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Friday, May 29, 2015

Why Is The USDA Getting Involved In A 15th Method Of Food Labeling?


(This post originally appeared on Forbes, 5/28/15)
A couple of weeks ago I was deeply disappointed to read that the USDA might get involved in an aspect of “non-GMO food labeling.”  The marketing of non-GMO food is an opportunistic, fear-based phenomenon – not something worthy of aid from a science-oriented agency like USDA.  Also, if the goal is to allow consumers “know more about their food,” then why not transmit knowledge with context and perspective that would diminish, rather than promote, superstition? Printing was state-of-the-art in 1435.  We can do better in the 21st century!

Superstition?

It may seem extreme for me to declare that the fear of GMO foods is a superstition, but consider the history of this phenomenon.  For two decades, the opponents of crop genetic engineering have promoted the idea that transgenics, a particular means of genetic modification, is something sinister and frightening.  Their arguments are typically accompanied by emotive images such as hypodermic needles full of colored liquids protruding from ripe fruits and vegetables.  Such images bear absolutely no connection to the actual process of plant genetic engineering.
Examples of what crops looked like before humans began the process of genetically modifying them
(From Genetic Literacy Project)


These websites don’t communicate the fact that virtually all crops have been “genetically modified” in many ways for centuries and that transgenics have been the most carefully introduced and independently tested of all.
Although all of the major scientific bodies around the world have affirmed the safety of “GMO crops,” the fear-based messaging has worked. This has created an up-selling opportunity in the food industry, and that kind of marketing is well served by the two word message, “non-GMO.”  The seller can tap in on all the emotive, doubt-sowing efforts to date without any potential confusion that would be created by knowing the full story.  It’s effectively a “right to not know.”

Wikipedia example of a scan code
In an era of scan codes and smart devices, a curious consumer could have all the resources they need in an interactive, multi-media form.  They could ask: “What are the ingredients in this food?”  “Where has it been sourced and why?”  “What is known about the safety of the ingredients and the food as a whole?”  “What does the nutrition labeling information on the back mean?”  “What kind of farms and farmers were involved in the production of this food?”  “Why do farmers choose to use certain agricultural technologies?”  Consumers could “know” a great deal.


A Suggested Role For USDA

The drawback with this is that as with all information available today, it is very hard for the consumer to sort out what is true.  Here is where a public agency with extensive expertise in the practice and science of agriculture could play an appropriate role.  They could be an independent “third party” that could vet the information offered via 21st century methods.  To do so would require more resources for the USDA because their workers are already engaged in other important work.  As consumers, we would be better served by a modest increase in USDA funding via our taxes than by spending billions on “GMO-free” food marketed based on superstition. If you have not heard it in a while listen to Stevie Wonder’s classic song, “Superstition” , particularly the repeated lyric:
“When you believe in things that you don’t understand, then you suffer... superstition ain’t the way.”
Now imagine the lyric,

"When you're afraid of things you don't understand, and you pay more... superstition ain't the way."
Wikipedia image of Stevie Wonder from 1973 - Lyric slightly modified

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

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Pests In Paradise

Our adventure started here after an 8-mile hike to Snowmass Lake near Aspen, Colorado
(originally posted on Forbes, 5/11/15

I learned something very important about crop pests in a most unexpected setting – a paradise-like wilderness area in the Colorado Rockies.  It was the summer of 1978 and I had gotten married the year before. This was my first chance to share a favorite place, the Snowmass/Maroon Bells Wilderness Area, with my wife.  We backpacked into Snowmass Lake and day-hiked to high passes through huge meadows filled with beautiful wildflowers.  However, on this trip, I noticed details I had never observed on earlier visits as a suburb-dwelling teen.  With “new eyes” from my first year of agricultural training, I saw that many of the plants showed signs of insect feeding damage or gall formation.  They exhibited symptoms of fungal infection – such as rusts and leafspots.  There were pests in this paradise! And they were host specific – not interlopers carried in on the boots of visitors like us.
View from Buckskin Pass
Thinking about it, I realized that this wasn’t really surprising.  Plants have the unique “super power” of turning sunlight, water and carbon dioxide into the food that directly or indirectly feeds everything else – including us.  It makes perfect sense that insects and fungi have evolved to “harvest” that energy, in even this pristine ecosystem.  I then realized that what we call “pests” are simply part of the natural order.  Thus, it is to be expected that we often have to find ways to deal with “pests” of cultivated crops.  The need for pest control isn’t an artifact of human farming. Practical farming needs may complicate pest control, but the basic phenomenon of pests is entirely “natural.”


