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Monday, September 22, 2014

Don't Believe What Dr Oz Is Saying About An Agricultural Herbicide


Television personality Dr Oz has released a video which talks about an agricultural product called Enlist Duo.  Virtually nothing in this video is presented accurately.  It is a prime example of fear-mongering around the issues of "GMOs" and pesticides.  I'd like to respond, point by point, to what it says that is not true or misleading.  Dr Oz's statements/image descriptions will be in red:

"The EPA is on the brink of approving a brand new toxic pesticide you don't know about."

The product in question, Enlist Duo is a combination of two very old herbicide products:  2,4-D and glyphosate. A great many consumers do know about these materials because they have been approved for homeowner use for decades and are common ingredients in products available at any neighborhood gardening center.  These chemicals are still approved for use in more than 70 countries around the world and for use in high exposure settings like lawns, parks, sports fields and gardens. They are still used this way because after multiple rounds of increasingly sophisticated scrutiny by regulators, they have been confirmed to be quite low in toxicity to humans and to the environment. This product is neither "brand new" nor is it notably "toxic."

These products are for new GMO corn and soy crops that "survive even stronger pesticides."

What does "stronger pesticide" mean?  The need for this mixture is that some weeds have evolved resistance to glyphosate. There is nothing unique about that associated with a biotech crop. Weeds have evolved resistance to all manner of control methods including mechanical tillage (some weeds like bindweed or Canada thistle are very well adapted to being chopped up and spread around a field by equipment).  The issue isn't about something "stronger" but about something that is a mixture of two distinct "modes of action" which makes it harder for the weeds to adapt around the control.  The term "stronger" that Oz uses implies something about being more toxic or dangerous. That is not the case here.

This product includes "2,4-D  a chemical used in Agent Orange which the government banned during the Vietnam War."  

As I have written before, this Agent Orange allusion is a callous exploitation of a real human tragedy.  The horrible health effects of that material were eventually found to have been caused by an unrecognized dioxin contaminant in one component of the herbicide mix, 2,4,5-T. It never was associated with the 2,4-D.  As you can imagine, while all of this was being sorted out, 2,4-D was intensively scrutinized.  The fact that it remains so widely approved around the world is only because its safety was confirmed in all these regulatory reviews.

These GMO crops (resistant to both herbicides) are "ushering in a pesticide arms race and the health of your brain could be the casualty."

Again, the people who have been growing food for millennia have been fighting weeds and their ability to adapt to whatever methods we use to control them. Unless Dr Oz has some alternative suggestion, perhaps he should leave the topic of weed control to people who actually do this for a living and for our benefit.  Now as for the "health of your brain..."

"More than 1/2 million people wrote to the EPA" about this pesticide approval "including a letter signed by 35 prominent doctors, scientists and researchers" who raised concerns about "non-hodgkins lymphoma, Alzheimers and Parkinson's disease"

When a regulatory agency like the EPA or USDA has an open comment period about a pending decision, what they are looking for are relevant issues from a science point of view.  Its not about numbers of comments or whether the submitters are "prominent."  The "35 prominent" signatories Oz describes are well known, perennial anti-GMO advocates.  If they had raised real health issues, the agency would have responded, but repeated and detailed risk analysis has never established a connection between these herbicides and human health issues.  

"How concerned should you be about this product that could come to a farm near you?"

The image during this part of the video is of bell peppers and other such crops which have never been contemplated for the use of this technology. Throughout the video the images are mostly of crops and foods that have nothing to do with this product. The crops in question (as Oz himself says earlier) are corn and soybeans - crops mainly grown in regions far removed from Dr. Oz's viewer-base. Even so, the "crops" nearest most of this audience would be their own lawns or their neighbor's lawns, or the neighborhood park or sports field. These chemicals have been used there for decades. This is in no way a new threat in the context of the average American life.

"70-80% of the food we eat today contain GMOs."

"GMO" is a meaningless term because essentially all crops have been "genetically modified" in some way throughout human history. That is why most of them are suitable for human consumption. There are ingredients in something like 70% of processed foods which originate from crops that have been improved via biotechnology.  There is nothing in those ingredients that is dangerous and in most cases there is not even anything related to the one or two genes that were different in the source plant.  Animals around the world have been eating these crops for feed for nearly two decades without any ill effects. Oz clearly makes this statement to sound ominous - but there is no basis for such a concern.

If this product is approved, "70 to 100 million pounds of additional, highly toxic pesticides will be used"

OK, lets put this in a little perspective. Between corn and soybeans there are more than 150 million acres in the US, so the number Oz throws out represents less than a pound per acre. Herbicides were used on these crops long before biotech so this use isn't really "additional." Also, the term "highly toxic" simply does not apply to these materials from a human perspective.

At the end of this video clip, Oz speaks with a "concerned mom" who gives an anecdote about the improved health of her children after she switched to a "GMO-free diet" and "organic to avoid pesticides."

First of all, one could find any number of anecdotal examples of families (like mine) that never made such a dietary choice, yet who never experienced the sort of health issues this mother described.  Second, by choosing organic she was not avoiding pesticides at all.  There are pesticides legally used on organic crops and there are often residues of other pesticides there as well.  Abundant data demonstrates the fact that most Americans would be best off to eat more fruits and vegetables because the benefits vastly outweigh any potential risks associated with pesticides.

Dr Oz may be an entertainer, but he is also in the fear business and in the supplement business - either directly or based on the sponsorship he gets because he can find an audience for these messages.  Oz normally gets by with this; however, he has been called on the carpet by Congress for some of the magical claims he has supported for certain weight reduction supplements.  I'm sure that Oz will have successfully frightened a huge number of people with this video.  I'm sure that will help drive his viewership and thus his sponsorship income. Unfortunately, society as a whole is worse off for the spread of this sort of disinformation.

