Thursday, December 15, 2011

24 Long-Term Feeding Studies Reviewed By European Scientists Support GMO Safety

An argument frequently made by the opponents of plant genetic engineering is that there have been no long-term, independent studies about the safety of GMO (genetically modified organisms) crops.  Actually, there has been quite a lot of research on that question and it supports the safety of the technology.  A major new review on the question of long-term feeding effects of GMO crops is about to be published.  It was written by a group of seven European scientists from the public sector, and will appear in the Journal: Food and Chemical Toxicology.   The authors examined a large body of peer reviewed, scientific studies on the topic and identified 12 long-term feeding studies (longer than the typical 90 days and up to two years) and 12 multigenerational studies (2 to 5 generations).  They reviewed all of these papers in detail and came to the following conclusion:

"Results from all the 24 studies do not suggest any health hazards and, in general, there were no statistically significant differences within parameters observed.  However, some small differences were observed, though these fell within the normal variation range of the considered parameter and thus had no biological or toxicological significance."

OK, this is "science-speak" for "we really didn't find anything to be concerned about."

Reasons To Take This Paper Seriously

  • The authors are independent academic and public sector scientists
  • The studies they reviewed are all by independent, publicly funded, academic groups
  • The studies looked at many different crops (maize, rice, soybeans, triticale, potato)
  • The studies included both commercial and purely academic GMO examples (insect resistance, herbicide tolerance, pollen protein expression - a non-commercial example)
  • Many different animal models were included (rodents, cows, goats, salmon, macaques, chickens, quails, sheep)
  • The various researchers examined scores of biological parameters looking for any negative effects
  • This review has been conducted by highly qualified scientists and their paper was also peer reviewed
  • The paper addresses an important question, but in doing so it adds to many other European-based findings supporting the safety of GMO crops and foods
So even though one can never "prove a negative,"  this sort of extensive scholarship must be taken seriously. What has NOT been found means quite a bit.

The authors also provided a useful critique of these independent studies.  In many cases the GMO and non-GMO feeds were not from near isogenic lines, sometimes the event was unspecified, and in some cases the crops were grown under different conditions.  All of this can lead to differences that cannot be clearly attributed to whether the crop was GMO or not.  The downside of independent testing of this type is that potentially misleading results can emerge and cloud the discussion.

Why Does This Matter?

It matters because 16 years into the commercialization of GMO crops, controversy persists. To date, most of the commercial GMO crops are ones that are either used for animal feed or are the source of refined ingredients in human foods.  They have not, for the most part, been crops that people eat "whole." That barrier may need to be broken as one component of efforts to feed humanity over the next several decades. There are three immensely important food crops which are not now GMO on a commercial scale:  wheat, rice, and potatoes.  That may change in the next several years.

Potatoes were actually one of the very first commercial GMO crops but were unofficially sidelined by companies worried about consumer backlash. GMO potatoes may be getting a new look because scientists are working on a GMO trait for resistance to "late blight," the most serious disease and one which costs grows a great deal to control.  European farmers would benefit from such a trait even more than those in North America.
GMO wheat was blocked in North America early this century by European and Japanese wheat customers.  The wheat growers in the US, Canada, and Australia have agreed to pursue a simultaneous commercialization of GMO wheat so that they cannot be frustrated by a non-scientific barrier again.

Recently, China has begun pre-commercialization trials with an insect-protected GMO rice. GMO wheat, rice and potatoes will not feed the world - but they could contribute significantly to that effort.  The question of whether to commercialize these GMO versions of these crops is going to be on the table in the not too distant future.  Regulators, food companies and consumers are going to have to wrestle with the issue.  Careful studies like this one will help to make that a better informed discussion.

Wheat image by Dag Endresen
You are invited to comment here and/or to email me at

Friday, December 9, 2011

Food Price Spike Persisting

(This post originally appeared on Sustainablog on 12/9/11)
Yesterday the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) released it's monthly index of global food prices.  When the current price spike is compared with the one that occurred in 2007/8, the striking difference is the persistence of relatively high prices.  Rather than falling rapidly as in 2008, this "spike" is only showing a modest decline 23 months into the cycle (see chart above).  One UN economist is quoted as saying that prices are "stabilizing at high levels."  Back in October I thought it would take until January to know if this spike was actually different.  Now it seems clear that it is.

