Processed Meat Is Carcinogenic – World Health Organization

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Salami, sausage, ham and bacon — the latest study by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has found a strong link between processed meat and bowel cancer, as well as evidence for probability of such a link also between red meat and bowel cancer.

IARC, which is the World Health Organisation’s cancer research body, classifies compounds’ carcinogenic properties on a scale of decreasing certainty. In group 1 are agents that are definitely carcinogenic to humans; in 2A those that are probably carcinogenic to humans; 2B includes those that are possibly carcinogenic to humans; 3, includes not classifiable agents; and in group 4, those that are probably not carcinogenic to humans.

Processed meat “refers to meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavour or improve preservation”, includes things like salami, sausage, ham and bacon, and has been ranked in group 1 by IARC, in the same category as tobacco and alcohol.

According to the study, for every 50 grams of processed meat consumed daily, the risk of colorectal cancer increases by 18 per cent.

In their press release Dr Kurt Straif, Head of the IARC Monographs Programme, said: “For an individual, the risk of developing colorectal cancer because of their consumption of processed meat remains small, but this risk increases with the amount of meat consumed. In view of the large number of people who consume processed meat, the global impact on cancer incidence is of public health importance.”

Although the study scores red meat better than processed meat, its 2A classification means it is now on par with glyphosate, a herbicide contained in products such as Monsanto’s Round-Up, the probably carcinogenic properties of which made headlines earlier in the year. However according to IARC, eating red meat is not just linked to bowel but to pancreatic and prostate cancer too.

Meat industry groups and the research institutes they fund reject that eating meat is on par with smoking or other lifestyle causes to cancer, such as alcohol consumption, obesity and lack of exercise. Nutritionists also argue that the benefits of eating red meat regularly, in combination with plenty of fruit, fibre and exercise, counteract the risk to colorectal cancer.

Yet the debate on the health effects of processed and red meat is nothing new, and neither are the recommendations by health practitioners to limit the amounts consumed to reduce the risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease – although the IARC study falls short of setting a safe recommended amount for red meat.

Environmentalists  have too been highlighting for sometime how an increasingly intensive meat industry – responsible for much deforestation, carbon emissions, reliant on fossil fuels and addicted to antibiotics,  is not a sustainable source of food for people and planet.

Even if one doesn’t accept the latest findings by IARC, it seems there are many reasons to limit our processed and red meat intake. Whether a healthy heart or a healthy planet is your thing, good old moderation may well just do the trick.

By Annalisa Dorigo

England Bans Bags

EU plastic bag law
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Legislation that bans supermarkets from giving out free plastic bags to their customers has finally kicked in in England. Gone are the days of plastic bags bonanza: from today, shoppers will have to pay 5p for each thin-gauge supermarket plastic bag they require.

Some 8.5 billion single-use bags plus some 500,000 reusable were used in 2014 by customers in UK supermarkets, weighing a total of 68,600 tonnes.

In England alone, 19 million single-use plastic bags are given out daily.

Similar legislation already in place in Ireland and Denmark, with France also following suit, has shown to have greatly reduced plastic bags use almost overnight.

The new measure, a welcome step according to environmentalists, applies however only to supermarkets with over 250 employees and does not include other types of bags, such as paper bags. It is therefore deemed to not be going far enough, and to be sending the public mixed messages.

Critics argue that the behaviour change such ban is designed to encourage will be hindered by smaller shops being exempt, with people being able to carry out as normal whenever shopping at these smaller establishments.

While legislation in England may not yet go far enough, it is nonetheless a good step in helping to reduce the amount of plastic blighting our landscapes, choking our wildlife, and finding its way to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch a floating garbage dump twice the size of Texas.

By Annalisa Dorigo

Video used to drum up support for a similar ban in California:

Secret exchanges and informal interactions: new report shines light on lobbying in the EU

lobbying in the EU
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What is the state of lobbying in Europe? How transparent is it? Is there a clear and enforceable code of conduct for lobbying activities? How diverse are the voices affecting decision making?

In their latest report Lobbying Europe: Hidden Influence, Privileged Access Transparency International (TI) answers these very questions.

The study looks at the practice of lobbying and its regulations within 19 EU national governments and the three main EU institutions: the European Commission, the EU Parliament, and the EU Council.

