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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:

GMO Pundit
Genetic Literacy Project
Random Rationality
OSU Outreach in Biotechnology
Cami Ryan
Food and Farm Radio
What Farming
Ramez Naam
Agriculture Proud
The Farmer's Daughter USA 
Planned Resilience
Weed Control Freaks
The Perishable Pundit
Seeker Blog
James McWilliams


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notoriously flawed "Seralini Study" about tumors in rats fed GMOs is being republished in another journal after having been retracted.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

Bee image from Wikimedia Commons

You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me at

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.


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."


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  My speaking website is

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

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  My speaking website is

Monday, May 12, 2014

Why You Can Feel Guilt-free Buying Non-Organic Produce

There are several different reasons people are willing to pay more for organic produce, but many consumers do so believing that it is a way avoid pesticide residues.  That widely held belief is unfounded.  Here is why:
  1. There are definitely pesticides used in the growing of organic crops.  There are residues of those materials on the harvested products.
  2. Residues of synthetic pesticides are also frequently found on organic produce, even though they are not materials that are approved for use on organic.
The reason I feel the need to challenge the "avoid pesticides via organic" myth is that it causes many consumers to feel unwarranted marketing and peer pressure to spend more for organic. The guilt tripping is particularly intense for moms.  The not-so-subtle message is, "if you really cared about your family or your health, you would spend the money for organic."  Whether this leads people to spend more than they should, to buy less total produce, or just to feel bad, it is a destructive outcome based on disinformation. Yes, there are low level pesticide residues on both categories of produce, but in neither case should those residues dissuade you from enjoying all the health benefits that come with eating lots of fruits and vegetables.

Residues of Organic-Approved Pesticides on Organic Produce

Anyone who has ever gardened realizes that there are plenty of pests out there that like to "share" the plants we grow for food.  There is no magic feature of organic that gets around this biological reality, and so there is an extensive list of pesticides that can be used by organic farmers. That list is not based on safety, but rather on whether the material is considered "natural." "Natural" does not automatically mean "safe." Indeed, some of the most toxic chemicals known come from nature. The organic-approved pesticides still have to be registered with the EPA because it is that agency's job to insure that these materials can be used in ways that are safe for us and safe for the environment.

Some organic approved pesticides are very benign (low hazard) materials, but so are a great many of the synthetic pesticides used by conventional farmers.  Some organic-approved pesticides are slightly to moderately toxic. This is also the case for synthetics.  There are many pesticides that are used by both conventional and organic growers.  Some of the pesticides commonly used on organic crops are applied at rather high rates (pounds per treated acre).  Some are approved for use until almost immediately before harvest.  In any case, organic-approved pesticides definitely leave residues on treated crops by the time they reach the consumer.

Synthetic Pesticide Residues on Organic Produce

Occasionally, government agencies intentionally conduct specific surveys of organic produce to check for residues of non-allowed, synthetic pesticides.  The Canadian Health Authority did this in 2011/13 and they found synthetic pesticide residues on 46% of the organic produce samples.  In 2010/11, a similar survey was conducted by the USDA, and they also found synthetics on 43% of organic produce samples. Both sample sets included produce grown in the US, Canada and Mexico. What both of these agencies found wasn't alarming, but it definitely doesn't fit the marketing claims about organic as a way to "avoid synthetic pesticide residues." The presence of these residues does not generally mean that organic growers are violating the organic rules. Some of produce may have been mislabeled. Also, the testing methods are simply so sensitive that they can detect materials that got there unintentionally through something like spray drift or from harvesting or storage equipment.  In fact, the rules for organic have always allowed for the "unintentional" presence of such chemicals.  Buying organic does not mean "no synthetic pesticides."

Should We Worry About These Residues?

Since avoiding all pesticide residues is not an option, the remaining question is "Should we worry about them?"  Are the residues on organic and conventional different enough matter?  The short answer is, "No." Here is why.