Cereal prices were down marginally (see chart above) and following a record harvest  there is hope that they will ease further in coming months.  Meat prices, which have risen far further in this spike than in the last, show no real sign of decline (see chart below)

The dairy index dropped slightly, but the index for fats and oils actually increased.
These prices are most relevant for nations which are largely dependent on food imports.  Unfortunately this month's report is not encouraging for the world's poor.

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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Who Owns America's Farmland?

(This post was originally posted on Sustainablog on 11/29/11)

Nationwide, farmers only own 60% of the land they farm.  In many of the most productive row cropping areas of the Midwest, the percent of farmer-owned land is significantly lower (see Map above from the USDA, 2007 Census of Agriculture).  Much of our farmland resource is owned by non-farmers and rented to those who actually farm.  Some of that rented land is owned by investors or real estate speculators, but most of it is actually still owned by the descendants of the families who used to farm it, often several generations back.  These are the families who have been part of the steady trend of urban migration for more than a century.

Why Does Farm Ownership Matter?

This ownership question is important  for several reasons.  US agriculture not only supplies our domestic needs for many crops, we are also among the major grain exporters.  Our farmers, and our farmland owners, play an important role in determining whether we will be able to supply the increasing, global demand for food.  Land ownership is also a key issue for agricultural sustainability.  The most sustainable row crop farming practices can actually "pay their own way," but they do so over time by building soil quality.  Those soil changes are at the heart of the environmental benefits, but they also increase the productive potential and yield stability of the land. Land rental rates are closely related to yield potential. Thus, the economic benefits of soil building are realized by the owner of the land. If growers don't own the land that they farm, or if they can't predict how long they will be the ones farming each given field, they can't rationally make the optimal, long-term investments in soil improvement.

Fading Connections

Earlier in the history of rural-to-urban migration, there were often were personal relationships between land owners and renters.  That allowed for more stable "land tenure" (the same grower might rent a field for many years).  But those connection have faded over generations.  In many cases today, the ownership is through a family trust for inheritance purposes.  The leasing arrangements are often handled by a farm management company that provides the service of making the connection and negotiating the lease terms. Land rental has become much more of a year-to-year arrangement.

Is Rental of Farmland A Good Or Bad Thing?

Rental is actually a practical arrangement for both sides.  The city-dwelling families get a steady stream of income.  The farmers are able to expand their operations without incurring the sort of debt risk that bankrupted many of them in the 1980s.  The problem is that most lease arrangements don't provide the mechanisms to favor a long-term, soil-building protocol.  Addressing this issue will be challenging, but first it is useful to look at what we know about the "farmland rental business" as a whole.

Farmland Rental Is A Significant Economic Activity

Every 5 years (2007, 2002, 1997...), the USDA conducts and publishes the "Census of Agriculture." This includes dozens of interesting statistics, including the number of farmland acres in each county that are rented.  Since 2008/9, the USDA-NASS has been tracking average land rents at the county level (before that such data was only available for certain states).  Combining these two data sets (see graph above), we see that farmland rental is a very substantial industry representing 217 million acres of land and combined rent payments of $14.7 billion/year.  Much of the land area (green bars, millions of acres) is rented for low prices, while there is another subset of the land in the $150 or more range (13% of the total area).  The value of the rented land (red line, millions of dollars) is concentrated in the higher rent land,  representing 1/3 of the total value, or $4.9 billion/year.  Not surprisingly, much of this high value land is in the heart of the "corn belt."

Land Rents Reflect Productive Potential

Land rents are actually a very good measure of the productive potential of a parcel of land.  In the graph above, the X axis gives the average per acre value of the major crops grown in each county in Illinois.  The Y axis is the county average rent, and there is obviously a strong relationship between the two.  The graph below plots the same sort of data for all the corn belt counties where corn, soybeans, wheat, and sorghum are the dominant crops.

Land Rent Is A Major Farming Expense

In the histogram below we see that average farm rents for the same "corn belt counties" generally represent 25-30% of the total gross crop income of that county.  Thus land rental is one of the largest single, year-to-year costs that a grower must pay.