You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me at savage.sd@gmail.com

Oz image from Wikipedia













Monday, August 11, 2014

Why Biotech Should Be Employed For Crop Disease Resistance

Glassy-Winged Sharpshooter - Vector of Pierce's Disease of Grapes

Most of the “GMO Crops” that have been commercialized are either insect resistant or herbicide tolerant.  Biotechnology can also be used to generate crops that are resistant to plant diseases.  So far, there are only two examples of disease resistance available to farmers: the papayas resistant to ringspot virus and squash resistant to zucchini yellow mosaic and watermelon mosaic viruses.  That narrow offering is not for a lack of need or technical potential.  In fact, biotech approaches could uniquely address some of the most significant disease issues in global agriculture.  The limitation mainly reflects the success of the anti-GMO movement in creating controversy.  This has induced brand-sensitive food system players to use their leverage to prevent the development or introduction of “GMO” disease resistant versions of crops where they would make the most sense.

If we let ourselves imagine what could be, there are three important categories of plant disease of particular interest for the use of genetic engineering:
  1. Systemic diseases spread by insect vectors
  2. Diseases of crops for which conventional breeding is far too slow and/or disruptive to key quality attributes
  3. Crop diseases which are not amenable to safe and effective chemical control

 Systemic diseases spread by insect vectors

Fungi cause most plant diseases, but plants can also be infected by viruses and bacteria.  In most of these cases, specific insects spread the pathogens from plant to plant in much the same way that the Aedes aegypti mosquito spreads a human disease like Yellow Fever.  For plants, the vector insects are the ones that use specialized mouthparts to penetrate plant cells to suck out nutrients – things like aphids, thrips, mealy bugs and psyllids.  The viruses or bacteria have specific associations that allow them to be picked up from an infected plant on the mouthparts of the “bug” and then released inside of the next plant.  Those infections can severely damage the plant and even kill it.  In many cases, the only way such diseases can be controlled is to use insecticides to kill the vectors.  Often it requires nearly complete insect control to adequately protect the crop.  That means intensive insecticide use in some cases, but in other cases it isn’t feasible to stop the spread of the disease.  That was the case with papaya ringspot virus which was seriously compromising production Hawaii in the early 1990s - the farmers were fighting a losing battle to save their plantings.  The introduction of transgenic virus resistance in 1998 saved the papaya industry.  Currently there is a new, deadly, bacterial disease of citrus which is threatening the orange industry in Florida.  Insecticide programs have only slowed the progress of the disease, and without something like a transgenic solution, that industry will soon collapse.  Another bacterium is threatening the California wine industry because of the introduction of a more problematic vector in the late 1980s.  Insecticide programs and quarantine programs are limiting the issue to Southern California for now, but it would be much more desirable to have a resistance option to deploy to protect the key production areas to the North.  Laurel Wilt disease of avocado is another similar challenge.

Diseases of crops for which conventional breeding is far too slow and/or disruptive to key quality attributes


One of the main ways that plant diseases are managed is through conventional breeding programs.  This can be quite effective, particularly for annual grains or vegetables for which breeding programs can progress fairly quickly.  For a crop like potatoes, breeding is difficult and slow because the plants don’t normally make any seeds.  That is why the 100+ year-old Russett Burbank is still a major commercial cultivar. There is a severe disease called Potato Late Blight which caused the infamous Potato Famine and which requires very frequent fungicide applications today.  There are genes for resistance in wild or semi-wild ancestral potatoes in the Andes, and using biotechnology, such genes have been moved into the potatoes we now grow, at least on an experimental basis.  This trait involves a potato gene in a potato.



Coffee also has a major rust disease that is causing increasing problems in the high quality, “Arabica” coffee production areas of Central and South America.  There are resistance genes in various other coffee species around the world, but to move those traits into high quality lines requires things like chromosome doubling and decades of back-crossing.  If the genes were moved via genetic engineering methods, the end result would be a coffee-based resistance gene in a coffee variety with a well-characterized quality background.

Bananas are an extreme case where genetic engineering would allow moving a resistance trait from some non-commercial, seeded banana, into the seedless banana of commerce which is threatened by Panama Wilt and other diseases. Similarly, genetic engineering may be a way to deal with something like Frosty Pod in cacao without compromising quality attributes.

Even with a crop like wheat, there are so many different types for different uses around the world that it would be helpful to speed up the breeding process for the new, UG99 Wheat Stem Rust threat, which is moving around the world.  A desirable gene found in one category of wheat (e.g. Hard Red Spring) could be moved to elite breeding lines for other types like Durum or Soft White Winter.

Diseases that are not amenable to safe, effective chemical control

There are many crop/disease combinations that can be effectively controlled using fungicide treatments with low mammalian toxicity and low environmental impact.  However, there are some diseases that are not amenable to that sort of control.  A disease of tomatoes, called Bacterial Leaf Spot, is a big issue in wetter growing regions like Florida.  It is currently managed with a combination of biological agents and copper-based products, but coppers are not as safe as most modern pesticides.  Foliar bacterial diseases do not comprise a large enough global market to justify the investment of >$200MM that it takes to develop a new synthetic pesticide.  There is a very effective resistance gene for this disease in peppers, but although they are related to tomatoes they are too distant for conventional cross-breeding.  That pepper gene has been moved to tomato and the plants performed well in field tests.   Fusarium Head Blight of wheat is a serious disease risk that limits the feasibility of adding wheat to Midwestern corn/soy rotations.  That disease is difficult to control with fungicides, but there was once a nearly commercialized trait for resistance.  

