Thursday, May 30, 2013

Should the World Keep Feeding Europe?

Western Europe is a major net importer of food averaging 59 million metric tonnes during the years 2001 to 2010. That amount is similar to the net imports of all of Africa - a region with 2.5 times as many people. On a per capita basis that represents 139 kg or 290 pounds per person per year. Global food demand is expected to require a 60% increase by 2050, and it will be a major challenge to meet that demand.  Europeans will be increasingly competing with poorer, import-dependent nations. Of course my question about feeding Europe is merely academic. As long as their money is good (at least in some form), they will be able to buy in free markets. As prices for commodities continue to rise, the richest regions will have the greatest capacity to pay. The reason that I raise this question is that Europe's role in the global food supply is more complex than simply being a big, relatively rich customer. Through a range of actions, policies, threats, societal preferences, activism and post-colonial influence, Europe has profoundly affected the supplies of food around the world. In many instances, that extramural influence will continue to make it even more difficult to meet rising demand for food.  This is not just a question of economics. It is an ethical question with ramifications for global political stability. This is a discussion which needs to happen before significant food shortages occur.

Europe Could Be Producing More of Its Own Food

Europe is actually a very productive agricultural region. It is home to many highly sophisticated farmers. However, there are a number of regulatory constraints that prevent some of those farmers from being as productive as they might be. Only a few European countries have allowed their farmers to benefit from advances in crop biotechnology. Their animal producers are not allowed to use hormone supplements that improve feed-use-efficiency. Low yielding organic production has been encouraged in several of the countries. Europe may ban the use of neonicitioid insecticides as seed treatments without clear evidence of their primary role in honey bee colony collapse disorder. The ban could diminish yields in the large rapeseed, oil crop. With some policy changes, European farmers could be more productive.

Europe Could Moderate The Intensity of Its Food Demand

Europeans eat a lot of meat and dairy foods, probably more than is ideal for their health. The largest share of net food imports to Europe is of crops for animal feed like maize and soybeans (net 215 kg/person, a total of 40 million metric tons - twice the net feed imports to all of Africa).  Ironically these are primarily GMO crops from the Americas.

The wheat supply has grown, but much of that has gone to animals

Europe also uses a substantial proportion of its wheat supply as animal feed (31% on average from 2000-2009, 47 million metric tons, 1.3 times as much as the total wheat imports to Africa in 2010.) Western Europe was once a significant exporter of cereal grains such as wheat, barley and rye, but in recent years net exports have contracted and more and more of the crop is now fed to animals. The title of this post could have been, "Should the World Keep Feeding Europe's Animals?"

Europe's exports of grain have been declining since ~1990

Europe Has Projected Its Hyper-Precautionary Approach

Economist and Political scientist Robert Paarlberg of the Harvard Kennedy Center wrote a book titled "Starved for Science: How Biotechnology is being kept out of Africa."  In it he documents how post-colonial influence from Europe has driven regulatory decisions in many African countries so that they have a European-like hesitancy about GM crops.  Many don't even allow any field testing.  Since Africa will be the center of most global population increase over the next several decades, this projection of what Paarlberg terms "rich world preferences" is certainly at odds with Africa's need to produce as much of its own food as possible. This is particularly unfortunate because biotech crop improvements are "scale neutral." They work just as easily for a 2,000 acre farm in Iowa as a 1 hectare farm in Africa, and in many cases they would be offered for free.  African farmers would very much like to have that opportunity.  Europe has also reduced its investment in international agricultural research which further compounds the problem.  Europe is also very slow to approve of new biotech events for the GMO crops that it does import,  causing logistical problems in the grain trade and often interfering with the hybrids and varieties New World farmers can utilize.

