Monday, June 7, 2021

Looking Back at 50 Years of EPA Regulation

The EPA ( Enivironmental Protection Agency) is has beeen functioning now for half a century. It was established in 1970 during the term of president Richard Nixon. I think it would be appropriate to look back at the history leading up to the formation of the agency and also to think about how much has been accomplished in cleaning up our cities, towns, farms, and natural areas.  I think it is sort of ironic that the EPA rarely gets credit for how much better things are today.  It reminds me of the line often spoken by the comedian Rodney Dangerfield: "I don't get no respect!"  The EPA gets criticism from both liberals and conservatives.  Those on the Left tend to think the agency is too lax with its regulation, while those on the Right tend complain about over-regulation. Perhaps this is a sign that the EPA is actually doing its job and is not swayed that much by politics. From my experience as an observer of EPA regulation of agricultural technologies, the agency does a pretty respectable job of going with the Science even when that makes some people unhappy.  I would contrast this with regulation of agriculture in the EU where politics regularly trumps Science with regard to their regulations.
Chemistry is a relatively young science having only gotten started in the mid to 19th century. As the field advanced in the first 4-5 decades of the 20th century it began to help solve many challenges and it came to be highly regarded.  German scientists Fritz Haber and Karl Bosch found a way to make nitrogen fertilizer in the mid 2020s using the nitrogen that makes up 78% of our atmosphere and this enabled farmers to keep up with population growth.  The DuPont Company had a corporate slogan, "Better Living Through Chemistry."  

Remember the line in The Graduate when the main character  is given the career advice that the best post-college option was to get into  "Plastics."

What drove this was the discovery in the 1950s and 1960s that some of the seemingly useful new chemicals that people had learned to make were leading to unanticipated but seriously negative consequences for the environment and human health.

It turned out that when commercial or municipal waste was burned or when fuels like wood, coal and oil were combusted, some very persistent and poisonous chemicals called Dioxins were being formed and accumulating in the environment. The current EPA website describes the history of these chemicals. come from.  One source is burning things.  Dioxins are formed as a result of combustion processes such as waste incineration. Citizens were beginning to hear about this issue but what probably grabbed the most public attention was when the badly polluted Coyahoga river in Ohio actually caught on fire because of flammable chemicals that were being released there by certain industries.

So, Dioxins and burning rivers were factors that convinced many people that the chemical industry had to somehow be restrained and prevented from causing these problems.  

These were not the only issues that emerged. In 1939, a new synthetic insecticidal chemical called DDT was invented by a Swiss Chemist named Paul Hermann Muller. This new pest control agent was seen as a great advance because it could be used control the vectoring insects like mosquitos, Chagas bugs and bedbugs that spread deadly infectious human diseases like malaria, sleeping sickness and smallpox.  It is thought that DDT saved more than 21 million lives and was used in both developed and developing regions. In 1948 Muller received the Nobel Prize for Biology. In these cases, DDT seemed like a very positive tool because of the human health benefits.  It was also sprayed on forests to deal with insects like the Western Spruce Budworm.

So, Dioxins and burning rivers were factors that convinced many people that the chemical industry had to somehow be restrained and prevented from causing these problems.  

These were not the only issues that emerged. In 1939, a new synthetic insecticidal chemical called DDT was invented by a Swiss Chemist named Paul Hermann Muller. This new pest control agent was seen as a great advance because it could be used control the vectoring insects like mosquitos, Chagas bugs and bedbugs that spread deadly infectious human diseases like malaria, sleeping sickness and smallpox.  It is thought that DDT saved more than 21 million lives and was used in both developed and developing regions. In 1948 Muller received the Nobel Prize for Biology. In these cases, DDT seemed like a very positive tool because of the human health benefits.  It was also sprayed on forests to deal with insects like the Western Spruce Budworm.

DDT was also used for crop protection and helped farmers to reduce the crop damage caused by many insect pests. In doing so it also reduced the threat of contamination by deadly mycotoxins produced by those fungi 

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

The European Union's Wine Grape Quandary

The European Union has recently published a lengthy "Farm to Fork Strategy" which sets out ambitious goals for its agricultural sector. One part of the agenda is to reduce the use of pesticides either by restricting the way they can be used or in many cases by not authorizing their continued use when those particular chemicals come up for periodic review by regulators. Often these restrictions are at odds with the rigorous safety assessments that have been made by many regulatory bodies around the world including the US EPA. Another part of the agenda is to encourage the expansion of Organic farming. There are several reasons why this plan will cause serious complications for European farmers, and since the EU is a major importer of food, feed and fiber crops, the restrictions that it applies to various grape pesticides will also be a problem for farmers around the world who export their crops to the EU market.