Farmers effectively compete with each other for the better land, and so when crop commodity prices rise, rents rise as well.  The graph below shows how land rents have been rising in recent years as agricultural commodity prices have been increasing.

Sustainable Farming Could Increase Land Rent Potential If...

As I mentioned earlier, a several year investment in soil building practices can increase the yield on a given piece of land.  Beyond that, improved soils capture and store moisture more effectively so that the yield is better insulated from year-to-year variation in rainfall.  That issue is likely to become increasingly important with climate change.  The owners of farmland have the long-term financial incentive to find farmers who are willing and able to execute a soil-building strategy.  What this would take, however, would be a mechanism for the farmer to share in the "upside potential" of land improvement, and a mechanism for the landowner to help to carry the near term investment costs and risks associated with that farming change.  All of this is certainly possible, but it entails major challenges in terms of communications and legal/financial arrangements.  Land lease practices are only one of several structural barriers to more sustainable farming. Normal crop financing and crop insurance are also designed around year-to-year economics and a year-to-year mindset.
By definition, sustainable farming must involve a long-term perspective.  Many of the people who are in the key role of farmland ownership don't know much of anything about farming of any kind, let alone what constitutes the cutting edge of sustainability.  Therein lies both the challenge and the opportunity.

A more detailed analysis of this issue is posted on SCRIBD

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Thursday, October 20, 2011

A Survey Of The Graphics For The GMO Labeling Campaign

It is interesting to explore the pictures or graphics that accompany blogs, web pages and articles supporting the campaign for labeling of foods containing GMOs.  A great many of these images are seriously misleading.  This is ironic for a campaign that is spearheaded by a group called the "Truth In Labeling Coalition"

The Hypodermic Needle Theme
The most frequent theme in these graphics is that of a large hypodermic needle injecting a piece of fruit, a tomato, or some other produce item.  In an article about GMOs in "natural"  cereals, TG daily features an image with no less than 11 needles in five tomatoes.   Treehugger uses the same photo which is from Getty Images.  Organic life style also has a drawing of a tomato being injected. Eat Local has the image of someone in a lab coat injecting an apple. Grist features an "infographic" with a cluster of grapes being injected. uses the same image.

Why The Images Are Misleading

While clearly these images are effectively emotive, they are misleading in at least three ways.  First, The process of genetic engineering of plants does not involve a hypodermic needle in any way.  Second, the the process occurs at a single cell level, not with some massive amount of material being injected into a ready-to-eat food item. (A site called Ask Roger that sells herbal remedies sets the record here with an image of a huge hypodermic of purple liquid being injected into an orange). Finally, the foods most often pictured are not currently GMO crops, and most are unlikely ever to be genetically engineered for commercial production.

Non-GMO Crops Usually Pictured

The picturing of non-GMO crop examples is widespread.  Even the website for the Truth in Labeling Coalition itself has a side banner of food images which pictures several non-GMO crops.  The image on has a DNA gel in the background which is more relevant, but also pictures tomatoes.  There has not been a GMO tomato on the market for more than a decade.  The foods pictured on a site called Organic Its Worth pictures the non-GMO crops, radishes and lettuce.  Some sites actually picture crops that are actually genetically engineered on a commercial scale, but this is not that common.

Other Misleading Themes

The hypodermic is not the only example of a misleading graphic.  An "info-graphic" on Treehugger is typical of another common theme straight out of the old "what do you get if you cross a ... and a ..." jokes of childhood.   It pictures strawberry + fish = a sort of half strawberry fish.  That goes back to a long since abandoned effort to make a frost tolerant strawberry using an anti-freezing protein from a fish.  It was never commercial and in fact animal genes are not used in any current GMO crops.  Even if they were, they would not result in some strange chimera.  In an article titled, "Just Label It", actually leads with a picture of an actual GMO crop (field corn), but then follows with a depiction of  some strange orange squash with eyes and fangs. The Groundswell has an image of ears of corn, but one is a grenade.  A site interestingly called goes with the classic Frankenstein picture. goes with an image of a mock "Hungry Man Frozen Dinner" combining the Frankenstein combined with no less than three chimeras (a potato with eyes, a tomato with a fish tail and a broccoli/snail hybrid).  A link titled "Picture related to GMO" on features a bowl of strawberries, one of which is bright blue.

