On the future of our food supply

I just read “Food in the anthropocene: the EAT-Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems” (1). The article deals of course with the exact opposite – our lousy diets and unsustainable food systems. That our diets are unhealthy should be no secret. That our food systems are in danger of collapse, and that there is a pressing need for action, may not be so obvious – for most of us the closest contact to our food sources is the grocery store.

The EAT-Lancet Commission, an independent body of experts from a number of countries and different scientific disciplines, was formed to come up with scientifically sound solutions to these problems. This Lancet article (1) summarizes the committee’s findings and recommendations.

Their dietary recommendations should be familiar from food guides. Their model diet mainly consists of a variety of plant-based foods, uses unsaturated rather than saturated fats, allows modest amounts of seafood and poultry, and limits the consumption of red and processed meat, sugar, and refined grains.

To ensure viable and sustainable future food production systems the committee determined safe upper-limits for agricultural greenhouse gas release, biodiversity loss, land-system use, freshwater use, and nitrogen and phosphorus use in fertilizers. These safety limits must not be exceeded if we want to have a viable future.

The EAT-Lancet Commission considers these measures necessary, doable and effective. The question now is how to implement them – how to accomplish the “21st century great food transformation”, as an accompanying editorial (2) puts it.

The dietary recommendations are realistic and flexible enough to be compatible with various tasty cuisines, including the highly regarded Mediterranean diet.  Of course, we have our ingrained eating habits, fast food is convenient, or we may lack the necessary cooking skills. Still, health concerns should be motive enough to take these dietary recommendations seriously. Our health is our responsibility, and nutrition must be a prime concern.

Making changes to the food production systems, on the other hand, can be expected to be more difficult. Current food business practices weren’t the results of a lack of knowledge; they were adopted because they were profitable. Corporations have no incentive to change; in fact, we can expect them to fight any measure that would cut into their profit, damn the consequences. Think of the “tobacco wars”.

Unhealthy diets are bad enough, but continuing harmful agricultural practices would sooner or later have catastrophic consequences for all of humanity. How would we grow any food at all if we used up all the groundwater, or if irresponsible insecticide use killed off all the pollinators? Let’s hope the people responsible for the damage realize that they would perish with the rest of us, and change their act before it’s too late.


  1. Willett W, Rockström J, Loken B, et al, Food in the anthropocene: the EAT-Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems, The Lancet, Vol. 393, No. 10170, p 447-492 http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(18)31788-4
  2. Lucas T and Horton R, The 21st century great food transformation, The Lancet, Vol. 393, No. 10170, p 386-387  https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(18)33179-9

Finally a chink in Monsanto’s armour?

A few months ago a U.S. court ruled that Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup had caused a plaintiff’s Non-Hodgkin lymphoma (1). Thousands of similar cases are still awaiting trial. Glyphosate, Roundup’s active ingredient, had been declared “probably carcinogenic in humans” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) of the World Health Organization (WHO) (2).

Some background on glyphosate

 Glyphosate is a herbicide, i.e. it is capable of killing all vegetation, weeds and food crops alike. However, recent advances in gene editing techniques have led to the development of so-called Roundup-ready crops – canola, corn, cotton, soybeans and sugar beets – that are unharmed by glyphosate. These Roundup-ready crops can therefore be sprayed directly throughout the growing season to keep the fields weed-free.

Farmers also use glyphosate as desiccant. Even Non-GMO cereals like wheat, oats and barley are now sprayed once they are ripe, to hasten harvesting before the wet weather arrives.

Roundup is thus used in enormous quantities. Workers applying this stuff, and people in rural communities living near sprayed fields, are especially heavily exposed. The rest of us get it in our diet.

Monsanto’s reaction to criticism of glyphosate

Of course, Monsanto denies any link between Roundup and cancer, and plans to appeal the court’s decision. In fact, Monsanto denies that glyphosate poses any health hazard at all. They point out that human DNA does not have the genes that glyphosate targets in plants. Besides, they claim, the amounts of glyphosate found in human subjects are simply too small to pose a health risk.