It is underpinned by three research criteria:

  1. Transparency – are interactions between lobbyists and public officials transparent and open to public scrutiny?
  2. Integrity – is there a clear and enforceable code of behaviour that ensures lobbying is conducted ethically?
  3. Equality of access – how diverse is the range of voices affecting decision-making, how accessible is the political system to a wide range of citizens?

With some 15-30 thousand lobbyists regularly walking in the corridors of EU institutions, the lobbying industry in Europe is not just thriving but is becoming increasingly sophisticated. It includes professional lobbyists, corporations, private sector representatives, trade unions and law firms, and also NGOs, think-tanks, academics and faith-based organisations.

Underpinned by transparency, integrity and equality of access, lobbying can be a democratic tool, as multiple views can help shape the political debate and agenda in ways that are richer and fairer to the millions of people who will be ultimately impacted by the decisions taken. Legislation on food labeling, pesticide use, carbon emissions, smoking bans, recycling targets, and gay marriage are all examples of lobbying as a force for good.

However, in their latest report TI show us why the practice often still has a rather seedy ring to it.

The study finds ineffective and piecemeal lobbying regulations across EU countries and institutions overall. It finds that only seven (Austria, France, Ireland, Lithuania, Poland, Slovenia and the United Kingdom) of the 19 countries investigated have some kind of lobbying regulation in place, but even then regulation is either poorly designed or not properly implemented.

When measured against international standards and best practices, the 19 EU countries and EU institutions together only scored an average 31 percent for the quality of their promotion of transparency, integrity and equality of access in lobbying.

For the three EU institutions alone the score is slightly higher at 36 percent, but still well below the ideal mark.

At 55 and 53 percent respectively, Slovenia is the only country and the EU Commission is the only institution to surpass the 50 percent mark. In both, whereas transparency and integrity measures are found to be relatively solid, the measures’ reach, implementation and enforcement are, however, found to be lacking.

The study finds that only 10 of the 19 countries assessed have some form of lobbying register.

In six (Austria, Ireland, Lithuania, Poland, Slovenia, the United Kingdom), this is a national mandatory register. Yet while mandatory, lobbying, its targets and activities are found to be too narrowly defined – indeed none of the 19 countries are found to have adequate definitions across the board.

The UK Lobbying Act (2014), for example, is estimated by the Association of Professional Political Consultants to only be able to capture around one per cent of those who engage in lobbying activities – this is due to its narrow targets focus on ministers, permanent secretaries and special advisers – but not on members of parliament or local councillors, the staff of regulatory bodies, and private companies providing public services.

In 14 countries, voluntary registers may apply only to select institutions, such as the National Assembly and Senate in France, in the Netherlands, and the EU Transparency Register, or to target sub-national level institutions, such as the Italian regions of Tuscany, Molise and Abruzzo, or Catalonia in Spain.

These registers’ voluntary nature fails to fully and accurately capture the real extent of lobbying, and through use of non-user-friendly data formats and through weak or non-existent oversight and sanctions, their potential as transparency, integrity and equality of access tools is further hindered.

Another finding of the report is that much of the influence in Europe is exercised through informal relationships away from the public eye, such as through corporate hospitality events, all paid expense business trips, gala dinners, or quiet drinks in parliamentary bars.

Lobbyists in Hungary told of their travels alongside international business delegations and visits to football matches. Lobbyists in Milan told of how they catch politicians in the Alitalia’s lounge in Linate’s Airport, while they wait to catch their flight to Rome.

Below the radar by design, such interactions are likely to fall through any regulatory net.

The study highlights also how particular groups enjoy privileged access to decision makers. With the largest sums of money spent, the pharmaceutical, finance, energy and telecoms sectors tend to dominate the lobbying landscape. In 2012, the official figure for spending by the pharmaceutical sector alone was 40 billion Euros, however the study suggests a more realistic number for the sector would be 91 billion Euro.

Transparency International
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That Goldman Sachs recently increased their declared lobbying expenses does seem to corroborate that official figures tend to err on the conservative side.

The study also warns that with an increasingly intertwined relationship between politics and business, known as the ‘revolving door’ between public and private sectors, is posing serious risks of regulatory and policy capture.

Although a cooling-off period before former public officials can lobby their former colleagues is in place in most countries, the report finds that none of the 19 EU countries have effective monitoring and enforcement of such revolving door provisions.