Europe Has Used Its Market Leverage to Limit Crop Innovation Outside of Its Borders

Technically, food in Europe has to be labeled if it contains GMO ingredients. In practice, food companies use ingredients from non-GMO crops at higher cost to avoid having to bear a label which would be unpopular with their consumers. In 2002 there were GMO wheat varieties approaching the market in the US and Canada, one from Monsanto and one from Switzerland-based Syngenta. The later was particularly interesting because it would have reduced the risk of a mycotoxin in the wheat supply.  Even though Europe is a major producer of wheat (~100 million tons/year), it imports substantial quantities of durum and hard red spring wheat from North America because of the high quality of the grains (about 3 million metric tons in 2010). The major wheat importers of Europe (and also Japan) threatened to stop all purchases of North American wheat as soon as there was any commercial planting of GMO varieties. Unwilling to risk losing this lucrative market, the Canadian and US wheat grower associations asked Monsanto and Syngenta not to go ahead with their commercialization plans. The termination of those programs reduced the overall private investment in this crucial crop and global production trends have slowed while production of GMO crops has increased more rapidly.

Gains for wheat and barley are not keeping up with corn and soy

The wheat industry now regrets having given in to these big customers, and wants to see biotech wheat as a future option. Since then, the Australian, Canadian and US wheat grower associations have all pledged to do a simultaneous launch of biotech wheat, when and if it becomes available so that they cannot be blackmailed in this fashion. In the mean time, Europeans have used their market leverage to effectively slow the improvement of one of the world's most important food crops by decades.

Europe Has Been a Major Driver of GMO-Phobia Around The World

Although the anti-GMO movement is globally distributed, it began earliest and with greatest intensity in Europe. This is not because European scientists have a different opinion about the risks of improving crops with biotechnology - they agree with the broad consensus that they represent no unusual risk.  But as previous activist Mark Lynas admitted, the movement didn't even know much about the science.    Their sort of fear-mongering has influenced other nations around the world as with the case of Bt Brindal (eggplant) in India, and the long delays in the deployment of Golden Rice. The European anti-biotech movement is particularly prone to destructive vandalism and severe irrationality. Perhaps the most dramatic example was when activists destroyed a government sponsored field experiment with a Fanleaf Virus resistant grape rootstock trial in Alsace. The activist's concern about "genetic contamination" was absurd for a crop that isn't grown from seed anyway and for a rootstock which is only under the ground. Reason has no role in this phenomenon. Europe is also a source of much "junk science" attempting to design experiments that will "prove" that GM crops are dangerous. Real scientists in Europe are forced to discredit such efforts as they did with particular force in the case of the notorious Seralini study, but it has become a "Whac-a-mole" exercise, and the disinformation spreads.


Western Europeans have an influence on the global food supply that goes well beyond simply being a major customer.  They have interfered in a variety of ways with how farmers around the world can farm. The influence has important ramifications for all consumers around the world. To be fair, the substantial investments by European-based agricultural technology companies like Bayer, BASF and Syngenta are making extremely valuable contributions to global food productivity, but all of those companies have moved their biotechnology efforts to more science-friendly countries.

I'm sure that the world will keep feeding Europe and its animals.  I'm less sure that will be fair to the poorer, import-dependent people of the world.

All figures based on FAOSTATS data.  I have posted a complete slide set on this topic on SCRIBD and would be happy to email it to anyone interested.  You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me at

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Applied Mythology at 100,000 All Time Pageviews

I started posting on this blog 3 years ago this month.  I had been frustrated with all the disinformation out there about agriculture, farmers, and about the technologies they employ to keep the world fed.  As of today (5/25/13) the site had its 100,000th view.  I just want to take the chance to thank some of the folks that have encouraged me along the way:

  • My lovely wife who is my much-needed editor
  • My various readers
  • Friends in the ag-defense community who have provided links, tweets and mentions
  • Grower groups that have responded with speaking invitations
  • Scientists who have provided feedback to make sure I get that part right
  • All the folks who have taken the time to comment (all 576 of you), even those who disagree with my point of view
  • Those who have sent me email responses
  • The good folks over at Biofortified who let me guest post
  • Hank at Science 2.0 who encouraged me to also post there 

Actually 72,636 of those pageviews were in the last 12 months.  I've posted 126 times on this site and 228 times total including other sites.  The most read blog posts have been:

