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Friday, October 30, 2015

Taking On the Merchants of Food Fear


New book available 10/29 from Amazon, BarnesandNoble.com, and independent book stores


(This post originally appeared on Forbes 10/29/15)
Fear has always been an effective tool for exercising influence in society, but the internet age has enabled fear-based marketing to move to a whole new level.  This is particularly true when it comes to generating fears about food as a means to sell alternatives, supplements and various magical offerings (woo).  One of the most successful and egregious examples of this phenomenon is Vani Hari, the self proclaimed “Food Babe.”  There is a new book coming out on Thursday the 29th  titled “The Fear Babe.” The book executes a thorough take-down of Hari’s claims, methods and business model.  The content is well described by the sub-title: “Shattering Vani Hari's Glass House."

Vani Hari has a degree in computer science and once worked for a large consulting firm.  She has no background in nutrition, toxicology, medicine, or agronomy, but has no qualms about pontificating on almost any issue or about giving advice for how people should protect themselves from what she paints as an sinister, unregulated and callous industry.  She created a website and enlisted her own “Food Babe Army” to supposedly protect society from the evils of the food industry.  She has been successful at times in bullying major food companies to make changes in their offerings, not based on real issues but on the angst she has been able to generate.  Of course along the way she promotes a range of diet supplements and other magical offerings to net a nice profit.  Hari is not alone in this “create fear - sell newsletters and magical stuff” sector, which also includes Dr. MercolaThe Health RangerDr. Oz and others.
 One of the biggest challenges for the authors of the “The Fear Babe” is how to address the staggering list of topics about which Ms. Hari has generated disinformation: vaccines, microwaves, yoga mat components, GMOs, food colorings, sugar, Stevia, Silly Putty, pesticides, preservatives….. to name only a few.  The book is over 400 pages long because that is what it took - not only to address the technical issues, but also to document the emotive strategies and logical fallacies that Hari so deftly employs.  The book also includes examples of the push-back that these authors and others have given as the flood of Food Babe distortions emerged (Twitter and comment threads, blog postings…).

A public domain picture of Hari


The primary authors of “Fear Babe” are active players in the realm of science communication and myth busting.  They are not in any way employees or “shills” of the system, just people who are outraged by seeing people manipulated.  You can feel that in their writing.  Marc Draco was a veteran member of Banned by Food Babe and started the site, "Food Babe in Black and White" which compiled memes about Hari prior to organizing this book effort.  Mark Alsip writes the blog Bad Science Debunked.   Kavin Senapathy is a co-founder of “March Against Myths” who blogs on multiple sites and her own loyal following known as the “Senapath Crew.” The Preface to the book is written by veteran science communicator Kevin Folta of the University of Florida.  Several other experts contribute throughout the book as well.

This book will probably never be read by those that have bought-in to the Food Babe’s conspiratorial view of the food system. But it can serve as a useful reference for those who have the opportunity to defuse some of the specific fears they see worrying their friends and families. It is well indexed and referenced, and so it can serve as a valuable resource for anyone who plays a role of rational skeptic in the internet age.

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

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Productivity Of Organic Farming In The US: Mind The Gap


This warning from the London "Tube" could apply to organic farming
(This post originally appeared on Forbes 10/9/15)
The productivity of organic farming is typically lower than that of comparable “conventional” farms. This difference is sometimes debated, but a recent USDA survey of organic agriculture demonstrates that commercial organic in the U.S. has a significant yield gap.

