Thursday, April 26, 2012

Humankind vs Weeds - The Epic Battle

The Center For Food Safety recently touched off a controversy by using a misleading and manipulative term - “Agent Orange Corn” to describe a biotech (GMO) trait working its way through the regulatory process.  The technology will make corn, and later other crops, tolerant to a herbicide named 2,4-D.  In the early 1960s that was one ingredient in a defoliant mix used by the US military in Vietnam; however, a one minute Wikipedia search shows that the terrible health issues with Agent Orange were caused by an unrecognized dioxin contaminant in the other herbicide in the mix.  Since that time, 2,4-D has passed decades of increasingly strict safety reviews.  It still used in 70 countries and is a common ingredient in the products homeowners use to control weeds in their lawns.  Such facts have not prevented elements of the blogosphere, Organic and environmental community from spreading the disinformation.  The credulous reception of this message suggests that there is a need to explain the importance of chemical weed control to the non-farming public.

Weeds are serious business.  Ever since humans began to farm more than 10,000 years ago, they have battled weeds.  It has been a struggle of literally, “Biblical proportions.” In Moses’ narrative of “The Fall” in the Hebrew scriptures (written ~4000 BCE), Adam and Eve are not only removed from the Garden of Eden, they were each given a specific curse which would continue to effect their respective sexes:  Eve got “pain in childbirth.” Adam got weeds.  “Accursed be the soil because of you!  …It will yield you brambles and thistles… By the sweat of your face will you earn your food ...”  (Genesis 3:16-19).  In developed nations like the US, this “curse” falls mainly on the >1% of the labor force that still farms.  The rest of us need to understand their situation.

For millennia there were two ways to grapple with weeds - pull or hoe them with intense human labor, or tolerate their yield-limiting effects.  Then, in the early 18th century the ancient battle with weeds began to change.  An English agronomist named Jethro Tull (not the epic rock band), began promoting “horse-hoe husbandry.” Farmers could use simple, animal-drawn machinery to plant crops in neat rows and then physically destroy the weeds in between (tillage).  Crop yields increased as did the amount of land that one individual could farm.  Tractors accelerated these trends.  However, there was an environmental downside.

Mechanical tillage greatly increased soil erosion and the water pollution associated with it.  In some areas tillage contributed to the “Dust Bowl.”  As soil is tilled and re-tilled, it declines in its ability to store nutrients and to capture and hold rain water. Beyond these issues, tillage did not fully remove ”Adam’s curse.”   Weeds like Canada thistle and Native Bindweed are quite efficiently spread over fields by tillage equipment.  

Though soil degradation continued, the need for tillage was essentially unquestioned until 1943 when Edward Faulkner wrote his radical book, “The Plowman’s Folly,”  questioning the need for tillage in agriculture.  That idea, and the advent of chemical herbicides, led scientists and farmers to explore ways to farm without major soil disruption.  In 1960 farmers began the first commercial-scale attempts to farm without plows or harrows.  The “No-Till” movement began.

The original drivers for attempting “No-till” were soil erosion and fuel costs. It soon became clear that “no-till farming” had many more advantages: reduced water pollution, rainwater conservation, and restoration of soil quality. As no-till advanced, some farmers were not only dealing with the curse of weeds, but also doing so in a way that was far better for the environment than in the old days of “the plow.”  The introduction of herbicide tolerant biotech crops (GMO) in the late 1990s increased the adoption of no-till farming methods.  There is much more room for adoption of no-till and related, sustainable farming advances, but this is clearly the direction we need to go.

Unfortunately, the curse of weeds remained.  It was widely expected that weeds would eventually be selected which were resistant to the herbicides used on biotech crops.  This had happened with many classes of chemicals before biotech.  The slight surprise was how long it took.  Several important weeds have now become resistant to “Roundup®” starting yet another chapter in the ancient battle with weeds.  What farmers can do is to follow “resistance management practices” by switching herbicide “modes of action” and other methods to stay a step ahead of their old enemy.  The 2,4-D resistance trait in the recent controversy is being developed specifically for that purpose.  That, and other new herbicide resistant crops that are in the pipeline, would be welcomed by farmers still battling “Adam’s curse” of weeds, and they will hopefully help even more farmers maintain, or make the challenging transition to no-till farming. 

There is more at stake than progress with no-till.  Since 2007, we have entered a period of volatile global food prices and supply problems that are unprecedented in modern history.  We are trying to feed more people, feed many of them better than in the past, and to do so in a time of climate change that will only make farming riskier.  This is no time for non-farmers to begrudge the farmers any tools which pass muster in our regulatory framework.  The weeds have shown that they will always be there, as will be the need to deploy new technologies in a prudent manner. 

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Marketing Of Non-Existence

As American consumers, we frequently purchase food and beverage products based on what is not in them.  Whether it is the level of an ingredient (low fat, low carb…) or the complete absence of an ingredient (fat free, no cholesterol, no HFCS…), products are now defined by what they do not contain, rather than what they do contain.  This is such a common element of our experience that it does not even strike us as odd.  If you step back and think about food from a historical or global perspective this is absurd; having enough food to survive has been a common issue for human survival.  Instead, we have become numb to “The Marketing of Non-Existence.” 

