Tuesday, June 28, 2011

10 Existential Threats To The Global Food Supply

I tend to be a "glass half full" sort of person, particularly about the prospects of successfully feeding the 9-10 billion people we expect by 2050.  My optimism is based on daily contact with the innovative public and private entities who develop technology for agriculture.  It is also based on the track record of small and large farmers who integrate these new options into their production systems.  Farming has the largest physical "footprint" of any human enterprise, so it will never be without consequences. I believe that feeding 10 billion people well while preserving the environment in within the realm of possibility. Even so, I have some concerns about how we are going to pull this off.  My list of existential threats includes:
  1. Rising energy costs
  2. Peak Phosphorus
  3. An aging workforce
  4. Our lack of a viable and humane guest worker program
  5. The low level of land ownership by farmers
  6. Climate change
  7. Competition for water
  8. Pest resistance to chemicals and genetic traits
  9. A failure to invest public funds in agricultural research
  10. The growing influence of anti-science forces
  11. Rising uncertainty about private investment in agricultural research

Rising energy costs

After labor , land, and often water, the next largest cost of most farming operations is energy.  It takes fuel to drive tractors and combines.  It takes energy to manufacture and transport fertilizers.  It takes energy to heat, light or cool greenhouses, and it takes energy to chill, store and transport food.  As we move into an era of "peak oil," it becomes difficult to simply pass along these rising costs to consumers - particularly to the poor.  The solutions are the use of waste heat and the use of LED lighting at only the wavelengths needed for plant growth.

Peak Phosphorus

Phosphorus is the second most important element for plant growth.  It has been mined from deposits of "phosphorus rock" and released with acid to make commercial fertilizer.  Those mines are running out and soon the only major source will be in North Africa.  That is not a good scenario.  Phosphorus is soluble in water, so some of it moves into ground water and into streams and rivers.  It is as much a driver of the Gulf "dead zone" as is nitrogen.  We can reclaim phosphorus in rivers and particularly in from municipal waste, but the process is expensive.  We need to drive down that cost and start re-using all this fertilizer we are currently wasting.

An Aging Workforce

Farmers are far older, on average, than the general population.  Not that many young people desire to become farmers and those that do tend to believe that working on a small, Organic farm is actually a meaningful contribution to the food supply.  Our best hope in this respect is increasing mechanization and robotic farming.  The success of the game, Farmville, suggests a latent interest which could lead to a generation of farmers who may move from the virtual farm world to the physical with no change of user-interface.

Our Lack of a Viable and Humane Guest Worker Program

The drive to force all employers to use E-verify for their employees has the looming consequence of creating severe agricultural labor shortages.  Any crop that requires hand labor to plant, tend or harvest is at risk.  Hopefully the early adopting states like Arizona and Georgia will demonstrate the folly of our dysfunctional system.  There is a huge opportunity to rationalize this labor pool, removing the inefficiency of connecting workers and employers, providing mobile housing and safety training.  There is no reason to defy gravity and pretend that there is not a market for guest workers on farms.  We may never be able to be reasonable about immigration in a comprehensive fashion, but we could address farm labor separately.

The Low Level of Land Ownership By Farmers

Truly sustainable farming is a wise, long-term investment, but since most farmers rent the majority of their land on an annual, cost-basis, they cannot actually afford to farm in the best possible way (no-till, cover crops, controlled wheel traffic, variable-rate fertilization...). It is not feasible for most farmers to buy more land, but the structure of leases could be modified so that both the farmer and the absentee land owner share in the increased stability and quantity of yield on soils which are improved in terms of rain capture and retention

Climate Change

Climate change is real to farmers.  Temperatures are generally higher.  Rainfallis more variable with both more dry and wet spells that lower productivity.  The range of pests is expanding as temperature or the timing of rains enables them.  The improvement of soil properties is the main possible response to this threat.  The second is the expansion of "protected culture" like high tunnels, rain- shields, screen houses or even full-blown greenhouses.

Competition for water

When city dwellers and farmers compete for the same water supply, the farmers are clearly going to lose.  Even where there is not competition farmers face rapidly depleting aquifers, rivers that never reach the sea, salinity problems and the maze of water law and environmental regulation.  The main solution is highly efficient irrigation systems which are capital intensive and require steady maintenance.

Pest Resistance to Chemicals and Genetic Resistance

New families of insecticides and fungicides are being discovered on a regular basis, but new families of herbicides are rarely found.  Several modes of resistance to glyphosate (Roundup) have emerged in recent years - actually much more slowly than for many other classes of herbicides.  This threatens not only Monsanto's trait dominance, but also the feasibility of no-till and strip-till systems which are at the core of sustainable practices.  Re-doubled discovery efforts are needed as are new herbicide tolerance traits for different herbicide classes.  The global wheat crop is now threatened by a new strain of stem rust,UG99 that first appeared in Uganda.  A coordinated, global breeding effort is underway and it is a race against time to get new sources of resistance back-crossed into locally adapted and quality checked lines. Our dysfunctional congress just voted to reduce funding for this effort.