There are a number of crops including field corn that can be infected by the opportunistic fungal pathogen, Aspergillus flavus, when there has been drought stress and/or insect damage.  Fungicides are not very effective against this problem, and the aflatoxin that the fungus can produce renders the grain unsuitable for normal feed or food uses.  Indeed, aflatoxin is one of the leading causes of death in the developing world where it can contaminate important food crops like maize or peanuts.  There are several ideas for how to address that issue with biotechnology.


Biotech crops have been planted on hundreds of millions of acres of land each year since 1996.  Many generations of animals have been raised on these crops both in the countries where “GMO” crops are grown, and also in the EU, Japan, China and many other importing regions.  The arguments against this basic technology have not proven to be of actual concern.  At some point, we should be able to start applying these well-tested technologies to the prevention of problematic diseases that affect crops. 

Glassy-Winged Sharpshooter image from California Department of Food and Agriculture
Corn infected by Aspergillus image from Iowa State University

You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me at savage.sd@gmail.com.  I may not be answering comments quickly as I'm on vacation in Colorado :)

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Do GMO Crops Foster Monoculture?



Do GMO crops "foster monoculture?" This is a frequent criticism of modern agriculture. I have three with problems it:

  1. "Monoculture" isn't the right term to use to describe the relevant issues - its really about a limited crop rotation
  2. History and economics are the drivers behind this phenomenon, not crop biotechnology
  3. The solutions - to the extent that they are needed - are not what most critics seem to imagine

The Corn Belt of the Midwestern US, is a multi-million acre farming region almost entirely dominated by just two crops - corn and soybeans.  This phenomenon is often termed "monoculture,"  but monoculture is merely the practical approach of growing a single crop in a given field.  The opposite of monoculture is "polyculture" and it is entirely impractical for even minimally mechanized farming.

The Corn Belt is more accurately described as an example of a "limited crop rotation." The typical pattern is an alternation between corn and soybeans in each field.  There are also some fields where the growers plant continuous corn or continuous soybeans. There are many reasons that a more "diverse crop rotation" could be a good idea.  Mixing up crop types over time can help build soil quality because of different rooting patterns or residue characteristics. Some plant pests can be more easily managed if their life cycles are disrupted by cropping changes.  All of this is well known, but for a variety of reasons that I'll discuss below, the less diverse rotation persists.  

Corn and soybeans happen to be crops which involve widespread use of biotech crop options, but there are many other farming areas with a narrow crop rotation where "GMO" options have never been available. There are areas in Northern Europe where "continuous wheat" is the norm and many premium wine regions where essentially only grapes are grown. If farmers somewhere are not using a diverse crop rotation - there is a rational explanation involving history, economics, and risk management.

The Heart of the Corn Belt



Let's start by looking at Iowa, which sits in the very heart of the "Corn Belt." As you can see from the graph to the left, corn has been the dominant Iowa crop for a very long time, because Iowa is just about the ideal place to grow that crop.  Most farmland in that part of the Midwest is "rain-fed" rather than irrigated. The amount of rain that typically falls in Iowa is sufficient to produce a good corn crop without limiting yield by the number of cloudy days.




The rainfall in Central Iowa is usually "just right" for corn


The growing season is long enough and warm enough, but usually does not involve the yield-limiting heat that is typical further south.  Corn is heavily planted because it typically returns the highest net profit with the least risk.  The income potential from corn is what drives the cost of land for purchase or rent. As the farming population shrank and farm size increased over the last century, the remaining growers have expanded somewhat through land purchases, and more commonly through rentals.  For a farmer to keep up with a mortgage or lease typically requires growing a lot of corn.

Back in the 1930s, the main crop that was rotated with corn was oats - ironically much of that to be used as a "transportation biofuel" for horses.  Starting in the 1940s, soybeans began to evolve into the favored rotational crop - mostly as an animal feed with a co-product of oil for human consumption. Soybeans have much lower yield than corn, but they are able to generate their own nitrogen fertilizer (with microbial help) and don't require many other inputs. Thus, soy has also been a reliable way to generate enough profit to cover land and operating costs. All other crops have only ever had niche status in Iowa. When biotech crops arrived they were simply sold into that pre-existing market.



Illinois and Indiana have also been mostly two crop states ever since soybeans filled in for declining oat demand in the 50s and 60s.  There has alway been a small, but significant wheat sector in both of these states, part of a "double cropping" system in which corn is followed by winter wheat and then soy, producing three cash crop harvests in two years.  Indiana now has a small alfalfa segment - a case of crop diversification "fostered by a GMO crop."



The Northern Edge of the Corn Belt - Minnesota and North Dakota



Minnesota had a more diverse agriculture than its neighbors to the south, but like them, it replaced oats with soybeans long before the biotech era. The expansion of soybeans has continued in the biotech era, partially because of the attractiveness of Roundup Ready Soy, but also because cultivars better adapted to colder springs have also been introduced through conventional breeding. Barley, rye and flax have declined in the biotech era as has wheat to some degree.





The recent decline of wheat is even more pronounced in North Dakota as it went from approximately 50% of all plantings to about 30%. As in Minnesota, the rapid increase in soybeans came from a combination of  more cold tolerant lines and the herbicide tolerance trait. Corn plant-ings have also increased in the biotech era. For both crops the expansion is mostly in the wetter Red River Valley portion of the state.   The expansion of corn and soy at the expense of cereals like wheat, barley and rye may seem like a case where biotech is reducing rotational diversity, but the story is a bit more complex.

