Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A Toxic Potential of Climate Change: How The Risk Differs Around The World

(This post originally appeared on Sustainablog on 1/24/12)

One of the most toxic and carcinogenic threats in the human food supply is a natural chemical called "aflatoxin" that is produced by a fungus called Aspergillus.  This opportunistic plant pathogen has the capacity to grow on a wide range of foods and feeds (corn, peanuts, cotton seed, tree nuts, dried spices and chiles...).  The chance that it will contaminate a crop is enhanced by drought and/or insect damage - unfortunately both conditions expected to be more common with the onset of climate change.   We didn't even know about this nasty chemical until 1960 when it was identified as the cause of death for more than 100,000 turkey poults in the UK that ate contaminated feed.  Since that time we have come a long way in learning how to protect crops from contamination where possible, or to detect the toxin and thus keep it out of the food supply.  The problem is that the degree to which people are protected from this threat varies widely around the world.  The need to solve that disparity will only become more urgent.
I maintain a Google Alert for "aflatoxin" so that I can keep track of what is happening with this risk around the world.  I'll describe some recent news coming from regions with a very different status in terms of managing this threat:  the US, China and Kenya.

USA: Avoided Threats To Corn-Eating Dogs

In rich countries like the US, the food and feed industry generally does an excellent job of preventing aflatoxin contamination.  Most of the news items about aflatoxin from these countries involve things like ever more sensitive testing methods or advances in Aspergillus control.  However, late last year there was a rash of dog food recallsbecause of Aflatoxin.  Details have been hard to find, but the most likely explanation is that severe drought conditions in areas like Texas and Oklahoma increased the incidence of aflatoxin contamination this season.  One does not normally think about dogs eating corn, but corn-derived ingredients (corn gluten, DDG from ethanol production...) are plant-based alternatives to meat as a way to give dogs protein.  That these incidents were caught before any reports of dog injury is good news as opposed to an event in 2006 where 76 dogs died. The fact that the issue wasn't caught before the products were shipped suggests that someone wasn't being as watchful as they should have been in a drought year.  We have the awareness and the testing methods to prevent problems.  We just have to use them rigorously.

China:  A New Watchdog Agency Is Finding Many Problems

In a rapidly advancing society like that of China, aflatoxin management has become a new area of focus.  After the major scandal about melamine contaminated milk in 2008, the Chinese government stepped up safety monitoring for the food supply.  Not surprisingly, several issues are being found.  Milk contaminated with aflatoxin was recently discovered.  Aflatoxin was subsequently found in  peanuts and cooking oil in Guangdong Province.  Unfortunately, with a highly fragmented and rapidly changing food system, it is likely that it will take some time to fully protect the Chinese population from this toxin.

Africa:  Sometimes Even The Food Aid Is Contaminated

My Google Alert sent me a link to a particularly sad, but not uncommon article about an event in Africa.  This is from the text of An editorial in the Daily Nation from Kenya posted last Sunday:
At the weekend, Kenyans were treated to an unedifying spectacle of tonnes of relief food being destroyed due to aflatoxin contamination.  Hard evidence has been presented indicating the presence of dangerous levels of toxins in cereals sold in open markets as well as in urban food distribution chains.  After the contamination of maize in 2010, the Ministry of Public Health and Sanitation promised to mop up and destroy the stock.  At the same time, the Ministry of Agriculture promised to help farmers with better food drying technologies that would reduce contamination at the farm level. But the increasing cases during distribution indicate these agencies have not lived up to their promise or are not up to the task. It is unfortunate that a country which suffers perennial food shortages cannot protect the little that has been produced.
The food aid mention was Unimix that was to be distributed by the Kenyan Red Cross but which found to be contaminated with unacceptable levels of Aflatoxin.  In many poorer nations, Corn, peanuts, peppers, spices and other foods are commonly contaminated because of a combination of drought, insects, poor storage conditions and the like.  A more encouraging item that came up on my Google alert was the fact that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is funding work to make extremely cheap and easy to use tests for aflatoxin.  I also saw an article about amobile maize dryer for use in Africa to reduce the risk.  All these things could help, but there is a very long way to go.
The Daily Nation editorial concludes by saying:
"So far, the issue of food contamination has been handled casually and we feel it is time this was brought to the fore as a major food security concern because we cannot afford this kind of waste."
I couldn't agree more.
Please feel free to comment here or to email me at sdsavage@gmail.com.
Contaminated corn image by Pat Lipps, Ohio State University

