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Thursday, June 13, 2013

A Serial Blind-Spot For Organic Advocates

Researchers affiliated with the Institute of Organic Agriculture in Switzerland and the Institute of Agricultural Sciences in Germany published a meta-study in which they conclude that organic farming methods lead to higher rates of carbon sequestration in soils.  This work was well done and published in a well respected journal, PNAS.  Unfortunately the ramifications of the paper are being badly misinterpreted by environmental and food bloggers who are organic advocates.  The scientific authors make no claim that their analysis is a full, net carbon footprint measurement, but it is being interpreted that way by others.  Building up soil carbon is a very good thing to do, and organic methods were the state-of-the-art method for doing that from around the 1920s to the 1960s.  However there are newer and better ways to improve soil quality on farms, and they don't have the huge carbon footprint problem that is common in organic - emissions of the potent greenhouse gases methane and nitrous oxide which have 21 and 295 times as much greenhouse gas effect as carbon dioxide respectively.

All forms of farming including organic can lead to soil emissions of these gases, particularly the nitrous oxide.  Those are best managed by the new farming methods I mentioned above.  The issue that is problematic for organic are emissions of those gases associated with composting.  To borrow a line from Al Gore - this is "an inconvenient truth" about organic.  This inconvenient truth is that any significant adoption of the compost-use feature of organic farming would be an environmental disaster.

I have written about this a few times before, but because of the misinterpretation of this study I want to reiterate that this is a clear-cut issue where organic is problematic. The common failure to recognize this very important issue leads to misguided policies and people believing that they are doing something very "green" when in fact the opposite is true.

I have done quite a bit of carbon footprint analysis regarding agriculture over the years as part of my paying job as a consultant.  That has given me the opportunity to read extensively from the scientific literature on this topic and on life cycle assessments (LCAs) in general.  From that work I came across a body of literature concerning greenhouse gas emissions during composting (I'll put a list of papers at the end of the post).  The goal of composting is to keep things aerobic (with oxygen), but inevitably, even in the best managed composts there are micro-sites that are anaerobic (no oxygen) and under those conditions some microbes generate methane or nitrous oxide.  The numbers are not small.  In one typical study of this type the carbon footprint of the finished compost ranged from 1,769 to 2,167 pounds of CO2 equivalents per ton.  Since compost is applied at rates such as 4 to 10 tons per acre, that means 7-22,000 lbs of CO2 equivalents for each organic acre.  The middle of that range is like driving a 25 mpg car 13,982 miles or fertilizing 12.9 acres of corn at 200 lbs of synthetic nitrogen/acre.  It would be equivalent to growing, handling and transporting 9,641 lbs of bananas from Costa Rica to Germany.  This is a major reason that it is a good thing that organic remains such a small part of agriculture.

The Serial Blindspot

The false assertion that organic is better from a climate change perspective keeps coming up over and over again.  In this case it was through misinterpretation of a good paper.  The more problematic examples have been claims from generally credible organic groups - the US's Rodale Institute and the UK's Soil Association.  Each organization has published white papers claiming that organic is a solution to climate change.  In both analyses, the authors completely ignore the issue of greenhouse gas emissions from composting as well as other parts of organic farming (e.g. there are even more emissions once the compost or manure is incorporated in the field).  I've corresponded with the authors in both cases and they have not been able to dispute my points.

Why Does This Matter?

So, what sort of policy and thinking problems arise from the promotion of this false impression about organic?  One example would be the US government spending money to encourage more farmers to adopt organic practices.  Another would be the many consumers who spend more believing that they are doing the green thing by buying organic (There are also several other reasons that is not true).  Another would be other consumers who unnecessarily feel guilty because the don't want to spend so much.

I think the most absurd example is San Francisco's much touted food waste recycling program .  Sending food waste to a landfill is definitely bad, but the best solution is for people to grind it up in their disposal, send it into the sewage system, and for the treatment plant to convert it to renewable, carbon-neutral energy using an anaerobic digester (most advanced sewage treatment districts do this now).  But perhaps the San Francisco sewage system can't handle that volume.  In any case, what they do is to drive heavy trucks up and down the famously steep hills of the city collecting the scraps.  Then they drive the heavy loads 50 miles to a composting facility in Vacaville.  There they generate the trace gases in the process I've described above.  Then they load the heavy compost back into trucks and haul it 50 to 100 miles to organic vineyards who then claim to be doing something sustainable.  That is pretty absurd.