There is a disease of wheat and barley called Fusarium Head Blight, which has been an increasing issue in all five of these states since the 1980s (and again in 2014).  Corn, and particularly the crop residue in no-till corn, serves as a source of spores which can then infect the wheat or barley during their bloom period.  Head blight is difficult to control and it can lead to significant yield losses.  Infection can also lead to contamination of the grain with a mycotoxin called DON- or more colorfully, "vomitoxin."  Throughout the Midwest, wheat does not tend to have as much profit potential as corn or soy even in good years, but the risk of severe yield or quality loss from Head Blight is really what makes wheat much less attractive.  Biotech had the potential to help wheat keep a place in the Corn Belt rotation, but that solution was thwarted by anti-GMO campaigning.
Fusarium infected wheat (right)

There was a "GMO wheat" in advanced development around 2002 which was much more resistant to Fusarium Head Scab. This product had the potential to reduce the risk of growing wheat, both in the historic wheat growing states like ND and MN, but also in the "I States." Unfortunately, the trait was never commercialized. Major wheat importing companies in Europe and Japan put pressure on the US and Canadian wheat grower organizations, threatening to boycott all North American wheat if any biotech wheat was commercialized.  This was not because of any safety concern, but rather the fact that food companies in those countries didn't want to have to label wheat-based products as "GMO." Reluctantly the growers asked Syngenta to stop the development of their disease resistant wheat. Ironically, this is a case where a GMO opposition "fostered monoculture," when biotechnology could have enhanced rotational diversity.  The wheat growers of the US, Canada and Australia have pledged to do a simultaneous release of biotech wheat in the future so that they can avoid this sort of extra-regulatory blockage.

How Could The Corn Belt Rotation Be Diversified?

First of all, the corn/soy rotation in the corn belt is a highly successful production system.  It also includes enough genetic diversity within those species to continue to perform.  That said, some additional diversity would be a good thing. Scab-resistant wheat would both reduce risk and increase private investment in that very important and highly traded crop while simultaneously diversifying the rotation.  Another excellent way to get the soil quality benefits of rotation is to add a winter cover crop (see Midwest Cover Crops Council).  It is actually best for the soil to have something growing as much of the year as possible, and cover crops can also include a legume to make nitrogen for the next season or a grass to scavenge any excess fertilizer when that is an issue.

Probably the best way to facilitate more rotational diversity would be through education of the absentee landlord community.  Much of the land in the Midwest is held in trusts for the families who have long since migrated to the cities.  Typically all they do is collect the rent checks through a farm management company.  If those families could be educated about sustainable cropping practices, they might be willing to engage in re-designed leases designed around medium to long-term economics rather than the typical annual, cash lease.  What is needed is a way to give the grower/renters the incentive to implement the practices that might not optimize income for each year, but which lead to improved soil quality over time which in turn leads to higher income potential and more protection from drought (e.g. no-till, cover cropping, controlled wheel traffic and more diverse rotations).  The very real benefits of such a system would flow to the land-owner - increasing the value of the asset.  It would be far more constructive to find creative ways to share that value between farmers and landowners rather than to worry about "monocultures."

Corn harvest image from the United Soybean Board
Planting graphs based on data from USDA-NASS Quick Stats
Rainfall distribution graph based on NOAA National Climatic Data Center information
Fusarium image from Wikipedia





Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Applied Mythology Reaches Quarter Million All Time Page Views



I began blogging about food and agricultural issues 5 years ago in July, 2009.  Beginning on the Sustainablog site, I moved to Eat Drink Better and Red Green And Blue.  In 2010, I began to concentrate on my own blog site, Applied Mythology. Yesterday, July 14, 2014, the site had over 250,000 page views. This is 14 months after passing the 100,000 level in May of 2013. While this is not setting any internet records, I'm encouraged to have about 11,000 views/month.

I'd like to thank all the people who have helped along the way.  First and foremost I'd like to thank my wife, Pam, for her patience, encouragement, and editorial help. A special thanks to Alex Berezow of RealClearScience who makes frequent links to my posts. Thanks to Hank Campbell who runs the Science 2.0 site where I simultaneously post most of the AM content (>224,000 views there since 8/12).  I'd also like to thank Randy Oliver of Scientific Bee Keeping whose site sends me lots of traffic as well.

Thanks also to many other friends and allies for your re-posts, tweets, mentions on Facebook, links ideas etc, including but certainly not limited to all of these great resources on ag/food/technology topics:

Biofortified
GMO Pundit
Genetic Literacy Project
Random Rationality
OSU Outreach in Biotechnology
WHPA Blog
Cami Ryan
Food and Farm Radio
What Farming Is.com
ReadFood.org
Ramez Naam
Socioeconomicbiosafety
Agriculture Proud
The Farmer's Daughter USA
MarcGunther.com 
Planned Resilience
HIFarmersDtr
JPLovesCOTTON
Weed Control Freaks
The Perishable Pundit
Illumination
Upwritingblog
Seeker Blog
AgTalk
Collide-a-Scape
James McWilliams







Family Farmer.org




Thursday, June 26, 2014

Scientists Behaving Badly


Its been a bad week for science, particularly for the science related to food production.  The notoriously flawed "Seralini Study" about tumors in rats fed GMOs is being republished in another journal after having been retracted.  Another paper has come out making a rather questionable link between autism and proximity to pesticide applications on farms.  Another paper about bees and neonicitinoid insecticides is supposedly going to be published sometime soon, but its authors are already out doing press interviews about it.  The three topics: cancer, autism, and pollinators are all important and all complex.  They represent the sort of challenges that clearly need the application of good science.  The problem is that the scientific process, which has been serving humanity well for a few centuries, is breaking down in the "information age."  That is ironic because the exchange of information is a critical part of the that process.

