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Blog Posts: World

March 21st, 2014

How to Disappoint 1.9 Million Citizens in a Few Minutes

By David Sánchez

For one moment, imagine that you are the Vice President of the European Commission. Citizens all around Europe have collected signatures demanding you to recognize the Human Right to Water and Sanitation in the European Union. This first ever European Citizen’s Initiative to be successful gained support from 1.9 million people. You had three months to discuss with your colleagues what to do about it. You start the press conference, smile to the cameras and speak for a few minutes. You announce that you say yes to the petition but you are aware that you are offering nothing. Finally, you leave the room.

Now imagine that the multinational company that manages water in your city cut off your water supply because you can’t afford to pay the bills. Or imagine that your municipal water supply is about to be privatized. Or maybe you were even involved in the signature collection and invested a lot of your time and efforts on it.

How would you feel in each situation? March 22nd is World Water Day, a good moment to reflect about the huge gap created this week between the announcement of the European Commission and the expectancies of 1.9 million European citizens on the right to water.

But, what is a European Citizen’s Initiative?

The European Citizen’s Initiative is a new democratic tool that tries to allow EU citizens to participate directly in the development of EU policies by calling on the European Commission to make a legislative proposal. You “just” need to collect one million signatures coming from at least 7 member states, following a really complicated set of rules and procedures.

And the Right to Water Initiative did it. Nearly 1.9 million signatures were collected with three basic demands: the legal requirement by EU institutions and Member States to ensure that all inhabitants enjoy the right to water and sanitation, a commitment that water supply and management will not be privatized and a commitment to increase EU efforts to achieve universal access to water and sanitation. These were three clear demands that had nearly no echo in the Commission’s answer.

The European Commission acknowledged the importance of the Human Right to Water and Sanitation and confirmed water as a public good. Which is good, but just words. They didn’t propose any legislation to recognize this right, just a compilation of already ongoing actions plus the announcement of a public consultation on the drinking water directive whose outcomes will not be binding. On the positive side, they committed to promote universal access to water and sanitation in its development policies, including the promotion of public-public partnerships. And that’s a step in the right direction.

But citizens had asked to exclude water and sanitation from what they call “internal market rules,” that is, privatization and liberalization. And the Commission did nothing. Water was excluded temporally, due to strong public opposition, from the last internal market legislation. But the Commission didn’t explicitly exclude these services from the ongoing trade negotiations, such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP or TAFTA) with the U.S. or the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) with Canada.

The European Water Movement, of which Food & Water Europe is part, stated it quite clearly: this decision implies a bad precedent for this new mechanism of public participation.

Water privatization is still a very concrete menace in many European countries, with the European Commission itself one of the main drivers. As part of the Troika (the tripartite committee composed by the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund), they are pushing for water privatization in Greece and Portugal, while evidence from public auditing bodies confirms that privatization is detrimental both for local authorities and ordinary citizens. And the reality on the ground shows that when families can’t afford to pay their bills, they are being deprived of access to water by private companies, as happened recently in Jerez, Spain.

Citizens are mobilizing across Europe. Millions of Italians voted against water privatization and local referendums took place in major cities like Madrid and Berlin. Right now citizens of Alcazar de San Juan, Spain, are voting on a popular referendum about the privatization of their water supply. Thessaloniki, in Greece, will vote on May 18. And other cities, like Puerto de Santa Maria, also in Spain, are now mobilized for the same reasons.

Water should be a commons, not a commodity. We must close the gap between citizen’s expectations and EU decisions. We need to keep reminding our politicians of the importance of the right to water before the elections for the European Parliament. And we need to keep it in mind also in the World Water Day.

January 22nd, 2014

Happy Birthday, Horsemeat Scandal

By Eve Mitchell

It’s been a year since we were first told the beef we buy may actually be horsemeat, but we still don’t really know what happened, how far it spread, who is responsible, or how they will be called to account for themselves.

We’ve seen a smattering of arrests, notably the September 2013 arrests of eight managers of the French company Spanghero on charges of aggravated fraud and mislabelling of food products. French authorities say they “knowingly sold” 750 tonnes of horsemeat mislabelled as beef. Around two-thirds of this went to French firm Comigel’s Luxembourg subsidiary Tavola and found its way into some 4.5 million products that were then sold again to 28 companies operating in 13 European countries. This may be the source of the tainted Findus “beef” lasagne (100% horsemeat) found on UK supermarket shelves.