A Failure to Invest Public Funds in Agricultural Research

Concerns about some of the negative features of the "Green Revolution" and complacency developed over years of relative abundance, have induced many governments to cut back on investment in agricultural research even though statistics indicate this to be one of the highest return rate public investments that can be made.  There is a widespread delusion that "agro-ecology" and traditional wisdom will feed the world which it has clearly failed to do.  If it were not for the generosity of foundations like Gates and Buffet, the situation would be even more dire.

The Growing Influence of Anti-Science Forces

A host of voices are terrifying the public with disinformation about GMOs, pesticides, and other key elements of agricultural productivity.  This fear infects both the Right and the Left and is well funded by shadowy benefactors.  Environmentalism that sees humanity as the source of solutions is a good thing, but the environmentalism that sees humans as the main problem is a real threat to the future.  The Environmental Working Group is promoting cancer in humans by reducing their intake of cancer-fighting fruits and vegetables and by frightening them away from using sunscreens.

Rising Uncertainly About Private Investment in Agricultural Research

It costs a lot of money to maintain a pesticide screening effort. Because of the fear industry, the uncritical press and the under-qualified political leadership, the companies that invest billions in R&D cannot count on a reliable reward for their efforts.  Uncertainties on the regulatory and market front have a chilling effect on investment at the same time that generics are cutting into their profitability.  This will not only effect farmers.  This discovery engine is also what finds all the actives for public health-oriented pest control (mosquitoes, roaches, bedbugs...).
Each of these issues can be addressed with sufficient time, funding and creativity, but global agriculture is facing them all, simultaneously.  It is an enormous challenge.

You can email me at savage.sd@gmail.com.  My website is Applied Mythology.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

GMO Crops Are Already Effectively Labeled If You Know A Few Rules

Back in 1995, I was party to some discussions about whether about-to-be-released GMO crops should be labeled at the consumer level.  It was clear that a failure to do so would look to some like a conspiracy, but we also realized that it would be far too expensive to track the great rivers of grain well enough to be able to label everything accurately.   Practicality won the day and GMO foods were never labeled.  15 years later this decision is still being debated.

Why You Can't Really Track All Grain

It does not normally make sense for a farmer to have his/her own harvesting equipment.  There are "custom, contract harvesters" who move from South to North during the harvest season.  There are always some grains left in the harvester as it moves from field to field.  The grain is then hauled to local "elevators" which are used to store grain.  They only have a few silos which end up containing grain from dozens to hundreds of fields.  Segregating the GMO portion of the crop is not possible at this stage.   To ask this system to segregate and track GMO is absurd.  It is much more practical to "identity preserve" the small amount of non-GMO crop.  That also usually involves paying a price premium.

A "May Contain" Label Might Have Been A Better Choice

I actually supported the idea of a "may contain GMO" label, recognizing that things like corn and soybeans are turned into ingredients that are in just about any processed food (corn starch, HFCS, soy protein, soybean oil...).  Both the biotech industry and the food industry thought that a "may contain" label would just frighten consumers.  I think it would have inoculated them against alarm.  In the Information Age, only the absence of information stands out.

Fruits and Vegetables

As I have written elsewhere, almost no fruit or vegetable crops will ever be GMO - not because of consumer wishes, but because of economics, brand protectionism, and alternative ways of achieving the same goals.  If GMO ever did move to fruit and vegetable crops, it would probably be intentionally labeled and farmers would then segregate the GMO from the non-GMO.  For instance, if there was a line of coffee with a trait that allowed intentional timing of flowering (and thus timing of harvest), it would be much cheaper because it could be mechanically harvested (this is actually needed, or coffee is going to become extremely expensive in the future).  A label could explain this.  If there was a new variety of potato with higher starch content, it would absorb less fat during cooking.  It could be proudly advertised as a "low fat" option at a fast food chain (there was such a potato in the works beforeMcDonald's killed the program).

The "Biotech By Choice" Brand Concept

There is the concept of an umbrella brand for these sorts of GMO innovations - "Biotech By Choice"  (I even once reserved the domain name for that). The GMO, Bt sweet corn, that already exists (quietly) should be the first product under that brand - if there ever was a grocery retailer with the guts to promote it.  Instead, they quietly tell their suppliers not to bring them any GMO corn.  The second product under the brand could be the GMO virus resistant papaya (which saved the Hawaiian papaya industry a few years ago). Instead it is being sold on a "don't ask, don't tell" basis.