Six Reasons Organic is Not The Most Environmentally Friendly Way to Farm (5,405)

She Shocking Carbon Footprint of Compost (5,309 views)

Do Your Really Need To Buy Organic To Avoid Pesticide Residues? (2,990)

Pesticides: Probably Less Scary Than You Imagine (2,519)

No, Cows Don't Make Fertilizer (2,435)

Counting The Cost of the Anti-GMO Movement (2,302)

A Note to Rachel Carson on the 50th Anniversary of Silent Spring (1,966)

6 More Reasons to Vote NO on California Proposition 37 (1864)

The Muddled Debate About Pesticide Use and GM Crops (1,461)

What I hope Will Be The Future of Sustainable Farming (1,455)

What Would Be "A Food Movement Worth of the Name?" (1,416)

How to Make Fresh Produce More Sustainable.  Actually Eat It! (1,219)

The Frustrating Lot of American Sweet Corn Growers (1,097)

When Increased Pesticide Use Is A Good Thing (1,094)

Updated List of Posts By Steve Savage (1,025 - has links to the other sites where I used to post, needs to be updated again),   @grapedoc

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Gorillas And The Future of Crop Biotechnology

There are some really cool improvements coming along in several crops that have been developed using the tools of biotechnology - GMOs if you will.  Some of these innovations have consumer health benefits. Some expand ways to encourage greater produce consumption.  Some reduce food waste. Some prevent crop losses through disease and reduce the need for copper sprays.  These traits represent an expansion of biotech beyond the major row crops primarily grown for animal feed or for fiber to crops like apples, oranges, tomatoes, pineapples and potatoes.  Whether these new options actually make it to consumers depends a great deal on decisions that will be made by gorillas.  I don't mean the kind of gorillas that Jane Goodall studied.  I mean the kind in the expression "eight hundred pound gorilla."

The Eight Hundred Pound Gorillas of the Food Industry

In many industries, there are players with disproportionate economic leverage who are often referred to as the eight hundred pound gorillas for their sector. In the food/beverage industry, there are huge entities from importers (e.g. Dole, Chiquita), to manufacturers (e.g. Mars or Frito-Lay), to food service retailers (e.g. MacDonalds or Starbucks), to grocery retailers (e.g. Safeway, Wal-Mart...) who have an out-sized influence on not only their market segment, but on their supply chain. In the early years of crop genetic engineering, entities like these used their influence to to slow or stop the commercialization of biotech crops. The question is what role these gorillas will play for the next generation of potential crop improvements.

When the Gorillas Embraced Biotech

When genetically engineered crops were first being commercialized in the mid-1990s, several of the gorillas were supportive. Frito-lay was funding its own potato genetic engineering effort focused on storage life and chip quality. Dole and Chiquita were both in discussions with biotech companies about potential solutions to their biggest disease challenge ( Black Sigatoka disease) and about the potential to make a banana with longer counter-life at optimal ripeness. Forward-thinking folks at Starbucks were  looking into whether they might need to get involved in helping their small coffee bean producers through horticultural research and extension. Genetic engineering was one of the topics on the table.  Meanwhile, farmers in the 1990s who grew crops with biotech options were very happy with what these options offered them (soybeans, corn, sweet corn, cotton, canola, squash, potatoes, papayas).

When Gorillas Are Weak

However, by the later 1990s and early 2000s, the efforts of anti-GMO groups to demonize the technology were beginning to take effect. They used dramatically misleading imagery (great big hypodermic needles full of mysterious colored liquids, fruit and vegetables with faces...) and anti-corporate conspiracy theory rhetoric to alarm consumers.  For all their protestation, there was no change in the scientific assessment of the intrinsic safety of the technology, nor were there real cases of health or environmental problems.  However, the manipulated trend in consumer thinking began to worry the gorillas. The large players in the food system have tremendous power and influence, but they also have great vulnerability to anything that could tarnish their consumer brand.  Activists of all stripes have taken advantage of this for many causes, and the anti-GMO forces began to do the same.  Most of the continuing GMO crops are sold into non-branded animal feed and food manufacturing ingredient channels, so they were little effected by brand protectionism.  For crops that do flow to consumer-branded companies, the story was different.

