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
You are invited to comment here or to email me at savage.sd@gmail.com

Friday, July 15, 2011

A Sad Day For Bread. A Sad Day For Science

(This post originally appeared on Sustainablog on 7/15/11)
On July, 14, three Greenpeace activists dressed in hazmat suits scaled a fence, and used weed whips to destroyed a GMO wheat experiment in Canberra, Australia.  The experiment was being conducted by CSIRO (the USDA equivalent for Australia).  The activists posted video of the attack on You Tube.  They also posted "explanations" by activists who could be easily identified.  Although this is technically a criminal activity, it was more likely about publicity.  Greenpeace has been at the forefront of the anti-GMO movement since the late 1990s, and it has claimed victory for stopping the development of GMO wheat varieties.  It accomplished this by threatening miller/baker brands in Europe so that they put pressure on their suppliers.  Those heady days are fading for Greenpeace. 15 years and billions of acres into the GMO revolution, Greenpeace may just be attempting to defend conquered ground.  

The Future of GMO Wheat

There is now a farmer agreement to simulataneously commercialize GMO wheat in Australia, Canada and the US. That would prevent more trade black-mail 10 to 15 years from now when the renewed GMO research might yield commercial products.  The wheat that Greenpeace destroyed was a largely academic trial of a nutritional modification, but much work continues with drought tolerant and disease resistant wheats.  It is those lines that are potentially important for keeping up with ever-rising wheat demand in the developing world.  At a time when an unprecedented new food price regime is punishing the world's poor, Greenpeace may be feeling pressure from the questions, "What is the statute-of-limitations on saying that the sky is falling?" or "is it ethical to slow advances in food production when poor people are hurting because of it?"

Why Does This Matter?

Wheat matters because of its nutritional, historical, cultural, and philosophical importance to humanity.

Wheat Has a Significant Role in Human Nutrition

Wheat is not just any crop.  It is a major source of energy and protein for populations, both where it is grown, and in highly-dependent, importing countries (e.g. Subsaharan Africa, Northern Africa, increasingly in Asia).  Wheat is one of the most heavily traded of all crops, and has been since Roman times. High wheat prices effect a huge proportion of the world's population.  In its various ethnic forms, bread is truly "the staff of life."  It is also strategically important.  Nobel prize winner and Green Revolution leader, Norm Borlaug, put it well: "If you desire peace, cultivate justice, but at the same time cultivate the fields to produce more bread; otherwise there will be no peace."

Wheat Has Tremendous Historical Significance

In his ground-breaking book, "Guns Germs and Steel," Jared Diamond chronicles how some of the earliest human societies moved from a hunter-gatherer existence to a farm-based society in the Fertile Crescent or present day, Middle East.  Local, large-seeded, grain crops, and animals that could be domesticated for draft work were key to that transition.  Through simple selection for large seeds that stayed on the head for harvest, these ancient farmers (~10,000 years ago) created the first hybrid crop between wild spelt, emmer, and possibly other grains, to produce a new species - wheat.  As Diamond documents, the wheat and animals were able to help feed this version of Western Civilization as it spread East and West, eventually jumping oceans to North America, and later to the temperate zone of the Southern Hemisphere.  Wheat and Cows could not deal with the heat, diseases and insects of the tropics, and so people groups in those regions were not soon touched by the advances of Western civilization (good and bad).

Wheat Embodies Important Cultural Symbolism

In this regard, wheat shares a co-joined symbolic significance with grapes - which have also been the target of anti-GMO vandalism.  One of the earlier parings of wheat and wine (the natural storage form of grapes) is found in the story of Abraham - a figure claimed as the Father of both the Jews and the Moslems (~4,000 BCE).  After Abraham conquers five kings of Sodom to rescue his relatives, he is met by the mysterious figure, Melchizedek, who is described in the text as the priest and king of Salem (trans. Shalom, trans. Peace).  Melchizedek brings bread and wine for the victory ceremony.   Bread (unleavened) and wine are also important elements of the Passover meal with which the Jews commemorate their liberation from slavery in Egypt.  Bread and wine symbolism is also central to Christian Communion (or Eucharist) as Jesus self-identified the bread and wine of the Last Supper as representative of his body and blood.   When it comes to religious symbolism, it does not get more intense than these two targets of GMO modification and anti-GMO attacks