I compared 2014 survey data from organic growers with overall agricultural yield statistics for that year on a crop by crop, state by state basis.  The picture that emerges is clear - organic yields are mostly lower. To have raised all U.S. crops as organic in 2014 would have required farming of one hundred nine million more acres of land. That is an area equivalent to all the parkland and wildland areas in the lower 48 states or 1.8 times as much as all the urban land in the nation. As of 2014 the reported acreage of organic cropland only represented 0.44% of the total, but if organic were to expand significantly, its lower land-use-efficiency would become problematic.  This is one of several reasons to question the assertion that organic farming is better for the environment.
The USDA conducted a detailed survey of organics in 2008 and then again in 2014. Information is collected about the number of farms, the acres of crops harvested, the production from those acres, and the value of what is sold.  The USDA also collects similar data every year for agriculture in general and makes it very accessible via Quick Stats.  It is interesting that they don’t publish any comparisons of these two data sets as they would be able to make comparisons on a county basis. By working with both USDA data resources I was able to find 370 good comparisons of organic and total data for the same crop in the same state and where the organic represented at least 20 acres.  That comparison set covers 80% of US crop acreage.



For 292 of those comparisons, the organic yields were lower (84% on an area basis).  There were 55 comparisons where organic yield was higher, but 89% of the higher yielding organic examples involved hay and silage crops rather than food crops. The organic yield gap is predominant for row crops, fruit crops and vegetables as can be seen in the graphs below.

The reasons for the gap vary with crop and geography.  In some cases the issue is the ability to meet periods of peak nutrient demand using only organic sources.  The issue can be competition from weeds because herbicides are generally lacking for organic.  In some cases its reflects higher yield loss to diseases and insects. Although organic farmers definitely use pesticides, the restriction to natural options can leave crops vulnerable to damage.
I’ve posted a much more detailed summary of this information on SCRIBD with the data at the state level.





There is some potential for artifacts within this data set.  If the proportion of irrigated and non-irrigated land differs between organic and conventional that would skew the data.  With lettuce and spinach it is likely that the organic is proportionally more in the “baby” category making yields appear dramatically lower.  But overall this window on farming is useful for understanding the current state of commercial organic production.  Since the supply of prime farmland is finite, and water is in short supply in places like California, resource-use-efficiency is an issue even at the current scale of organic (1.5 million cropland acres, 3.6 million including pasture and rangeland).

You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me at savage.sd@gmail.com. I'd be happy to share a data file with interested parties and to get feedback about where particular yield comparisons might be misleading.
A more detailed presentation is available at https://www.scribd.com/doc/283996769/The-Yield-Gap-For-Organic-Farming


Friday, October 9, 2015

What Is Given Up When EU Countries Opt-out Of GMO? And For Whom?

A deadline passed on Oct. 3 for countries in the EU to opt out of future "GMO Crop" planting approvals. This "opt out" arrangement was a compromise designed to also allow some other EU countries to move ahead with GM approvals - something that has been extremely difficult to do through any united EU regulatory process.  There is a possibility that farmers in these countries may finally be allowed to use 20-year-old technology that is widely adopted around the world.  On the other side of the coin, there are 19 countries have indicated that they wanted to eschew this technology indefinitely (Austria, Belgium (Wallonia), Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, The Netherlands, Poland, Solvenia, the UK - Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales). The scientific community in the EU is appalled by the way that politics trumps science, but their voice has had little effect.  It is worthwhile to consider what these anti-GMO countries are not giving up, what they are giving up, and who it is that will be affected by the decision.

What Isn't Being Given Up


Few if any farmers in the "opt out" countries will have to give up their prior use of biotech crops. They have never had that opportunity, so this changes nothing in terms of existing practice. Also, since this only pertains to crops grown in the EU, it won't likely change the fact that the region has been importing massive amounts of "GM" animal feed crops from countries that allow biotech traits. Countries in the EU often present themselves as net exporters of food, but that is only true in terms of net income.  Many EU countries import animal feed and then export meat, dairy and other higher value products. That part of their economy is very dependent on imports, and these current changes are in no way a move towards food supply self sufficiency in the region.
The EU consumers in these 19 countries are not giving up their own comfort.  These relatively rich countries will probably never feel any food security ramifications from this opt-out.  If their own farmers can't supply something they demand, it can always be imported, and their buying power will exceed that of other import dependent societies around the world when supplies are tight.