Many crops will be affected by this agenda, but one interesting case-study is what this push will mean for the prominent and highly regarded wine grape industry in the EU.  Wine grapes only represent around 3% of EU farmland, but around 20% of total EU pesticide use. There are several reasons for this relatively intensive use of crop protection products.  For one thing wine grapes are a very high value crop so growers can afford to use more products to optimize the yield and quality of their fruit. But there are also important historical and genetic reasons why certain pests represent a particular challenge for the European grape industry. 


With most crops, breeding is an important strategy to help with pest problems, notably when that involves tapping into the genetic diversity available in various wild relatives of the cultivated crop. With wine grapes the breeding option has essentially been "off-the-table" because of the long tradition which has identified very specific Old World grape varieties of the species Vitis vinifera which have been found to provide the highest quality for the weather and soil conditions of each growing region or "appellation." The long-term history and tradition of growing specific grape cultivars in each region is often called "terroir" and this is not anything the industry wants to change because it needs to meet consumer expectations and marketing narratives about wine quality.


Interestingly in the 1870s there was a dramatic change to the genetics of European grapes.  A root feeding insect called Phylloxera was inadvertently transported to Europe from North America. The various wild species of grapes that evolved alongside Phylloxera are fairly resistant to the damage from that specific insect pest. (The most familiar example of this kind of grape is a species called Vitis labrusca which consumers know as Concord Grapes because that is the kind of grape used to make non-alcoholic grapes juices such as the famous brand - Welches). The native American grapes are not considered to be that good for making high quality wines, but some hybrids between the two species are grown for wine in the Northern US in areas that are too cold for Vitis vinifera.  The Vitis vinifera grapes of Europe evolved without the challenge from Phylloxera so once the pest crossed the Atlantic the vineyards were highly susceptible to its damage and began a steep decline.  The only way the industry was able to be saved was by grafting the vinifera cultivars onto "American Rootstocks."  Grafting is a horticultural technique that has been practiced for centuries, but it was only with great reluctance that the European growers took that step. 

A grafted grapevine, image from Washington State University Extension

Around the world today virtually all wine grapes are grown on these "American" rootstocks because they can provide protection from soil-borne pests while allowing the traditional varieties to achieve the desired fruit qualities that made them so desirable. Rootstocks are used for almost all perennial crops and also for high value vegetable crops like fresh market tomatoes.


There are also two serious foliar diseases that also made the jump from North America to Europe in the 1800s. The first was a disease called Powdery Mildew and it causes loss of yield and quality as it grows on the exterior of the leaves and fruit.  Vitis vinifera is highly susceptible to this disease.

Grape Powdery Mildew infection of a developing grape cluster. Photo by Laura Jones/Univ. California, Davis

The solution that was found is probably the oldest known pesticide, elemental Sulfur.  This "natural" mineral product was found to control the disease but only if the grapes were "dusted" with something like 10 pounds/acre of sulfur every 7 to 10 days for much of the season until the fruit begins to ripen (a stage called veraison in grape-speak).  Sulfur is not very toxic to eat or drink, but it is an eye and skin irritant that can make it quite unpleasant to work in a vineyard. There is also some evidence that as with other dusts, sulfur can increase the risk of asthma among the children who live near the places were dust products are applied. California has recently restricted the use of sulfur and other dusts near populated areas. "Wettable" forms of sulfur can still be used without the respiratory problem and that is still a part of integrated pest management systems for grapes.  However; most modern grape growers use sulfur more sparingly because newer and more effective "synthetic fungicides" have been developed which require far smaller doses at longer intervals and which are in the EPA toxicity class IV described as "essentially non-toxic" by ingestion. I remember a time in 1978 during my second season being out in California vineyards for my graduate research that I was amazed to smell a beautiful floral aroma during the grape bloom period - something I had not experienced the season before. It was because I was in a block treated with the first example of these new fungicide options instead of the normal odiferous and irritating sulfur. I have a podcast about that event.  Grape growers who choose to grow for the organic market are not allowed to use these more modern tools and must therefore depend on high use-rate options like sulfur and something called "petroleum distillates" (think mineral oil for the later).  Thus, this is just one example of how the EU Field to Fork strategy embodies conflicting goals if it wants to reduce pesticide use and the push for more organic production.

Grape Downy Mildew sporulating on the bottom of a leaf. Photo by Mark Longstroth, Michigan State Univ. Extension

There was another "intruder" fungus pest that originated on North American grapes and then caused even more severe problems for the European industry in the 1870s.  It is called downy mildew.  The solution that was ultimately found to this disaster was another very early pesticide. It was discovered by a French botanist named Pierre Millarday who noticed a particular vineyard along a roadside that stood out by exhibiting much less damage from the new disease. He learned that the grower had applied copper sulfate combined with lime as a way to make the fruit look unappealing so that people passing by would stop helping themselves to his grapes (you can see an image of this blue coating in this article in Wine Spectator).  