One example cited is that of France. Since 2013 French legislation requires a three-year cooling-off period between the end of a public service mandate and a role within a company that the official previously had interactions with as part of his or her mandate.

In practice, effective monitoring is likely to be impeded by the very limited resources available to monitoring bodies, such as the Public Service Ethics Commission, versus the scope of their monitoring responsibilities – for the Public Service Ethics Commission this is over some 5.5 million public officials. And with MPs also being exempt from such cooling-off period, such legislation shows room for improvement.

When it comes to equality of access to decision makers, in 17 of the 19 EU countries assessed public officials are required to promote citizens’ participation through consultations, indicating that public engagement is paramount.

Yet although formal mechanisms to collect a variety of voices do exist, none of the countries are found to have measures in place that can show whose voices decision makers ultimately take into account. Measures that ensure a balanced composition of advisory groups — key in preventing cases like this – are only found in Portugal.

The report however does also praise some regulatory improvements that have occurred, such as the recently adopted lobbying law in Ireland, and the progress made in a number of countries — namely Bulgaria, Cyprus, Estonia, France, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, Slovakia and Spain — towards regulating not just lobbying but also its parallel act of political financing.

Yet, while such developments are positive and welcome steps in the right direction, the study warns that transparency, integrity, and equality of access remain overall rather elusive in lobbying regulation in Europe, and that while many voices seek a chance to shape political debates in ways that take their own interests into account, when it comes to influencing decision makers it is the well-resourced corporate interests that reach the most ears.

Overall, a lack of a EU-wide mandatory lobbying register on one side, and the presence of mostly voluntary and generally poorly designed, implemented and/or enforced national codes of conduct on the other, are enabling lobbying to continue to take place below the radar, so that we don’t really know who is lobbying whom, for what, and with what resources.

The study calls for lifting such veils of secrecy and the opening of lobbying to public scrutiny as the first steps towards promoting a fairer system in which a plurality of voices have equal access to political agenda-setting, and in which decisions ultimately are made so that people are put before profits.

Analysis by Annalisa Dorigo

Images from the Transparency International report

Why Over 1.5 Million People Per Month Have Been Renouncing Affiliation With The Chinese Communist Party

Why over 1.5 million people a month have been renouncing affiliation with Chinese Communist Party
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Over 1.5 million people a month — almost 195 million people to date — have renounced their links to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) since the Tuidang Movement (in mandarin Chinese Tuidang means ‘withdraw from the party’) was founded in January 2005, spurred by the publication of the ‘Nine Commentaries on the Communist Party’, an editorial series run by the Epoch Times, a Chinese language newspaper based in the United States.

The Nine Commentaries seeks to give a historical account and critique of the Communist Party, its ideologies, its practices, its effects on China’s culture and values and what it has meant for the ordinary lives of Chinese citizens. The Nine Commentaries may be for many Chinese the only alternative to China’s authorities’ own account of major historical events, such as the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre. And while the series does not directly call for the end of the CCP, in its ninth of the Nine Commentaries it calls on people to distance themselves from the party.

As soon as the series was run in November 2004, statements of withdrawal from the CCP began to arrive at the offices of the Epoch Times, which led a group of volunteers to officially start the Tuidang movement in January 2005. According to David Tompkins, Director of Public Relations at the Tuidang Centre in New York, many Chinese had been harbouring a desire to renounce their ties to the CCP for a long time, and reading the Nine Commentaries gave them the encouragement and the opportunity to follow it through.

The movement relies on a global network of volunteers operating within most places in which a Chinese community is present. However it is in China that the movement is most active, with some several hundred thousand volunteers, often acting alone, unable to communicate with one another, and at great personal risk. Indeed, research by the Tuidang Centre showed that of the 100 million statements of withdrawals received by 2011, around 99 percent came from China. While Tomkins acknowledges that such percentage may not be quite so high now, he thinks the ratio is still not far off.

‘Tuidang’ literally means ‘to withdraw from the party’, but effectively it means to renounce the CCP ideology and to symbolically take back the oath given to the party either through the Young Pioneers, the Communist Youth League, or the CCP proper.  And while official sources put CCP membership in China at around 85 million, party ideology permeates much more of Chinese society, with some 700 million Chinese estimated to have taken the oath through either of these organisations at some point in their lives.