I'm sure this won't be the last time that people will make unfounded climate change mitigation claims for organic.  It won't be the last time I try to explain why they are not true.

You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me at   I tweet a bit @grapedoc.  Organic farm image from wikimedia commons.  Composting in the UK image also from wikimedia commons.


Hao, X., Chang, C., Larney, J., Travis, G. 2001. Greenhouse gas emissions during cattle feedlot manure composting. Journal of Environmental Quality 30:376-386.
Osada, T., Kuroda, K., Yonaga, M. 2000 Determination of nitrous oxide, methane, and ammonia emissions from swine waste composting process.  Journal of material cycles and waste management 1:51-56
Hellebrand, H.1998. Emission of nitrous oxide and other trace gases during composting of grass and green waste. Agric. Engng Res. 69:365-375 
Sommer, S., Holler, H.2000. Emission of greenhouse gases during composting of deep litter from pig production – effect of straw content. The Journal of Agricultural Science 134_327-335
Hao, X., Chang, C., Larney, F. 2004. Carbon, nitrogen balances and greenhouse gas emission during cattle feedlot manure composting.  Journal of Environmental Quality 33:37-44
Jackel, U., Thummes, K, Kampfer, P. 2005. Thermophilic methane production and oxidation in compost. FEMS Microbiology Ecology 52:175-184. (looking for microbes which might help reduce the methane emissions from composting)
Hellmann, B., Zelles, L., Palojarvi,A, Bai, Q. 1997.  Emission of climate-relevant trace gases and succession of microbial communities during open-windrow composting.  Applied and Environmental Microbiol 63:1011-1018

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

A Modest Proposal About How To Do GMO Food Labeling Right

Should food with ingredients from genetically engineered crops - "GMOs" - be labeled?  Many argue that consumers have a "right to know" about this.  Ok, if the real reason for labeling is to provide consumers with knowledge, then the label should read:

"Contains ingredients from biotech enhanced crops approved by the USDA, FDA and EPA"

That would tell people what is unique about these crops.  Humans have been genetically modifying crops for centuries using a variety of methods.  The difference for genetically engineered crops is that they must be fully characterized and tested in order to gain approval from three different regulatory agencies - the USDA, the EPA and the FDA (there is a description of this process below if you are interested).  Crops modified in other ways including those generated by conventional breedingmutation breeding or "wide crosses" or hybrids or doubled haploids don't have to be tested or approved at all.  The clear, international scientific consensus is that genetic engineering involves no unusual risk relative to all the other methods of genetic modification, but this testing was instituted out of an abundance of caution.  Thus, any label should let consumers know about this extra level of scrutiny conducted for their benefit.


We have a precedent for a positive, official label designed to communicate government oversight. This is the federally regulated "USDA Organic" label that signifies that the agency governs the certification process for that food.  The biotech food labeling should be of this same affirmative nature because of the extraordinary review from three agencies.  We also have warning labels for real risks like certain allergens and for trans-fats, but that kind of labeling is inappropriate for genetically engineered crops.  On the contrary, there are hundreds of peer reviewed scientific studies that looked for and failed to find health issues associated with these foods.

Let's Really Make It About Knowledge

Also, if we label genetically engineered foods, we should accompany that with supporting educational resources.  We have some experience as a country about what happens if you label but don't educate. Back in 1994, Congress passed the "Nutrition Labeling and Education Act" that lead to that list of nutrient contents you see on food packages.  The lawmakers never followed through to provide the funding for the education part (imagine that!)  So the law effectively became the "Nutrition Labeling in a Vacuum Act" and many consumers get little benefit from the labels.  Let's not repeat that mistake with a "GMO Labeling in a Vacuum" law. 

Accompanying the label I have described, there should be a URL or a code stamp to take you to web sites that explain how these crops are developed, how they have been evaluated, and also about some of their advantages. The site could talk about how:

Congress could even fund an educational program to provide basic nutrition education which should have started 18 years ago. 