What does this say about our society?

I believe this phenomenon says five, inter-related things about us.
  • 1.     We are wealthy
  • 2.     We are not well versed in basic nutritional principles
  • 3.     We have a tendency towards “magical thinking” when it comes to health
  • 4.     We are thus susceptible to manipulative marketing strategies, and
  • 5.     We are largely unprotected from the “fear industry” associated with food

We are Wealthy

Although few of us think of ourselves this way, most Americans are quite wealthy, spending 10% or less of our income on food, which includes costs for convenience in addition to actual nutrients.   Our choices are about the details of what and how we will get our food and almost never about whether we can eat well or even eat at all.  Indeed, as our obesity epidemic demonstrates, our food issue is one of over-availability.  We are accustomed to buying foods based on non-existence features, possibly because the existence of plentiful food is never a question.

We Are Not Well-Versed in Basic Nutritional Principles

In 1990 Congress passed the “Nutrition Labeling and Education Act” (NLEA).  That law established the requirement for the official nutritional content labeling, which has been on the “back of the package” for foods for the intervening twenty-two years.  The law also called for developing and implementing a comprehensive program to educate the public on basics of nutrition and on how to properly interpret the new labels.  Unfortunately, Congress never authorized the funds for the education part, and so we have nutrition labels that few people know how to interpret.  The difference between the official FDA labeling and the largely unregulated marketing labels is obscured.

We Have A Tendency Towards Magical Thinking When It Comes To Health

Lacking basic background, and being confronted with less-than-balanced sources of “information,” we tend to grasp at simplistic ideas about how to stay healthy.  If we avoid cholesterol maybe we won’t have a heart attack.  If we just avoid fat, we can become thin.  The reality of our need for a moderate and diverse diet with reasonable exercise is lost amid the marketing messages.

We Are Susceptible To Manipulative Marketing Messages

During a period where “saturated fat” topped the non-existence agenda there was a major marketing campaign using the “front of the package” label that said, “No Tropical Oils.”  Palm and coconut oils are indeed saturated fats, but the drive to get consumers to avoid them was less about health and more about being able to sell more soybean oil.  Soybeans are mainly grown for their protein content to be used in animal feeds, but they also contain 20% oil.  The soybean processing industry wanted to expand their sales into food categories by pushing out tropical and animal based fats.  The problem is that soybean oil has properties that make it unsuitable for making a butter substitute (margarine), for many baked goods, or for use as frying oil in the quick-serve restaurant industry.  To fit those uses, soybean oil had to be “partially hydrogenated,” a process by which its excessive “unsaturation” was reduced.  This process generated “trans-fats” which are forms of fat that do not occur naturally in plants and are rare in animals. These are not healthy oils at all.  So, this example of non-existence, faux health marketing ended up shifting the American diet towards something far worse for their health - something actually worth avoiding.

We Are Largely Unprotected From A Fear Industry Associated With Food

Having been exposed to such a string of messages saying “this is what makes food dangerous,” one might think that consumers would become skeptical about yet another scare.  Instead, it seems that we are a society that has become ever more credulous about each new, sensationalized, food-bogeyman.  RBST, HFCS, arsenic, pesticides, gluten, GMOs… all become subject to over-simplified, distorted, messages that help someone sell something, raise funds, or attract an audience.  

So, this is our sad situation.  We are a nation that has a food supply that is perhaps the safest, most diverse, abundant, and affordable in history.  Yet, rather than enjoying that privilege, too many of us either worry excessively about food choices, feel guilty, or make poor choices. 

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Wednesday, April 4, 2012

GMO Labeling And The China Scenario

(This post originally appeared on Biofortified on 4/4/12)
When asked, "Do you want foods that contain GMOs to be labeled?" most US consumers say, "Yes."  To those unfamiliar with the food system, this sounds like a simple request.  The reality is that GMO labeling would be very complicated because it involves "negative identity preservation in low value, commodity channels." (I'll unpack that terminology below).  The best precedent for what that would mean is what has happened with certified Organic, grains and grain-based ingredients.  Over time, the Organic industry has shifted towards more and more off-shore sourcing of such foods - particularly from places like China.  Many of the same groups promoting GMO labeling have been also been concerned about the integrity of imported "Organic" foods.  The irony is that if the GMO labeling campaign is successful, it is very likely that the "Non-GMO" segment will follow the same"China Scenario*," and its associated risks.

