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Monday, August 22, 2011

Why Does Organic Seem Larger Than It Is?

(This post originally appeared on Sustainablog on 8/22/11)

For a long time we have been hearing that "Organic is the fastest growing segment of the food industry."  Organic advocates make the claim that Organic could "feed the world" or that it could be "the solution to global warming."  There is definitely enough buzz about Organic to make all of this seem plausible.  The popular image of Organic is that it is finally becoming a significant part of the food supply.  The actual statistics paint a very different picture.

Why Does Organic Seem Bigger?  Failure to Do The Math.

In 2008, a USDA survey of US Organic growers got responses from over 90% of the growers, so we know a great deal about the US Organic industry.  In that year there were nearly 2.5 million acres of certified Organic cropland.  That follows growth since 1995 at the rate of 144,000 acres/year (see graph below).  That sounds like a lot of land to most people (an acre is roughly the size of a football field).

In fact, all those Organic acres put together still only represent 0.71% of the 370 million acres of US cropland.  The amount of that cropland that was actually harvested in 2008 represented only 0.52% of the total.  Organic cropland areahas been growing, but only at 0.0385% per year on an absolute basis (see chart below).  At that rate of growth, US Organic cropland will still represent less than 2.5% of the total in the year 2050.  The math suggests that Organic will remain as a small niche market.

Why Does Organic Seem Bigger? Marketing.

Organic has been heavily marketed as a "super brand" so that the advertising dollars spent on everything from yogurt to spinach to baby clothes contributes to a unified consumer image.  Organic also receives a great deal of free promotion by certain environmental groups, University programs, and certain corporations wanting to present a "green" image.  Positive messages about Organic and negative message about conventional food are abundant in the world of food and sustainability blogging, and in the media in general. All of this gives the impression that Organic must be a sizable industry.

Why Does Organic Seem Bigger? The Price Premium.

When you hear a statistic about rapidly growing Organic sales, there are several things to remember.  The Organic farmer gets a premium price which is needed to cover higher production costs.  The "Organic Premium" does not end there. Instead, each player in the value chain (shipper, broker, distributor, retailer) charges a premium over their normal margin for Organic products.  Also, most of the statistics are about grocery retail, which don't include food service,  which is about half of US food consumption.  So a lot of Organic spending does not mean a great deal of Organic farming.

Why Does Organic Seem Bigger? Contact With Organic Farms.

Organic also seems bigger to many consumers because they have some direct contact with a small, local Organic farm through a CSA, a farm stand, or a farmer's market.  Many people know a student who has gone to work on an Organic farm because that has been a major trend in recent years.  All of this gives the impression that Organic is a major movement in the food industry. Indeed there are a great many small Organic farms.  By 2008 there were >9,600 relatively small Organic farms in the US (having less than $100,000 in total sales - net income would be lower).  Those farms represented 70% of all the Organic farms.  Having a lot of people involved in farming is a great thing; however, all of those farmers combined only produced 6.6% of total Organic sales (see graph below) and thus an even smaller percent of all food sales.  People enjoy being able to buy from small, local, Organic farms, but they represent a miniscule proportion of our food supply.  A highly visible Organic farming industry does not mean that Organic is large.

Why Does Organic Seem Bigger? Imports.

In recent years, much of actual growth in the Organic sales at the consumer level has come from imports of mainly non-perishables from outside of North America (frozen fruit and vegetables, grains, dried fruit, fruit juice concentrate, milk products etc). This last point is of concern to many different observers (Tree HuggerCornucopia InstitutePublic Radio InternationalUSDABusiness Week, various bloggers)   Because the Organic certification process relies mainly on paperwork and does not include random or even scheduled product testing, the possibility of fraud is substantial.  Many US Organic farmers are also concerned about being undercut on price, particularly if the certification system in other countries has less integrity.   Organic consumers are often surprised about the imports. In a famous case, a frozen vegetable mix called "California Blend" was sold at Whole Foods.  In small font on the back of the package were the words, "produced in China."  It is even more difficult to get statistics on the extent of Organic imports or to know which food products contain imported ingredients. There are widespread concerns about this major source of growth in the US Organic sector.
So, in spite of seeming otherwise, Organic farming is a very small part of US crop agriculture.  It seems destined to remain small. Organic is a solid niche and a good business for some players, but when we hear Organic being promoted as "the solution" to our food supply and environmental issues, we need to be skeptical.
Graphs by Steve Savage based on USDA-NASS and USDA-ERS data.

My website is Applied Mythology.  Please comment here and/or by emailing me at savage.sd@gmail.com





Sunday, August 21, 2011

Some Thoughts About "Cred" and Don Huber

I'll get back to the Don Huber part, I promise, but first I need to talk about belief.