Science: It Takes A Conversation


Science isn't a neat and predictable thing. It progresses via conversation. The one about bees starts with someone asking the question, "why are honeybees declining in some areas?"  The next step is that people come up with hypotheses - possible explanations.  One scientists may say, "I think it could be because of viruses that are being spread very widely because most of the North American hives are brought together in California every spring to pollinate almonds. It's a perfect recipe for the spread of diseases."  Someone else says, "yes, but there is also that varroa mite that infests hives, weakening them and helping to spread those viruses. Some of the things beekeepers use against the mites could be part of this story as well."  Someone else says, "the neonicitinoid insecticides are widely used and can have some sub-lethal effects on bee behavior - they may play a role."  Someone else says, "bees may be compromised by being shipped around and by being fed something like high fructose corn syrup rather than the food supply they would normally eat.  Maybe that weakens their immunity or ability to metabolize toxins."

The next step is that people come up with ways to test the hypotheses - in science if you can't test your idea, its just speculation.  That test might be a lab experiment.  It might be some sort of observations in a field.  It might be looking at relationships between sets of data collected for other purposes.  So the conversation typically now moves to "publication" meaning that a scientist formally describes how they attempted to test their hypothesis and shows the data.  Traditionally this step involves something like "peer review" which means that a few scientists with appropriate expertise look at what is being said to see if it makes enough sense to justify space in the journal in question  (this really comes from a day when there was a significant cost associated with printing something and distributing it physically throughout the science community).  Peer review is not a perfect process, and actually needs to err somewhat on the "leaky side."  Science needs to be open to surprising or even "heretical" ideas at the publishing phase.  But that is only good as long as the conversation continues.

In the next phase of the conversational science process, the community responds to the publication.  Someone may say, "well, that's interesting, but did you consider that your data could also fit this other explanation? (a new hypothesis)."  Someone else may say, "I don't think you can reach those conclusions from that data set - there is too much variation."  The whole idea of exchanging scientific information is to spur new ideas and to solicit constructive critique.  I won't pretend that is always a congenial discussion, but it has to happen for science to muddle its way towards greater and greater certainty.

The next part of the conversation is critical.  Someone will say, "I'm going to see if I can repeat your results," or "I have a different hypothesis to explain what you saw and I'm going to do an experiment to test it."  This sort of conversation can clearly go on and on, and until it does you can't really consider the "science" to be settled on any particular conclusion. Were the results repeatable? Are there other key factors?

This part of the scientific process - the extended conversation - is alive and well in many fields, but there are some scientists who have effectively hijacked the system by aggressively moving their findings into the mainstream public conversation long before the science conversation has reached a consensus. The paper on bees this week is a particularly egregious example. In this case they have not reached the point where other scientists can read their paper, and yet they have tapped an often credulous press to let them talk about their work as if it is a solid conclusion.  The scientific conversation about bees is extraordinarily complex, but in the internet age, the author's assertions will become a permanent part of the "record" and will be used to support various agendas no matter what their data actually does or does not show.

In the case of the Seralini study, it was originally announced with a sophisticated PR effort tied to sales of a book.  And even though the subsequent part of the "science conversation" was almost unprecedented in terms of being a peer-based "smack down," the "GMOs cause cancer" conclusion has become a "scientific certainty" to a subset of society.  The new autism/pesticide paper is just at the stage where scientists are asking the good questions about whether it actually shows what the authors say it shows. But once again it was released in an intentional press play before that discussion had even started.  Because of the "end arounds" of the conversation, the society that we scientists are supposed to serve is being pushed towards exactly the sort of fear that science had once diminished.

I'm not saying that science needs to be kept as a private discussion until all the answers are in.  With topics this complex we don't know how long that could take.  But when scientists intentionally and prematurely leverage the power of the press and social media, we have a problem.  In science, uncertainty is something quite comfortable.  That is what provides the challenges - our "job security."  And on the occasions where something previously uncertain can be convincingly explained - that's when we get the rare opportunities for kudos and respect among our peers.  Who wouldn't want to be part of answering and maybe even solving challenges like cancer or autism or pollinator issues? Society is not well served when scientists imply that a question is "answered," when it's really just in the lively conversation stage. If this week is any indicator, the application of "science" isn't looking like a very healthy process.

There is a great resource on the complexity of the bee issue written from a beekeeper's perspective http://scientificbeekeeping.com/

Bee image from Wikimedia Commons

You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me at savage.sd@gmail.com

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Five Tasty Reasons To Reconsider GMO Crops

Feeding the world may not seem like an urgent need from the perspective of a rich society with an obesity epidemic. Technologies that make life easier and less risky for farmers may not seem compelling in a society with very few people have anything to do with crop production. Developing rice to prevent blindness and death in poor countries generates vehement opposition from some elements of our wealthy society. There are, however, some threats to the future of our lifestyles that might motivate consumers to take a second look at the debate around GMO crops.

What if premium coffee, gourmet chocolate, fine California wine, bananas, or not-from-concentrate orange juice become costly or scarce? Would that matter to you?


The fact is, there are significant threats to the future production of those luxury crops.  I'll describe those threats below. Yet, because of the influence of the anti-GMO movement, we are far less prepared to deal with these threats than we could have been.