Biotech Wine

A third product under the Biotech By Choice brand could be premium wine grown on virus and nematode resistant rootstock.  I once advised the folks in Chile, that own this Cornell-developed technology, to buy some previously ideal vineyard sites in Napa and France that are now worthless because they are contaminated with the nematode and virus which kill any grape you plant there.  They could buy that land cheaply, grow some really good grapes, and make a premium wine.  There are plenty of people who would subscribe ahead of time to be able to buy a case a year at a wholesale price.  Did that happen?  No. People with fears of genetic contamination (which shows that they know nothing about grapes) ripped the French version of that experiment out of the ground.  The US experiment still exists, but only because its location is secret.  Still, this technology will probably never reach the market (do you have a couple million spare bucks to help finish the work?).

A Biotech Crop to Feed the World

A fourth Biotech by Choice crop could be wheat.  It might be drought tolerant or efficient in its use of nitrogen.  It might be resistant to a herbicide so that specific varieties can be grown purely under a no-till system.  It might be resistant to Fusarium, a fungus, and thus free of the mycotoxin, DON or vomitoxin.  I'd like to be able to choose a loaf like that.  Wheat actually could be segregated into GMO and non-GMO.  Most wheat farmers have their own, on-farm grain storage facilities. Wheat quality is variable by variety, geography and year, so there is a lot of testing and movement of small lots.  If there were reasonable rules about "adventitious presence," (e.g. a few kernals of GMO in the non-GMO because they were harvested with the same harvester). Then Biotech By Choice wheat products could be sold.  Will that happen?  Its hard to know.  The wheat farmers certainly hope so.

All Food Is Effectively Labeled if You Know A Few Rules

Most people would like GMO products to be labeled.  I get that.  But, if you know a few rules, they already are in a de-facto mode.  For the grain crops, other than wheat, it just isn't practical to segregate, and it makes far more sense to label only what is non-GMO.  We do that and should. Just assume the rest contains GMOs. It is like buying eggs: they all contain cholesterol, but there is no need to say so on the label except for the "whites only" variety and no one would mistake the little boxes for eggs.
For fruits and vegetables it would make sense to proudly label the improved, GMO versions.  If they are not promoted that way, just assume they are non-GMO because that is the norm. This is comparable to the reason you don't have to label lettuce or water that is "fat free." If you don't want GMO, don't buy papaya's from Hawaii.  You could also avoid squash, but I don't think it is GMO anymore.
For wheat products, actual labeling will be feasible as long as people accept reasonable thresholds for adventitious presence. For now, just know that there is no GMO wheat being grown commercially, so there is no need to label anything (although most wheat products will have some soy or corn ingredients as well).


In my world, this all makes perfect sense.  I hope this helps.  If you don't worry about GMOs, there is no need for labels.  If you have worries, it is easy to avoid GMO.  However, I'm under no delusion that activists will adopt such a view.  There is way too much money to be made in the fear business.
My email is savage.sd@gmail.com.  My website is Applied Mythology. GMO label Image fromFood Freedom website

Thursday, June 16, 2011

A Rational Analysis of the USDA Pesticide Residue Data

When the Environmental Working Group (EWG) makes its annual "Dirty Dozen List" of fruits and vegetables with pesticide residues, it does so without paying any attention to which chemicals were found or what level was detected. This is why it is so misleading.  To do the analysis properly does take a lot more "work" - it took me much of the last two days to do it.

First I had to download the raw datawhich comes as a 5.5 MB ZIP File that expands to a 83 MB text file.  My son wrote a little Ruby On Rails script that sifts through the millions of rows of data to find the 30,000 actual "detections" of pesticide residues that the USDA found for 2009.  That list has the identity of the pesticide and its concentration in parts per million, billion or sometimes trillion.  Next, I searched for an MSDS for each of the 300 or so different chemicals to get the specific acute toxicity (this is usually in section eleven of each document).  The acute toxicity is expressed as an LD50 - the milligrams of chemical it would take per kilogram of body weight to kill 1/2 of the rats in a feeding study (Oral LD50).  These are publicly available documents which are usually easy to find except for old, discontinued pesticides and some of the metabolites.  Dividing the LD50 by the detected amount gives you the multiple of its own body weight that the rat would have to eat to reach a toxic dose.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Don't Let The Environmental Working Group Diminish Your Family's Quality of Life

(Posed 6/13/11 on Sustainablog.  For links to my posts on various sites click here)
One of the best things about living in a developed country in the modern world is that we have year-around access to delicious and health enhancing fruits and vegetables a remarkably affordable prices.  Just in my 56 years there has been a dramatic increase in the availability and diversity of produce, and many examples of dramatic improvement in taste.  But sadly, there are far too many people who are not taking nearly as much advantage of all this progress as they could be.  One reason is that food companies have become so skilled at making tempting snack food and fast food options, but the other major reason is that criminal groups like the Environmental Working Group (EWG) manage to scare people away from buying fresh produce by publishing their annual "Dirty Dozen" list.  Apples topped the list.  I won't even provide a link to this bit of rubbish.  The best advice is to completely ignore it!