Tuidang is more than just symbolically taking back the oath however, as Tompkins explains. The movement wants to empower people to think for themselves once again, to hold beliefs that are not prescribed and to look at the party more critically, while also seeking to reconnect Chinese people with the traditional value systems of Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism, belief systems which the party treats as enemy of the state.  Such intellectual and ethics freedom, which people in the West take for granted, has been systematically opposed since the CCP came into power, through censorship, persecution, imprisonment, torture or killing of those who don’t toe the party line.

The CCP has to date failed to issue an official party response to the Tuidang Movement, as this would acknowledge the threat that it poses. Yet responded it has. Terms like ‘Tuidang’ and ‘Nine Commentaries’ are highly censored in internet searches, and media outlets reporting on Tuidang risk immediate closure, such as the case of Jinzhou News. On 27 September 2009, with the 60th Anniversary of the CCP only a few days away, the paper published on its front page a photo of red flags and banners. Down in the left corner the photo also showed a bike rack with a message written on it encouraging people to leave the party. As soon as the issue was released, the newspaper was shut down and all copies withdrawn from circulation.

Internet and media censorship aside, other government measures to counteract threats to its power include: an increased domestic security budget – the courts, policing, the prosecutor’s office; party members recruitment, and more than a whiff of Mao propaganda, such as the ‘singing red songs’ campaign, during which people were invited or coerced into singing CCP slogans at public events.

Yet, despite government repression, momentum has been steadily growing within the Tuidang movement, and some 120 thousand statements of withdrawal are currently reaching the Tuidang Centre in New York daily.

The cause has no doubt been helped by high profile cases, such as that of Zhisheng Gao. Gao is a much respected human rights lawyer who spent half of his career practicing pro-bono for the poorest in China, and was one of the first lawyers to take on Falun Gong cases. He has endured repeated  imprisonment and torture for its human rights work, and is currently under house arrest and unable to communicate freely with his family.

Accounts of imprisonments and torture at the hands of the Chinese government’s domestic security apparatus are as numerous as they are harrowing.  Like that of Zhiming Hu, a 28-year-old electronics engineer and a major officer in the Chinese air force, whose experience almost cost him his life.

At 2 a.m. on the 4th October 2000, members of the National Security Bureau knocked, under a false pretext, on Zhiming Hu’s door at the Shanghai hotel in which he had been staying. They rushed in, arrested him and took him away, alleging that he was a spy.  Hu was taken to Tilanqiao Prison in Shanghai. Right from the start he suffered mental and physical torture at the hands of prison guards and inmates alike. For the first three weeks he was interrogated constantly and beaten, his hands and waist handcuffed together as he refused to recite the prison regulations and to wear inmates’ clothes.

A whole year went by before the authorities appointed him a lawyer at the beginning of court proceedings, and on 14th September 2001 Hu was finally sentenced by the Pudong District Court to four years in prison for “teaching others to browse the website” – a Falun Gong website.

Hu’s four year sentence was spent between detention centres and prison hospitals.  After his sentencing, he was put into a three square meter cell where he remained for two years, enduring many more beatings and torture. Towards the end of its sentence, in August 2004, the authorities became more heavy-handed, instigating beatings and depriving Hu of sleep. He started a hunger strike in protest.

One day, as he laid unconscious, he was taken to the prison hospital where his legs, arms and body were tightly bound to the bed.  There he was forced-fed, and for three weeks injected with drugs of unknown therapeutic benefit, which gave him pounding headaches that lasted for hours. He remained in hospital, bound to the bed, for 40 days until his sentence had expired. Unable to move as a result of the binding, his parents came to collect him and had to carry him home.  It was the 3rd October 2004.

It was not to be the end of Hu’s ordeal.

One year later, on the evening of the 23rd September 2005, as he was distributing DVD copies of the ‘Nine Commentaries on the Communist Party’ on the streets of Beijing, Hu was apprehended by plain clothes police and taken to Haidian District Detention Centre in Beijing.  Just like before, he had no contact with his family and just like before the authorities appointed his lawyer only shortly before the trial some seven months later, when Hu was given 30 minutes to talk with him. At the trial, on 26th April 2006, he was sentenced to another four years in prison.