That "natural" pesticide became known as the Bordeaux mix and it saved the grape industry.  It was also a much-needed solution for a related disease on potatoes that had cause the famous Irish Potato Famine in the same era.  Various copper-based products do work against these pests and many are approved for use in organic production, but unfortunately they are quite toxic to aquatic organisms and are persistent in the environment since the mineral copper is copper and it isn't going to break down to innocuous components the way that many other natural or synthetic chemicals do over time. After years of use, copper fungicides build up in vineyard soils and can become toxic to grape roots. Many European organic growers have had to abandon their organic status because of these soil issues.  Copper fungicides also require high use-rates (4-6 pounds/acre) and frequent applications because the copper is easily washed off by rain. 


Once again, many low toxicity, highly effective and environmentally safe synthetic fungicides that have been developed to fight downy mildew, but those options are not allowed to be used by Organic growers. European regulators are not fans of these copper fungicides, but their politicians have made exemptions for their own grape growers while at the same time setting up barriers to more benign products that have met rigorous standards in other countries.  


Organic growers also have limited options for the control of mold fungi that can infect the grapes as they become ripe. That sort of "bunch rot" is very bad for wine quality, but a disease that is well addressed with safe, modern synthetic fungicides while organic growers still depend on things like copper. Chemical herbicides are also desirable for grape production so that there isn't a need for erosion-causing mechanical plowing to take care of weeds in the vine rows. Tillage is still the main option for Organic growers. So, in all these cases the EU's pesticides and organic goals are in conflict with one another when it comes to that iconic industry


As mentioned earlier, there are several wild grape species that are more resistant to powdery and downy mildew. Theoretically traditional breeding methods could be used to transfer some of those genes. Conventional breeding of grapes is possible but slow, and it has been used to develop things like seedless table grapes with new colors and flavors.  Some new wine grape varieties with disease resistance from wild grapes have been developed by breeders working for the University of California, and they were repeatedly "back-crossed" so that the final result was a variety with 95% vinifera genes. But because of tradition and some remaining wine quality questions, almost all the wine grapes of that state and other grape growing regions around the world are still the traditional European varieties.


With modern genetic technologies it is now possible to work with only one or a few genes from the wild grape species that confer pest resistance and do so without any effect on the thousands of other genes in the storied cultivars. This sort of precision is now much more feasible because of the genome editing technologies that are generating excitement for many applications in both medicine and agriculture.  But the EU as a whole has been very resistant to accepting "GMOs" methods even though their own scientists have long argued that such changes do not represent any greater risk to public health or the environment than do traditional means of breeding. Scientists at Rutgers University and with the USDA are working now on using this approach to get downy mildew resistance into Chardonnay. 


There is some hope in the scientific community that European activists and political authorities will take the logical step of saying that they can consider these modern genome editing technologies differently from how they responded to first generation genetic engineering methods. There is at least a promising mention of such technologies in the EU's Farm to Fork Strategy


"In response to the request of Member States, the Commission is carrying out a study which will look at the potential of new genomic techniques to improve sustainability along the food supply chain."


Some are even optimistic that traditionally anti-GMO groups will make a distinction for the new methods. Ideally the EU might take reasonable approach of combing state of the art genetics with the sort of low hazard synthetic chemical options that would still be important in order to avoid selecting for fungal resistance to traits a grower would need to last for decades in a new vineyard planting.  That would also relieve the wine industries in other countries from having to cater to EU trade barriers in the choices they make about how to produce their crops.


Europeans are not likely to abandon their taste for wine and they don't have to in order to pursue their legitimate goals.  Organic isn't the solution here.  Instead what is needed is respect for the science and more effective communication of the actual safety story behind modern agriculture.  There is an excellent explanation written by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) that describes how robust the approval system is for safe pesticide standards, and this is confirmed by academic experts as well. But all too often in Europe, politics trumps science. Let's hope we might someday raise a toast to a more constructive and science-driven solution to the EU's grape quandary.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

I Voted Today: How and Why

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My Legitimate Mail-In Ballot

Last Sunday I filled out my California mail-in ballot, signed it and put it in an old school mailbox as a symbolic gesture of my trust in the Postal Service. It felt good to exercise my right to vote even though it would be all too easy to be discouraged or cynical about the fact that as a Californian my vote does not count as much as those from some other states because of our flawed and outdated Electoral College system. At least I can have a more significant voice in “down ticket” races and the 12 state ballot measures put before us this year.

As for the presidential race I voted for Joe Biden and Kamila Harris for several specific reasons. Stated briefly these include:

· My Orientation as a Political Moderate

· My Conviction About the Importance of the Separation of Church and State

· Caring About the Integrity of Our Leaders

· The Economy, Taxes, Trade etc.