The Source of the Real Data Behind This

The data on which the EWG's list depends is produced by the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).  Each year the USDA scientists gather thousands of fresh and frozen produce items from stores and other commercial outlets.  They take them into labs, wash them like you would at home, and then grind them up to test them for residues of chemical pesticides (including natural products and synthetic products).  They also test for important, known, break-down products (metabolites) of the chemicals of greatest potential concern.  The technology for doing this is extremely advanced and can detect chemicals at levels that are so low, they might be a million times below a dose that would matter.
Each year USDA releases this database to the public.  It contains more than millions of rows of data, because it came from thousands of samples tested for hundreds of individual pesticides. Most of the rows of data say, "no detection."  Not surprisingly, most people in the press and elsewhere only read the written summary which the USDA also provides.  The EWG also obviously only considers the written summary as they intentionally ignore the valuable information which is in the raw data.  They really don't do much "work" at all.
Here is the kind of information that EWG should be considering when making their list  - if they were interested in having any credibility with scientists:

1.  Which specific pesticides were detected?

To understand risk it is necessary to know two things: "what is the hazard?" and "what is the exposure?"  Different chemicals differ dramatically in their properties and in whether they are hazardous in various ways.  Pesticides themselves differ in acute toxicity by as much as 5,000-fold from a classic, old, organophophate to the dozens of modern pesticides whose toxicity is so low that labs can't feed enough to a rat to kill it.  But the EWG treats every "residue detection" the same as if what it is and what we know about it does not matter.  These omission is extremely irresponsible.  It would be like telling someone that our country is infested with snakes but not saying which ones.

2. What quantity of each pesticide was detected?

The second bit of information needed to quantify "risk" is to know how much "exposure" is involved.  Electricity is an extremely hazardous thing, but we do a great job of preventing exposure and so only a handful of people are killed or injured each year even though we surround ourselves with electrically powered devices (like the one you are using right now).  The USDA provides this critical bit of information and also how the parts per million or parts per trillion detected compares to a very conservative "tolerance" that the EPA bases on detail analysis of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of safety testing effort.  In the 2009 data that was just released, there were only 0.3% of samples where the detection was higher than the tolerance (and the tolerance is set 100 times lower than the actual level that would have an effect).  The report effectively says, "America's farmers are doing a remarkably responsible job of getting our food grown without putting us at any risk from pesticides."


It is always chancy to assign motives to someone you don't even know, but in this case I think it is pretty obvious.  This is about fundraising for an organization that has no product to sell except fear.  It would be completely legitimate for a group of States Attorneys General to file a class action lawsuit on behalf of all the people who have needlessly died from cancer and other diseases - deaths that could have been prevented if people were not scared away from eating fruits and vegetables that contain so many disease-fighting components.
On-the-whole, the press has failed to do it's homework on this issue. Bottom line, ignore the report and its endless regurgitation from other sources.  Then do your friends and family a favor by explaining why the EWG's "analysis" is so deeply flawed.  The length and quality of their lives are at stake.
Apple image from Muffet.  My Website is Applied Mythology.  My email is savage.sd@gmail.com.  You can find more detailed information at the links below:
When Fear Wins: Fallout From the Dirty Dozen List
Two Radically Different Views of Celery
Two Examples of Safety Improvement: Automobile Travel and Agricultural Pest Control
My Dirty Dozen List

Friday, June 10, 2011

My Dirty Dozen List

(This post originally appeared on Sustainablog on 6/10/11
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) puts out a "dirty dozen" list each year based on a criminally misleading interpretation of the USDA-Agricultural Marketing Service, PDP pesticide residue data.  The data actually demonstrates that the pesticide residues on foods are virtually all lower than the strict tolerances that have been set by the EPA.  What the EWG completely ignores is the information on what chemicals the pesticide residues represents, what level was detected, and what is known about the toxicity  or ecological effects of that chemical (kind of a large omission).  They also fail to mention that each year only 18 or so commodities are tested, so whether a certain fruit or vegetable ends up on the "Dirty" list is really mostly a function of having been included in the PDP study in the first place.  To make matters worse, EWG treats every "detection" the same, even though the risk associated with different residues can easily vary by a factor of 10 million or more.  The press generally covers this nonsense in a completely uncritical fashion, and the net effect is that Americans consume less fresh produce and that only exacerbates our obesity-promoting diet.

I thought it would be good to post my personal list of dangerous foods based on more than 30 years of experience with food and agriculture.  I am generally very confident in the safety and quality of the global food system, particularly the American food industry, but there are foods that I definitely avoid!  Here is the list:

1. Bean sprouts or any other kind of sprouts
2. Organic corn chips
3. Foods sweetened with "fruit juice concentrate" from China
4. Nutmeg from India
5. Foods containing transfats
6. Peanuts from Africa
7. Organic, "ready to cook" meals
8. Raw milk
9.  Agave nectar
10. Artisan breads with whole wheat "berries"
11. Brazil nuts
12. Raw peanuts in the shell

Here is my logic for each of these commodities.