Zhiming Hu
Zhiming Hu


Hu recounts how this time he was treated even worse, so that on 13th May 2006 he started a hunger strike to protest his unlawful detention and inhumane conditions. After five days he was sent to a hospital where a series of physical examinations began, with many blood samples taken during which he reckons unnecessary pain was deliberately inflicted upon him. The tests continued back at the detention centre where he would be given daily injections, and was closely watched twelve hours a day, before been sent back to the hospital on May 24th, where for the following five months his feet were chained to the bed.

To try to make him give up his hunger strike prison officers and doctors would beam bright lights into Hu’s eyes, force-feed him daily, and let him lay in his own excrement for long periods of time. Hu recounts how once an over one meter long tube was inserted through his nose into his stomach. As he complained to the medical staff that the procedure disregarded the maximum allowance of 0.5 meter for such procedures, they quickly removed the tube, causing severe pain and internal bleeding that lasted longer than a month.

Unsuccessful in getting Hu to resume eating, doctors started reducing his force-feeding and moved him to a contagious diseases ward, the same ward where he recalls other fellow Falun Gong practitioners, some of whom had later died, had also previously been sent to.  Five months later, with a body weight of 40kg, down from 60kg, Hu’s health had seriously deteriorated.

In September 2006 when the authorities belatedly asked him to sign his verdict, Hu refused. By October Hu got worse, and fearing he may die, the prison staff increased monitoring during the day and woke him up every two hour at night, before sending him to the Tuanhe Detainee Transfer Centre, where he was refused on the basis of his poor health.

Back to the detention centre and now supposed to be transferred to the City Prison hospital, the guard responsible for his transfer, tired and reluctant to take him, decided to kick Hu’s legs until they were numb. The next day, an electromyography examination found that Hu’s leg muscles had severe atrophy and that his legs nerves had suffered physical damage, probably due to a combination of his bed-chaining for months, as well as the kicking he suffered.

On 2nd November 2006 Hu Was transferred to the Jinzhou Prison in Liaoning Province.  Body covered in festers, force-feeding was resumed. By now Hu was lingering between life and death and his parents hoped he could be bailed out, but the prison refused. Three more years imprisonment followed, during which Hu was bed-bound, except when using a wheelchair to visit the toilet. More torture by police officers, harassment by inmates, and dubious medical procedures ensued.

Body weak and severely malnourished, legs stiff with muscular atrophy and nerve damage, Hu’s health continued to deteriorate. On 22nd September 2009, afraid of the consequences of his possibly imminent death, the prison hurriedly shifted its duty to its local police station and residential committee, who in turn also hurriedly sent Hu back home to his parents, barely alive.

With the help of Falun Gong exercises Hu gradually recovered and started to regain mobility in his legs, and two months later he was able to stand and to walk again, although the damage to his nerves meant that he could only do so backwards.

On 4th February 2010 after Hu was seen once again walking outside, four members of local 610 Office – a national office formed for persecution of Falun Gong practitioners – and the residential committee broke into Hu’s house.  Hu was lucky not to be home at the time, however his parents were warned not to let him go outside again, and to report any of Hu’s activities to them.  Hu realised that he would not be safe in China.

Two weeks later, during the Chinese Spring Festival on 17th February 2010, Hu left his house without telling a soul. He caught a train to the Unan province and then a seven hour bus ride to the Vietnam border. There he was lucky to find someone who smuggled him across the border into Vietnam. Two weeks later he reached Cambodia and on 1st March 2010 he made it into Thailand, where he was granted political asylum and remained for two years. Then, on 2nd August 2012 Hu joined his brother in the US.

Having almost completely healed from his disability, Hu now lives in New York where he works as a software engineer. His father and two brothers remain in China. He speaks with them regularly, and although their conversations are tapped, his family back home are no longer subjected to harassment.

Hu counts himself lucky. Lucky that he survived what other fellow Falun Gong practitioners did not, such as Litian Zhang who on 17th November 2008 was beaten to death in JinZhou prison.

Hu’s faith in Falun Gong is what got him incarcerated in the first place, but he says it is also what ultimately kept him alive throughout his ordeal.  Outside the prison walls Hu’s brother campaigned US Congress and wrote letters to the UN Human Rights Commission. And, aided by a Falun Gong’s campaign through which the personal telephone numbers of prison officers involved in torturing Falun Gong’s practitioners were published, he kept phoning the prison staff who were mistreating Hu, asking them to stop persecuting him.