How Brand Protectionism Works


Let me explain the link between the anti-GMO campaign and the tenuous future of these crops.  Genetically engineered crops were first approved and commercialized in the mid-1990s, and went on to become the largest and most rapid technology deployment in the history of agriculture.  In the beginning of this era, there was quite a bit of interest in potential applications to coffee, bananas, grapes etc. There were projects like a coffee engineered to never make caffeine so it didn't have to have its flavor compromised for de-caf. There were ideas like bananas that would last longer at an ideal stage of ripeness. There were active and drawing-board projects to deal with some of the major pest issues of each of these crops.

However, by the end of the 90s, the anti-GMO campaigns scared enough consumers with baseless concerns about food safety issues to trigger a phenomenon called "brand protectionism." For items like wine, coffee, bananas, chocolate and orange juice, there are processing and distribution companies that bring the final product to the market. Those companies have valuable consumer brands, and the last thing they want is controversy that could compromise their brand reputation or sales.  Driven by those concerns, virtually all the investment in biotechnology had dried up for those crops by 2000.  The prime example of a commercial biotech crop that faced this brand issue, was potatoes. The improved biotech version of potatoes disappeared to protect a very valuable brand. McDonalds knew that the insect resistant and virus resistant potatoes commercialized in the late 90s were extremely popular with growers.  They also knew that there were no safety issues. However, they didn't want the threat of protests outside their stores.  They effectively ended biotech potatoes with a few phone calls to their major suppliers.

Biotech investment in "specialty crops" did not stop because of any safety or environmental issues. GMO crops were the first method of genetic modification to ever be proactively regulated in any way by the USDA, the EPA and the FDA. This this framework was in place 10 years before the first commercial acre was ever planted. Over and over again the relevant authorities found each new crop/trait to be perfectly safe. In spite of this, serious investment in biotechnology solutions for these and other luxury crops dried up because the anti-GMO campaigners managed to convince enough consumers to be afraid or suspicious to make brand managers nervous. It gives me no pleasure to acknowledge that victory, but it is reality.

I am not suggesting that genetic engineering would have been an easy solution to these and other evolving threats, but we can only speculate what might have been possible with 15 years of steady investment.  There has been a limited amount of investment in biotech for these crops from farmer organizations, and some from public entities, but the big consumer-marketing players with the greatest ability and need to support this research have largely remained on the sidelines. Some have invested in basic genome sequencing which is good, but they have not crossed the brand-endangering line of pursuing "GMO" options - even as a back-up strategy. None of these influential companies has been willing to step up and explain these risks to the public and explain why they should reconsider the potential benefits of biotechnology for these popular foods and beverages. The anti-GMO activists fully recognize this dynamic and take pre-emptive action when new technologies arise.

Why Are There Such Major Threats to Our Favorite Crops?


Pests are nothing new, and they have often disrupted agriculture in the past.  However there are two unique aspects of our times that exacerbate such risks:
  1. With ever-increasing global travel and commerce, new exotic pathogens, weeds, and insect pests are spread around the world at a faster rate than ever before.  These create severe problems which threaten entire crops
  2. As climate changes, pests are often able to thrive in new places or at different times of year than in the past, creating much more difficult control issues.
This enhanced potential for existential pest threats is particularly problematic for many of our favorite luxury food and beverage crops. What we really appreciate about those crops has to do with complex quality factors.  They are also perennial crops.  You can't just breed a new pest resistant variety of these crops because it is so hard to maintain the quality, and because each generation of seed takes years to produce.  Conventional genetic solutions would take decades at best, and the new pest challenges don't give us that luxury. Here are some of the key threats to things we enjoy:

California Wine Grapes


The bacteria-like pathogen Xylella fastidiosa is native to the US and lethal to the premium wine grapes that were brought here by Europeans (Vitis vinifera).  However, it wasn't an unmanageable issue in California because the insect vector, the Bluegreen Sharpshooter, mainly stayed in riparian areas and only occasionally spread the pathogen into vineyards.
The Glassy Winged Sharpshooter with is now spreading Xylella
 Then, in 1989, a new vector, the Glassy Winged Sharpshooter, arrived in California.  It thrives on citrus and frequently visits grapes.  For now that vector has been restricted to Southern California and is being managed there with insecticides and quarantines on moving plants that might spread it. But if and when the sharpshooters invade the key North Coast wine districts, things could get ugly for wine lovers.  There is also the risk that the vector and Xylella could get transported to places like South America, or Australia.  Xylella recently made it to Europe.  There are native American grapes that are resistant to this pest, but they don't make premium wine.  There may be a genetic engineering solution, but for a perennial crop one would ideally want multiple approaches to manage resistance.  Even if we had a solution today it would take a long time to replant or re-graft our vineyards. We should really be having a very public discussion about this solution now, but we are not.

Specialty Coffee From The Americas

Coffee leaf infected with rust

The Coffee Rust pathogen wiped out production in Java and other areas that had supplied England in the 1800s.  They had to switch to tea. Later, the coffee industry escaped the disease by moving to places like the highlands of Central and South America.  The rust pathogen caught up around 1985, but only recently has the climate changed such that the disease has become a major problem in those regions.  Traditional breeding for resistance is possible by crossing the desirable Arabica types with the hardier Robusta types, but that requires chromosome doubling of Robusta - a step which can cause all sorts of genetic damage.  Then to back-cross to restore the full quality of the Arabica would take a very long time, probably not something that can preserve the livelihoods of the small-holder coffee farming families that have been the backbone of the industry in the Americas. Realistically, we in the rich world will probably be able to get our morning dose from some other geography, but because genetic engineering has been "off the table" for coffee since the mid 1990s, lots of poor families are being hurt and coffee prices are rising.