Monday, January 23, 2012

Updated Listing of Posts by Steve Savage

I began blogging about agriculture and related issues in July of 2009.  Since that time I have posted nearly 200 times: on Sustainablog, Red Green and Blue, Eat Drink Better, on News Blaze, on Biofortified and on Applied Mythology only.  I've also posted 15 larger documents on SCRIBD.  I've classified these posts by topic below and provided links.  I appreciate comments even on the older posts.

Attempting to counter the anti-science and anti-technology narratives that are so widespread today

Countering the widespread disinformation about biotechnology, GMOs etc

Consumers should get to try the first biotech applies

Posts about the "Carbon Footprint of Agriculture" and its often non-intuitive status

Posts about Climate Change - how it will effect agriculture and how agriculture can mitigate the changes

Some observations about demographic trends with important ramifications for humanity in the future

Thinking about the unfortunate nature of the debates over food and technology

Countering the extremely misleading interpretation of USDA pesticide residue data which appears in the Environmental Working Groups, "Dirty Dozen List"

Discussions of aspects of the food supply that are frequently misunderstood

Discussions of the challenge ahead to continue to feed a growing global population and analysis of the on-going phenomenon of unusually large swings in global food prices

Talking about the little-known fact that much of our farmland is leased, and an analysis of what that means for the implementation of optimal sustainability practices

My perspectives on what form of agriculture is actually the most sustainable?

Providing some perspective on toxicity, pesticide safety progress, and the fact that toxic materials are common in nature

Looking at historical and current trends in farming and related issues

Why an extensively "local" food supply is not practical or fully desirable

Confronting the widespread myths about what Organic is and what ultimate contribution it could ever make to the food supply

Providing some perspective on the field of biofuels

Discussions of businesses involved in farming and why they serve a necessary purpose:

Some general posts of food politics and posts in defense of farmers

General discussions about how things work in the food supply

Other random topics

Monday, January 16, 2012

Last Europe-oriented Ag Biotech Effort Ends

In the early to mid 1990s, European research institutions and start-up companies were at the forefront of the new science of plant biotechnology.  Nearly 20 years later, BASF, the last European company trying to commercialize GM crops for use by European farmers, has decided to give up and shift its resources to the Americas and to Asia.  Even though extensive reviews by European scientists have concluded that the technology is safe, the social and political climate in Europe has proven to be too hostile to justify continued investment for that continent.  I have known and worked with many European plant scientists over the years, and most of them find this all very frustrating.

This move is almost certainly rational from a business point of view, but it stands in stark contrast to the enthusiastic "Green Biotechnology" strategy that BASF was talking about as recently as 2005.  The last slide in that presentation has the obligatory, and ultimately prophetic disclaimer: "This presentation contains forward-looking statements under the U.S. Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995....Many factors could cause the actual results, performance or achievements of BASF to be materially different from those that may be expressed or implied by such statements."

What Are The Ramifications of this Move?

What does this mean for the future of plant biotechnology?  It probably changes little except that BASF now joins the other major European agricultural science companies (Bayer, Syngenta) in focusing their efforts in the parts of the world that have widely adopted GM technology for the major grain and fiber crops. It probably means that European farmers will never get to grow a potato that is resistant to one of its most serious diseases - Late Blight, the famous cause of the Irish Potato Famine.  