The Battle Over Wheat Is Representative of A Broader Philosophical Struggle In Post-Modern Society

In the early 15th century, the printing press enhanced the communication-potential of society, and accelerated the already developing, rational and pre-scientific, trends of preceeding centuries (Islamic Renaissance, European Renaissance, The Enlightenment).  One might have thought that the mega-communication potential of the internet age would have further enhanced the "Age of Reason."  Not so.  The term, "Renaissance Man," referred to the real possibility that one smart and educated individual could grasp most of human knowledge and esthetics several hundred years ago.  Today, one is lucky to be able to keep pace with whatever sub-field one chooses to pursue.
The Light of Knowledge drove out the darkness of Fear and Superstition that so characterized the "Dark Ages."  Today, Fear and Superstition are back with a vengeance.  Knowledge is often impotent because it has become too vast to access and stave off Fear, or to help most people separate real information from disinformation.  We no longer have a clear way of knowing what is true (epistemology).  Until the internet age we had a workable balance between logic (rational epistemology), experience and experiment (empirical epistemology), and accepting truth from recognized experts (authoritarian epistemology).  Now we seem to be moving towards simply choosing an authoritarian source of truth that is comfortable for our world view.  It is a sort of "don't tell me what I don't want to know" epistemology.  We pick the "news" channels, blogs, gurus or even comedians who tell us self-reinforcing information.  To open up our minds to all the different voices is just too overwhelming.
In the particular case of GMO crops, there are many people who only listen to the complete anti-GMO voices (e.g. greenpeace, agro-ecology advocates...). I wrote a blog post titled, "Way Too Much Angst About GMO Crops," which was intended to calm some people by explaining why very few crops will ever be GMO for a variety of reasons.  The post didn't have that effect at all,  as one can see in the 500+ comment stream on the Biofortified re-post of the blog.

This is Just One Front of A Much More Important Battle

But this argument about GMO wheat is a mere sub-set of something bigger than even agriculture.  It is really about the choice between risk management based on sound science or risk avoidancebased on the "Precautionary Principle."  The same is true of the Climate Change and Vaccine/Autism debates, as well as many more.  For me, as an agricultural scientist, I'm only going to try to reach open-minded people on agricultural issues.  This latest Greenpeace stunt was only a disaster for the scientists who lost a year of work.  The real stakes are about the broader struggle between science and precaution.
Wheat Field Image from Dag Endresen.  Please comment here and/or write me at applied.mythology@gmail.com

Friday, July 8, 2011

Are High Global Food Prices A New Norm?

Wikipedia shot of intentional levee breach to save downstream cities
This post first appeared on Sustainablog of 7/7/11)
FAO (The food and agriculture organization of the United Nations) released their June estimate of global food price indices yesterday.  The new numbers were mixed, but not encouraging overall. Sugar was up 15% over the month. All the other indices were nearly flat: Dairy up 0.2%, Oils down 0.6%, Meat down 1.5%, Cereals down 1.3%.  The net change was a miniscule +0.6%.  This is bad news for poor people who spend much of their income on food for their family.

Farmers Are Trying To Reverse This Situation

Farmers have been doing all they can to boost production and get reserves back up.  The American row crop farmers have been frustrated by flooding or fields that were too wet to plant in the Midwest.  Along the Mississippi river, farmers watched helplessly as 40-50,000 acres of prime land was flooded.  Away from the rivers, drought and heat had already hurt yield potential.  For wheat growers in France, Kansas, the US and Russia, rains were late for the winter wheat crops.  The French crop could be 15 percent down - the lowest in four years.

Double Whammy

Then to make matters worse, the rains were too early for planting the spring wheat, corn and soybean crops (34% of normal vs a typical 85%.)  In May, Reuters reported that Ker Chung Yangan investment analyst for Phillip Futures in Singapore, a "double whammy."  By June 5, only 79% of the US spring wheat crop had been sown vs an average of 98% for the past five years.  This makes millers nervous because so many baked products depend on the high protein, hard red spring wheat crop from North Dakota, Montana and Minnesota.