Florida Orange Juice


The Florida juice industry has largely moved to the not-from-concentrate, premium orange juice segment because of competition for frozen juice coming from Brazil.  Now, the whole Florida industry is in serious decline because of a new bacterial disease spread by a new, exotic insect vector.  There is an excellent description of this situation in the New York Times by Amy Harmon.  Growers have funded some research that may have found a "GMO" solution, but whether they will get to use it is up to brand-sensitive juice marketing companies. Far better funded research would have been appropriate in a rational world. When I was growing up there was a ubiquitous add for orange juice that said, "a day without orange juice is like a day without sunshine."  I don't know if that is really true, but at least when it comes to the not-from-concentrate kind, we might get to find out.

Bananas


The 1930s hit song, "Yes, We Have No Bananas" was actually about "Panama Disease" (Fusarium oxysporum) which wiped out the previous banana of commerce (the Gros Michel variety).  Fortuitously, a new banana called the Cavendish was found in Vietnam. It was resistant to the disease and also suitable for shipping (most bananas are not).  Now there is a new strain of the same pathogen called Fusarium Tropical Race 4, which is destroying the Cavendish in Asia and recently in Australia and Mozambique.  It is probably only a matter of time before someone inadvertently transports this soil-borne pathogen to the Americas.  There has been a little work on a solution, but nothing close to what would be needed to protect the future supply of this popular fruit or the jobs of a great many people involved in growing and shipping it.  Maybe its time for someone to do a cover of "Yes, we have no bananas."

Chocolate

Cacao, the crop from which we get chocolate, has many pests, but two in particular have been spreading throughout Central and South America leading to dramatic declines in production. The diseases are called Witch's Broom and Frosty Pod, and according to leading researchers, Frosty Pod alone "presents a substantial threat to cacao cultivation worldwide." Major confectionary companies have funded genome sequencing, but on their websites they imply or state outright that they won't be pursing genetic engineering solutions (Nestle, Mars, Hershey's).  Once again, the people at the most risk here are small-scale farmers, particularly those in Africa, should these pathogens make it there from the Americas.

Why GMO?


Modern genetic engineering approaches could be very logical ways to protect these particular crops.  The genetics that drive quality are complex, so we have good reason to stick with the best varieties we know.  Genetic engineering is a way to bring in some useful gene without disrupting the genetic base for quality.  Sometimes that might involve moving a gene from a wilder or less desirable member of the same or a closely related species into the high quality background.  Sometimes it might mean moving a gene from some other plant when no same-species options are available.  It could mean simultaneously pursuing the use of several different genes so that they could be co-deployed for resistance management purposes.  It might mean engineering a rootstock that would protect the traditional variety grafted on top.

Also, with these crops it would be feasible to maintain separate "GMO" and "Non-GMO" product options.  "Identity preservation" is the norm for crops like this because they have the value and quality attributes to justify the cost of keeping records, using different equipment etc.  There may be consumers who will never trust the science, and in a rich society they can continue to buy a non-GMO option.  What does not make sense in a rich, technically sophisticated society is that a vocal minority has already compromised the future supply for all of us. You can't get back more than a decade of potential progress just by throwing money at a problem in a crisis.  What makes even less sense is that the people who would lose the most in these pest-driven scenarios are, in many cases, the poorer people whose labor we require in order to enjoy these luxuries.

You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me at savage.sd@gmail.com.  My speaking website is www.drstevsavage.com

Wine and Chocolate Pairing and Glassy Winged Sharpshooter image from Wikimedia Commons.  .Coffee rust image from de.wikipedia.  Banana wilt image from ilbe.com

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Are Organic Apples At Risk of Being Redefined As Contaminated?

An Apple Orchard In Bloom

There is an interesting new "GMO" apple nearing approval in the US and in Canada called the "Arctic Apple."  It was developed by a British Columbia, grower-based organization called Okanagan Specialty Fruit.  Certain genes in these apples are turned off so that the fruit doesn't  express the enzymes that make the apples turn brown after cutting.  You could slice the apples, put them in your lunch or your kid's lunch, and they would still have full flavor, vitamins, and color when it was time to eat them.  I think this is a useful, consumer-oriented trait. Predictably, there are opponents for this sort of scientific innovation.


An Arctic Apple on the right has not browned like the unmodified apple on the left

I've written before about this issue before, but in this post I want to specifically address a particular objection to the commercialization of this technology - the concept that the growing of these "GMO" apples could put the local organic apple industry at risk of becoming "genetically contaminated." I absolutely agree that the organic industry is at risk, but not from the Arctic Apples.  They are at risk from this new definition of "contamination" driven by the "defenders" of organic, which would unintentionally classify all organic apples as being particularly "contaminated."

The "contamination" scenario is based on the potential movement of pollen from flowers of the Arctic Apples to apple flowers in organic orchards.  It is useful to consider this from a biological perspective.

Plant Sex

A Honey Bee Doing Its Normal Job in an Apple Flower

What we are really talking about here is not a new phenomenon associated with a "GM Crop."  This is about normal plant sex.  Apple flowers are not "self-fruitful" meaning that for an apple flower to be successfully fertilized, the pollen has to come from a genetically distinct apple -  usually carried by a bee.  One efficient way to foster this DNA exchange is to graft some branches of crabapples onto some of the trees in an orchard or to simply grow some crabapples within the orchard.  The bees visit those flowers and carry the pollen to flowers of the desired variety. The only part of the resulting apples that contains the DNA from the crabapple is the embryo portion of the seed.  All of the rest of the apple that we eat only has the genes of the intended variety. Thus, even though apples might be pollinated from marginally edible crabapples, we have never considered them to be "contaminated."