· International Issues

· The Need to Rationalize our Health Care System

· A Rational Response to the Covid-19 Pandemic, and

· My hope to see our Country Make a Meaningful Response to the Threat of Climate Change

My Orientation as a Political Moderate

I find myself both in agreement or disagreement with both major parties depending on the issue. I don’t often have the opportunity to support a candidate who is a true moderate willing to rise above partisanship. I believe that the nature of our primary system is to blame for this issue along with the irresponsibility of many voters who fail to engage during that voting option. I was relieved this year when Joe Biden was able to overcome this barrier and defeat his more liberal competitors. I think that our current president’s efforts to demonize Biden and Harris as representatives of the “Radical Far Left” is not only inaccurate, it is irresponsible and intentionally divisive at a time when that is the last thing we need is to fan the flames of distrust in government. Mr. Trumps rhetoric about “widespread voter fraud with mail-in ballots” and his implicit encouragement of a violent response to his likely defeat are deeply disturbing. I just hope that cooler heads will prevail and that we will really find out what the American people want from this election.

My Conviction About the Importance of the Separation of Church and State

I believe that one thing our founders “got right” was to establish the first nation without a state sponsored religion. The idea for that goes back to early movements and groups like the Waldensians, Anabaptists and Mennonites. It was the Pilgrims who first implemented that kind of separation among some of the American colonies. As a person of faith, I do believe that political power was “instituted by God” as part of “Common Grace” for the benefit of society, but I also take very seriously the words of Jesus when He said, “my kingdom is not of this world.” That is why I don’t look to our political system to be the driver for true “Kingdom” goals — something that far too many of my fellow Christians seem to desire. I don’t believe that we or anyone can legislate morality and that our efforts to play a positive role in society should be more of the “salt and light” variety, not the power of any government.

Caring About the Integrity of Our Leaders

I definitely do hope that we can elect leaders with a strong moral compass since we want them to strive for fairness, decency and mercy and to do so with honesty and integrity — a non-trivial aspiration in the messy world of politics. I feel good about Biden and Harris in this regard and it certainly does not hurt that they are people of faith. I had the opportunity to meet Biden in person in the 1980s when I lived in Delaware and he was running for senate and was coming to small local gatherings (one upside to living in the “49th largest state”). I had a very positive feeling about him back then and I’ve not seen any reason to believe otherwise since then. I think the fact that he has had to go through so many personal crises over the years has given him a kind of humility that also ends up being of value in the political realm. Now many of the terms I have just been using (decency, mercy, honesty, integrity, humility…) don’t in my mind describe Donald Trump. My place isn’t to judge anyone in this regard, I’m just saying that for someone who claims to be a Christian I don’t really see much in the way of “fruits of the spirit” that Jesus or the Apostle Paul told us would be the sign of true believers. “Just sayin…”

The Economy, Taxes, Trade etc.

One of the pro-Trump assumptions before the 2016 election was that as a “successful businessman” he would know how to foster a strong economy. The last 4 years have certainly not confirmed that narrative. According to a rare warning from the chairman of the “FED” we are on the verge of a financial crisis which will further strain the lives of millions of Americans. Part of that is about the pandemic, but there is more to the story. We really need a more rational and fair tax system that does not just favor the rich as has been the case with Trump’s agenda and the legislature’s failure to fix anything. Someone who has the lawyers and accountants to work the system and only owe $750 per year if anything does not understand how the rest of us feel. Then when it comes to trade wars our president said that they were “easy to win” as he initiated several. We are now looking at a record trade deficit with China and US farmers have been seriously hurt — something I care about a lot since I work in agriculture. Maybe globalism ended up hurting the people who work in our manufacturing sector, but Trump really has not delivered for the agricultural or industrial worker parts of his “base.” I don’t expect any magic solutions from a Biden presidency, but it would be unlikely that it could be worse than what we have been seeing.

International Issues

The world is facing extremely serious problems like the humanitarian and refugee crises stemming from the repression that continues in corrupt Central and South American countries as well as in Africa. Middle Eastern conflicts are seemingly never done, and we have been uncharacteristically absent from the diplomatic sphere about that. Our current president has been alienating our long-term allies while being bizarrely “soft” on dictators in places like Turkey, Russia, North Korea and Belarus. No, we don’t want to be the world’s “policeman” or continue endless wars, but we need to be serious and creative about these conflicts. We need to have an active strategy to deal with mass migrations and refugees as people around the world flee oppression and hunger. Back to my Christian convictions, these victims deserve love, not imprisonment, family separation or other forms of demeaning treatment. Can a Biden presidency easily resolve these complex problems? No, but we clearly need to pursue new and different approaches.