How Does Disinformation Fit With A Campaign About "Truth?"

The genre of emotive and largely misleading images to depict biotechnology is certainly not new, but it is problematic that it is being so widely used by those that support manditory labeling.  The labeling campaign is being positioned as a common sense argument about the need to give of consumers accurate information from which to make rational decisions.   If that is the goal, why do so many promoters of the idea employ misleading and emotional imagery?

GMO labeling may well need to be discussed, even 15 years into large scale use.  But such a discussion will only be helpful for consumers if it could be based on accurate information - and graphics.

p.s.  It is interesting that although these images are easily found by searching Google Images or Flickr, virtually none are available for free commercial use through something like Creative Commons.  Most of sites that use them make no reference to source with the one exception of Getty Images listed above.  

You are invited to comment here or to email me at  My website is Applied Mythology.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Food Price Spike Retreating Slowly

(This post originally appeared on Sustainablog on 10/7/11)
I have been posting updates on the most recent, global food price spike since February 2011 - most recently inJune.  Today the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) released its most recent data on the prices of food in international trade.  As seen in the graph above, the overall index and its various components have declined slightly, but remain at very high levels.

People living in the developed world have seen some food price increases, but because we grow so much of our own food and spend a small part of our income on feeding ourselves, the impact is minor.  This has the greatest effect on the lives of poor people in import-dependent countries.
What is actually most unsettling about this phenomenon is that nothing like it has occurred for decades, and yet we are in a second such spike.   The first was in 2007/8, and the current spike has been in 2010/11.  In this post I want to compare these two spikes.

The graph above compares the two spikes on a month-by-month basis beginning in January of the starting year.  What we see is a later and/or slower decline in prices.  The earlier spike showed a steep decline after 19 months, while in 2010 the decline is just beginning at 21 months.  That is for the aggregate "food index," but a similar broadening of the spike appears to be occurring for the cereals-specific index (see below).  Similar trends are seen with the dairy and oils indices.

The most dramatic difference between the 2007-8 and 2010-11 spikes is the path of the meat price index (see graph below).  Meat prices in international trade showed only a minor bump in the first spike, but were the most changed category in the current round.  The index did drop 3% from August to September which may represent an earlier reversal than in 2008.

It would be best not to over-interpret these trends, but also unwise to ignore them completely. We know that basic food demand is rising between population growth and an increased standard of living in many populous regions of the world.  We know that energy prices are high.  It will take the benefit of years of hindsight to know whether climate change has been contributing to these unusual price patterns.  If the current spike is like the last one, it should be largely corrected by the end of 2011.  For now, I plan to update this series in January of 2011 with three more months of data.

Data from FAO, graphs by Steve Savage
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Monday, August 22, 2011

Why Does Organic Seem Larger Than It Is?

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

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

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

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

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

Why Does Organic Seem Bigger? Marketing.

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

Why Does Organic Seem Bigger? The Price Premium.

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

Why Does Organic Seem Bigger? Contact With Organic Farms.

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

Why Does Organic Seem Bigger? Imports.

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

My website is Applied Mythology.  Please comment here and/or by emailing me at

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Some Thoughts About "Cred" and Don Huber

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

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

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

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

Back to Don Huber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

In Defense of Orange Juice

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

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

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

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

What About The Flavor Additives?

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

Why Remove the Oxygen?

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

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

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


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

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

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

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Monday, August 1, 2011

Genetic Contamination May Not Mean What You Think It Means

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crops Where Cross Pollination is A Management Issue

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

Crops Where Cross Pollination is Irrelevant

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

Genetic Contamination: An Intentionally Overplayed Issue?

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

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

You are welcome to comment here or to email me at  For links to my posts on various sites, see my website:  Applied Mythology

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

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Toxics: The Long Term, Low Dose Question

(This post first appeared on Sustainablog on 7/26/11)

Each year, the USDA generates an extensive set of data which demonstrates that modern American consumers face no real threat from toxic pesticide residues on their food.  This is particularly true in terms of "acute toxicity," or short-term poisoning.  Someone would have to eat thousands to millions times their own body weight to kill themselves with produce.

