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Weekly Overview: World Water Week Focuses Attention on Priorities

28 August 2012, at 11:37pm

ANALYSIS - World Water Week takes place this week, just as issues of drought and excessive rainfall are daily in the news. Water is a precious resource and one we would do well to use wisely. Also in the news are the prospect of labelling on GM foods in California and new research that has linked a whole range of human health problems to the use of antibiotics in livestock production.

This week is World Water Week, a time when governments, environmental organisations, industry and agriculture turn their attention to the importance of this vital resource.

It is ironic and apposite that it is taking place at a time when the US in particular is experiencing one of the worst droughts it can remember and when once again, parts of Eastern Europe have also been hit by drought - to say nothing of the common regions for water shortage in Africa.

Part of the aim of this focus week is to turn attention on the regions where populations do not have supplies of safe water to drink and water for sanitation.

In Europe, Development Commissioner, Andris Piebalgs said that water and sanitation is one of the four Millennium Development Goals being targeted with a cash injection of €266 million.

However, he added: "But water is not only vital for drinking and hygiene purposes, it is also key to agriculture. Worldwide, 70 per cent of water is used as irrigation water to grow food, for example, and in some developing countries, this figure increases to over 85 per cent. It's clear that access to water and food security are, therefore, closely interlinked."

Effects of a lack of water in essential growing areas is being felt by the entire globe. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), when releasing its most recent global food price index, also issued a stark warning over the potential that droughts and even untimely and excessive rainfall may have for a worldwide disaster .

"The severe deterioration of maize crop prospects in the United States following extensive drought damage pushed up maize prices by almost 23 per cent in July," the FAO said. "International wheat quotations also surged 19 per cent amid worsened production prospects in the Russian Federation and expectations of firm demand for wheat as feed because of tight maize supplies."

Debate over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is heating up in the US, as activists push for labelling requirements which would inform consumers whether they are eating products derived from GM ingredients.

In November, Californians will vote on a measure that could see theirs become the first US state to require that food containing ingredients from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is appropriately labelled.

Similar legislation has previously failed in 19 states but this will be the first time that the public will vote.

Proposers argue that California consumers have the right to know whether the foods they purchase are produced using genetic engineering, with the initiative being called the 'California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act'.

A coalition of opposition, called 'No on 37', has described the proposition as a deceptive, deeply flawed food labelling scheme that would add more government bureaucracy and taxpayer costs, create new frivolous lawsuits, and increase food costs by billions — without providing any health or safety benefits.

There are wider industry concerns: should this law be passed in California, other states may impose similar legislation.

If the proposal were to be voted in, from July 2014, all food products for sale in California would have to be labelled or would be considered 'misbranded'.

Also in the news in the last week, new research from the US has linked antibiotic use with negative impacts on human health.

Scientists at New York University School of Medicine say that antibiotics used in livestock production could have widespread clinical implications, potentially affecting everything from nutrient metabolism to obesity in children.

Ilseung Cho, MD, MS, and colleagues set out to reveal how antibiotics used in farm animals act on the body, hypothesizing that low doses of the drugs may alter the composition and function of the bacteria in the gut. The resulting study, appearing this week ahead of print in Nature, confirmed their theory about the gut microbiome, the term used to refer to the community of bacteria that lives in the stomach, and raises new questions about how manipulating it can impact metabolism and disease in the body.

The researchers administered STAT to normal mice and observed that the mice receiving antibiotics developed increased fat mass and percent body fat. After about six weeks, the mice that received antibiotics had gained about 10 to 15 per cent more fat mass than the mice that did not receive antibiotics. The researchers also noted that bone density was significantly increased in STAT mice early in development and that particular hormones related to metabolism were affected by antibiotic exposure, as well.

Dr Cho commented that the scientific community is only now beginning to understand just how complex the microbiome is and how it affects health and disease. With a better understanding about the interactions between the microbiome and hosts and how these interactions can be manipulated, he and his colleagues believe the finding has the potential to affect a wide array of conditions ranging from childhood obesity to metabolic syndrome in adults.