The Need to Rationalize our Health Care System

Having reached retirement age I am now taking advantage of the “socialized medicine” that is Medicare and the “government funded income” that is Social Security. That kind of “socialism” has long been a benefit enjoyed by a major part of Mr. Trump’s base among older people. Before I was able to access those benefits, I was for many years in the unfortunate position of being self-employed with “pre-existing conditions” so that I had to buy my own insurance at ridiculous cost. Once my kids had their own insurance, I simply went without for several years and was blessed to have been healthy (I guess I got by with any violation of the “individual mandate” that is so controversial). What we need is a hybrid system where people can either get good job-based insurance if they are so lucky or be able to buy private insurance that does not charge outrageously different amounts for different people. We should ably probably also have access to some sort of “public option.” I believe that is the sort of hybrid approach is what Biden and Harris would support, but we also need a congress that will actually do something on this topic with the goal of solving this problem, not using it for political mileage. President Trump promised a “repeal and replace” approach vs “Obama Care,” but that has never emerged over four years nor has the Republican party put forward such a measure. Again, its hard to imagine any administration doing a poorer job on this key issue.

A Rational Response to the Covid-19 Pandemic

There isn’t any specific government to blame for the Covid-19 Pandemic, but as we look around the world lots of countries have done a much better job of dealing with it than we have. Part of what makes this disease unusually challenging is that it is an RNA-virus rather than the more typical DNA-viruses that people and animals usually have. (Incidentally most plant viruses are of the RNA category and as a “plant pathologist” I can’t resist pointing that out) There is some serious irony about the way that President Trump has “dealt with” the pandemic, and how he and many in his inner circle have contracted this nasty new disease. Countries like Singapore, Taiwan and even China have been able to get much better control of the disease through simple common-sense measures like wearing masks in public and social distancing. I find it appalling that so many people in the US and in the EU have not followed these simple guidelines that would not only have reduced their own risk, but which would have kept them from infecting others. I’m sorry, but wearing a mask is not some sort of freedom-denying ask. Its the practical and ethical thing to do. Unfortunately having a president who doesn’t see it that way has made things in our country much worse than they had to be. Then, when the president got the disease, he had access to treatments that are not yet available to most people. The irony is that the new anti-viral drug remdesivir that he received came out a cooperative research program between the pharmaceutical company, Gidead and the CDC and NIH that began during the Obama era. It is most effective when given very early in the infection as it was for Trump, but there are limited supplies so they are rationed to those with severe symptoms. The development of the drug and it’s large scale production was slowed because of Trump’s funding cuts to those agencies and the reorganization of the White House Pandemic Office. This is just one of the ways in which the Trump administration has mishandled the pandemic. That drug and the mono-clonal antibody therapy Trump received are probably not going to be available to most people for some time and both were developed using stem cell cultures from and aborted fetus back in the 1970s. Opponents of this kind of stem cell research today conveniently ignore this conflict with their agenda. Ultimately we need a good vaccine for this disease, but the long-time success of the anti-vax activists in scaring people away may mean that we don’t get enough people treated to actually get this disease under control. What we need from our highest public officials is an approachable and accurate presentation of the underlying medical science. We have not seen something like that from the administration on many topics which leads me to my final reason for my presidential vote for change.

My hope to see our Country Make a Meaningful Response to the Threats of Climate Change

Finally, I want to talk about how my vote involves my concerns about how our country will or will not take a more aggressive role with regard to finding ways to address the issue of climate change. As an agricultural scientist I am fully respectful of the consensus among climate scientists that this is a nearly unprecedented threat and that human activities play a role in why it is happening. I am most aware of the implications for farming as overall crop productivity is being compromised by extreme weather events and even by more subtle climate shifts. As it turns out, slightly warmer nights reduce crop yields because the plants are more active in terms of their metabolism and thus burn up more of the energy they captured from the sun the day before. Even moderate drought stress which has become more common lowers yields. I believe that there are things that can be done in ag and in many other industry sectors that simultaneously help to ameliorate climate change, and which are good for the economy. When farmers employ technologies that allow them to grow their crops without tilling their fields they are an important part of the solution to reducing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere by sequestering that carbon in that undisturbed soil. There are now novel ways to use sunlight to generate hydrogen for use as a fuel alternative and/or to do that by converting the hydrogen to ammonia as a less dangerous option that retains the same benefits. The cost of solar panels is coming down, and that along with wind power innovations are both profitable businesses and positive steps vs climate change. Biden and Harris are committing to support job creating climate change alternatives and hopefully for not getting in the way of private industry and academic innovation that will enhance these efforts. President Trump on the other hand regularly denies the science around climate change and supports unsustainable energy policies. My hope is that the younger generations who know they will have to live with our actions or inactions will support the democratic candidates who at least aspire to finding viable solutions to this threat.


