Sunday, April 28, 2013

Is It OK To Eat Cloned Fruit?

Cloned fruit is widely sold in grocery stores.  Some of it is cloned mutant fruit. None of these fruits are labeled as such. They aren't even regulated. You can't avoid this kind of fruit by going to Whole Foods or Trader Joe's.  Should you be concerned?

Actually, almost all fruit is cloned for good reasons that I will describe below.  I like to use this question as a way to show people how emotive language can be used to make something ordinary sound scary. That is why a healthy dose of skepticism is needed as we encounter so many alarmist allegations about our food supply. The danger is getting drawn into a conspiracy-theory mindset which leaves people unable to listen to reasoned explanation.

The Advance of the Clones

Yes, virtually all fruit is technically "cloned" because it is not grown from seed. Cloning means the genetics of the offspring are identical to the parent. For fruit, this has been the means of propagation for centuries.

If you plant the seeds from an apple variety that you particularly enjoy - several years later you will be disappointed to find that the fruit is not at all like the one you originally ate. It will probably be more like a crab apple. People long ago discovered that desirable specimens must be propagated by rooting, grafting, or budding onto some other root stock, and all of those are means of cloning. And yes, some fruit varieties were developed using mutation breeding. The Ruby Red Grapefruit is an example I enjoy on a regular basis. Nectarines are a spontaneous mutant of a peach which lacked the fuzz.

But What About Johnny Apple Seed?

As children we all heard the mythologized story of Johnny Apple Seed who supposedly planted apple trees across the US for the benefit of little children.  As Michael Pollan so nicely explains in his book "The Botany of Desire," Johnny was just opportunistically starting apple tree nurseries at the front of Western settlement because of a provision in the Homestead Act which required each land recipient to cultivate 40 apple trees.  Johnny was there sell them what they needed.  The actual goal was to insure that the settlers would be able to make their own alcohol supply in the form of hard cider (how's that for a "nanny state!"). For cider, it didn't much matter what sort of fruit was produced, so the variable seedling trees were acceptable.  If the settler wanted a good eating apple they could graft a branch of it onto Johnny's seedlings.  Today, the rootstocks for most fruit trees are selected for specific dwarfing and/or pest resistance traits and also clonally propagated.

Nature Also Clones

Cloning sounds creepy to us because it isn't something that happens naturally in mammals.  Among animals like insects, worms and some amphibians there is a fair amount of non-sexual reproduction we typically call parthenogenesis - but it is a form of cloning because the offspring are genetically identical to the parent.  Plants use clonal reproduction widely.  Bananas generate "sons" that bud off at the base of an existing trunk.  Grapevine canes on the ground or which get buried will sprout roots and generate a new, independent plant.  Whole groves of aspen trees can be clones that arise from the root system.

There is desert shrub called Guayule, which is being developed as a new, sustainable source of natural rubber.  It produces seed both through regular sexual reproduction and also through a process called apomixis.  The seed looks normal, but it is genetically identical to the mother plant (thus technically a clone).  Plant breeders would like to find a way to generate apomictic seed of major crops to avoid either expensive hybrid seed production or to avoid the extensive back-crossing needed to develop a line that will "breed true."

Cloning Does Limit Genetic Diversity

While cloning provides us with high quality fruit, it limits the germplasm in use for some crops. There may be plenty of genetic diversity where a crop originated, but breeding diversity into elite lines is a very slow process for perennial plants.  It would be far more efficient to move selected genes, such as those for disease resistance. Genes for disease resistance were moved from wild potatoes into commercial potatoes by a famous European public institution using genetic engineering.

Examples of landrace potatoes from Peru which were the source of the resistance genes

This trait could be extremely helpful for European farmers, but it has predictably been opposed by anti-GMO activists. Yet, strangely, no one seems to worry about the crops developed decades ago by very clumsy methods of mutation breeding involving the use of radiation or toxic chemicals.  Although the track record of such crop improvements has been positive, there is a far more reasonable basis for concern with that method than with genetic engineering.