On one hand, we might say that a “pest” is simply a human concept for cases where this natural phenomenon interferes with our agenda.  However, it seems that plants “agree” with our assessment that these damaging, dependent organisms are pesty. Plants are obvious targets, but they don’t just take it.  I once heard a presentation about the genetics of a particular alpine wildflower that grows in exactly the same kind of meadows we were visiting in 1978. This species has genetic “factions” employing two different strategies to deal with insects that want to eat it.  One is to put energy into rapid growth and seed production, so that even with bug damage, the species survives.  The other strategy is making chemicals to protect the plant from the bugs, leaving less energy for seed production.  Depending on the season, one strategy or the other is more successful.
Chemical defense is common among plants.  In some cases we have come to like the pesticidal chemicals they make. The caffeine in coffee and the capsaicin in hot peppers were “intended” by those plants to ward off “pests.”  Many vegetables we enjoy, such as tomatoes, eggplants and cauliflower, still make some of a not-so-nice “natural insecticide” called nicotine.  But don’t worry. You would have to eat an enormous amount to be hurt by the nicotine, caffeine or capsaicin.
So since pests are part of the natural order, and since plants fight back with their own “pesticides,” human use of pesticides makes sense as part of a pest management strategy for the plants we tend.  That is particularly true now that we have developed many products that are quite specific for certain pests, and very low risk for us or for the environment. Pesticides are also necessary tools for those farming under the organic rules.  Synthetic pesticide residues are present at even less consequential levels in our produce than plant-made chemicals.
A slightly modified quote from the Princess Bride (modified from https://www.pinterest.com/lemai13/the-princess-bride/)

If you have the chance, I encourage you to visit those Colorado wildflower meadows.  They are beautiful, and unless you look for it, you probably won’t notice the battle between plants and pests that is going on in the background.  The wildflowers survive, even with the damage.  The season is also short, so there are not many generations of the pests. We humans require a higher standard of pest protection for our crops. To make the most responsible use of our land, water, fuel or other inputs, we cannot tolerate too much pest damage or the crop is diminished.  Besides, as even my grand daughter realizes, pests are yucky!  

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



Friday, May 8, 2015

Does Science Belong On Your Dinner Plate?


(Originally published on Forbes 5/5/15

I was recently asked to give a talk in Toronto addressing this question: “Does science belong on my plate?” The quick answer is:

“No, because Science isn’t a “thing” you can serve or eat. Science is really a verb - a process, a method, a conversation.”

A longer, better answer is:

“There is a rich history of innovation and change in the human food supply extending over millennia. More recent innovation examples that have been achieved using sound science are a continuation of that tradition. They certainly belong on our plates.”

Many consumers have the impression that, until recently, food and food production was something little changed. This mistaken view is understandable considering modern society’s isolation from the production of food, and marketers’ penchant for using romanticized imagery and narratives to sell food products.

This is a great bread product, but that image has nothing to do with how the wheat for that is produced today.


The truth is that innovation and change have been central to food and farming throughout human history - both before and during the scientific era. One of my goals as a new Forbes contributor will be to tell some of the stories behind interesting and important innovations that have changed what is “on our plates” in very positive ways.

Feast or Famine

From the beginning, a fundamental challenge for humanity has been that sources of food tend to be either over-abundant or scarce. Thus, innovations around food storage and preservation have been key to our survival (e.g. drying, salting, pickling, cheese making, fermentation…). Even the ancient storage of dry grains involved innovations like using herbs to line the urns to reduce damage from insect pests.
Cold storage has been used to spread-out the supply of food beginning with caves or cellars. Later people used stored ice from the winter, and eventually came up with refrigeration. Susanne Freidberg’s excellent book, Fresh, describes just how transformative and controversial the innovation of mechanical refrigeration was as it was slowly adopted around the turn of the 20th century.

Genetics

Another major theme of human food-supply innovation has been “genetic modification.” The “natural,” pre-domesticated forms of our food plants are barely recognizable vs their modern forms. Over millennia, humans consciously or unconsciously selected for more desirable specimens, and in so doing, they achieved dramatic genetic changes even with no understanding of the underlying biology. While this worked well for grains and vegetables, a few thousand years ago people realized that you cannot propagate a desirable specimen of a tree or vine by replanting its seeds, because they don’t grow up to be the same as the parent. So, people innovated various ways to “clone” these desirable cultivars – rooting, grafting, budding etc. A “transgenic” innovation of that category saved the European grape industry in the 1870s when it was on the verge of collapse due to a deadly new pest. The innovated solution was to use American grape species as the protective rootstock on which to graft venerable varieties of the traditional species, Vitis vinifera. That system still protects virtually all of the world’s grapes today.
This cool vineyard I saw in Sicily a few weeks ago survives because it is on American rootstock

In the last century, increasing scientific understanding has enabled continued innovation to enhance the food supply in terms of quality and availability. By better understanding plant physiology, innovative controlled atmosphere storage systems were developed that have greatly enhanced our access to fresh fruits throughout the year. Similar packaging and shipping innovations have reduced post-harvest waste and expanded value-added, “fresh cut” options for consumers. Science-based advances in chemistry, biology, and toxicology have enabled innovative new methods of crop pest management with far better health and environmental profiles. Rapidly advancing understanding of genetics has enabled a growing and increasingly precise “tool box” for crop innovation (cross breeding, hybridization, wide crosses, mutation breedinggenetic engineeringmarker assisted selectiongenome editing).
The long tradition of food and agricultural innovation continues, enhanced by the application of the scientific method.  So, yes – “science” in that form certainly belongs on our plates.  I'm happy to talk about this in the comments here and/or at savage.sd@gmail.com