1: The Project

1A: Intro to the CEHN Healthy Kids Initiative

This project is about keeping kids healthy and happy, so they can just be kids!

Our project goal is simple – assuring that farmers and our food system do everything possible to support the health of children, from conception to pregnancy and birth and throughout early growth, development, and adulthood.  At it’s core, this project is about supporting healthy pregnancies and normal childhood development.

Our first project is focusing on reducing the risk of reproductive problems and adverse birth outcomes triggered by herbicide exposure in the Midwest.

Glyphosate resistant horsetail in a California orchard.

Why the focus on herbicides in the Midwest?  Because this is where conventional farmers are most aggressively intensifying herbicide use in an effort to deal with the spread of economically serious weeds that have become resistant to the most widely used herbicide in history – glyphosate (aka Roundup).

Future “Healthy Kids” projects will address key nutritional issues ranging from foods allowed in, and kept out of government food programs like WIC, SNAP, and the School Lunch program.

The sugar-filled strawberry milk on the left is allowed under WIC, the federal nutrition program for moms and kids, while the nutritionally superior organic milk on the right is not.

We also hope to start a project in 2017 focused on the nutritional pros and cons of different types of fat, both for pregnant women and their babies. We now know that different types of fat impact the body in different ways. For example, two of the major saturated fats in milk – stearic and palmitic acid – do not contribute to cardiovascular disease risk and are now regarded as heart-health neutral. It is also clear that today’s excessive intakes of omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids, coupled with the relatively low intakes of omega-3 fatty acids, increases the risk of several chronic diseases and adverse health outcomes.

In the quest to increase consumption of healthy fats while reducing the presence of unhealthy fats in the food supply and typical diets, science is moving ahead much faster than policy, creating a gap in action that perpetuates less than optimal dietary advice and food choices.

We will also look for opportunities to support private sector and government R+D and infrastructure investments in organic food supply chains. Growing the organic food industry is the surest and most cost-effective way to largely eliminate lingering concerns over:

  • Pesticide residues in the diets of pregnant women, infants, and children;
  • Farm use of antibiotics to promote animal growth and prevent disease, which can lead to the evolution of resistant bacteria that find their way into the human population;
  • The nutritional quality and safety of genetically engineered food; and
  • Chemical food additives and preservatives.

    Organic crops are already an important part of the global market and their share continues to grow.

Rapid expansion in organic food production will occur in step with changes in market demand, policy, and infrastructure investment. While growth in market demand is robust and global, changes in policy and public investment priorities will be hotly contested in the U.S.  Fortunately elsewhere, especially in Europe, governments have embarked on a wide range of constructive steps to encourage expansion in organic farming and investments in the different skills, inputs, and infrastructure needed to increase organic food and farming productivity and profitability.

Surveys consistently show that concerns over impacts of food and farming on health have the greatest potential to influence personal food purchases and dietary preferences.  Among health issues, promoting positive reproductive outcomes, and normal childhood growth and development, ranks high on just about everyone’s list. Hence, our choice of “Healthy Kids” as the unifying theme for this body of work.

1B: Goals, Activities, and Funding

Goals

Our goal is to assure that the projected intensification of herbicide use over the next decade in the Midwest does not lead to changes in the frequency or severity of reproductive problems like failure to conceive, spontaneous abortions, birth defects, developmental abnormalities, neurological problems, or chronic disease.

Activities

Our goal is to provide mothers and the people who care for them with information on the possible health impacts of herbicide exposure.

To achieve our core goal, we will generate and disseminate region-specific information on changes in herbicide use and likely exposures.  Our target audience will be birth centers and the obstetric community serving women who live in rural, farming areas, as well as scientists, industry partners, and, of course, mothers, expectant mothers, and women that hope to someday have children.

We will integrate the results of published studies analyzing the possible linkages between herbicide exposures and adverse birth outcomes. This task will produce insights into likely high-risk herbicide uses and exposure scenarios, and help identify which women might face heightened risks, so that appropriate interventions can be made and diagnostic tests carried out.

With practitioners and experts in the region, we will discuss the possible components of an “early warning system” capable of detecting herbicide-induced, adverse birth outcomes. Such a system will generate vital information in real time that can then be used by regulators, farmers, and the food industry to develop strategies to mitigate risks, and hopefully reverse any observed increases in the frequency or severity of adverse birth outcomes.

Last, we will assess public and private sector options to bring about constructive, sustainable change in weed management systems and technology. The goal will be to eliminate future concerns over herbicide use among women and children living in the rural Midwest.

Funding

The Children’s Environmental Health Network is supporting the activities of the Herbicides in the Midwest project with a generous grant from the Ceres Trust. Additional funding comes from core supporters of CEHN’s research and advocacy programs. A list of CEHN supporters is available on the Network’s website.

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