So, have voted as a way to make whatever difference I can through our electoral system. As small as that role maybe it is the best I can do as one person. If I can encourage others to consider these reasons and vote, then maybe I can raise the needle a bit. If you have read through this all, thank you for your time and your consideration.

Monday, August 24, 2020

My comments to the USDA about de-regulation of a transgenic, disease resistant line of American Chestnut

File:PSM V84 D565 American chestnut mitchel county.jpg

The kind of tree that was once abundant in the US (Wikimedia commons)

For years, public sector scientists have been working on a remedy for the disease-related near extinction of the American Chestnut which was once the dominant large tree in the forests of the Apalacian mountains.  I've heard updates about this over the years at "biotech bootcamp" events and I admire the patience and resolve that they have demonstrated in this ambitious effort.  Here is what I wrote to the agency:

Submitted Sunday 8/23 tracking # 1k4-9ijy-kaf2


I am writing in support of the petition for deregulated status for a transgenic American Chestnut event which has been submitted by the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. This submission is the culmination of a long-term effort to develop a means by which this key forest species could be restored to its historical role in the forest ecosystems of Eastern North America -  a role that has been seriously compromised since the accidental introduction of a fungus which is a deadly pathogen of Chestnuts.  Although it will certainly take a long time to re-establish such a long-lived species, this strategy is the best hope we have of  achieving that very desirable environmental outcome.


My graduate training was in the field of plant pathology at UC Davis in the late 1970s and early 80s, so I can appreciate the challenge of counteracting this disease of this in natural forest settings. Since that time, I have also had the opportunity to closely follow progress in the science of plant biotechnology in both academic and commercial research.  The decades of experience that now exist concerning the safe and beneficial applications of transgenic technology in global agriculture demonstrate that broad deployment of this advance in a forestry setting is also something that can proceed without any undesirable or unmanageable outcomes.  Indeed, as other commenters have noted, reestablishment of this species could be expected to contribute significantly to carbon sequestration and thus help to address climate change. (see This sort of solution also needs to be considered for other cases where introduced exotic pests compromise the health of our forests ( see


It is significant that this project has been carried out by non-commercial entities simply focused on environmental goals. As an indicator of that, the event in question ("Darling 58") was never patented. The plan has always been to make that and related lines available for free for backcrossing into lines from multiple public Chestnut breeding and restoration efforts.  Many of the other comments that have been submitted to APHIS about this petition are from those researchers who are awaiting the opportunity to be involved in those next steps.


The gene that was chosen for insertion into chestnuts is for the very commonly occurring enzyme Oxalate Oxidase or "OxO."  It has always been a part of the plant genome and the human diet so there are no anticipated problems if it is expressed in reintroduced trees. The enzyme is not fungicidal itself but rather detoxifies a chemical that the fungus produces to weaken the Chestnut tree's defense mechanisms.  That kind of trait is less likely to select for resistance, something that is very important since re-establishment will be a long-term project. It is also logical that the trait will be backcrossed into many Chestnut lines to insure sufficient genetic diversity since this species will face the need for adaptation to climate change and other challenges.


In the absence of negative outcomes from decades of plant biotechnology, the main objection to projects such as this tends to be based on the "precautionary principle" - the idea that there is no proof that nothing undesirable could ever occur.  As such, that objection fails to consider the consequences on not employing the technology.   In this case inaction would mean that important forest ecosystems will continue to lack the natural "keystone species" which is so important for the wildlife to thrive as it once did in these areas.  The objection to human intervention in a natural system is also flawed in that human activity has already occurred with the introduction of that destructive pest.  Indeed, it makes sense to employ the best solutions available to us as humans who strive to be good stewards of our environment. The deregulation of this transgenic event by APHIS is an excellent next step towards that goal.


Thursday, October 31, 2019

Anything Scary About California's Produce Options This Halloween?

California Food Safety Check

Each year the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (CalDPR) collects produce samples from multiple steps between the farmers and consumers. They recently released their results for 2018.  They tested a total of 3,666 samples of 140 different crops grown in California, other US states and items that were imported from 25 different countries.  For each sample they analyzed for 400 different pesticides or their known breakdown products.  This is also part of an enforcement program so it is great that they are still so transparent with their findings.

As with previous surveys, the results document the fact that the growers who produce our food are following the EPA label requirements that are designed to insure that by the time it gets to consumers is quite safe.  That safety standard is based on national standards set by the EPA.  For 78% of the crops there we either no detectable residues or residues below the legal limits. Few of the remaining examples were at all problematic

Particularly for the US grown samples, excessive concentrations were very rare.  There were some residues of chemicals found which are not technically supposed to be used on that crop, and as in the past most of these “no established tolerance” cases were on the imported items.  