Such activities may not have achieved Hu’s early release from prison, but they did put pressures on the authorities, and highlight the tenacity of Hu’s family and human rights campaigners in their fight against violent repression of dissent. Such tenacity can be a powerful weapon as the Chinese government are all too aware.

Why over 1.5 million people a month have been renouncing affiliation with Chinese Communist Party
A Tuidang demonstration in Taipei


Momentum has been steadily rising within the Tuidang movement. Thanks to a network of courageous volunteers in China, and the world, a growing number of Chinese people can look more critically at, and challenge the party who rules them.

Yet the story of Hu, and of too many others like him, shows that regardless of its more liberal economy and an apparent softening stance in its international relations, persecution, torture and killing are still China’s policies of choice in dealing with domestic threats to its rule.

Tompkins argues that while many Chinese now enjoy greater wealth, being able to afford mobile phones does not make up for all the basic freedoms that they are still deprived of.  What they think, what they believe, what they say, who they associate themselves with, whether they can have a child or the decision when to marry, are all still ruled by the state in China.  Western governments, businesses and consumers could do a lot more to ensure that such basic freedoms are promoted in China.

A view much echoed by Teng Biao, a Human Rights lawyer and a visiting fellow at Harvard University Law School, Biao had his lawyer’s license revoked in China, was expelled from his university and was kidnapped and disappeared several times.  Biao said:  “…Sycophants inside and outside China are able to imagine a ‘spring for rule of law’ that doesn’t exist while ignoring human rights disasters suffered by Ilham Tohti, Xu Zhiyong, Cao Shunli, Gao Zhisheng, Uighurs, Tibetans, petitioners, Falun Gong adherents, and house churches… this type of seemingly even-handed wishful thinking has become the excuse for Western governments to adopt short-sighted policies of appeasement in dealing with autocratic regimes and for favouring trade over human rights.”

Indeed, repression costs money and flourishing exports receipts underpin the Chinese government ability to silence its opposition at home, but also give it leverage in international negotiations, not only in the geopolitical arena, but ironically in Human Rights debates.

On asking about what it will mean for the organisation to hit 200 million withdrawal statements, Tompkins admits that they still have a long way to go, but that it is nevertheless a milestone and an opportunity to get more people aware of and involved in the movement, particularly in the West.

It is a long way to a free and democratic China, and much still is to be done by the Tuidang and other human rights movements, and by ordinary citizens turned activists, like Zhiming Hu, whose actions are nothing short of the heroic. Yet according to Hu and Tompkins, over the ten years since the movement started a mood change has been palpable, with more and more Chinese people denouncing their government’s corruption and violence towards its very own citizens. Both are unanimous in also saying that for it to succeed this battle is not for China alone.

By Annalisa Dorigo

The rise and rise of the Superbug?

The rise and rise of the Superbug
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A recent report by economist Jim O’Neill is shining the light onto the economic implications of the global rise of antimicrobial resistance (AMR). AMR occurs when bacteria that are exposed to different types of antibiotics become resistant to them, or multidrug resistant. In layman’s terms they turn into superbugs.

O’Neill’s report looks at the effect of AMR on labour force morbidity and mortality, and its effect on global economic output. It estimates that if resistance is left unchecked, global AMR deaths will rise from a current 700,000 deaths per year (of which some 50,000 deaths per year occur in the UK and the US alone) to ten million deaths per year by 2050, with global GDP likely to shrink by 2-3.5 per cent, equivalent to some $100 trillion losses between 2014 and 2050.

Poor availability of data around bacterial infections however means that the findings give only a broad brush picture of the global impact of AMR, and a rather conservative one at that.  Instead of all seven pathogens identified from the World Health Organisation for which drug resistance is a problem, the authors were only able to look at three: Klebsiella pneumonia, which is linked to pneumonia and respiratory tract diseases; E-coli, linked to gastrointestinal infections; and Staphylococcus aureus, which can be linked to a number of diseases, including pneumonia.