So overall, the vast majority of people in these 19 countries who don't farm are not giving up anything through this politically-driven decision to opt out of one particular method of plant genetic modification.  However that is not the case for everyone.

What Is Being Given Up In the 16 Opt-Out Countries- Options for Farmers

The farmers in the 19 opt-out countries do not have "GMO" crop options today, but there are potential biotech traits that would be very helpful for them in the future - a future that will be limited by this opt-out decision. (see specific examples below.) Because only a tiny minority of citizens in the developed world still farm, farmers lack political clout.

Foreground shows potatoes not treated for Late Blight, fungicide treated potatoes in the back. Image by D. Inglis

Potatoes are a major crop in many of these countries, and EU-based technology groups like the Sainsbury Lab have logically used biotechnology to move disease resistance genes from wild, Andean potatoes, into commercially relevant European potato cultivars. That is extraordinarily difficult to do through "conventional breeding" because potatoes don't normally reproduce through seed. The biotech potatoes are resistant to the disease which caused the Irish Potato Famine and which requires extensive fungicide treatment today. The potato growers in the 16 countries are being told that they must give up that option. Olives are an important, ancient, and culturally important crop in some of the opt-out countries, particularly Italy.  That venerable crop has only recently begun to face a threat from an exotic, introduced disease.  A "GMO" option might be one of the best hopes for olive farmers, but they are being told that their fellow citizens have decided to deny them that potential solution.  Many of the 19 countries have important wine industries.  They, like all wine grape growers, are growing the traditional grape cultivars that have hundreds of years of reputation.  Biotechnology is an extremely logical way to move some disease resistance genes from other wild grape species around the world.  That won't happen.  The opt-out countries are definitely giving up things that would benefit their minority farmer citizens, but when politics trumps science for regulation, the farming community will always be the loser.

The Ramifications Of These Opt-Outs Beyond Europe's Borders

If this was simply about some relatively rich countries that represent only a small fraction of global population and had negative ramifications for only their farming community, it would be one thing.  Unfortunately, throughout the history of "GMO Crops," the decisions of EU countries have had widespread ramifications in developing countries where billions of much poorer people live.  In his book, Starved for Science published in 2008, Robert Paarlberg documented how the mostly EU-based "rich world" precautionary approach to biotech crops was projected on Africa in particular, and developing nations in general. Some countries in Africa, such as Kenya are seeking to break through this blockage, but these are the exceptions. Certain environmental NGOs have made anti-GMO campaigning central to their activities in the developing world and have put tremendous effort into opposition to "GMO" options.  They have opposed insect resistant Bt-Brinjal which would be an alternative to repeated insecticide treatments, typically applied hand and even by children.

From blogger Joan Conrow who interviewed farmers in India. "“I am waiting for the Bt brinjal. We cannot continue this crop with so much spraying. After two, three days, my skin is itching and I feel nausea. Sometimes I feel like maybe I am going to die.”

They have prevented the introduction of Golden Rice which could prevent vitamin A deficiencies that often cause blindness and death in some poor regions today. They have opposed the introduction of disease resistant bananas in parts of Africa where bananas are an important part of the food supply that is threatened by a new pathogen.   This "opt-out" phenomenon in parts of the EU is likely to reinforce the role of rich world influence on policy decisions in countries where food security is a far more pressing issue.

So this round of opt-outs changes nothing in terms of current farming practice and has no real cost to the citizens in these countries who are driving the decision.  It does; however, have real costs for others.  It will deny many EU farmers potentially valuable options in the future, particularly as the science of genetic engineering advances.  It will foster continued "green imperialism" which is the export of Europe's extreme precaution to parts of the world where food scarcity is real and where farmers could greatly benefit from biotechnology.  This is frustrating considering that crop biotechnology was introduced with great care and regulatory preparation.  The technology has an excellent track record of safety as well as economic and environmental benefits.  I guess what we have learned is that there is no statute-of-limitations on saying "the sky is falling."

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