To many people, that still leaves a troubling question:  "what about long term exposure to low doses of toxic chemicals and combinations of those chemicals?" This question is more difficult to answer.

What We Can't Know about Toxins and Our Health

When my son was small, he would often answer questions by saying, "I can't know."  In a way, that is where we sit on the "long-term, low-dose question."  Based on the testing that we can practically afford, wee "can't know"  all the long term outcomes where the rates of cancer or other chronic diseases might be in the range of 1 per million people or less.  We can do a good job of predicting which chemicals are reasonably potent carcinogens and the like, because such toxicity can be detected in a relatively short term feeding study at fairly high rates of the chemical.  Those tests give us a good deal of protection from truly dangerous substances, but it is not really possible to answer the "low-dose, long-exposure" question with this sort of test.  Does that mean that we have to live in fear of the trace levels of man-made chemicals that are in our water and in our food? No.  Here is why.

What We Can Know

Just because we can't answer this question using rats in a laboratory does not mean we are without encouraging "data."  This comes in the form of common life experience, and from what we know about protective chemicals in nature.

Want to Avoid All Toxics? Good Luck With That

I have often seen people write that they are trying to "avoid all toxics" in their life.  That is actually impossible. Almost all the foods we eat contain naturally toxic chemicals that are made as defense mechanisms by the plants or animals in question.  These toxins are present at levels which are too low to cause us any problem in the short term.   But what about the fact that we are consuming low, mixed doses of dozens of natural toxins every day?    Few of these chemicals have ever been evaluated for any kind of chronic toxicity.  What if we ask the "long-term, low-dose" question about these chemicals?
The calm response is to realize that our bodies are well equipped for living in a moderately toxic world. The cells of our skin and in the lining of our digestive track only live a few days before they are replaced.  That minimizes the potential to become cancerous because of exposure to toxins.  We also have powerful liver enzymes that chew up toxins of all kinds.  On the whole our bodies do a great job of dealing with the wide variety of toxins that we eat at low rates.  The same is true for both natural and man-made toxins.

Don't Forget About The Good Chemicals

The other encouraging bit of information is that we are far from helpless when it comes to maintaining our health while eating small doses of toxic substances.  It turns out that fruits and vegetable are excellent sources of other special chemicals which help us to fight cancer and a host of other ills.  Many people turn to the poorly regulated "supplements market" to get these chemicals, but that is not necessary.  The much more natural option is simply to enjoy the diverse and relatively low cost produce which is available to us today.  The bonus is that these products taste great and also provide basic minerals, vitamins, and fiber in our diet.  I will list just five examples of the foods which help to protect us against a wide variety of chronic diseases:
  • Tomatoes: the largest dietary source of lycopene - a chemical that reduces risk of cancer, osteoporosis and cardiovascular disease
  • Grapes: resveratrol in red grapes and wine enhances cardiac health
  • Berries: berries have extremely high levels of various antioxidants that reduce the risk of cancer, improve urinary tract health, and help with memory and healthy aging
  • Asparagus: rutin in asparagus can ameliorate the effects of diabetes and lower blood pressure among other benefits after the body converts it to quercetin-3-glycoside
  • Broccoli: contains lots of vitamins A and C, but also isothiocyanates which stimulate the enzymes in the body that neutralize many potential cancer causing substances
There has probably never been a human society with such ready access to the foods that can protect health and counteract the effects of toxins - natural and man made.  That is why it is tragic when something like the "Dirty Dozen List" discourages significant numbers of people from buying fruits and vegetables.  These consumers then fail to get the very phytochemicals which could protect them - both from the trace chemicals they fear, and from the fearsome chemicals they may not even appreciate (e.g. aflatoxin).

Putting This In Perspective

I am not just saying: "Don't Worry, Be Happy."  There are very real toxic threats in the world - both man-made and natural.  We need to pay attention to what the toxicologists and public health experts tell us.  What we don't need to do is to worry inordinately about trace levels of pesticides or about low levels of most natural compounds.  What we do need to do is to eat our fruits and vegetables!

Vegetable market image from a trip I took to Switzerland a few years ago
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