If some politician will introduce a bill to require labeling of the type I have described and include guaranteed funding for real education, they could get the enthusiastic support of the scientific community.  

Would my labeling suggestion satisfy the groups that have been promoting "GMO labeling?"  Probably not. There is pretty strong evidence that their goal is not really about what consumers would "know."  It seems more likely that it is about wanting consumers to be afraid and thus to buy more of the organic, certified non-GMO, or under-regulated supplements they sell (look who provided the money to push prop 37 in California).  The clue is the typical imagery used by these labeling promoters and their allies.  It usually involves the meme of a large, scary looking hypodermic needle filled with a suspicious, liquid being injected into something like a ripe tomato.  

That image bears absolutely no relationship to how plants are genetically engineered.  It is a transparent attempt to frighten people.  Thus, if the labeling were to actually let consumers know enough not to be afraid, it wouldn't accomplish the financial goals of many of the groups pushing labeling. It might even reduce their sales.

I salute my fellow Californians for voting down Proposition 37, a deeply flawed GMO labeling initiative which would have been a consumer knowledge disaster for the financial benefit of certain folks who really don't deserve it.  As a scientist and someone who cares deeply about food, I could endorse a food labeling law like the one in my modest proposal.

You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me a  I tweet from time to time @grapedoc.  Shopping image from Anthony Albright. Code stamp image from  Tomato image from Global Research Canada

Additional Background About How These Crops Are Regulated

For those that are interested here is some background.  GMO crops, those that have been modified using the tools of genetic engineering, go through a degree of composition and safety testing which has never been required for other means of improving crops - even methods such as mutation breeding or wide crosses which have far more potential for undesired effects.  These new crop varieties are scrutinized by no less than three federal regulatory agencies under a system called "The Coordinated Framework" that was hammered out in the 1980s and 1990s well before any GMO crops were commercialized.  Historically most regulation of industries has been instituted after there has been a problem.  GMO foods are rather unique in that the regulations were designed before there was any commercialization and in the absence of any problematic events.

How Does The Regulation Work?

The USDA scrutinizes any potential for the crop to be a "plant pest risk" and any sort of gene transfer issue for other crops or weeds.  The EPA scrutinizes any pesticide-related issues such as the Bt-based insect resistance traits or the herbicides that would be used on herbicide tolerant crops.  The FDA scrutinizes the data that the companies submit to demonstrate that their new varieties are functionally identical to non-modified versions of the crop. They don't have specific requirements because each crop and modification would be unique in terms of what matters. Still, that does not mean what is often alleged that there is "no required testing."  The submission is technically voluntary, but all biotech crop developers have always submitted data to the FDA.  Again, new crop varieties from all other mechanisms of genetic modification have no testing requirements at all, so if there is any testing it is on a purely voluntary basis. "GMO crops" are unique in that they must be tested and approved.

With all this analysis of GMO crops, it is should not be surprising that even though this technology has been adopted for billions of acres of crop production over 16 years, there have been no legitimate health or environmental problems, and rather a great many benefits.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Is There Really A Chemical Free Park In Colorado?

The sign pictured above claims that there is a "chemical-free park" in Durango, Colorado.  Durango is a beautiful place, but unless this park is a hologram, it is made of chemicals.  In fact what makes the Durango area so beautiful are the chemicals that make up the mountains, rivers, trees and flowers.  Even the nice smell from the pine trees comes from terpenes.  A chemical.

Maybe the makers of the sign meant "synthetic chemical free," but the paint on the sign and any plastic parts of the baby strollers or running shoes that come to the park would be among the many synthetic chemicals there.

More likely what the sign meant to say is that there are no chemical pesticides used in the maintenance of the grass etc.  However, if this park has specimens of the beautiful Colorado state flower, the columbine, it definitely has a toxic pesticide.  Like many plants, columbines make their own insecticidal chemicals and in this case it is also reasonably toxic to people.
Look, don't eat!

Does This Matter?  Yes, Because Of The Natural=Good Delusion

The absurd "chemical free" claim for this park is a good example of the irrational but common belief that whatever is natural is "good" and whatever is "synthetic" is bad.  Let's call it the "natural=good delusion."  Reality doesn't work that way. The natural world is full of extremely toxic chemicals.  There are a great many synthetic chemicals that are perfectly safe. There is no automatic advantage to natural or disadvantage to synthetic.