Sound complicated? It is, but if you’re going to buy heavily processed foods you need to know this stuff – unless you’re happy to just pinch your nose and swallow.

Justice is elusive. Accused of netting some €500,000 over six months of fraud (£425,000 or US$681,000), Spanghero had been stripped of its operating license in February 2013. It then closed in June, changed managers, sacked nearly 60% of its workforce, renamed itself La Lauragaise, refinanced and was trading again by the end of July – protesting its “innocence” all the way. Then came the arrests in September. The company’s new tagline “Saveurs des terroirs” (“The flavours of the land”, with heavy overtones of traditional cultural quality) feels like a bad joke.

Flagship arrests, while welcome, are not enough. Supermarkets sold us this stuff but are not feeling the heat. The UK Parliamentary inquiry into the affair quizzed supermarket bosses, pointing out to Tesco that it is “notorious” for rejecting misshapen apples but somehow managed to miss the fact that products labelled beef were actually up to 29% horse. The Tesco representative attempted to blame consumers, saying the company does what they want, but this didn’t wash with the committee, which retorted, “You obviously don’t [do what your customers want] on horse.”

The inquiry pressed that if beef is trading at a premium to horse, and with “unscrupulous people out there, as obviously there are,” surely supermarkets should watch cheaper products more closely. Tesco said each of its suppliers is scrutinised with the same ”rigour” (Tesco does one DNA test per year at each meat production site). Horsemeat was still being found in Tesco products as late as June, but as the Food Standards Agency only reports results over 1%, for all we know horsemeat is still masquerading as beef all over the place. At this stage it isn’t in anybody’s interest to say differently, and consumers have to take what they can get.

Supermarkets sell UK shoppers 80% of our food, so when they fail us, it is a big deal. Tesco pleads innocence, saying its supplier used unapproved suppliers further down the chain. The Committee’s July 2013 report concluding its inquiry said while some retailers may have been misled, the big ones “need to ‘up their game’”, and the costs should rest on companies, not consumers. The inquiry concluded, “Retailers and meat processors should have been more vigilant against the risk of deliberate adulteration,” instead of taking everything “on trust”. The Committee continued, “We are dismayed at the slow pace of investigations and would like assurance that prosecutions will be mounted where there is evidence of fraud or other illegal activity.” That was in July 2013. 

So what has the UK Government done? Testifying before the inquiry in January 2013 Minister for Agriculture and Food David Heath MP announced a wide-ranging review of the crisis, but the report was kicked into the long grass and is not due before an unnamed point in 2014, with actual action who knows when after that. Meanwhile the inquiry heard the Government is proposing to decriminalise food labelling violations amid a declining number of public analysts and labs able to carry out food testing and budget cuts to the local authorities responsible for food testing.

UK Secretary of State for Food and Farming Owen Paterson said of the horsemeat scandal: “I think we came out of it very strongly.” On addressing the scandal he said, “Firstly we are bound by the rules of the European market,” although this is a notable departure from his feelings in other areas (Paterson calls Europe’s rules on GM food “medieval” and compares them to “witchcraft”). The annual review of his department showed that fewer than a third of his staff have confidence in managerial decision making and fewer than a quarter think their management have a clear vision of the future. They are not alone.

Some say all this is proof that “Big Retail has government in an armlock”. It sure feels like they have shoppers under the other arm.

On 14 January 2014 the European Parliament passed a motion on food fraud that “deplores” that it has never been an EU enforcement priority and reiterates that “the retail sector has a special responsibility to guarantee the integrity of food products”. With supermarkets claiming innocence and the UK Government playing “hurry up and wait,” maybe the EU can force some action on our behalf.

December 9th, 2013

Energy “Reform” in Mexico Will Only Pave the Road for Fracking 

By Claudia Campero 

In Mexico, as in many countries, information on amounts of recoverable shale gas reserves is uncertain. In 2011, the U.S. Energy Information Administration placed Mexico in fourth place worldwide. In 2013, we slipped to sixth place. Pemex, the Mexican state petroleum company, estimates the quantity to be even more modest. Regardless of how much gas lies beneath our feet, the consequences of the ambitious battle to frack our country is likely to be felt in many communities.