If Arctic Apples are commercialized in BC (or anywhere), there might be some small percentage of seeds in other varieties that would be pollinated by a bee that moved between the two types of orchards.  As with the crab apples, but at a vastly lower incidence, there will be the DNA from the arctic apple, a tiny part of which has been changed to prevent expression of the apple genes for browning.  Someone would have to intentionally sample lots of apple seed using very sensitive lab techniques to find this.  If that sort of DNA in seeds is redefined as "contamination," then all apples are contaminated with the DNA from a different apple variety or a crabapple.

But What About The Seeds?


The only thing that could be "scary" about the apple seeds with the Arctic Apple DNA is the same thing that is "scary" about all apple seeds.  They are "cyanogenic" meaning that if chewed, they produce hydrogen cyanide. You would have to eat a lot of apple seeds to be affected, but apple seed consumption is a non-issue for any normal sort of consumer.

The next important thing to know about apple trees is that they are not grown from seeds.  Almost no fruit crops are grown from seed because what you will get will not be the desirable variety you started with, but usually a much inferior type that results from the cross of two different lines. The apple varieties we eat are always "cloned", meaning they are reproduced by grafting - not seeds. Long ago some apple seeds were used to make root stocks, but in modern orchards (including organic), the growers use cloned "dwarfing rootstocks" so that their trees can be kept in a size range that is much safer and more efficient for harvest.  So just as it is no problem to grow many distinct apple varieties in the same area, there is nothing newly problematic about adding Arctic Apples to that variety list.

But What About the Bacterial or Viral DNA?

In the process of genetic engineering, there are some sequences of DNA from a bacterium and from a virus which end up in the modified plant. The bacterium in question is called Agrobacterium and it is nature's own genetic engineer.  It makes a circular bit of DNA called a plasmid which it uses to get some genes inserted in plants it infects. We use a "disarmed" version of that plasmid so a little bit of Agrobacterium DNA is in the modified plant, but it is not "expressed" meaning that no proteins are made based on that DNA.  That DNA has been a part of most GMO crops for a very long time without any issues, but if the presence of bacterial DNA is going to be called "contamination," the there will be a problem with every apple we eat, not just the seeds of some of them.

Why You Get Bacterial DNA With Every Apple, And More From Organic


You may have heard about "microbiomes" which are communities of bacteria and other organisms that inhabit everything from our intestines to our skin.  On plants there are similar microbial communities we call epiphytes (living on the plant surface) and endophytes (living among the plant cells).  All apples have abundant bacterial populations of this nature with all of their bacterial DNA - not just some tiny fragment as in the modified apples.  If that presence is going to be defined as "contamination" then every apple everywhere is contaminated with bacterial genes!

For apples in general, and for organic apples in particular, there are widely used, very safe biological control agents which are based on whole bacteria and thus include the DNA of bacteria.  Bt sprays are based on the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis and are commonly sprayed on apples to control caterpillars.  There are biocontrols to suppress apple diseases based on the bacteria Bacillus subtilis and Bacillus pumilus.  These products are often sprayed on organic apples.  In these cases we are talking about the full compliment of bacterial DNA expressing the bacterial genes.  If bacterial DNA introduced by human activity is defined as a contaminant, then all apples are "contaminated," particularly the organic ones.

There is also a specific piece of virus DNA in an engineered plant like the Arctic Apple, and it has been raised as a "contamination issue."  That piece is called a promoter and it is what turns on the gene that follows it in a DNA sequence.  Again, that promoter in the embryo of an uneaten seed is a functional non-issue, but it is certainly not the only viral DNA on or in an apple.  There are viruses called phages present in some of the bacteria that live on the plant.  However, none of this even compares to the amount of virus (with its DNA) that is quite intentionally sprayed on apples. There are biocontrol products, also approved for organic, based on Cydia pomonella granulosis virus. This is an agent which infects and kills the larvae of the codling moth - one of the biggest pests of apples.  The growers use these viruses as part of an integrated pest management system, but by the new definition being promoted, that means "contamination."

The Organic Precedents For This Sort of Issue


If there is ever any problem for organic growers because of the commercialization of the Arctic Apple, that injury will be entirely self-inflicted by the wing of the organic community that makes the rules.  It will be the result of a state of mind, not any rational risk.  It will also go against well-established precedents for organic.  The USDA Organic rules allow for a degree of "unintentional" contamination of organic produce with synthetic pesticides.  The same is true for fertilizers.  In California there were two historical instances where companies were "spiking" an organic fertilizer product with "synthetic nitrogen." For some time, a majority of California organic growers were using such products.  When the fraud was exposed, none of the farms that had used that fertilizer lost their organic status or had to go through the three year transition again.  It was ruled to have been unintentional.  Why wouldn't the same logic be used for the "unintentional" presence of a tiny bit of harmless DNA in a few apple seeds we don't eat or plant?

The organic apple growers of British Columbia are not threatened in any rational way by the potential commercialization of genetically engineered apples.  The only threat comes from those who want to re-define genetic contamination in a way which makes no practical sense.  This doesn't serve the interests of consumers, nor does it really serve the interests of the organic growers.

Honey bee on apple flower image from Wikipedia.  Arctic Apple image from Okanagan Specialty Crops.  Apple orchard image mine.

Disclaimer:  I am not employed by Okanagan Specialty Fruit in any way.  My opinions on this topic are my own.

You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me at savage.sd@gmail.com.  My speaking website is DrSteveSavage.com.