Perhaps because we in the modern "civilized" world are so removed from natural settings, we don't tend to think about how many dangerous chemicals occur in the natural world.  Think about bee, wasp, spider or snake venoms.  These are natural chemicals that can sicken or kill you rather quickly.  I've had a personal, extremely unpleasant experience with a natural chemical that a sting ray injected into my foot at our local beach.  There are a number of mycotoxins which certain fungi can produce in our food supply.  We rarely hear about them because, fortunately, our food system does a great job of keeping them out. But in parts of Africa and Asia they are a leading cause of death - particularly from aflatoxin which causes liver cancer.

I could go on and on listing dangerous chemicals in nature, but I think the more important point is this.  Our naive assumption that natural=good is actually dangerous.  I'll give three examples.

The Natural Supplement Trade Vs Fruits and Vegetables

While it is certainly true that some natural chemicals can be beneficial to our health, we have a huge, growing and severely under-regulated industry selling "nutritional supplements" and "natural remedies."  Consumers in the US, the EU and Japan now spend a tremendous amount of money each year on supplements which frequently have no legitimate efficacy data or safety testing.  Most are probably safe enough.  Some may actually do something, but a great many are probably a just a waste of money.  The danger enters when people use a natural remedy instead of some much better documented alternative. A dramatic case would be Apple founder Steve Jobs' choice to use "natural and alternative methods" to treat his cancer rather than something offered by mainstream medicine.  Sadly, he died.

A disturbing and much more common phenomenon is that while Americans spend more and more money on natural supplements and remedies, they are not eating more fruits and vegetables, often citing cost as a barrier. There is extensive, high-quality science supporting a multitude of health benefits from eating produce, and all manner of health experts have been encouraging us to eat more of it for decades.  For instance one meta-study resulted in an estimate of 20,000 fewer cancer cases if 1/2 of the US population increased fruit and vegetable consumption by one serving a day.  We also now have an amazing array of high quality produce options available in our stores. And yet, as the most recent data from the CDC confirms, produce consumption trends remain flat.  It also shows that a huge proportion of Americans are still eating far less fruits and vegetables than they should.

So why don't Americans eat more produce? After all it is "natural!"  Some of this is probably cultural or driven by the convenience/lack of time in busy lives. Unfortunately, part of it may be that there are so many voices out there telling people to fear the synthetic pesticide residues on fruits and vegetables.  While there is excellent documentation every year from the USDA that pesticide residues on food represent no significant risk, certain, highly irresponsible voices and a credulous press promulgate the opposite message. Add to that the anti-GMO voices whose favorite meme is a huge hypodermic needle filled with suspicious looking colored liquid being injected into something like a ripe tomato. What a great way to encourage people to eat healthy fruits and vegetables!  (Um, by the way, the process of genetic engineering a plant involves absolutely nothing even close to that image, and most fruits and vegetables will never be GMO anyway)

The Offshoring of Organic

The Organic super-brand is both a promulgator and beneficiary of the natural=good delusion.  Organic food is not generally dangerous, but it does have a somewhat higher risk of food-borne illness because of its use of "natural" fertilizers based on animal poop (recent examples: peanut butter, eggs, leafy greens, bean sprouts) . People have died because of the enhanced risk, but fortunately not very many.

well, I guess hepatitis is natural...

The most important danger associated with organic comes with the increasing sourcing of organic ingredients from outside of the western hemisphere.  We just experienced that personally in my family.  At a recent party my wife was served some punch made with an organic frozen berry mix purchased at Costco which turned out to be contaminated with hepatitis-A.  Even though it was produced by a reputable Oregon berry growing company, for this product they used pomegranate arls imported from Turkey.  There is no good reason to be importing pomegranates when neighboring California is a major producer of that fruit.  The only reason was to get an organic version.  Perhaps the California organic pomegranates were too expensive.  Thus, because this berry company and Costco pandered to the organic, "natural" leanings of some of their customers, they put my wife and many other consumers at a completely unnecessary risk.  I'm not being anti-Turkish here, it is just that California producers and processors have serious HACCP systems in place to prevent things like transmission of HEP-A from workers to consumers, something that seems not to have been the case on some Turkish, organic farm or processor.  Costco is one of my favorite places to shop and they do many very good things with their produce buying, but they are playing with fire with organics.  My wife got a HEP-A vaccination yesterday, so hopefully she will be fine, but this was a case where the idea that natural=good was led companies down a bad path.