However, internal Monsanto documents obtained during other ongoing litigation clearly show that the company was well aware of glyphosate’s toxicity, but covered it up and went to great length to fend off any evidence of adverse health effects from glyphosate (3).

Monsanto used third-party experts to plant positive news about glyphosate. They paid academic scientists to pose as authors of articles proclaiming the safety of glyphosate, articles that were actually written by Monsanto employees. The company used front groups – organizations that give the appearance of scientific impartiality but are actually industry mouthpieces – to spread misinformation and to counter unfavourable scientific findings. They tried to intimidate and silence scientists critical of their product, and to undermine the credibility of organizations like IARC.

Scientific evidence of harm from glyphosate

The successful lawsuit against Monsanto was about cancer, but cancer shouldn’t be our only health concern.

The claim that glyphosate should pose no risk, because humans don’t have the metabolic pathway that its herbicide targets, is misleading to say the least. That absence doesn’t mean that glyphosate is harmless (4).

First, while human DNA doesn’t encode the pathway in question, our gut bacteria do. Given their importance to our mental and physical health, disrupting the gut microbiome has to have serious consequences.

Secondly,  glyphosate has been shown to be genotoxic, i.e. it messes with the genes that we do have. Interference in the synthesis of detoxifying enzymes is one important consequence. This means that our bodies don’t just have difficulty detoxifying and eliminating glyphosate itself, but other environmental toxins as well. Put differently, glyphosate even increases the health risks posed by other poisons.

What is more, other ingredients in Roundup have been shown to be even more hazardous than glyphosate by itself.

Given its known physiological effects, and our long-term exposure to it in our food and in the environment, glyphosate likely contributes to a number of modern lifestyle diseases, a contribution that short-term trials are unlikely to detect.

The bottom line

Since Roundup-ready crops are staple foods, and since even non-Roundup-ready crops are sprayed before harvesting, it is virtually impossible to avoid getting that poison in the food we eat. Even organically grown produce may become poisoned by wind-borne glyphosate and by contaminated water. To claim that even a lifetime exposure to that stuff could pose no threat to our health insults our intelligence. And lifetime exposure is what we will get if that stuff isn’t going to be banned.

Who decides what we can or cannot eat – we, or the food industry? Will we get to eat what is good for us, or what maximizes corporate profits, even if it sickens and kills us?

Yes, the people who were harmed by Monsanto should be compensated, but what we really need is to ban the use of the chemical altogether to prevent further harm. Interestingly, another court recently ordered the ban of chlorpyrifos, a pesticide linked to children’s health problems (5).


  1. Monsanto ordered to pay $289 million in Roundup cancer trial. The New York Times Aug. 10, 2018 https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/10/business/monsanto-roundup-cancer-trial.html
  2. IARC Monographs Volume 112: evaluation of five organophosphate insecticides and herbicides http://www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/iarcnews/pdf/MonographVolume112.pdf
  3. Spinning science & silencing scientists: A case study in how the chemical industry attempts to influence science. Minority staff report prepared for members of the Committee on Science, Space & Technology U.S. House of Representatives February 2018 https://www.baumhedlundlaw.com/pdf/monsanto-documents/Final-minority-report-glyphosate-spinning-science-silencing-scientists.pdf
  4. Samsel A, Seneff S, Glyphosate’s Suppression of Cytochrome P450 Enzymes and Amino Acid Biosynthesis by the Gut Microbiome: Pathways to Modern Diseases, Entropy 2013;15(4):1416-1463. https://doi.org/10.3390/e15041416
  5. Court orders EPA to ban chlorpyrifos, pesticide tied to children’s health problems, The New York Times Aug, 9, 2018 https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/09/us/politics/chlorpyrifos-pesticide-ban-epa-court.html?eType=EmailBlastContent&eId=65e8cee8-1dc9-4f10-88c6-745710b8269d

Is curing patients a sustainable business model for the pharmaceutical industry?