Round One Didn't Go So Well

Starbucks was one of the first companies to come out with a pledge not to use GM (even though there were no GMO options for coffee anywhere close to the market).  Unfortunately they also dropped the whole supply line horticultural support idea as well. The big banana companies backed away from any GMO projects.  The major candy companies used their influence to delay for many years the introduction of herbicide tolerant sugar-beets.  Even though the corn hybrids grown for the chip market were not generally GMO, the marketing side of Frito-lay reactively pledged that they would not use GMO corn for their chips.  The company then quietly dismantled their GMO potato effort.  At one point, MacDonalds made three phone calls to their major frozen fry suppliers asking if they could get only non-GMO potatoes. That effectively ended the growing of biotech potatoes - an improvement which required far less insecticide use.  In the conspiratorial narrative of the anti-GMO movement, Monsanto is portrayed as being so powerful that it is able to "control the food supply."  In reality, neither Monsanto or the entire potato growing and processing industry could do anything once the 800 pound gorilla of spuds decided it didn't want to risk brand-tainting protests.  The gorillas were subdued by the activists in the first round of biotech innovation.

What About Round Two?

So, its been at least 10 years since that first round of gorilla influence.  Why should anything be different with this next round of technology offerings?  It is not as if the anti-GMO movement has become any less intent on its mission or any more honest about the science.  Brand sensitive companies are still basically risk-averse.  The general public is probably no better informed about the actual science or about the ever stronger scientific consensus supporting the safety and utility of these technologies. Some factors remain the same, but not everything.

What Has Changed

News Sourcing:  people don't get their "news" the way they did in the 90s.  Most have chosen the sources that fit their world-view, so something like an anti-GMO protest is going to be covered, or not covered differently for segments of the public.  Indeed for those who get their information from websites like Grist or Mother Jones, there is some sort of anti-food industry or anti-GMO diatribe almost every day.  It is hard to imagine how some new development will stand out against that background.  For the rest of society that hasn't drifted into full-blown conspiracy theory thinking about biotechnology there may be some fatigue from the fear-mongering.  There must eventually be a statute-of-limitations for saying that the sky is falling.

Communication by Scientists:  overall, scientists have not communicated that well with the broader public, but that has been changing to some degree.  There are a number of websites that do a much better job than what was around in the late 90s.  Meanwhile, the collected body of independent, peer reviewed publications supporting the safety of biotech has grown.

Communication from the Farming Community:  the ag community has increasingly begun to use the internet and social media to tell its story.  They are understandably tired of being demonized and falsely represented by the "food movement." This response includes everything from farmer bloggers to farming organizations.

Real Food Supply Issues:  In the 90s it certainly seemed that food was in abundant supply - even in over-abundance.  Since then there have been some shocks to the global food trade balance that are hard to ignore and there is some reason to believe that we are in a new paradigm between population growth, expanding Asian middle classes, and climate change.  This has meant a bit of food budget stress for the rich world, but it has already had a major political role in events like the "Arab Spring."

Calling People Out About The Science:  A number of voices have pointed out the fact that neither the political Right or Left has been consistent in respecting the scientific consensus.  Those who embrace the consensus on climate change tend not to on biotechnology and visa versa. Mark Lynas, a past anti-GMO campaigner, articulates this extremely well as have some in the mainstream press and in  Books.

A California Surprise:  The voters of California soundly defeated a deeply flawed GMO labeling initiative in the 2012 election.  This was completely unexpected since the "just label it" message originally sounded logical to 90% of them.  The GMO labeling forces blamed this loss entirely on the level of spending by the food and biotech industry, but like Sheldon Adelson, they might need to acknowledge that votes are not simply for sale and that voters might actually have some independent, critical thinking abilities once they get the facts.