So, what is the purpose of this botany lesson?  I guess I'm trying to make the point that not everything that can be made to sound scary about food is really scary. Think about that the next time you enjoy some cloned fruit!

You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me as savage dot sd at gmail dot com

Cloned apple image started from Ala_z via Wikimedia.  Apple seed image from Artotem.  Andean potato image from Wikimedia commons

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Six Reasons Organic is NOT The Most Environmentally Friendly Way To Farm

Contrary to widespread consumer belief, organic farming is not the best way to farm from an environmental point if view. The guiding principal of organic is to rely exclusively on natural inputs.  That was decided early in the 20th century, decades before before the scientific disciplines of toxicology, environmental studies and climate science emerged to inform our understanding of how farming practices impact the environment.  As both farming and science have progressed, there are now several cutting edge agricultural practices which are good for the environment, but difficult or impossible for organic farmers to implement within the constraints of their pre-scientific rules.

There was one window during which the rules for organic might have been adjusted to reflect a more modern understanding.  In 1990 the US Congress charged the USDA with the task of setting a national standard for what products could be legally sold as Organic.  That agency was inclined to include more science in a definition of “what is safest for us and for the environment,” but the organic community of that day was adamant that the rule should only reflect the purely natural definition embraced by their existing customer base.  Long before the final Organic Standards were published in 2002, it was clear that the industry preference had prevailed and that the rules of organic would still reflect their pre-scientific origins.  That is why the following six environmental issues exist for organic farming. 

1. Less Than Optimal Fungicides

Copper Sulfate

Organic farmers use pesticides, but only those qualified as sufficiently natural.  Thus, copper-based fungicides are among the few options available to an organic grower for the control of fungal plant diseases.  These are high-use rate products that require frequent re-application and which are quite toxic to aquatic invertebrates.  There are much more effective, and far less toxic, synthetic fungicide options without environmental issues, and which, unlike copper, break down into completely innocuous materials. Organic growers can't use those fungicides.  Similarly there are many environmentally benign, synthetic insecticides and herbicides which cannot be used.

2. A Surprisingly High Carbon Footprint for Compost

The greatest original contribution of the early organic movement was its focus on building soil health.  One of the main ways that organic farmers do this is by physically incorporating tons of organic matter into the soil in the form of composts.  Unfortunately, during the process of composting a substantial amount of methane is emitted which means that broad use of this soil-building approach would be problematic from a climate change point of view.

3. Practical Barriers to Implementing No-till Farming
No-Till Field

The best approach to building soil quality is minimizing soil disturbance (e.g. no plowing or tilling) combined with the use of cover crops.  Such farming systems have multiple environmental advantages, particularly with respect to limiting erosion and nutrient movement into water. Organic growers frequently do plant cover crops, but without effective herbicides, they tend to rely on tillage for weed control. There are efforts underway to find a way to do organic no-till, but they are not really scalable.

4. Difficulties Implementing Optimized Fertilization

Fertilizers are associated with many of the biggest environmental issues for agriculture because of the challenges in supplying all a crop needs without leading to movement of those nutrients into surface or ground water or to emissions of the highly potent greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide.  The best practice is to “spoon feed” the nutrients through the irrigation system at levels designed to closely track the changing demands of the crop throughout the season.  
Drip Irrigated and Fertilized Grapes

This requires water-soluble forms of the nutrients and that is very expensive to do for the natural fertilizer sources allowed in organic.  Since the plants absorb those nutrients in exactly the same molecular forms regardless of source, this cost barrier is a non-scientific impediment to doing the best thing from an environmental point of view. Organic fertilizers like composts or manures are also much less practical for variable rate application, an environmentally beneficial option for rain-fed crops in which different amounts of fertilizer are applied to different parts of the field based on geo-referenced soil and yield mapping data.  Finally, the organic avoidance of "synthetic fertilizers" would mean that these growers would not be able to use what appear to be promising small-scale, carbon-neutral, renewable energy-driven systems for making nitrogen fertilizers. 