1. Bean sprouts

It is no surprise that the source of the recent, disasterous German E. coli outbreak was bean sprouts. The growing conditions for making bean sprouts (and other sprouts) are perfect for growing human pathogens like E. coli or Salmonella, and the presence of manure and/or compost on Organic farms simply increases the chance of contamination.  Remember that it was a farm in transition to Organic that caused the spinach-based outbreak in the US a few years ago.  I would only eat sprouts if they were well irradiated.

2. Nutmeg from India
Because of moist conditions and poor storage, nutmeg produced in India is often contaminated with the fungus, Aspergillus flavus. This fungus produces one the the most toxic substances known to man - Aflatoxin.  It is this toxin that I am trying to avoid for several items on this list.

3. Organic corn chips

Corn damaged by insects is often infected by the fungus Fusarium moniliforme which makes the mycotoxin, Fumonisin.  Consumption of Fumonisin by pregnant women has been linked to higher rates of neural tube defects in their children.  Conventional corn is now much less likely to be contaminated because it is protected by the GMO, Bt trait.  Organic growers cannot use this trait, so their corn is much more likely to be contaminated.

4. Foods sweetened with "fruit juice concentrate" from China

Many people trying to avoid High Fructose Corn Syrup and processed sugar believe that products with "fruit sweeteners" are better.  These now mostly come from China with no adequate system to check for old, nasty organophosphate insecticides that are widely used on crops like apples and pears in China.  This is a source of pesticide residues that even I am concerned about.

5. Foods containing transfats

When the press and food manufacturing industry over-reacted to a linkage between "saturated  fats" and heart disease, there was widespread use of "partially hydrogenated soybean oil" which turns out to be far, far worse for our hearts because it is a form of fat that never occurs in nature.  I have been avoiding this fat for at least 25 years before it was widely recognized as dangerous.

6. Peanuts from Africa or Asia

Fortunately there are few exports of peanuts from Africa or Asia.  These crops are frequently contaminated with Aflatoxin.  Liver cancer is a leading cause of death in those regions because of this mycotoxin.  Fortunately, the Gates Foundation is funding the development of a fast and cheap test so that people can detect the contamination and avoid it.

7. Organic, ready to heat meals

Conventional herbs and spices can be irradiated so that they don't carry pathogenic bacteria into the recipes where they are used (these are dried outside with no protection from bacterial or fungal contamination).  For well cooked foods this is not an issue, but in the fast-growing, "ready-to-cook" segment, these ingredients are mixed in long before heating by the consumer, giving the bacteria time to grow.  That is an excellent recipe for food poisoning.

8. Raw milk

Drinking raw milk is like playing Russian Roulette.  Sooner or later the drinker will get severely ill.  It is particularly dangerous for children.  Louis Pasteur figured this out in the 1880s and there is no good reason to stop "pasteurizing" milk.

9. Aloe Drinks

In Asian markets one can buy drinks with aloe.  They taste great, but I have learned from a government scientist who monitors food safety issues that aloe "lights up" cancer screens in rats.  It might be great for skin applications, but I'm encouraging my family not to drink it. (edited 4/6/12, earlier I had attributed this issue to Agave nectar).

10. Artisan breads with whole wheat "berries"

Wheat can be infected with Fusarium head blight and that fungus often makes the mycotoxin called vomitoxin or DON.  The US and Canadian grain elevators do a good job of diverting most of the bad grain to alternative uses or to an incinerator, but grinding the wheat to make flower also does a good job of diluting what gets through that filter and getting DON down to levels that don't effect anyone.  The practice of using whole "berries" in artisan breads means that you can get enough vomitoxin in one piece of bread to make you sick.

11. Brazil nuts

Brazil nuts are a wild crop which grows in the rain forest.  The local indigenous people collect nuts that have fallen to the ground.  The problem is that you don't know how long the nut was laying in the mud before it was collected.  One Brazil nut can easily contain enough aflatoxin to kill you.

12. Raw peanuts in the shell

Peanuts can also be infected with Aspergillus flavus and contain aflatoxin.  In the US peanut industry, the peanuts are shelled and then the exposed nuts are sent down a line through a beam of  ultraviolet light.  If they fluoresce, a puff of air removes them from the line and they are discarded.  The same is done with Almonds and pistachios.  With peanuts "in the shell" there is no such screening step.  It is not worth the risk to eat them.

You probably noticed how many of these dangerous crops involved aflatoxin.  For people in the US and Europe, there isn't much risk, but fortunately, there is a way you can reduce the risk even further.  When eating something that might have traces of aflatoxin (e.g. nuts, peanut butter), be sure to include a green vegetable with the meal.  The chlorophyll that makes it green binds with aflatoxin so that you don't absorb it in your digestive system and it is just peed out.  So, one of the best ways to reduce a REAL risk is to eat the very vegetables that the EWG wants to scare you away from eating.