The term "cred" has become a common slang term.  The origins of the term are far older.  In Latin, "cred" simply means "believe."  Cred is a root in words like credibility ("I believe what you say"), credit ("I believe that you are good for the money") or  credentials (I believe that you have the training/experience to do/know something).

Terminology related to cred has been the news a good deal lately.  The rating agency Standard and Poors downgraded the credit rating of the United States.  That was interesting because the credibility of that very organization is in doubt because it gave high ratings to the mortgage-backed securities that contributed to the recent economic collapse.

Just this week there was an announcement that pop singer Jason Mraz and other celebrities are endorsing a new movie called "Freedom." This film supports the idea that bio-ethanol can be a means by which we can achieve "energy independence" from oil.  Even corn-based ethanol (a much discredited option of late) is portrayed in a positive light in this new campaign.  Many highly qualified economists and scientists have made similar arguments about ethanol.  Even though those experts have far better credentials to make such claims, in modern society, the voice of a famous celebrity has greater, or at least broader credibility.    I happen to agree with what these particular celebrities who have chosen to promote, but there are also many cases where celebrity endorsements are less desirable (at least from my perspective).

Back to Don Huber

However; what really got me thinking about the question of cred (belief in general) was an experience I had this Saturday (8/20). Donald Huber, a retired scientist from the Plant Pathology faculty of Purdue University, was being interviewed on a radio show called Food Chain Radio by commentator Michael Olson.  I decided to call-in to see if I could ask Dr. Huber a few key questions.

Huber has been promoting the idea that there is a completely new-to-science pathogen which is somehow associated with glyphosate tolerant crops.  He says that it not only causes plant disease but also causes spontaneous abortions at the rate of 20-50% in animals fed the "Roundup Ready" crops.  He describes the organism as fungal but with a size in the range of a plant virus.  These are pretty outrageous claims, but Huber has not done the things that would enhance their credibility in the scientific community.  He has not published results in a peer reviewed journal or even made data available to support what he is saying.  When I asked him about this on the talk show, he said that the animal data was by others and they did not want their names mentioned until genetic sequencing was completed.  He claims that a letter he wrote to Agricultural Secretary Vilsack was leaked and that is why all of this has come to public attention.

Anastasia Bodnar has published an excellent critique of Huber's claims on the site Biofortified.  In her post she provides links to various academic departments that have published skeptical assessments of Huber's claims.   Suffice it to say that Dr. Huber has little "cred" among agricultural scientists.  However, because he is saying that something terrible is happening that can be blamed on Monsanto and GMO technology, he has automatic credibility with certain constituencies.

I wish I had a good term for this particular class of cred that comes from telling a particular audience what it wants to believe about some entity that it has elevated to an evil status of mythic proportions.  The best term I could find applies to the audience more than to the speaker:

Credulous: ready to believe, especially on slight or uncertain evidence

Don Huber's allegations about a mysterious new super-bug are being widely repeated even though they lack scientific or even practical confirmation.  There are credulous audiences in many "green" or "food movement" circles that are more than "ready to believe" Huber.  The more extraordinary the claims, the more credibility they seem to carry for those groups.

At the risk of offending my readers, this phenomenon is not limited to those with Monsantophobia.  There are audiences that are credulous when it comes to the statements of a minority of scientists who doubt Climate Change or Evolution.  There are audiences that are credulous when it comes to "revelations" about Obama's birthplace or religion.  There are audiences that are credulous when it comes to "death panels," "great Right Wing Conspiracies," "Dirty Dozen Lists"  or links between vaccines and autism.

Before getting judgmental, perhaps we should all consider whether we might be credulous on certain topics.  If we listen to an argument because it comes from a famous person, that is one thing.  If we accept it uncritically, we are being credulous.  If we suspend our critical thinking skills when we hear things that happen to fit our worldview, we are in danger of being credulous.  


In time, it is likely that Dr. Huber's claims will be fully debunked.  Unfortunately, the credulous audiences who believe him now will probably never accept the findings of more traditionally credible sources.



Wednesday, August 10, 2011

In Defense of Orange Juice

(This post originally appeared on Sustainablog on 8/10/11)

(8/11 edits in italics below based on feedback from citrus industry scientists).  A recent blog post on a site called "Food Renegade"is apparently getting quite a bit of attention on the internet.  It was critical of not-from-concentrate (NFC) orange juice because it involves the use of flavor additives and because oxygen is removed from the top of juice tanks during the process.  The post is titled, "Secret Ingredient in Your Orange Juice?"  The title is more than a bit misleading since everything it talks about is quite transparently discussed on this Tropicana Website.  It came to my attention because it  was alarming enough to make a friend of ours question whether she should be drinking this juice.  If many people are being frightened away from drinking this healthy and tasty juice, it is a sad thing.  I'd like to try to set the record straight.  (By the way, I've never worked for the citrus industry in any capacity, but I have done consulting projects which allowed me to learn many details about NFC juice).