Can We Support Courage On the Part of the Gorillas?

Last year, Seminis Seeds (a Monsanto subsidiary) commercialized some new insect resistant sweet corn hybrids.  Even though Syngenta's Bt sweet corn had already been on the market for many years, the major grocery retailers and processors had quietly suppressed its use and it was mainly grown for the roadside market. Thus few of the mostly local sweet corn growers ever got to take advantage of that technology which could have saved them many insecticide sprays each season. The anti-GMO crowd tried to make a big issue of the new hybrids and threatened to sponsor a boycott of Wal-Mart if they carried the product.  Wal-Mart (an eight hundred pound gorilla if there ever was one) was bold enough to say that they saw no reason not to carry Bt sweet corn. Whether they actually did isn't clear.  Still, the controversy faded.

Perhaps scientists, farmers and reasonable people in general can encourage the gorillas to take a different stand this time.  For instance, I'd like to be first in line to buy "Arctic Apple"  from some brave retailer and then pass them out to friends and family. With social networking organizing something like that with lots of supporters is certainly possible.  Maybe things could start small with deliveries to a few distribution points in people's garages.  How about coming together to enjoy some fries from whatever restaurant is first willing to talk about using a healthier oil to cook low acrylamide potatoes?  How about writing campaigns to encourage gorilla companies to stand up to the purveyors of fear.

Gorilla image from Brocken Inaglory.  A good article on this topic in Delta Farm Press from 2003

Thursday, May 16, 2013

How Wrong Is The Latest Dirty Dozen List?

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) says that it "helps protect your family from pesticides." The purpose of this Applied Mythology post is to "help protect your family from dangerously misleading information from the EWG." Each year since 1991, the USDA has been publishing the results from a large-scale pesticide residue monitoring program called the PDP.  Each year, a different set of crops is chosen and samples are purchased from regular stores and tested. Year after year, the results of those studies confirm the safety of the food supply. Year after year the EWG misrepresents the data to say otherwise. To understand what that is like for the people who farm those crops, consider this analogy.

What if you were taking a college course that was critical for your graduation, but your entire grade was going to be based on a giant group project involving thousands of other students you didn't even know and with whom you could not even communicate.  Some of those student's test results would be chosen at random and the grade for everyone in the class would depend on how they did. When the grading is done, you find out that the class score was over 99% - a clear A+!  Then,  someone who doesn't really understand the topic of the class, or chooses not to,  re-grades the test and tells your potential future employers that you got a D, and many of them believe the incorrect grade.

This is much like what farmers have been experiencing for years. They grow a crop as best they can, and use pesticides only as necessary and within the strict rules established by the EPA. Much of what they use are pesticides with very low toxicity.  In years that their crop is selected for the PDP, random samples of their commodity are purchased in stores, including examples coming from other countries.  They are taken to federal and state laboratories and scrutinized for trace residues of hundreds of different chemical pesticides. When the data is finally published (usually two years later), the highly qualified experts of the USDA, EPA and FDA conclude that the system is working and that consumers should confidently purchase and eat the crop without concerns about residues.  In fact, studies show that the anti-cancer benefits of eating things like fruits and vegetable far, far outweigh and minuscule risk associated with pesticides.

Then each year, the EWG takes advantage of the transparent availability of the USDA-PDP data, but then performs their own "analysis" which experts have rejected as utterly anti-scientific.  They generate an incorrect "grade" for the crop and post it as part of their "Shopper's Guide," and on their notorious "Dirty Dozen List."  The grower's virtually perfect grade gets forgotten and what is passed along by an un-critical press and blogosphere is the distortion that the crop is "dirty." Many consumers believe this and heed the EWG's suggestion that they need to buy organic versions of that crop (the actual agenda of the EWG is the promotion of organic and also their own fundraising). Worse still, there is some evidence that this disinformation causes consumers to purchase and eat less produce. At a minimum, many consumers feel guilty for not buying organic.