Specialty Crops vs Commodity Crops

There is a broad spectrum of food and beverage crops ranging from very high-value, specialty items to low-value, bulk commodities.   Elite wine grapes are a high value crop that is "identity preserved."  Because climate and soil are so important for wine quality, the exact region, variety and even vineyard are carefully associated with the grapes after harvest, and great care is taken not to mix them with grapes of lesser or different value.  Field corn ("#2 dent corn”) is at the opposite end of the spectrum.  For most uses, corn is corn and it generally does not matter where it came from.  It is handled in huge quantities (like 110 car trains, giant barges…) and is "co-mingled" with corn from many sources.  If it moves into milling steps, the resulting "ingredients" also flow into more, low-margin, high-volume, and commingled streams.
Wine grapes are used in an extremely "high margin" business since the grapes are worth a great deal (~$1-3 per pound) and the resulting wine is worth far more.  Corn, even at current high prices, is only worth 10-12 cents per pound to the grower and only slightly more at each subsequent step in the food chain.  Keeping track of separate lots of grapes, handling them in small specific containers, and tracking the information costs money, but for the grapes it is more than worth it.  To keep track of individual lots of corn in the vast river that is the commodity corn market would also cost money - vastly too much money to be practical.  Corn is a "high volume, low value commodity," as are most of the other crops that are "GMO." (soybeans, cotton, canola).  For purely economic reasons, GMO crops will almost always be confined to high volume commodity crops because those are the only markets that involved enough acres to justify the investment in the generation and regulatory approval of a GMO crop.

The Organic Precedent

The rules for production of Organic crops include a requirement for "chain of custody," another term for "identity preservation."  That is one of several reasons why Organic is more costly.  In this case, the tracking is based solely on a paper trail and there is not any regular or even random testing.  That is unlikely to be a reason for suspicion in the US and Canada, but whether such a self-policing system is suitable for some other foreign countries is doubted by many (PRIGrist,USDASeattle TimesTreehuggerOrganic Consumers Union).  The cost of identity preservation has not been too limiting for high value Organic fruit and vegetable crops as they have increased to a few percent of the total.  For low value, commodity crops, Organic has made extremely limited inroads (Corn 0.25%, Soybeans 0.13%, Winter Wheat 0.51%, Spring Wheat 0.69%.  Also because these are crops that can be shipped long distances, the domestic Organic production has had difficulty competing with foreign (and sometimes suspect) sources.  That is the first example of the "China Scenario."

Would Labeling Create A Significant “Non-GMO Market?”

If mandatory GMO labeling were to be instituted, the only practical option would be to label any product that contains any ingredient from the major GMO crops as "may contain ingredients from crops modified by genetic engineering."  That would include the vast majority of "processed foods," but not almost any fruits or vegetables.  Even though these GMO containing foods have been on the market for 16 years without incident, and even though there has been abundant information about this in the press and on the web, a sudden wave of labeling might alarm some segment of the population and induce them to look for non-GMO alternatives.  That is almost surely the hope of some of the commercial interests that are promoting labeling.  Consumer alarm might establish a new, "Non-GMO" sub-market which goes beyond the current Organic market (The Organic community decided rejected genetically engineered crops long before they were ever commercialized).

Who Would End Up Fulfilling That Demand?

A new group of non-GMO customers might be willing to pay somewhat of a price premium, but probably less than that which is tolerated for Organic.  Foreign sources of grains and related ingredients would be very likely to enter the market, and that would make trying to supply non-GMO crops even less attractive to domestic grain growers.  Exactly how unattractive will depend on what is described by another, obscure, food industry term: “adventitious presence.”  There are some medium value commodities that are “identity preserved” in the normal system.  High protein, Hard Red Spring Wheat is segregated and identity preserved because it has a “positive attribute” that is valued by the baking industry (high dough strength).  If there is a little bit of other wheat mixed in because of carryover in bins or harvesting equipment (this is how adventitious presence happens), it is no problem because the 95-99% of desired wheat will still provide the desired properties.  In the case of a non-GMO grain, it is being bought for what itisn’t, and a decision will have to be made about what level of “adventitious presence” to tolerate.  The lower that threshold, the harder it will be for any American or Canadian farmer to sell into the non-GMO market.  A consumer market based on fear is likely to favor a “zero tolerance” which would make it extremely difficult to source these grains domestically.

Unintended Consequences

The more this market might grow based on off-shore sources, the more likely it would be that there will eventually be a major food scandal.  It might involve adulteration (e.g. as in themelamine milk disaster), unregistered pesticide residues, heavy metals, or most likely of all -mycotoxin contamination.

Mycotoxins – Not Just An Abstract Concern

Just because low value commodity markets don't track "identity" does not mean that they are unprotected from real threats.  Corn, for instance, can be contaminated in the field or in storage with certain fungi, which can make seriously nasty toxins.  The levels of these are closely regulated in the domestic food and feed industry with limits set by the FDA and enforced by the USDA.  Our industry does a great job overall of making sure that contaminated grain does not makes its way into the system in the first place.  Such testing and exclusion mechanisms arepractically non-existent in places like China.  In recent years the Chinese government has begun to do some mycotoxin testing and they find serious contamination with things like Aflatoxin on a frighteningly regular basis.  Thus, if the GMO labeling campaigners generate the non-GMO market they desire, they will be setting-up consumers for a very real health risk.   This exposure already exists in the imported segment of the Organic market, but even a moderately large non-GMO segment would magnify that risk.

It would be interesting to poll the average American after they were told about the risks associated with "the China scenario," and to see how that influences their support for a labeling law.

You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me at

*BTW: I'm not a "China Basher." I think that China does many things extremely well, but when it comes to certain food safety issues, the story gets to be complex.

non-GMO label image from decorat