Not-From-Concentrate Juice and the Survival of the US Citrus Juice Industry

The citrus industry in Florida and Texas depends mainly on sales into the juice market.  Because of urbanization pressures, rising labor costs, exotic pests, and periodic freezes - that industry is no longer competitive with Brazil for the frozen concentrate market.  Several years ago, a new process was developed for citrus juice which produces a product with a much fresher taste.  It is highly preferred by most consumers.  Instead of concentrating the juice with a great deal of energy and then freezing it,  NFC juice is "flash pasteurized" with limited heat and time so that most of the flavor elements are maintained.  The last I heard, it was not possible to routinely ship tank loads of this kind of juice from Brazil without spoilage.  Thus, the American producers have an advantage in this part of the market.  NFC juice has probably saved this part of the US farming sector for now.

What About The Flavor Additives?

As the Food Renegade article actually acknowledges, the additives in this case are derived from the peels of oranges.  They are completely natural and normal citrus flavors, and this is quite openly discussed on the Tropicana website (Again, exactly how is that a "secret?")  The reason the flavors are needed is to maintain a more consistent tasting product throughout the year.  Because this product is only minimally processed and sold relatively quickly, it requires changing sources of fruit over time.  This is accomplished by using different varieties of trees that mature at different times, and by using the a somewhat unique feature of citrus.  For most fruit, there is a very narrow window between when it is under-ripe and over-ripe, but citrus will "store on the tree" for weeks and still have good taste quality. Together the varieties and storage allow the industry to generate juice almost all year.  However, because the varieties and the weather change, there are times when the flavor of the plain juice is not consistent.  The use of the fully natural extracts for "flavor balancing" gets around that issue.

Why Remove the Oxygen?

The Food Renegade article implied that because the oxygen was removed from the juice, it had no flavor.   The oxygen point came from another transparent discussion on the Tropicana site about how some of the juice has to be held for periods of time in cold tank storage to cover parts of the year when it is hard to get enough oranges.  The reason for protecting the juice from oxygen in these tanks is actually to protect the flavor and nutritional content.  Oxygen can lead to the break down of key flavor components and also breakdown of vitamin C.  Removing the oxygen from the top of the tank minimizes this problem (usually this means just purging the head space with nitrogen gas - the gas that makes up 80% of the atmosphere).  Again, there is nothing negative about this step at all, and it is only a positive thing for flavor.

What Is Done With Citrus Juice Is Just An Improvement On A Very Old Process

Using pasteurization and returning captured flavor components like this is far from new.  The first, stable, year-round, juice product was developed in the late 1800s by the founder of Welch's.  He was an avid prohibitionist and wanted to develop an alternative to wine for communion in churches.  His pasteurized grape juice did not taste very good, so he captured the flavor components that were being lost during heating and added it back later.  The result was "Welch's Grape Juice."  There is nothing new or negative about this sort of add-back process, but I'd much rather drink the orange or grapefruit juices than the Concord grape type (I've had a glass of the NFC grapefruit juice every morning for years).

Conclusion

I hope this post will prevent at least a few people from being unnecessarily alarmed so that they stop drinking NFC juice. Sadly, most readers of the Renegade post and it's copies will never hear the other side of this story.  Some will heed the author's closing recommendation that the only safe option is to "opt out of the industrial food system as much as possible," and to grow, harvest or make one's own food.  That scenario, or the second best option she offers - various local sources - would mean a low diversity diet for people in most geographies.  What a sad, pseudo-ascetic, unhealthy lifestyle for this "wellness coach" to recommend!

The irony is that the author of that blog got all her "secret" information from a perfectly transparent and reasonable website posted by the very company that she denigrated.

Juice image from Mervi Eskelinen's Photostream
My website is Applied Mythology


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

Monday, August 1, 2011

Genetic Contamination May Not Mean What You Think It Means

(This post originally appeared on Sustainablog on 8/1/11)

In the debate about GMO crops, the "threat of genetic contamination" is often raised as a reason  to reject the technology.  Is this threat real?  Does it justify acts of vandalism?  Could it lead to the "End of Organics"?  Is it actually an over-blown issue?  To answer these questions it is necessary to put this issue in the context of basic plant biology.

What We Are Talking About Is Really Just "Plant Sex"

"Genetic Contamination" is an emotional term which obscures the fact that the underlying biological process in question is quite normal, natural and highly necessary.  All living species, need to be able to reproduce.  They also need to generate the genetic diversity that will allow the species to adapt and evolve as needed to survive.  Plants can't move, so to "mate" with other plants of their species they have to find ways to spread the male sexual cells (pollen) to the female reproductive cells (the ovaries in the female parts of flowers).  Some plant do this with the help of pollinators - the bees, flies, butterflies, birds, etc.  These helpful agents incidentally move pollen around.  Other plants simply rely on wind to move their pollen to other flowers.  This is the case with most "grain crops" like wheat, barley, oats, corn etc.
"Cross pollination" is the accurate, unemotional, term for this process.  GMO crops participate in cross pollination in exactly the same way that non-GMO plants do and always have.