Europe will continue to benefit from biotechnology advances in terms of the food and feed that it imports.  Recently a number of additional crops with biotech traits were approved for all but growth in Europe.  Indeed, Europe will probably continue in its trend toward becoming increasingly dependent on imports to feed itself.  We in the US are also becoming more import dependent for our fruit and vegetable supplies, but not also for the major cereals and feed crops as with Europe.  As I wrote recently, there are some disturbing trends in the price of foodstuffs in international trade.  Europeans can afford higher food costs far better than many poorer countries with whom they compete.  Biotechnology might have reduced that demand, but BASF's move simply punctuates what has been a long-term issue in that regard.

The other thing this will mean is that the suspicions of GM crops in African countries will continue to be reinforced.  As Robert Paarlberg has so clearly documented in his book, "Starved For Science," the hesitation to accept the technology in Europe translates into delays or bans for potentially life saving technology for a part of the world that could use it the most.

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

Europe map image from Photocapy

Friday, January 13, 2012

Are We Still Seeing A Food Price Spike Or Something Else?

When I started posting about the most recent spike in global food prices (January 2011), I never expected to still be talking about high prices 12 months later (see graph above).  A "spike" is supposed to go up and then down.  The current "spike" isn't doing that very well.  Yesterday, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization posted their monthly update  (FAO Food Price Index).   This index reflects the prices that buyers experience in international trade.  Consumers in import-dependent countries experience these sorts of prices, while consumers in "bread basket" countries like the US see much more modest price swings.  Those who are most effected by this phenomenon are not getting much of a break.

What Is Different About This Price "Spike"?

The food price spike of 2007-9 (peak 2008) was unprecedented at the time as prices had been rising moderately with minor swings for decades.  That spike came to an abrupt end by 2009, but then returned in mid 2010.  This new spike is different from the first in many ways, but by looking at three-year windows (see graph below), the difference becomes more apparent.

The "baseline" index has been climbing slowly, and until this last three year cycle, the gain was on the order of 20 index points.  Unless there is a dramatic change in trend, the "down side" of the most recent spike appears to represent something more like a 40-60 index point gain.

The Cereal Index Is A Little More Encouraging

Spurred by high commodity prices, farmers around the world have been increasing plantings of some crops and intensifying their production of others.  When not frustrated by extreme weather events, they have been able to increase overall supplies.  In the graph below we see that although the cereal price index has not declined as rapidly as it did in 2008/9, it may return to a level not too far above the previous low.  The other indices for milk, sugar, oils, dairy and particularly for meat still show very limited retreats (all these graphs on SCRIBD)

What Is Next?

If the previous pattern holds, we might expect to see the beginnings of another spike around June of this year.  There are some reasons to think that may not occur.  The continued struggles in the EU economy may dampen prices as that region is a major importer of many commodities.  The end of subsidies and tariffs for corn-based ethanol in the US might reduce overall grain demand.  The gridlock of US governance will probably only intensify as the election approaches, and that could keep the economic recovery anemic.  That would in turn have a negative effect on commodity prices.

The Climate Change Wild-Card

On the other hand, we can't predict what weather will do to global food production this year.  This brings me back to the topic of my original post in this series.  At that time I expressed concern about the evidence of a second major spike in food prices.  I was also encouraged by the news that long-awaited drought tolerance traits were finally becoming commercially available, particularly for corn.   Two companies introduced drought tolerant corn hybrids in 2011 which were developed through conventional breeding methods speeded up with biotechnology testing capabilities (Marker Assisted Selection).  These included Pioneer Hi-Bred (part of DuPont), and Syngenta. Monsanto and BASF cooperated to develop a GMO drought tolerant corn.  It will be in large scale field tests in the 2012 season.  It will probably take several years before farmers can sort out when and where these traits will make the most difference. Fortunately, there is also a major project underway to develop drought tolerant corn (maize) for Africa.

We are really in uncharted territory when it comes to the future of the global food supply.  Fortunately, there continues to be a major private/public effort to make the advances - small and large - that will increase our chances of keeping up with the challenge.

Graphs by Steve Savage based on the FAO data. Additional graphs available for the other elements of the food index. Please feel free to comment here or to email me at savage.sd@gmail.com.