When it comes to hydrocarbon extraction, the context in Mexico is quite different from that in the U.S. In 1938, Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenas nationalized all oil and gas reserves. For the last few decades, Pemex has been responsible for all fossil fuel extraction in the country. This is central to the government’s income since it represents 32 percent of all federal income. Pemex is so important that it managed to escape the many reforms made to other sectors in Mexico when the country joined the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994. However, powerful international energy corporations have been pushing for a share of Mexico’s energy resources over the last decade, and are currently already working with Pemex through service contract arrangements.

But they want much more.

Read the full article…

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November 22nd, 2013

Sustainable Energy for All

By Briana Kerensky

Image courtesy United Nations Development Group

Over the past few years, hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has been presented by the oil and gas industry as a silver bullet to our economic woes. According to the industry, the mining of unconventional shale gas and oil deposits is supposed to flood our communities with money, jobs, and other development opportunities. But the truth is this: fracking comes with a price. This dangerous, harmful practice puts our health, our environment, and the stability of our communities on the line.

The UN is currently engaged in a multi-year process to develop Sustainable Development Goals that will chart a common global path towards merging economic development with environmental stability. How can people around the world the chance to succeed and improve their lives, without furthering damage to our planet and communities? Some states are moving ahead quickly with fracking in the hopes of achieving energy independence from imported oil and gas. Meanwhile, other states, such as France, have banned the practice, believing that it cannot be done without resulting in the risks mentioned above.

This Monday, the UN will address the role of fracking in the organization’s Sustainable Development Goals in an event called “Sustainable Energy for All: Can a Just Solution Include Hydraulic Fracturing?” Speakers at the event include Ambassador Stephan Tafrov, Permanent Representative of Bulgaria to the UN; François Gave, Permanent Mission of France to the UN; and Food & Water Watch’s own Senior Organizer for New York, Eric Weltman.

It is the goal of Food & Water Watch to work with the UN and help people understand that fracking is a short-term solution to energy consumption, with long lasting, disastrous results. Sustainable energy is a goal that we can achieve. But fracking is hardly the answer.

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October 17th, 2013

Standing in Solidarity with Canadian Activists During the Global Frackdown

By Mark Schlosberg

Activists around the globe are watching events unfold in New Brunswick, Canada today where a peaceful blockade led by the Elsipogtog First Nation, at the facility of SWN Resources Canada – a subsidiary of the U.S.-based Southwestern Energy – turned into a standoff with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). The RCMP told Canadian media that protesters are being arrested for firearms offences, threats, intimidation, mischief and violating the court-ordered injunction. What is less visible in the media reports but what we’re hearing from activists on social media: that the peaceful blockade was met by overwhelming use of force by police who had canine units and reportedly used pepper spray and rubber bullets. 

We have still just heard bits and pieces of information and at this point it is still unclear exactly how this situation escalated today. However, given the large police presence, including snipers in camouflage, and a reported aggressive posture towards this action, it is sadly not surprising that it has gone the way it has. There are too many reports of peaceful protests escalating following police use of excessive force. We stand with other movement leaders and organizations like Josh Fox and Maude Barlow of Council of Canadians in solidarity with peaceful Canadian activists standing to protect their lands and water from fracking. Still, in the end, violence – whatever the cause – cannot be part of a solution and we second Josh Fox’s sentiments shared on Twitter in “Urging restraint against aggression. No matter what the police do we cannot respond with violence.”

Read the full article…

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September 20th, 2013

Thousands March Against Water Privatization

Over the past year, Food & Water Watch has worked with allies in El Salvador and the U.S. to fight a series of policies that are promoting privatization in El Salvador. The latest efforts to privatize water have been met with strong resistance by communities. Our friends at CISPES (Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador) have written about the protests and we’re cross-posting their blog here for background. 

Photo courtesy CISPES.

On Thursday, August 22, thousands of community, environmental, youth and labor organizations filled the streets of San Salvador to demand the passage of a water law that would guarantee all Salvadorans’ right to water and prevent any forms of privatization of the essential resource. A draft of the legislation currently sits before the National Legislative Assembly, where right-wing parties have stalled its passage in hopes of including mechanisms for privatization and concession of public water administration.