The residue issues varied quite a bit by source. Those from different parts of the US were similar, but those from China, Mexico and Central America had more cases of "no tolerance." Perhaps the best profile was for crops imported from South America.

301 of the items were being sold as “Organic.”  The rule for organic set by the USDA is that no detected residues should exceed 5% of the EPA tolerance .  In 2018 only 55.4% of detections from organic sample met that standard so they should not have been able to be sold as "USDA Organic Certified."  Imported organic residues over 5% of the tolerance made up 66.7%  of detections which is very similar to that same measure for domestic conventional produce.  55.4% of the detections on imported conventional crops would not have disqualified them if someone was trying to sell them as organic.  Below is the list of specific pesticide residues that were found on organic samples.   


Those who think they are buying something safer by spending more for organic might want to rethink that logic. Only the 16 spinosad detections represent something allowed for use on organic, and organic still has the legacy of residual DDT metabolites like DDE.

While CalDPR made it very clear that this report was good news, they called out seven commodities for which they though the residues could be a legitimate health concern. These are Dragon Fruit (Vietnam), Chayote (Mexico), Lychee (China), Cactus Pear (Mexico), Star Apple (Vietnam)m and Tomatillo (Mexico).  They also added Star Apple from Vietnam  and Guaje from Mexico because of products found there for which there is no set tolerance.

Once again this is evidence that our food supply is safe and also incredibly diverse. This testing program is different from the USDA’s Pesticide Data Program (PDP) in that it includes a number of more exotic items. However it also includes many more mainstream fruits and vegetables and among those there were no above-tolerance detections. But in both cases the take-away is that we should enjoy our fruit and vegetable options and consume them as part of a healthy lifestyle.


Monday, October 7, 2019

Don’t buy organic food if you want to seriously address climate change

As we approach the 2020s, many consumers have accepted the marketing/activist narrative that organic farming would be the best option for food safety and to mitigate the most damaging effects of climate change. The inconvenient truth is that organic farming is a terrible option from a climate change perspective. Its dependence on manures and compost involves huge, but rarely recognized, greenhouse gas emissions in the form of very potent methane and nitrous oxide.
But perhaps its biggest climate change issue is that organic farms are mostly less productive per unit area than “conventionally” farmed land. With rising food demand driven mostly by rising standards of living in the developing world, there is a need to boost farm production, and that means the very undesirable conversion of forests or grasslands to agriculture in places like Brazil. That leads to major carbon dioxide release from what had been sequestered carbon in the soils, and also the loss of biodiversity and other environmental services provided by those natural lands.
Background on “organic” farming
The organic farming movement started in the late 1800s and early 1900s in response to issues that had arisen in plough-based agriculture, which had converted most of the prairie land in the American Midwest to farmland through the process of sod-busting.
Spurred by the Homestead Act, Americans moved to the Midwest to claim their 640 acres of government land give-away. Most used the new polished steel plow made by the John Deere company to turn what was once a diverse grassland ecosystem into what became one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world. However, the way that these farmers needed to control weeds and make the land suitable for planting was to mechanically disturb the soil, and that lead to the death of many soil organisms and the breakdown of the organic matter that they had made using the energy supplied by the plants that grew there.
Over time, as the soil was degraded by this tillage, it became less fertile, less able to capture and store rainfall and less productive. The common solution was often to move on to “virgin” land and do the same thing to the biome there.
The true innovation of the early organic movement was the realization that for a soil to remain productive over time, the organic matter content of the soil had to be replenished after each crop harvest. The movement’s solution was to import large quantities of organic matter from other sites in the form of the manure or composted manure from the animals fed on those other agricultural acres. This worked, but it was never, nor is it now, a viable solution for US or global agriculture.
Even so, starting with the Rhodale Institute’s publication of “Organic Gardening” magazine in the 1960s and the eventual establishment of a commercial organic industry in the 1970s, the mostly non-farmer consumers in US society were told the story that organic farming was the best way to both feed us and protect the environment.
In 1990, the USDA (US Department of Agriculture) was charged by Congress with establishing a national organic standard to supersede the fragmented certification systems that had evolved to that time. It was a major struggle because the very science-oriented USDA was at odds with the early organic marketers who had focused entirely on the narrative that what is “natural” is always best. The marketers finally prevailed. When the national organic standards were issued in 2002, they were not based on science but rather on the naturalistic fallacy.
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2016 US Crops By Class

So here is the big picture. The only crop category for which organic yields were higher than the 2016 US average was for forage crops for feeding animals. To have produced all of the US agricultural output from 2016 as organic would have required more than 100 million more acres to have been farmed—an area greater than that of the entire state of California, the third largest US state. That amount of new land suitable for farming clearly does not exist in the US, and so that shortfall would induce more conversion of forest and grassland into farming in places like Brazil, leading to major releases of previously sequestered carbon in those soils

US Forage Crops 2016

There were higher yields for organic Hay and Haylage for animal feed in 2016, but for other animal feed crops, the organic yield was quite a bit lower. 17.1 million acres of alfalfa is grown for hay, mainly to feed dairy cattle. 1.71% of that land is in Certified Organic acres. Most of that land is much less productive.