5. Lower Land-Use-Efficiency

The per-acre yields of organic crops are significantly lower than those for conventional.  This has been well documented both by meta-analysis of published research comparisons and by public data generated through USDA commercial production surveys.  

The shortfall is driven by limited pesticide options, difficulties in meeting peak fertilizer demand, and in some cases by not being able to use biotech traits.  If organic production were used for a significant proportion of crop production, these lower yields would increase the pressure for new land-use-conversion - a serious environmental issue because of the biodiversity and greenhouse gas ramifications.

6. Lack of an Economic Model to Move Beyond Niche Status

Finally, agriculture needs to change in ways that accomplish both productivity and environmental goals.  That optimal farming approach must become the dominant system over time. Even if organic had maintained its growth trend from 1995 to 2008, organic acreage in 2050 would still have represented less than 3% of US cropland. 
Trend line for US organic cropland as of of 2008

Then, between 2008 and 2011, USDA survey data showed no net gain in US organic acreage.  Environmentally desirable "conventional" practices like no-till, cover cropping and a variety of other precision agriculture innovations are already practiced on a much broader scale and have the potential to be economically attractive for farmers without any price premium mechanisms.  Innovations in farmland leases could greatly accelerate the conversion process if growers could be guaranteed long-term control of fields so that they could profit from their investments in building soil quality.  

Consumers Who Want To Do The Right Thing

There are many consumers who are willing to spend more for organic food because they believe that they are making a positive difference for the environment.  While it is commendable that people are willing to do that, the pre-scientific basis for the organic rules means that the environmental superiority of organic cannot be assumed. While “only natural” is appealing as a marketing message, it is not the best guide for how to farm with minimal environmental impact. Between rigorous, science-based regulation, public and private investments in new technology development, and farmer innovation, modern agriculture has been making excellent environmental progress. That trend, not organic, is what we need to encourage.

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

Pennsylvania farm image from USDA Images.  Vineyard image Agne27.  Copper Sulfate image from Wikimedia commons.  Organic yield and acreage information from the USDA-NASS. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Livelihood of Small Coffee Growers Is Threatened By A Plant Disease

Some of the world's best coffee comes from the tropical highlands of Central and South America.  Recently these regions have experienced heavier rainfall.  This is probably due to climate change, but in any case it fosters severe epidemics of the Coffee Leaf Rust pathogen, Hemileia vastatrix.   This disease has a long history of disrupting coffee production around the world.  One reason the English drink tea is that the Ceylonese and Javan coffee plantations which once supplied them were devastated by this same fungus in the late 1800s.  Coffee production was moved to the Americas (among other places) and it wasn't until the 1970s that the rust pathogen made its way to the New World.  For the next several decades it remained a manageable disease in those areas, but in recent seasons, the disease has been severely affecting yields.

Last week I had the opportunity to attend the fifth Symposium organized by the Specialty Coffee Association of America which was held in Boston. The coffee rust problem was a major topic of presentations and discussion.  What we heard is that after increasing losses for the last two years, yield losses as high as 40% are anticipated in the 2013/14 season.
Leaf infected with the Coffee Rust pathogen, Hemileia vasatrix

Diseases Happens

It is not unprecedented for a crop/industry to be faced with a new plant disease challenge, and there are a range of solutions. However, the high quality coffee industry of the Americas is largely dependent on small-holder farmers in relatively poor communities. There are logistical, informational and sociopolitical issues for those communities which leave its producers and their families economically vulnerable, particularly in a situation such as this. To make things worse, these farmers' reduced crop yields are coming at a time of low international coffee prices. There is a very real possibility that  many of the small producers will either shift to alternative crops/jobs or into unrecoverable poverty. Coffee grown by small farmers on mountainsides is a romantic narrative for those of us who consume coffee.  Things are not looking so romantic for the families fighting coffee rust.