Skull image from Simon Strandgaard.  My website is Applied Mythology. My email is savage.sd@gmail.com.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Way Too Much Angst About GMO Crops

(This post also appeared on Sustainablog on 6/7/11.  For links to my other posts click here).
From what I read on various blogs and comment streams, there is WAY TOO MUCH ANGST OUT THERE about GMO crops. Too much angst because every significant panel of scientists that has reviewed this technology has concluded that it is as safe as any other domesticated food crop.  Too much angst because the reality is that only a small number of crop species will ever be genetically engineered for commercial use.  There are four main reasons why this is the case:

1.  Brand protectionism
2.  Unfavorable economics
3.  Other ways to achieve the same goals, and
4.  Anti-GMO activism

1.  Brand Protectionism

For most crops, somewhere along the chain of commerce from the farmer to the consumer, there is a step where there is considerable "concentration." This means that much of the market is in the hands of one or a few players.  A classic case is potatoes.  In the US, McDonalds corporation is such a dominant buyer of frozen fries,  it was able to stop the commercial deployment of biotech potatoes with three phone calls.  Unlike standard potatoes, the GMO potatoes in question are not planted into a supply of insecticide sufficient to be picked up by the roots for 60 days because they make their own, super-safe and specific "pesticide" in their leaves (Bt).  The GMO potatoes also don't need to be sprayed for aphids close to harvest because they are resistant to the virus those aphids spread.  The potato growers were extremely excited about the technology, but purely for the sake of brand protection, McDonalds was able to deprivethe entire industry of this advance.   Potatoes are still a perfectly safe food.  It could just be easier on the growers.

There are other cases of this sort of brand-protection power.  The major frozen food companies and grocery retailers have been able to block most use of "Bt Sweet Corn" which could save farmers 8-10 insecticide sprays/season.  Frito-Lay blocked the use of GMO, Bt white corn for corn chips even though that technology greatly reduces the risk of contamination with the mycotoxin, Fumonisin, which has been linked to neural tube defects in humans.

Brands are very valuable things and are protected fiercely.  Activists like GreenPeace know this well, and they are able to use the threat of protest to turn that business instinct into decisions that are counter-productive for farmers and consumers alike.

2.  Unfavorable Economics

Genetically engineering a crop is not that costly, but doing all the work necessary for the regulators is very expensive.  Unless the crop in question is very large, very valuable or both, it will just never "pencil" to make the R&D investment, particularly if there is any marketing risk.  I was once on a team that helped a major banana company and a biotech company think-through whether they should spend the money to develop a disease resistant banana.  In Central America, it is necessary to spray this crop from the air almost every week to control a disease called Black Sigatoka.  Bananas are a large, global crop so I was certain that the "business case" would be attractive.  To everyone's surprise, when we did the math, it came out as a poor investment!  The problem is that banana plantations only get re-planted about every 20 years, so even if the new technology was available, only a small area would be planted each year. Saving >50 aerial sprays wasn't enough to cover registration costs once the time-value-of-money is factored in.
So no minor crop and almost no perennial crop is ever going to become GMO unless the growers band together to make the investment.  A coffee expert explained this to the global Specialty Coffee Association last year and suggested that they contemplate what it means that coffee will never be GMO.  With the issues of climate change and declining labor availability, that entire industry is at risk.

3.  Other Ways to Achieve the Same Goals

There has been a tremendous, public/private, global investment in biotechnology, far beyond that for the few crops that have been modified.  That has led to the development of many new methods to alter the genes of plants etc. that don't involve the introduction of any "foreign DNA."  Most of the crops that fit category 2 above will likely be improved using these alternatives (Marker Assisted Selection, Directed Mutagenesis, Induced Polyploidy...).  These improvements will not involve expensive regulatory barriers, and so far, don't draw the ire of activists.

4.  Anti-GMO Activism

Plant genetic engineering has been the most carefully thought-through new technology introduction in history.  I remember attending major scientific conferences on the safety and environmental questions at least 10 years before the first commercial seeds were planted.  We talked through everything with ecologists, botanists, sociologists, economists, molecular geneticists, food industry experts. But none of this influences the "environmental" groups who have seized on this issue to raise funds and draw attention.  The activist's task is made easier because molecular genetics is a fast-moving science that few consumers understand.  The press has also been unwilling to take the time to understand this to the extent that journalistic standards would require and so many have not helped to counteract the fear-mongering.  This is the only way I can explain some activist-driven rejections.
My all-time-most-read blog post was titled, "A Sad Day For Wine. A Sad Day For Science."  There is a virus called Grapevine Fanleaf Virus that is spread by a nematode(Xiphenema index). If the two ever infest a given vineyard site, good quality wine can never be produced there again because the vines will soon decline and die.  That means that there are many wonderful vineyards around the world that have the an excellent "terrior" (something the French appreciate so much), but that site can no longer produce good wine.  Grapes are grown on "rootstocks" and Cornell University had modified a rootstock to be resistant to the virus.  This was an elegant solution to the Grape Fanleaf Virus problem because the top part of the vine is unchanged and only one kind of rootstock has to be developed.  Last fall an experimental block of this new technology was ripped out of the ground by activists who believed they were saving the French wine industry from "genetic contamination."  That fear is 100% irrational - it is a rootstock under the ground that never flowers.  Besides, grapes are not grown from seeds anyway.  Different varieties of wine grapes are planted side-by-side all the time with NO ILL EFFECTS!