Organic food manufacturers are also increasingly importing foods like grains, fruit juice concentrates and frozen items from China (also milk products).  Even Organic Consumers Union and the Cornucopia Institute doubt the veracity of the organic claims from such a source, but consumers who believe natural=good are buying these foods in great quantities.   Again, in the pursuit of organic "naturalness" these companies are going to a source country that has polluted water and air, heavy metal contaminated soils, and frequent cases of mycotoxin contamination (peanuts and cooking oil, . Yet products with these imported ingredients are abundant in your friendly neighborhood "natural food store."  Once again, our natural=good delusion can be dangerous.

Russian Roulette with Raw Milk 

Believing that some magic essence of naturalness is lost when milk is heated enough to kill dangerous bacteria, raw milk enthusiasts are incurring entirely unnecessary health risks.  If it were just for themselves it would be one thing, but they are also often putting their children at risk.  Louis Pasteur must be rolling over in his grave!  Actually, for Louis' sake I hope there is no way that the dead know when their life saving contributions to humanity are discarded.


So, the natural=good delusion is both false and dangerous.  It contributes to poor eating habits.  It leads to wasted purchases or dangerous avoidance of medical advancements. It leads to increased imports of foods with higher than necessary risks.  It encourages some people to put their families at risk.

I love to visit Colorado, my native state (third generation!).  Since high school I've developed a problem with altitude, but if I take a synthetic drug called acetazolamide that slightly shifts my blood pH, my hemoglobin can bind enough oxygen to allow me to hike around at 12,000 feet with no problems.  The next time I go, I think I will go to that park in Durango and do a little graffiti.  I'll put a "NOT!" sticker on the "Chemical Free Park" sign.  Then I'll just enjoy looking at and smelling the chemicals!

Columbine image from curt

You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me at  I tweet @grapedoc.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Rogue Wheat Now Found In 127 Countries!

Rogue wheat is growing in wheat fields in 127 countries around the world! Should consumers be concerned?

Ok, I'm indulging in a poor imitation of the emotive language common in sensational writings about food issues. What I said in the paragraph above is all true, it's just misleading because of a lack of context. After the "crisis" of glyphosate tolerant wheat being found in an Oregon field, I thought it would be useful to put that event into perspective.  So...

Wheat 1.0

Wheat is largely a "saved seed crop," meaning that farmers set aside some of the grain from each harvest to use as seed the next year.  This is a practical thing for these growers to do because planting rates of wheat seed are very high (e.g. 80 or more lbs/acre) so it would be very expensive to haul bags or bins of seed very far.  Also, except for a little bit in Europe, wheat is not a hybrid crop, like corn, so it is not necessary to buy new seed each year to get the highest yielding types.  If a farmer plants the wheat from last year's crop, he/she will get the same kind of wheat in the new harvest... well, mostly.  Wheat is not pollinated by insects, but rather by wind, so pollen can blow in from another field where the variety might be different.  This is something like a 1% issue.  The wheat can get mixed over time because of little amounts left in combines or grain wagons.  Also, weed seeds can build up over time - that is definitely rogue genetics!  Over time, if only saved seed is used, the field will represent a mix of genetics.

The Genes My Friend Are Blowin' In The Wind

This "genetic drift" is problematic for wheat producers, because unlike some other major crops, there are extremely important quality differences between types of wheat. These differences are related to genetics, and the price a farmer can get for the crop often depends on being able to achieve certain standards.  There are specialists within the field of food science called "Cereal Chemists" who measure all sorts of properties of wheat to characterize lots of wheat/flour so that bakers and others can get the results they desire. (When I first heard the term cereal chemist I thought they were saying "serial chemist:" e.g. someone who keeps committing chemistry!)