A recent CNBC piece (1) commented on a note by a Goldman Sachs analyst to clients in the pharmaceutical industry. In a report titled “The Genome Model” the analyst asks “Is curing patients a sustainable business model?” Cures, the analyst opined, might be good for patients but bad for business. What the pharmaceutical industry needs are therapies for chronic incurable – or intentionally uncured – diseases.

I somehow don’t think that this piece was meant to be seen by the general public. After all, we are expected to rely on the pharmaceutical industry, the supposed bastions of evidence-based medicine, to cure us when we are sick. Healing us should be the very purpose of their existence.

I also don’t think that Big Pharma needed that advice – they have long ago figured this out themselves and made it their business model. If you don’t believe that the “health” industry – and that is what the pharmaceutical industry insists it is – would actually harm us for the sake of power and profit, then have a look at a 2012 article in the New England Journal of Medicine titled Punishing health care fraud – is the GSK settlement sufficient? (2).

That article was prompted by the 3 billion dollar fine levied against GlaxoSmithKline for various criminal offenses. It was then a record settlement, but it was just the latest in a string of drug company indictments. Fines in the previous three years had totaled $11 billion in the U.S. for offenses like

  • kickbacks,
  • off-label promotion,
  • failure to provide information about side effects, and
  • false and misleading statements about safety

The failure to provide information about drug safety and side effects has caused, and continues to cause, the deaths of thousands of patients!

How could this happen again and again? For the very simple reason that, so far at least, no Big Pharma executive has ever been held responsible for these crimes; no matter what they do, they get away scot-free. I wasn’t their fault, you see. The company did it!

Corporate fines are no major problems either, since they are typically less than company profits from their illegal activities. Corporate crime is simply good business practice.

One has to wonder if it ever occurred to our brilliant Goldman Sachs analyst that he or a family member might someday be saved by medications that, he now thinks, should not be developed. Or is he willing to sacrifice himself and his loved ones for a greater cause – Big Pharma profits?



  1. Tae Kim, Goldman Sachs asks in biotech research report: ‘Is curing patients a sustainable business model?’ https://www.cnbc.com/2018/04/11/goldman-asks-is-curing-patients-a-sustainable-business-model.html?__source=sharebar|facebook&par=sharebar (link works)
  2. Outterson K, Punishing health care fraud – is the GSK settlement sufficient?N Engl J Med 2012; 367:1082-1085https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp1209249

Why write about economics?

Practically everything we need and do is in some way connected to the economy. We buy goods and services provided by others, and we earn the money to pay for them by serving others in turn. All economic activity is the result of human decisions and actions, and all that activity should surely serve a purpose – it should benefit us all.

The dominant factor in today’s economy, and the foundation of our material wealth, is of course technology. Many of the things we take for granted today, things we wouldn’t want to do without, only exist as the result of scientific progress and the technology it spawned. By any economic measure we’ve never had it so good. But economic indices don’t tell the whole story.

Statistics like the Gross Domestic Product simply measure economic activity, whether that activity is beneficial or not. A high level of economic activity does not automatically indicate a high living standard. The GDP cares nothing about our very skewed wealth distribution, or about the quality of the goods and services offered. It doesn’t take into account pollution or the depletion of our natural resources. It doesn’t care if our current level of consumption is even sustainable.

The technology that has given us our modern conveniences has also led to the creation of huge corporations. The people in control of those corporations are enormously wealthy and powerful, and that power buys political influence. These are the new “elite”, and like the “elites” of old they are in it for themselves, damn the rest of society.

Politics and economics cannot be separated. Whatever we may think of politicians, only governments can rein in large corporations. It is up to us in turn to choose our elected representatives wisely and to hold them accountable. If we want to live in a functioning democratic society we need to be informed and engaged voters, and that includes thinking about economic matters. The mythical “free market” isn’t going optimize the common good – it got us to where we are today.