Is This Good Or Bad - Consider the Case of Wheat

So for a variety of reasons (some economic, some logical, some irrational, some selfish), very few additional crops will ever be GMO.  This is not at all to diminish the importance of GM crops in our food supply. Corn, Soybeans, Cotton, Canola, Sugarbeets and Alfalfa are all GMO and are planted to hundreds of millions of acres each year.  The are hugely important in meat and milk production and as ingredients in many processed foods.  Still, I will continue to argue that planting more GMO crops would be beneficial.  The world will survive without a bit more excellent wine (very few vineyards in California, Chile, Argentina or Australia are contaminated!), but the other crop where activist-generated-fear has "won" by eliciting Brand Protectionism is - wheat, the second largest food crop on earth.  By 2004, GreenPeace was able to generate enough fear in Europe to get major millers and bakers to threaten not to purchase North American wheat if any became GMO.  The Canadian Wheat Boardblinked, and two, nearly commercial wheat traits, were stopped in their tracks.  One kind of GMO wheat would have been easier to farm with no-till methods and easier to keep pure for specialty uses.  The other GMO wheat would have reduced disease-related yield losses as well as mycotoxin contamination.
It is far easier to stir up fear than it is to educate the public.   There was an excellent article by Justin Gillis in the New York Times on 6/4/11 titled, "A Warming Planet Struggles to Feed Itself."  Much of the article is about how wheat production is failing to increase sufficiently to meet rising global demand.  GM technology is not the full answer to this challenge by any means, but the fact that we are not including GM in the wheat improvement toolbox is a clear-cut "bad thing" in my book.

You are welcome to comment here or to email me at applied.mythology@gmail.com.  Image of Edvard Munch’s 1893 painting,  ”The Scream” from oddsockFrench Fry image by Sun Dazed. Alsatian vineyard image near Colmar, France from Andreea.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Food Price Spike Continues But Slows

(This post first appeared on Sustainablog on 6/7/11)

Today, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) released it's food price indices for May 2011.  It was a mixture of somewhat encouraging news and not so encouraging news.  There are indications that we may have reached the peak of the spike at levels comparable to the last spike in 2008, but there is no sign of relief for those nations which are heavily dependent on international trade for their food purchases.
Cereal prices are slightly down, but that is mainly driven by solid rice supplies and far better Russian and Ukrainian wheat harvests.  It is doubtful that the supplies of corn and spring wheat will recover this year because of rain-driven delays in planting in most of North America while Winter Wheat harvests in the US are being severely hurt by drought.   The milling and baking industry is very nervous about hard red spring wheat prices this fall.

Meat and dairy prices continued to rise with the meat index now 37.4% higher than ever before.  Together these increases and decreases produce an overall food index value that is only 0.1% higher than April but still 9% higher than the last peak.  Sugar prices (not shown) are on a very different cycle and are more than 10% down last month.

Unless the 2011 growing season in North America turns out far better than expected, there is every reason to believe that this price spike will continue or worsen.  The next update will appear on 7/7/11.
You can email me for a higher resolution copy of this graph at savage.sd@gmail.com.  My website is Applied Mythology.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Bacteria Made Your Lunch

(This post originally appeared on Sustainablog on 6/4/11.  Links to all my posts on various sites can be found Here)
Bacteria are one of the few reasons that I can remain optimistic about future prospects for feeding humanity.  We who are involved in feeding the world face many challenges in addition to population growth (climate change, peak oil, growing Asian middle classes..).  Still, we might just pull it off because we have microscopic friends that allow us to tap into two almost limitless supplies of two key nutrients - nitrogen and cellulose. I wrote a post about this when I first started blogging, but I want to revisit the topic.