So what are the causes of AMR? AMR develops because bacteria adapt in order to survive: as they are exposed to antibiotics, they begin to develop a resistance to them and to share their resistance genes with one another.
While the discovery of penicillin in the late 1920s, and its later developments, revolutionised western medicine and public health care, reducing disease and infections’ incidence within humans and animals, and increasing our longevity, the flip side of the coin was that as bacteria got increasingly exposed to antibiotics – which suddenly made previously high-risk high-mortality surgical procedures safe – they also started to develop their own coping strategy against them.

Then in 1950 researchers in the US discovered that antibiotics could also be added to animal feed to increase livestock growth rates. This was a turning point for industrial farmers and meat producers, not to mention the pharmaceutical industry, with antibiotics consumption becoming even more mainstream. Such trend has continued to our days.

According to a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists, in 2001 more antibiotics were used in the US on healthy animals than on sick people. That is, roughly 70 per cent of total US antimicrobials use was for nontherapeutic purposes in livestock. It is not just the overuse of antibiotics in animal husbandry which is bad, but also the fact that antibiotics of importance to humans are often administered.

In the US regulation has yet failed to ban use of antibiotic substances that are important for human medicine, such as penicillin, and indeed some 13.5m pounds of substances prohibited in the EU are used each year for nontherapeutic purposes in livestock in the US.

At the same time in Europe the use of antibiotics in veterinary medicine does vary greatly between member states. At 370 and 211 milligrams of antibiotic-agents-per-kilogram-of ‘biomass treated’ respectively, Italy and Germany are two of the countries with the highest use of antibiotics in veterinary medicine in the EU. They both lag quite a bit behind Denmark, which only administers on average 43 milligrams/kg.

Indeed in Denmark, since 2000 it is prohibited to administer antibiotics as growth enhancers to healthy animals. And the veterinary use of antibiotics that are used in human medicine is also banned. Strict monitoring requires that Danish farmers report every time they administer antibiotics, by logging their use onto a centrally held database which checks how much of their allowance they have administered. If they go over it, they get fined. Such measures have seen the decline in use of antimicrobial agents in Denmark to 60 per cent of what it was in the 1990s.

That the problem of AMR stems from an overuse of antibiotics in farming is well documented. And with antibiotic resistance within bacteria in animals having spread onto human pathogens, we could soon face serious threats to our ability to conduct many routine surgical procedures, such as hip replacements and caesarean sections, as well as in our fight against major diseases, such as malaria, TB, HIV, pneumonia and cancer. As fewer and fewer options become available for treating infections, stories like this one will become more common.

Added to the issue of antibiotics in farming is that of an over-sanitised private sphere in which we are surrounded by antibacterial agents in soaps, mouthwash and cleaning products, promising to kill all unwanted germs (with quite a lot of the wanted ones as collateral), so that we could even eat off a kitchen floor if we felt the urge.

Not only are claims made about such products often misleading and highly contested, but evidence shows that indiscriminate use of antibacterials at home – such as those containing Triclosan, an antibacterial agent used in many cleaning products can be dangerous to our health, and as they find their way through our drains and into our water systems, they can also pollute our environment. And controversial research indicates that such antibacterial containing products can compound AMR.

So what can be done to reduce AMR? Reducing non therapeutic use of antibiotics in farming, as well as an outright ban on those which are used in human medicine would be a good step to take. Avoiding unnecessary exposure to antibacterial agents at home would not only help towards fighting AMR but also help reduce their negative effects on human health and the environment. Ultimately, the availability of new types of antibiotics would make it hard on bacteria to build up resistance, indeed an important reason why AMR is a problem is that new types of antibiotics have been hard to come by over the last few decades.

Yet on a very positive note, just today researchers from Northeastern University in Boston, US have revealed the discovery of a new antibiotic called teixobactin. Their research shows that none of the bacteria they exposed to teixobactin developed resistance. While the drug could still be some years from being available, and further research beckons, scientists agree that it does seem like a very hopeful step in the right direction.

Analysis by Annalisa Dorigo

Germany is top destination for migrants  

Germany is top destination for migrants  
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New figures released by the OECD this month show that permanent migration flows in OECD countries, while still below their pre-crisis level, have nevertheless started to rebound. Figures indicate some 4.4m extra permanent migrants in 2013 compared to 2012.