Plant-based protein in an important component of the human and animal diet, but only relatively minor crops like pinto beans and Austrian Winter beans had higher yields as organic crops in the 2016 season. Nearly 2 million additional acres would have been needed to produce these crops as “Only Organic.” This is in spite of the fact that these crops require much less nitrogen fertilization, because they have an association with soil bacteria that fix atmospheric nitrogen for them in trade for energy.

Corn, soybeans and sorghum grown for grain accounted for 50% of all US crop acres in 2016. These crops provide most of the feed and biofuel for the US, as well as many major food ingredients. To have produced these crops as organic would have required 77 million acres to be farmed, something that would drive major land use conversion in places like Brazil and the associated climate and biodiversity impacts of that change.

Small grains are a major part of the human diet. With the exception of the relatively small crop rye, these plants do not yield very well in organic systems. To have supplied the domestic and important global market for these grains as organic would have required 33 million more planted acres, an area comparable to the entire state of Arkansas. Since many of these crops have quality issues associated with where they are grown, there really aren’t places in the US or the rest of the world where this could happen.

The only vegetable crop for which organic yields were higher was sweet potato. Organic represents 4.9% of total vegetable acreage in the US – much more than the overall 0.5% for all crops. Since many vegetable crops do best in specific climatic zones, that significant current organic footprint probably serves to raise overall prices for consumers, even if they do not purchase organic. When that issue is added to the fear of pesticide residues on vegetables driven by the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen List,” this only contributes to the missed health advantages of vegetables in the diets of many consumers.
To have produced all the 2016 US grown vegetables as organic would have required 1.75 million more acres to be grown—something clearly not possible.

Tree nuts are considered to be a very healthy component of the diet, and may even reduce overeating that causes obesity because they make consumers feel full. These crops only flourish in certain climates, so there is no possibility that they could all be raised as organic. That transition would require 1.5 million more acres to be dedicated to those crops.

Organic yields of small fruits are often much lower than the national average. This is particularly true for strawberries, cranberries and wild blueberries. The one exception is tame blueberries, mostly in Washington state. To have produced all of this healthy fruit as organic would have required 238,000 more acres, which simply do not exist in areas with a suitable climate. In the case of strawberries, if the 11.6% of that valuable coastal land had been grown conventionally, there would have been 194 million pounds more strawberries available to consumers, probably at a lower price.

Organic makes up 2.61% of the land used to grow tree fruit and grapes. To produce all the fruit as organic would require a half million more acres of land. The organic vs. conventional citrus crop data is complicated by whether the crops are grown in California or Florida, where a devastating invasive bacterial disease has dramatically reduced yields. The best hopes for the future of the California industry depend on mostly non-organic pest control solutions.

Organic Tobacco constitutes 3.1% of the total acreage of this cancer-causing crop. Hops production, which is a booming industry these days for craft beer brewing, is 1.3% organic. Sunflower, which is the most significant crop on this list, is planted on 2.7 million US acres, and an additional 1.1 million acres would be required to produce it as organic.
Most cotton production has shifted to India and other places in Asia and Africa, because it is one of the very few crops grown in those regions with big grower benefits of insect resistance and herbicide tolerance. Still, there are 9.5 million US acres grown and it would take another 1.5 million acres to produce this important fiber crop as organic.
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So the good news is that organic remains a tiny part of US agriculture. The not so good news is that for key healthy fruit and vegetable crops, these antiquated farming methods are enough of a factor to raise the prices for even those who don’t buy organic.
Eliminating organic agriculture would not be nearly enough to help with climate change mitigation, but some alternative marketing category that would reward growers who practice the best kind of climate-friendly farming, those who utilize no-till methods and cover crops for instance, could make a real contribution. As consumers, our most climate-responsible buying behavior should be to reject organic and its false narratives.
Steve Savage is a plant pathologist and senior contributor to the GLP. Follow him on Twitter @grapedocHis Pop Agriculture podcast is available for listening or subscription on iTunes and Google Podcasts.
This article has been adapted from a presentation given by Steve Savage titled Care About Climate Change. Don’t Buy Organic and has been reproduced here with permission.
The GLP featured this article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis. The viewpoint is the author’s own. The GLP’s goal is to stimulate constructive discourse on challenging science issues.