New York Times
An urbanizing planet knitted by transportation is an extraordinarily welcoming world for infectious disease, particularly easily transmitted viruses like the flu. That’s why it wasn’t surprising Saturday when the World Health Organization concluded that the outbreaks of swine flu focused in central Mexico as well as a school in New York City and several other places around the United States officially constituted “a public health emergency of international concern.” Here’s a W.H.O. video describing their surveillance efforts. Will the safety net hold?

Disaster experts have been warning that the world, because of the fast-rising density of human populations, needs to work now to avoid high death tolls in inevitable natural disasters. Public health experts similarly warn that vigilance and speed in tracking and responding to disease outbreaks will be vital to limit the chances of a pandemic.

… And the pandemic threat remains a “when,” not an “if,” many international health experts say. As a recent Food and Agriculture Organization paper put it, global mobility and trade, expanding and intensifying livestock production and the ongoing disruption of ecosystems have created “a global commons of disease risk” spanning not only human populations but also our interface with the animal kingdom, both domesticated and wild.
(26 April 2009)

Food bowl on brink of $5bn catastrophe

Nigel Austin, Adelaide Now
THE nation’s key food bowl, the Murray Darling Basin, is on the verge of economic collapse as the value of production plunges by at least $5 billion, experts say.

Drought and declining irrigation water have plunged inland Australia’s heartland into crisis with the loss of at least one third of the basin’s $15 billion annual income. Worse is predicted for the coming financial year if the drought continues.

The demise of the economic powerhouse has pushed towns throughout the basin, particularly along the River Murray, into a severe downturn and population decline.

An ABS report last week showed the population throughout the basin is declining, or static at best, with the District Council of Berri and Barmera suffering the largest and fastest recent drop in SA with 130 people moving out between 2007 and 2008.

Authorities warn the problem has become the biggest crisis Australian agriculture has experienced, threatening the nation’s food supply.
(27 April 2009)

The Economics of Eating

Nick Summers, Newsweek
Living off a dollar menu may save you money now, but you’ll pay for it in the long run.

… Lean times lead to bad diets. Bad diets lead to obesity. And obesity leads to diabetes, heart disease and other chronic illnesses—not now, but sometime later in life, when today’s recession is a memory but Medicare, Medicaid and private insurers are still groaning under its weight. “People are eating cheaper, more fattening foods; care is more difficult to find; and as a result we’re going to have more and more people presenting at a later stage of the disease process,” says Roslin. “If you’re concerned about paying your rent and making ends meet, it’s very hard to think about the future implications of diabetes and other illnesses.”

Bad economic times affect Americans’ health in a number of ways. Most obviously, people who lose their jobs can lose their health insurance

… But one of the most insidious health effects of a downturn is in the area of diet. Eating healthily can be expensive and time-consuming—two qualities Americans currently have little appetite for. Hitting up the drive-through is cheap, no-hassle and easy to rationalize; those off-the-charts levels of fat, sodium and sugar feel like they can be dealt with in better days.

… The effects of poor eating and exercise habits, if left unchecked, are likely to outlast the current recession by years and even decades. “So often, making the healthy choice is the difficult choice. It’s imperative that we make it the easy choice,” says Harold Goldstein, the executive director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, which studies the state’s obesity epidemic and advocates for measures like mandatory menu labeling to better inform consumers about what they’re ordering.
(24 April 2009)
In the bad old days, only the rich and aristocratic a fatty unhealthy diet. Thanks to our modern food system, this blessing is now available to the rest of us.

What the article doesn’t mention is that healthy, delicious meals can be prepared cheaply. Unfortunately most of us have lost the skills and it is hard to resist the pressure to buy fast foods. -BA