When regulatory agencies such as the EPA approve a pesticide for use on a crop, they use all the information they have about that chemical to define an amount of it which can be present at the consumer level without any meaningful risk.  In the US that is called a "tolerance" and in most countries it is called an MRL (maximum residue level).  These thresholds are designed to be very conservative, so that as long as the residues are at these levels or lower, they are about 100 times less than an amount that would be of any concern.  These values are based on an extensive risk assessment based on millions of dollars worth of required testing.  The regulators also restrict how the pesticide can be used (e.g. how long between the spray and harvest) so that any residues left should be below the tolerance.

So whether we are talking about the residues on organic or on conventional, the meaningful questions are:
  1. What is the particular chemical that was detected?
  2. How does the amount of that chemical which was found compare to the crop/chemical-specific tolerance or MRL?
Every year the USDA collects samples of produce, takes it into the lab, and looks for residues of pesticides. They publish the data, and what it consistently shows is that the residues are virtually all below or even well below the conservative tolerances.  Similar data is generated in Canada.  California does additional testing.  The results from these more extensive testing programs are very much like those occasional studies with organic:  yes, there are residues, but no, they are not worrisome.  

Each year, an organization called The Environmental Working Group (EWG) publishes a list that it claims to provide guidance for consumers about which fruits and vegetables have the "most pesticide residues" and thus which are high priority for buying as organic.  In making their list they specifically ignore the data which the USDA provides about the identity of the chemical and about how its concentration compares to the appropriate tolerance.  EWG has never provided any justification for this absurdly non-scientific approach. They also never happen to mention the reality that there are also often pesticide residues on the organic options. The publication of this list is apparently very good for the EWG's fundraising efforts, but it is a huge disservice to consumers. Their "Dirty Dozen List" or "Shopper's Guide" is one of the most egregious examples of the dishonest, guilt-based marketing that puts so much pressure on moms and others.

Just enjoy!

Study after study demonstrate the substantial health benefits of a diet with lots of fruits and vegetables.  That beneficial and delicious produce will come with some trace levels of the pesticides that conventional or organic farmers used to be able to successfully produce the food for your family.  You can enjoy it without guilt.

Just a few links about produce and health:

You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me at  I tweet about new posts @grapedoc.  My speaking website can be found here.


Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Do You Really Need To Be Afraid To Eat MacDonalds French Fries?

There is a widely watched video of a recent talk titled "How Cooking Can Change Your Life" given by author Michael Pollan (Omnivore's Dilemma etc).  His main point is that Americans and Europeans would be much better off health-wise if they ate a lot more home cooked meals.  I can certainly agree with that concept, but I have some problems with his approach in this talk.  He basically spins a scary, conspiratorial story about McDonalds french fries and how they are grown.  Unfortunately, there is a lot of outright disinformation in his talk.  He also presents an unfair and inaccurate picture of the potato industry as a whole.  I don't know where Pollan got his information, but it was clearly not from someone with a very complete perspective.  The "scary" aspect of the talk is now being trumpeted by entities like the Village Green Network to convince people they should "never eat McDonalds fries again!" This is not exactly a legitimate way to convince people of the benefits of home cooking.

I'll go through the main points of Pollan's talk.  He claims that McDonalds will only accept Russet Burbank potatoes and that those have  unusually long tubers and are difficult to grow.  In fact, McDonalds has approved several cultivars over the years which can meet their quality standards that involve much more than just size.  Russet Burbank is a very old cultivar that is still around because it is particularly consistent and because growers know very well how to produce it.  The growers do get more money for potatoes in a certain size range and less for those that are smaller or larger.  Farmers don't sell directly to McDonalds but rather to a few major processing companies.   Those processors have other uses for all the little or big spuds because they make more than just the fries for McDonalds.

Pollan said that McDonald's does not accept any blemishes - particularly those caused by a viral disease that has a symptom in the tuber called "net necrosis."