The small (1 percent) increase is mainly attributable to a rise in free-movement migration (for a definition, click here), which in 2012 generated an extra 10 percent migrants, most of which moving between EU states, and of which Germany saw the largest in-flows, receiving almost a third of all free movement migrants.

And while Germany has seen its fourth consecutive annual rise in permanent migration flows in 2013, on the other side flows to the US, Italy, Portugal and Spain have seen a decline.

Family migration however, although also on the decline since 2008, continues to provide the bulk of the migratory flux into the OECD, albeit with reduced numbers into Italy, Spain, the US, the United Kingdom and Belgium. The OECD report also shows a decrease in labour migration by 12 percent compared to 2012, and in the European Economic Area alone an almost 40 percent decrease between 2007 and 2012.

Asylum seekers have also risen in 2013 compared with 2012 figures, with the Syrian conflict the main reason for a 20% increase. Indeed some 560,000 new asylum claims were made in 2013, the bulk of them to Germany, which alone received about 110,000 of them.

The report highlights there are some 115m immigrants in the OECD, equivalent to 10 percent of its total population. At 10% of all flows, China is the greatest sending country, followed by Romania at 5.6 percent and Poland at 5.4 percent.

Of interest is also that 70 percent of migrants are highly educated, 30 percent of which are university educated, but that university educated immigrants are less likely to be in work than their native counterparts and when employed, they are 50 percent more likely to be overqualified, clearly indicating a great waste of economic potential.

Indeed these findings are also in line with those of another study, which found that although the educational level of new arrivals to Germany is now higher than that of the natives, immigrants are still a less likely to be employed in high paying sectors than the natives, and more likely to be overqualified for their jobs.

By Annalisa Dorigo

Debate heats up on EU plastic bags ban law

Debate heats up on EU plastic bags ban law
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In April this year the EU passed a new piece of legislation aiming to halve use of thin plastic bags in the EU by 2017, compared to 2010 levels, with a further reduction target of 80% by 2019. In implementing the directive, member states are given the flexibility to decide whether to ban, tax or charge for thin plastic bags in order to achieve the targets.

The law only applies to thin, mostly single-use bags, with the ticker, sturdier plastic bags, which shops normally charge for, not currently being affected. However, a bone of contention at the moment is the use of Oxo-biodegradable bags. The issue revolves around their real versus claimed biodegradability, and therefore environmental impact, and whether they should be part of the accepted mix or just banned outright.

Oxo-biodegradable is used to describe bags made of a type of plastic containing specific oxidizing additives which cause it to fragment into tiny particles. The term however suggests that such plastic bio-degrades, when in reality it just breaks down into smaller fragments which still remain in the environment, albeit invisibly.

Some member states, notably Italy, want to see their outright ban, while others, notably Britain, are not so keen. Here such bags are marketed by UK Symphony Environmental, which says they are safe. The Oxo-biodegradable Plastics Association (OPA), speaking on behalf of Symphony Environmental, claims that a proposed ban on Oxo-biodegradable plastic is the result of lobbying by an Italian company with links to the Italian government, and that such a company has a completely bio-degradable alternative on the market, which they are keen to promote.

Read more: California Bans Plastic Bags – First State to Do So

Clearly many interests are at stake here. It remains to be seen whether science will prevail in the negotiations.

In the meantime, some member states have already been proactive on this plastic bag matter for some time. In Ireland a 15 cent tax on plastic bags was introduced in 2002, and saw plastic bag usage decrease from an estimated 328 to 21 per head almost overnight. The current levy stands at 22 cent per bag, and was introduced in 2007 to bring usage down again after it had raised to 31 bags per head.

Denmark introduced a tax in 2003 on retailers giving out plastic bags, to encourage their charging customers for it, and promote reusable bags. At four bags per head per year as of 2014 (versus 466 in Portugal, Slovakia and Poland) Denmark has the lowest per head plastic bag use compared to any other country in Europe.

France also recently followed suit, with a proposed ban of all thin, single use non-biodegradable plastic bags from supermarkets from 2016, and a proposed use of thicker reusable or paper bags being debated in Parliament this year. The measure is an evolution from a previous voluntary scheme that saw the number of plastic bags distributed by supermarkets drop from 10.5bn to 700m between 2002 and 2011. If approved, the legislation could go even further with a ban on disposable plastic cutlery and crockery also, by 2020.

By Annalisa Dorigo