Untapped Genetic Resources

Although there are diverse, wild sources of Coffea arabica, and there are scores of other Coffea species to broaden the germplasm-base, existing coffee plantings represent a very narrow spectrum of genetics.  This leaves the industry vulnerable to disruptive shifts in the weather or pest populations. Coffee is unusual among perennial crops in that it is propagated by seeds rather than by cuttings or grafting. These seeds are cheap and easily saved, so there has never been a commercial coffee breeding industry.  Instead there have only been modest and regionally focused, breeding efforts based on governmental support.  Having been warned about this situation several years ago, the Specialty Coffee Association of America began funding the World Coffee Research (WCR) organization to conduct basic research on coffee genetics and to institute multi-country variety trials.  Their goal is to develop pest resistant lines which can still achieve the desired quality. While this investment by downstream players is commendable, coffee has a complex genome and long time to reproductive maturity. That will mean that a WCR-generated solution to something like the rust issue won't reach farmers for something on the order of 15 years - even with the use of biotech advances like Marker Assisted Selection.  That is far too long from a grower point of view.  It might be possible to speed the process using a transgenic approach, but WCR has clearly stated that they will not pursue a "GMO solution." I'm sure that makes sense for the realities of marketing to many specialty coffee consumers in the rich world. However, taking that technology option off the table may significantly postpone the delivery of a scale-neutral solution for the coffee growers.

Near-Term Solutions- Spraying Safe Fungicides

For now, the only option is to control the rust with the use of fungicide sprays. Technically this is quite feasible. There are several families of fungicides which are highly effective, very low in toxicity, and without significant environmental issues. These same fungicides are widely employed in the European wheat/barley industry and the South American soybean industry, both of which deal constantly with rusts and other diseases. However, fungicide use in this coffee setting has the complication of needing to be applied using backpack sprayers on rough terrain. There are also economic and information-transfer limitations which make this a non-trivial solution. Under this intense disease pressure, it will also be paramount to practice mode-of-action rotation to avoid selecting for fungicide resistance in the rust population.  The possible may not translate to the actual.

Unintended Ramifications of Organic-Environmental Issues and Social Injustice

These challenges are daunting for "conventional" growers, but they are far more challenging for those growers who have been persuaded by their customers to become organically certified. For rust control, the organic growers are mainly limited to the use of copper-based fungicides.  These "natural" products are far less effective than synthetic options, require high use rates, and are easily washed off of the plant by rain so that they must be frequently re-applied. Copper fungicides are also far more problematic for the environment because of their mobility in water runoff and their detrimental effects on aquatic invertebrates. Yet, if the organic growers use the more potent and safe synthetic options, they lose their organic certification for three years. The consumers who buy organic coffee might be surprised to understand that they are driving an option which is less desirable from both an environmental and social justice perspective.

The Coffee Industry Response to the Crisis - Helping the Small Grower

The Boston meeting last week was my first opportunity to interact directly with the specialty coffee community composed of growers, brokers, roasters, equipment suppliers and retailers. I was impressed by the industry's commitment to both deliver a high quality coffee experience for consumers while attempting to address the needs of the people around the world who produce the beans. The people in this industry understand the complex socio-political-economic reasons why life is difficult for small-holder coffee farmers. They have tried to address that through various "fair trade" mechanisms. They also talked openly about the need to do more, particularly because of this disease challenge. There were positive examples described about collaborative efforts between commercially and NGO sponsored efforts to enhance the economic viability and food security of coffee farming families. It is a huge challenge, but there is no question that the coffee industry takes it seriously.

Because of the geographically diversified production of coffee around the world, we who are the consumers of coffee are not at serious risk of losing access to a favorite, caffeinated beverage.  The current threat is to the livelihoods of the small-holder producers in Americas.  Think of them when you enjoy your coffee.