Net necrosis symptoms in a potato.  Not something you would serve at home either

He claims that to stop the aphids that vector the virus, the growers use an insecticide called Monitor which is so toxic they won't enter the fields for 5 days after spraying.  Lots of problems with this story.  Actually, there are several important virus diseases of potatoes, and the growers need to control the aphids that spread them for many reasons beyond the net necrosis issue.  Virus infected potatoes yield poorly, so to allow them to become sick would reduce the resource use-efficiency of all the crop inputs (land, water, fertilizer, fuel, labor...).

Virus infected potato vine (center) vs healthy vines of the same age

The ways that potato farmers control the aphids and the viruses are actually quite complex and involve more than just sprays.  Even for the spraying, the old product, Monitor, is far less important than it once was.  The "five days" thing is not something bizarre. The EPA sets "re-entry intervals" (REIs) for all pesticides for the purpose of worker safety.  The shortest ones are several hours and for Monitor it is actually 4 days. It is just a prudent part of the EPA oversight.  Again, farmers now have many other insecticide options (here is an article about this from 2002 and since then there are even more good options).

Pollan then goes on to say that the potatoes have to be stored in big warehouses for 60 days for the toxic pesticide to "off-gass."  That is simply false.  How potatoes are stored and why has absolutely nothing to do with the use of Monitor or any other chemicals used in the field.  Storage of potatoes is very important because otherwise we would only have them available fresh for a few months out of the year.  For those that are frozen as fries, it is still important to have storage prior to processing so that the expensive processing facilities can be used all year.  This is again just a matter of efficiency.

By the way, I checked the USDA's database of pesticide residue testing for potatoes, and any residues of the chemical in Monitor (methamidophos) that were ever detected were extremely low, far below even the very conservative "tolerance" set by the EPA.  That is also true for other compounds.  You can easily scan the data at a site called CropAudit.  There is nothing scary about pesticide residues on McDonalds potatoes or any others.  The reality is that the US potato industry has a great safety record and is becoming more resource-use efficient all the time. 

So, I would join Pollan in encouraging people to enjoy potatoes in all the delicious ways one can do that with home cooking.  I would also say that there is no danger in sometimes enjoying the sort of fries that McDonalds and other restaurants can make - something difficult replicate at home.   The viable path to healthy eating is about moderation, diversity and personal responsibility - not about responding to fear-based narratives.

Fries image from Metropopam
Potato virus symptom images from the University of Idaho

You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me at
My speaker's website is DrSteveSavage.Com

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Chipotle Announces Intention to Develop Burritos That Grow On Trees

Today, Chipotle Mexican Grill announced that it's research division has made significant progress in the development of burritos that grow on trees.  A spokesperson said, "we were tired of the sort of supply issues that we run into when we make arbitrary demands on suppliers, so we decided to see if we could cut out the whole animal phase of burrito production - you know, the whole sad eyes and exploding cow thing." 

This effort has apparently been underway for quite a while.  The scene in Chipotle's recent "scare crow video" in which the hero picks a single pepper from a plant in his yard was intended as a preview of the direction the company has been wanting to go for a long time.  "I think its pretty clear from the tone of our marketing messages that we haven't believed that we would need any long-term relationships with regular farmers."

When asked whether this new burrito tree be "GMO" the Chipotle chief technical officer replied, "no - we only wanted to use technologies that your grandmother would recognize.  We are employing the time-tested approach of mutagenesis breeding.  If we sort through enough mutants, we can find what we want.  It will be what Nature intended all along but just hadn't gotten around to yet."

The Chipotle spokesperson also explained, "our burrito trees also won't require fossil-based energy for their fertilizer - it turns out that by setting up composting facilities downstream of our marketing operation, we can generate all the fertilizer we need."

When asked why the announcement was made today, the spokesperson said, "we looked at the calendar and decided that this was an auspicious day for this sort of exciting news.  It may be a while before our customers can really get the tree-grown burritos, but in the mean time they can feel more righteous buying our product."

Restaurant Image from Wikimedia Commons
Stylistic nod to the Borowitz Report