A Brief Moment of Optimism in June

FAO distributed high quality wheat seed to flood-affected farmers in Pakistan - $54 million worth.  That lead to a bumper crop worth nearly $190 million - a 4x return on investment.  Wheat yields in that country are often limited by the fact that there is no viable "farm credit" system to allow farmers to buy good seed, fertilizers and chemicals.  Then, in early June, Russia announced that they would lift their export ban on wheat. That caused a round of selling of wheat - something that is regretted now.

This Food Price "Spike" May Not Be a "Spike" Afterall

The previous food price spike started in April of 2007 and ended in January of 2009 (21 months).  This spike began in January of 2010 and it still going strong 16 months later.  With poor harvests this fall, we can't expect to see prices drop until well into next year

A Hard Question That Needs Much Thought and Discussion
This may not be a "spike" at all.  This may be the new food price paradigm which has major ramifications for global security and international policy. During future shortages, do we sell these limited supplies to the rich customers (Japan, Western Europe, Oil Rich Middle Easterners) or to the world's poor (sub-Saharan Africans, oil-poor Northern Africans, Eastern Europeans, Central Americans? ).  These are very important questions that deserve a serious dialog.  You can join that discussion here.

If you would like a copy of the graph or the underlying data, email me at applied.mythology@gmail.com.  

Food price index data from the UN, Food and Agriculture Organization

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Where Have All the Flowers Gone

Today, to be patriotic, I bought my wife some red, white and blue carnations.  I got them at Franco’s Flowers on Leucadia Boulevard just off the I5 in Encinitas.  If you live in North County, this is definitely the place to get flowers.  I’m no professional flower arranger, but I think they came out nicely.
I asked the clerk who was trimming and wrapping the flowers where they came from, and he said, “Columbia.”  I felt better about that because how could you be patriotic and buy flowers from a country like Venezuela?  I would rather have purchased them from a domestic grower, but I couldn’t.

The Irony of This Purchase

These greenhouses lie between a golf course and my home. It was all once flowers
It is ironic, because I live in Northern San Diego County, in the city of Encinitas, which was once the capital of cut flower production for the US.  One of the few remaining greenhouses, Dramm and Echter, borders my neighborhood.

The Ecke Ranch with a small mother-block of Poinsettias
Much of the hill-top land with views to the Pacific was once owned by the Ecke family.  They once controlled 90+% of the wholesale Poinsettia business selling to the greenhouses around the country to local greenhouses that prepared them to be America’s traditional Christmas decoration.  Over the years they have sold off land for housing, for shopping centers and for a beautiful golf course where I frequently run.  When my family moved to Encinitas in 1990, we bought in a neighborhood that was once in flowers, but which was converted in 1974.

Why The Flower Growers Left

There are several inexorable trends that have since driven the flower business largely out of my town.  Some has gone to California’s Central Valley.  Some has gone to Mexico.  Most has gone to Venezuela (roses), and Columbia (carnations).  The drivers were:

  • The very high cost of land
  • The very high taxes that were indexed on land price, and
  • Diminishing labor pools

Basically, it was “Urbanization,” or really “Suburbanization.”  It has also greatly diminished our strawberry and avocado industries.  This really isn’t such a big issue outside of California, but it certainly is in a place like San Diego.

Can I Be Patriotic and Green While Buying Flowers?

These trends are not limited to flowers.  It is true of any labor intensive crop, with asparagus being the poster child.  Americans are rapidly increasing their consumption of this tasty, cancer-fighting vegetable, but our own production is declining rapidly.  The logic is simple – asparagus is a 12-15 year crop with a short, labor intensive harvest season for 2-4 weeks in the spring.  We once had thriving asparagus industries all over the US.  It was a common, local vegetable.  As doubts developed about the future labor supply ,and as land prices soared, farmers abandoned the crop.  Now we buy asparagus from Peru and transport it by air.  The roses, carnations and asparagus were all US-sponsored projects to give small farmers an alternative to growing cocaine.  In every case they have become industries dominated by large companies.  The small farmer still grow the cocaine by the way.

Some Hope for Ocean Transport in the Future

Fortunately, there are several technologies in place and in development that may make it possible to deliver these commodities by ocean transport – an extremely efficient system.  Soon we may be able to enjoy flowers, asparagus, and off-season fruits while being both patriotic and green.
So can I feel patriotic buying those flowers for my wife?  Yes we can.

You can email me at feedback.sdsavage@gmail.com.  

My website is Applied Mythology