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

Coffee farmer image from USAID
Coffee Leaf Rust symptom image from Wikimedia Commons

Monday, April 1, 2013

Moving Towards Fossil-Energy-Independent Nitrogen Fertilizer

It takes about as much energy to make the nitrogen fertilizer for an acre of corn (150 lbs) as it takes to drive a car 600 miles, and because it is made using natural gas it has a carbon footprint equivalent to driving the car 650 miles.  Now imagine that for more than 90 million acres of corn.  That is a lot of energy.  But what if that energy and greenhouse gas footprint could disappear?  This might actually be possible.  

By way of background, nitrogen is one of the three most important minerals that plants need to grow, and the basis of the protein we require in our diets.  Some plants call legumes “fix” their own nitrogen with the help through a mutualistic relationship with a particular kind of bacteria.  From an environmental point of view, this sort of  biological nitrogen fixation is the best way to make nitrogen fertilizer.   US farmers already plant about 100 million acres of legume crops (soybeans, alfalfa...).  We could probably supply a fair amount of additional nitrogen if legume-containing winter cover crop mixes were more broadly used.  Still, to grow our conventional crops like corn, wheat, barley, fruits, most vegetables.... we need to make synthetic nitrogen.  Even organic is dependent on that flow (see previous post, Cows Don’t Make Fertilizer).

Large scale, crop-available nitrogen production became possible about 100 years ago when two German scientists named Haber and Bosch sequentially figured out how to turn the nearly 80% nitrogen in the atmosphere into plant available forms.  All it takes is a source of hydrogen, the air, and a catalyst to make ammonia. They got a Nobel Prize for this, but the big down-side has been that the most cost effective way to do the Haber-Bosch process has been to get the hydrogen from natural gas.  The question is whether there is an alternative to this major use of a fossil fuel (~5% of total natural gas use).

The Answer My Friend, Is Blowin' In The Wind

Bob Dylan was famously vague about what "the answer" actually was, but I'm guessing that he wasn't thinking about a solution to the fossil fuel dependency of crop fertilizers.  Even so, his reference to wind may actually be part of the answer to this real-world dilemma.   The Haber-Bosch process just requires hydrogen and that can easily be made using electricity and water (electrolysis).  The electricity could be from a renewable source like wind, solar, hydro etc.  I once wrote a blog post wondering if it might be possible for someone to develop a small-scale Haber-Bosch process that could be run using something like wind energy.  It turns out that at least three groups were already working on different approaches to just such an invention ( University of Minnesota, Electrogen HydrofuelsAltmerge).  I am really excited about this possibility, particularly the later two because they are working on very small scale units.  For instance the one from Electrogen is designed to fit in a standard truck/rail container.

If any of these processes can be successfully commercialized, it could dramatically alter the fertilizer paradigm.  It would give farmers a way to locally and independently produce their own fertilizer and thus avoid the price fluctuations driven by the general energy market.  A farm could install a wind turbine and one of these units and let it make the next season’s fertilizer any day that the wind blew.  These companies are also working on ways to turn the ammonia generated into something easier to store like liquid ammonium nitrate (not the dry form that can be turned into a bomb).  

Such a system might also be able to provide village-level fertilizer generation in parts of the world where small-holder farmers don't have practical access to nitrogen fertilizer today.  

This nitrogen fertilizer would be "carbon neutral" from a manufacturing perspective.  Since the energy used to make fertilizer is a large part of the overall carbon footprint of agriculture (about 40% for a corn crop), this change would be highly significant.  Nitrogen fertilizers will still always have other environmental issues, but there are sustainable soil health management systems that best address those.

The irony is that this sort of carbon-neutral nitrogen fertilizer wouldn't qualify under the current rules for use in organic because it would still be “synthetic.”  Of course plants don’t care about this.  They can only absorb nitrogen in its nitrate or ammonium ion form which is the same whether it originated as synthetic or natural fertilizer.  

Wind turbine image from SustainableDevelopment's photostream

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