As you can imagine, this is very frustrating for farmers. Some have joined in groups which are trying to get out a much more accurate interpretation of the data which is to say that the PDP confirms the that pesticides are well regulated and that the farming industry is doing a very good job.  They want to reclaim their rightful A+!

What Does The Data Really Say?

I decided to do an independent analysis of the latest PDP data (for growing year 2011, released earlier this year). The information is freely available from a USDA web site, but using it is a non trivial exercise. The zipped file expands to 92MB because it contains 2.2 million rows of information covering each of the hundreds of pesticides or metabolites looked for in each of the thousands of food samples. 1.75 million of those are for fruits and vegetables. Fortunately, even using the extremely sensitive analytical techniques available today, less than 1% of these rows are cases where some detectable residue was found.  I'd be happy to email you the 15,450 row Excel table left after eliminating all the non-detects.

To understand the significance of each detection it is necessary to know what the chemical is and what "tolerance" the EPA has established for it on each crop.  The tolerance is a very conservative threshold for how much residue represents an acceptable margin away from any health risk.  It is based on the best data and risk assessment tools available to EPA.  Not surprisingly, the tolerances for different chemicals are very different based on the details of their toxicological profile.  I've plotted the distribution of all the detections relative to crop/chemical-specific tolerance in the graph below.

For all 20 commodities tested from 2011, there were only 0.18% of residues found which were higher than the EPA tolerance.  In fact fully 1/2 of the detections were of levels more than 100 times lower than the already conservative tolerance.

There are differences between crops and between country of origin, but they are only between good and very good.  Snap peas were the "worst" example, particularly those imported from Central America (see above), but they still had 94% of detections below tolerance.  The few that were above are not particularly scary either (you can see the detail in the complete analysis I posted on SCRIBD).  Many crops had a "perfect score" of keeping all the residues below the tolerance (see graph to the right)

Quite appropriately, one of the "cleanest" crops was pear baby food.  When EPA sets the tolerance for baby food it is even more conservative than ever.  In this case all the detections were below tolerance and more than 99% of them were 10 times or more lower than the tolerance (graph below).

The people collecting samples for the PDP  do track whether the sample had an organic claim.  For most crops the number of organic samples is too low to make a meaningful comparison, but for pear baby food, 11.5% were organic.  Interestingly, among those 67 samples, there were 101 pesticide residues detected, only 33 of which are for the organically approved insecticide, Spinosad. The rest were for synthetic pesticides including some that are applied after harvest (such as DPA which prevents scald in storage). As with the conventional samples, these residues were at such tiny levels as to be of no concern, but for this and other crops, choosing organic does not guarantee "no pesticide residues,"  instead the same risk assessment process suggests safety for both the organic and conventional options.

How Does The EWG Ranking Compare to One Based on Science?

What I have been presenting is an analysis that pays attention to what the chemical is, what levels are found, and what the EPA has concluded from its risk assessment process.  The EWG's ranking ignores all of those factors.  I've taken the EWG's ranking (higher numbers are supposedly "cleaner") and  compared it with a tolerance-based measure which is the percent of the detections that are not even as much as 1/10th of the tolerance (again, high number = cleaner).  Not surprisingly, there is really no correlation between these two approaches (see below).

Again, none of these examples are really problematic, but cauliflower, which EWG calls part of the "clean 15" and ranks as number 34 in their list has the has more detections over 1/10th of the tolerance than other crops.  Apples, which are the worst according to EWG have 92% detections below 1/10th of tolerance - more than a great many other crops. Canned beets, for which not even one detection was noted among 756 samples from 2011, doesn't appear on EWG's "Clean 15" list or in the list at all. Again, the real "grades" are all "A's," just to different degrees.  It's like Lake Wobegon - all the crops are above average.

What is the take home message from all of this? Eat more fruit and vegetables! And don't worry about whether it is organic or not. The fact is that we know less about what is on organic produce than on conventional.

Full analysis posted as An Independent Analysis of the 2011 PDP Data on SCRIBD.  If you would like to look through the 15K row Excel table of detections, email me at

Feel free to comment here or to email me.