The rally was organized by the Water Forum, a coalition that boasts a vast and diverse social movement membership, all out in force on Thursday. Community water committees, public water utility unions, organizations from the National Roundtable Against Metallic Mining, student groups from the National University, and a variety of non-profits blocked traffic on major city thoroughfares, chanting “Water is a right! Not merchandise!” The massive march began at the Salvador del Mundo monument and wound its way to the Legislative Assembly, detouring past the headquarters of the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party, where protesters stopped to chant, “They’re the ones! They’re the ones! The ones that sell out the nation!” Read the full article…

August 27th, 2013

Beef or Bull? What Zilmax Teaches Us About Industry Science

By Tim Schwab

Over the last few weeks, the largest corporate meatpackers shocked beef markets by announcing they would no longer accept cattle treated with the widely used drug Zilmax. First Tyson, then Cargill jettisoned the growth-promoter, citing animal health concerns, including cattle arriving at slaughterhouses unable to walk. Approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2006 but banned in China and the EU based on human health concerns, Zilmax is now being voluntarily pulled from the market by its manufacturer, Merck.

But before suspending sales of Zilmax, Merck vigorously defended the drug, citing favorable research by “University experts.”  Merck’s public relations campaign fails to mention that some of these experts are paid consultants, whose research projects are funded and even co-authored by makers of Zilmax. Read the full article…

August 16th, 2013

Oh you want straight bananas now do you….

Bananas wrapped in protective plastic at a banana plantation in Costa Rica. Credit: Anna Meyer

By Anna Meyer

While studying in Costa Rica for four months this past spring, I had the opportunity to tour a pineapple plantation and a Dole banana plantation. I was surprised and bemused by what I learned about these two tropical fruits that have become commonplace in American homes.

Pineapples and bananas have a long and political history in Costa Rica and most of Latin America. Much of which is a result of the United Fruit Company’s (known now as Chiquita) grab to gain control of land. They’ve even orchestrated government coups in order to be able to export more fruit north. 

Bananas are grown in massive monoculture plantations. A single planting of banana tress consists of hundreds of plants with the exact same genetic makeup; each tree is an identical twin to the one sitting next to it. Read the full article…

July 16th, 2013

Tomato Irradiation Approval in Australia and New Zealand

By Stephanie Tate

On May 18th, Food Standards Australia New Zealand, better known as FSANZ, approved the use of irradiation on Australian tomatoes and bell peppers to deal with fruit flies. The agency said irradiation is an acceptable way to replace the method of fumigating produce with ozone-depleting chemicals. While that is a worthwhile goal, portraying this as a choice between irradiation and toxic fumigants is too simplistic – neither is acceptable. The effects of irradiated food consumption, especially over the long-term, have not been sufficiently researched, and the continued approval of irradiation for various food items, including meat and shellfish, in both the U.S. and other countries is a worrisome trend. Read the full article…

May 10th, 2013

Outsourced, Imported Food is a Recipe for Disaster

By Anna Ghosh

Thanks to Michael Pollan’s new book, there’s a lot of buzz right now about Americans’ meals being outsourced, but a connected and equally troubling trend – with even riskier food safety implications – is that Americans’ food is increasingly being imported from countries with abominable track records for food safety. And the country on the top of the list is China. 

This week, Food & Water Watch Assistant Director Patty Lovera testified before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats to discuss China as the leading producer of many foods Americans eat: apples, tomatoes, peaches, potatoes, garlic, seafood, processed food and food ingredients like xylitol and vitamin C.

Headlines about risky food from China have become all too common – melamine in milk, a chicken for beef swap, toxic juice, exploding watermelons (really, you can’t make this stuff up). Even our pets are threatened. Since 2007, chicken jerky treats imported from China are suspected to have caused more than 600 cases of canine illness and deaths to date.me

In her testimony, Patty explains how combining trade policy with a food safety regulatory system that’s not up to the job of dealing with the rising tide of imports is a recipe for disaster. She warns about the risks involved when cash-strapped agencies turn to third party certifiers (doubly outsourced), and how consumers’ only tool to be able to make informed decisions about where their food comes from – Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) – needs to be improved and expanded.

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