What Do You Get If You Cross A ... With A ...

Perhaps we have heard too many such jokes, because many people believe that the genes from GMO plants have the potential to "contaminate" all manner of natural species or "Organic" crops The fact is that if you "crossed a chicken with an octopus" you wouldn't get "drumsticks for everybody." You would get nothing.  The same is true for plant species.  They do not cross pollinate (or contaminate) other anything except extremely closely related plants.
There are some cases where a very closely related, "weedy" sub-species can cross with a crop (e.g. cultivated sunflowers with wild sunflowers), but those issues were anticipated long before GMO crops were introduced.  For that very reason, no GMO sunflowers have been introduced in the US.
GMO crops have no greater or lesser ability to move genes to other species.  Those sorts of fears are groundless.

Crops Where Cross Pollination is A Management Issue

Long before the advent of GMO crops, farmers of certain crops have had to manage "genetic contamination" issues involving normal cross pollination.  Wheat is wind pollinated and farmers commonly save part of their crop each year to serve as seed for the next ("saved seed").  Wheat is also a crop with very specific quality characteristics for its various uses (raised breads, flat breads, crackers, pastries, noodles...).  New wheat varieties are bred for those specific uses.  There is a network of dedicated wheat seed growers who produce "certified seed" with enough isolation from other wheat so that the seed they produce is >95% the desired variety.  If a farmer plants that certified seed (usually at a small cost above current grain price), the crop he/she produces will be what is desired for the end use.  If the farmer saves some of that crop and plants it a second year, it will be less pure because of cross pollination from neighboring fields.  After a few years, it is necessary for the farmer to buy new certified seed because his/her own supply is "contaminated."  There are many more examples like this for "saved seed" crops.
Hybrid seeds are grown by dedicated seed growers and purchased by the farmers every year.  This system insures both genetic purity for specific needs and the extra vigor and yield potential that hybridization enables.
Whether it is a "saved seed" crop or a hybrid crop, GMO versions create no new issues beyond what farmers have always been managing.  It only becomes an issue when someone wants to set a zero tolerance unlike the rational tolerances that have made all of these crops work for a very long time.

Crops Where Cross Pollination is Irrelevant

A few years ago there was a ballot initiative in Mendocino, California to ban GMO crops from that county.  It was driven by concerns about "genetic contamination" of the Organic farms (many supporters didn't understand the paragraph above).   The fact that there were not even GMO crops that were likely to ever be planted in this particular county was seemingly irrelevant to the debate.  I was talking with a PhD level scientist that worked for one of the wineries there, and asked why that company was supporting the ban.  She said it was because of concerns about how the genetic contamination risk could hurt their sales.  I was stunned because, as a scientist, she certainly knew that grapes are never grown from seed but rather "vegetatively propagated."  If you take a seed from a Cabernet grape and plant it, you will not grow a Cabernet.  It will be some new variety, just as when humans have children, they are each a unique new combination of their mother's and father's genes.  For thousands of years farmers have known how to take cuttings of desirable fruits and get them to root, or how to take buds of the desired fruit variety and graft it onto a rootstock.  The grapes in Mendocino county had been propagated that way for centuries.  A block of Cabernet planted next to a block of Chardonnay is not a "genetic contamination" issue, because the seed is never planted.  This same principle applies to almost all fruit and to other vegetatively reproduced crops like potatoes, cassava, sweet potatoes, sugarcane and many others.  GMO versions of these crops would not represent any "genetic contamination risk"  at all.  That is why it is so sad and absurd that activists in France destroyed a GMO grapevine trial because of needless "contamination" fears.

Genetic Contamination: An Intentionally Overplayed Issue?

On several occasions I have written directly to individual, anti-GMO scientists, at Greenpeace and elsewhere, asking specific questions about how they imagine that a particular crop could represent a "genetic contamination risk."  I have never received an answer with any scientific justification or even a plausible "what if" scenario.  Presuming that these individuals understand basic plant biology, they apparently choose not to acknowledge it in their public campaigns.

What is really going on ("cross pollination") is a vital, natural process.  Farmers and the plant breeders who serve them have long been able to harness the positive potential of this genetic exchange to breed for improved varieties.  They have also been able to fully manage the cases where cross pollination could cause a genetic purity problem for the crop.  GMO crops have not changed this in any fundamental way that cannot be dealt with by rational decision making and regulation.

You are welcome to comment here or to email me at savage.sd@gmail.com.  For links to my posts on various sites, see my website:  Applied Mythology

Pollinator fly (bee mimic) image from Savvey's Photography Photostream