A computer rendering of the nitrogen molecule,...
Image via Wikipedia

The earth's atmosphere contains ~80% nitrogen gas (N2). Nitrogen is a key element for making proteins and nucleic acids that all living things need to grow.  But this super-abundant form of N cannot be used by plants. There are only three ways that nitrogen gas can become usable.  Lightening turns some of into nitrate, but the main, natural way it happens is through Biological Nitrogen Fixation (BNF).  Certain specific bacteria have the ability to convert N2 into usable forms (NH4 - ammonia, or NO3 - nitrate).  Bacteria like Bradyrhizobium associate with the roots of "legume" plants (alfalfa, peas, beans, soybeans...).  They trade plant-converted solar energy for nitrogen in the form of nitrate.  They can usually supply all that these plants need, and the residue of that crop provides a good share of what is needed by the next crop that does not "fix nitrogen."  There are also some bacteria like Azospirillum that associate with the leaves of grasses (e.g. sugarcane, Miscanthus, switch grass...) and make at least some usable nitrogen.

In the chart above you can see the significant, but still relatively small "legumes" sector in blue.  When people say that we should depend more on vegetable protein they probably don't understand how limited that is.  Bacteria could only make enough usable nitrogen for a fraction of our global "lunch."  Fortunately, we can make our own.

Getting Enough Nitrogen

Historically the biggest limitation to crop productivity has been the supply of nitrogen.  The growing world population was fed by "mining" the nutrients on more and more new, "virgin land" and by using the small amount of nitrogen available in manures - essentially harvesting the inefficiency of those animal systems.  In many societies around the world (particularly Asia and Africa), people were being stunted in their physical and mental development because of a lack of protein due to nitrogen limitation (wheat, the key calorie source of the West is higher in protein than rice, the key calorie source of the Orient).

"Synthetic Nitrogen"

Fritz Haber, 1918
Image via Wikipedia"Synthetic Nitrogen"
In the early 20th century, German scientists, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch developed a process (now called Haber-Bosch) which uses a hydrogen source (natural gas) to convert atmospheric N2 into NH4 with the aid of a catalyst.  They were awarded the Nobel Prize for this because it completely changed the world of agriculture.  When Haber later lead the gas warfare effort for Germany in WWI, it certainly compromised his legacy, but the Germans chemist's contribution to the food supply remains an important reality.
Abundant Nitrogen Is Not Without It's Downsides
As is so often the case, very good things also have very negative potential. Once nitrogen gas has been converted to ammonia (NH4), it can volatilize and leave the field where you tried to use it as a fertilizer.  When soils are saturated with rain, certain bacteria "nitrify" the ammonia into the nitrate ion, NO3-.  Both ammonia and nitrate can be absorbed by the plant, but nitrate is soluble in water.  That can be good in the case where that allows it to move down to where the roots are growing.  That can be very bad when it moves all the way to ground water or with runoff or drains into streams and rivers and eventually the Gulf of Mexico to create a "Dead Zone."  There are very good practices to minimize the water pollution issues for nitrogen fertilizers, but there are also economic drivers that prevent all farmers from using them.

Nitrogen Fertilizer and Climate Change

Soil "de-nitrifying" bacteria convert some nitrate back to N2 gas to complete the "nitrogen cycle," but in the process they tend to leak some nitrous oxide (N2O). This form of nitrogen is, unfortunately, an extremely potent greenhouse gas that is >300 times as potent as CO2 at driving warming.  The nitrifying bacteria (NH4 to NO3) also do some of this.  Typically, only 1-2% of farmer-applied fertilizer turns into N2O, but it is still one of the largest components of the Carbon Footprint of farming.  Legume crops and natural systems also have this issue, but it is just worse with intentional fertilization.  There are many practices that can greatly limit the production of nitrous oxide and usually save on fertilizer cost in the process.
So we see that the challenge is to harness the capabilities of the good bacteria and limit those of the bad.


In much the same way that there is a huge abundance of N2 gas, there is a huge abundance of cellulose because it surrounds every cell of every plant on earth.  The problem is that we can't digest cellulose.  Human societies have been tapping into the cellulose resource for millennia through the agency of grazing "ruminant" animals.  The complex digestive systems of these animals (cows, sheep, goats, camels, yaks...) house another set of beneficial bacteria that are among the few things on the planet that can digest cellulose.  Thus, through these animals and bacteria, hundreds of millions of acres of grassland can be turned into sources of human food (meat and milk).

Grain-fed Beef etc

In recent decades there has been a trend towards non-ruminant meat sources (chickens, turkeys, pork...) and towards "grain finishing" of beef.  This is possible because of the huge increases in the productivity of the crops used for those purposes (maize, soybeans, sorghum).  But even in the US, the majority of cattle spend most of their lives outside of CAFOs living off of grass and hay and the cellulose they contain.  The same is true of the huge global dairy industry.  The burgeoning middle class of Asia wants to eat more meat and dairy, and so there will be strains on the supply of feed grains.  To supply this demand will require the contributions of both the nitrogen fixing bacteria and the cellulose digesting bacteria.
So, you can see that a very large proportion of the world food supply is being made possible by bacteria.  They make our lunch. No, its not free, but it is lunch.

Please comment here or email me a savage.sd@gmail.com.
Roast beef sandwitch image from Pen Waggener's photostream.  Food production data from  FAO.