Wheat is Not Just Wheat

Wheat is definitely not just one commodity.  There are very different wheats that have been bred over the centuries for very different purposes.  The major categories of wheat are "Hard" or "Soft," "Red" or "White," "Winter" or "Summer," and "Normal" vs "Durum."  So for baking an artisan bread or making pizza crust where "dough strength" is important you want a "Hard Red Spring Wheat."  If you want to make Asian soft noodles you want a "Soft White Spring Wheat."  If you want to make pasta, you want "Spring Durum Wheat."

The various types of wheat achieve their best quality in different geographic/climatic regions, but even within a region and a type of wheat, there are differences in quality based on the variety and the weather in a given growing season.  If you are a wheat farmer growing for any of those (or many other) specific markets, you have to be concerned about the purity of the genetics of the wheat in your field.  If you plant a high quality variety for a specific use, you can only replant with saved seed for a few years before genetic and/or variety drift - "rogue genetics" if you will - renders your crop of too poor quality for your market.

How The Wheat Industry Manages This Issue

This issue of genetics has been a very long-term challenge for wheat growers.  Long ago, the industry set up a system to deal with it.  Crop Improvement Associations were established in each state to oversee the careful production of specific varieties with enough isolation from other fields of wheat and with inspection to insure that the resulting "certified seed" is genetically pure enough.  In fact, there is a specialized verb, roguing, which refers to eliminating the genetic off-types in a seed field.  This is just part of how real seed production is done.

Certain farmers in every geography specialize in growing this seed, and they then sell it to their neighbors with a small premium above commodity grain prices to pay for the effort and the testing.  Because of this system, wheat growers can deliver wheat with specific quality requirements in spite of the unavoidable genetic drift in their fields.  If the quality requirements are super exacting (e.g. those who grow the varieties for Wheaties and other branded, specialty wheat products), it is often grown under a contract which requires that new certified seed is used for every planting.  Unlike corn and soy where the harvest is typically commingled in one big, efficient "river" of grain, for wheat, lot-by-lot "identity preservation" is common. Reliably delivering specific types of wheat to different customers is completely feasible.

The 2002 Intimidation of the North American Wheat Industry Didn't Have To Go Down Like That

As I've described in a previous post, GMO wheat was on the verge of commercialization around 2002 when European and Japanese buyers threatened to boycott all North American wheat if any commercial GMO wheat was planted. Threatened with the loss of lucrative markets, the US and Canadian growers reluctantly asked Syngenta and Monsanto to halt their commercialization plans.  What is sad is that standard certified seed and identity preservation mechanisms could have been employed to allow North American wheat growers to both enjoy the benefits of plant biotechnology and still meet the non-GMO demands of some of their customers.  All that would have been needed was a rational threshold for "adventitious presence" of tiny amounts of other genetics - something that is already commonplace for "rogue" genetics of other types.  When European millers buy Hard Red Spring Wheat from Canada or North Dakota, there are defined standards for how much of something else could be present because of carry-over from bins or harvesting equipment, etc.  In the grain industry it is not normal to have a zero tolerance - that just isn't practical.  The same should have been the case for non-GMO wheat.

The current "rogue GMO wheat" debacle in the Pacific North West never needed to happen.  All the regulatory approvals were on track to be granted and sizable field trials had been conducted.  Efforts were certainly made to prevent any gene flow from the tests to other wheat, but it would not have been some disaster if it had happened.  Again, the system was in place to manage that genetic issue just like every other one in this complex crop. Instead, the entire process was derailed setting things up for this "crisis" in Oregon today.  It will only be a crisis if the Asian customers respond irrationally.  Unfortunately, this is what they seem to be doing.

So yes, there is "rogue wheat" in fields in 127 countries.  Using time-tested protocols we can still have wheat that is genetically pure enough to make all the delicious foods we make from different kinds of wheat.  What happened in Oregon need not disrupt that if the customers will allow the industry to deal with it the way they deal with all genetic drift issues.

You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me at
#GMOReason #wheat    @grapedoc

Photo of "Palouse Wheat Field Sunrise" from the Charles Knowles Gallery

I can't resist putting some data in a post, so here is a graph of world wheat planting based on FAOSTATS