Saturday, July 27, 2013

My First Day In Hawaii Supporting Local Agriculture

The view of some of the islands of Hawaii as I headed for Kauai today
I landed in Kauai today around 1pm local time.  Renee, my host took me to lunch and then we went straight to Hanapepe - a very agricultural town on the West Side of the island.  

Just after we crossed the bridge pictured above we came to a large rally of sign waving people lining both sides of the road for several hundred yards on both sides.  It is a tradition here to use such events as a way to gain political support.  These were the rank and file employees of the seed companies that run winter nursery operations here, and it was their idea to come out and declare their pride in the work that they do.  300-350 people spent nearly 3 hours in the 90F heat and wind, and they got a great deal of support from the passing residents.

A small part of the crowd lining the road.
I'm glad that this was my first interaction on this trip.  It clarified the fact that the potential ramifications of this misguided county-level attempt to suppress the biotech industry is not so much about international companies as it is about jobs for the local community.  These people are proud of what they are working on, and they care as much as anyone about living in a safe environment.

In my last post I emphasized the fact that these island nurseries play a significant role in the global food supply.  Today I came to appreciate how much this is also about the real people who do that significant work.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Why I’m Going To Hawaii To Defend The Maize Winter Nurseries

Hawaii currently plays an important role in the global food supply – one far more important than that of its historical sugarcane and pineapple industries.  When the economic viability of plantation agriculture declined in the 1990s, a number of international seed companies began to use some of that land as a “winter nursery” site.  The mild climate allows multiple generations/year of crops like corn/maize.  This helps to accelerate the breeding, testing and early seed increase of that critically important feed/food/fuel crop. 

Globally over 850 million metric tons of maize is produced each year (2010 data, FAOStats).   Many regions of the world are net importers of maize (82 million metric tons total, Asia 49, Africa 12, Middle East 11, W. Europe 5.9, Caribbean 2.2, Central America 2.1).  This is a crop that matters.

Because the global maize crop has included transgenic hybrids for many years, much of the corn being grown in the nurseries is “GMO.”  Anti-GMO activists on Hawaii with support from elsewhere are trying to restrict or remove these nursery operations.  The County of Kauai is considering a bill (#2491) which, if passed, would make it not only impractical to continue the critical winter nursery work on “the garden isle,” but also virtually any kind of agriculture (including organic).  Karl Haro von Mogel has posted a good critique of the bill on Biofortified.

A volunteer from Kauai who is helping the local agricultural community organize a defense for the nursery industry and other types of farming contacted me.  She invited several of us who blog and speak about agricultural issues to come to Kauai.  I was asked if I could come and help diffuse some of the fear that has been generated by a distorted view of pesticide use in Kauai agriculture presented by the authors and supporters of bill #2491.  The Hawaii Department of Agriculture keeps records of all the sales of “Restricted-Use Pesticides” and those are available on request. “Restricted-Use Pesticide” is a term that can easily be made to sound scary – particularly if those talking about it never bother to look into what specific chemicals are involved and what “restricted-use” means for each of them.  I asked for the same data set.

I’ve taken several days of time to gather information and statistics from a variety of completely public sources that can put this particular pattern of pesticide use into perspective.  I’ll put up a detailed analysis later, but here are the hard data-based messages I hope to communicate in various forums in Hawaii next week:

·      The pesticides in question here are not the sort of toxic chemicals most people imagine.  98% of what is applied is less toxic gram-for-gram than the caffeine in your morning cup of coffee

·      These pesticides are not unusual – they are the same ones commonly used on millions of acres of corn in the US Midwest and the rates applied on Kauai are in the moderate to low range for corn

·      Quantities expressed in tons sound alarmingly large, but when one factors in the total area involved we are talking about 0.000043 pounds/square foot per year

·      As more evidence that these are not unusual chemicals, in 2011, 2.8 million pounds of these same pesticides were used on 164 different crops/settings in California in 51 counties

·      The main reason that these products are on the “Restricted-use” list is to insure that the users have the training necessary to take the necessary precautions so that they don’t move into bodies of water where they could be toxic to fish or other things.  With such care in application, there should be no environmental issues with the use

Some Historical Context

It has been 51 years since the publication of “Silent Spring.” The Environmental Movement that book helped to launch has achieved tremendous gains.  It has been 44 years since the EPA was established and it has become more and more sophisticated in its regulatory oversight designed to make pesticide use a low risk activity.  Billions of dollars have been spent in the discovery, testing and commercialization of newer, better pesticide options.  When it comes to crop biotechnology, this is the first form of crop improvement ever to be regulated at all and by no less than three federal agencies (USDA, EPA, FDA).  Our health and the environment are already being well protected through national and state regulation.  There is no justification for an entirely new, county-level regulatory process.

My Anticipated Reception

Because I will be defending the use of pesticides and biotechnology, I fully anticipate being accused of being a “shill.”  I’m rather used to that label after several years of blogging about such topics.  Yes, I am someone who gets paid to consult for ag technology companies, but the time I spend writing in defense of agriculture is actually counter-productive for my income.  I guess I must be a pro-bono shill.  This next week, and preparation for it, will cost me consulting income.  I’m going to miss a week out of the special month of my grand daughter’s summer visit.  I’m also under no delusion that I can convince many of those who will see me as part of some grand conspiracy.  My hope is to present some solid, data-based perspective for people whose minds are still open.

My Motivations

I’m going to Hawaii because I’m sympathetic to the people who work in agriculture there, and I don’t want to see those good jobs lost to the Kauai economy. But the main reason I’m willing to go is that I think the winter nursery activity in Hawaii matters for the future of the global food supply.  Technology as such, including biotechnology, is not what will feed the world.  Only farmers can do that.  But to do that, farmers need to integrate a full “toolbox” of wise agronomic practices, elite genetics, useful traits, crop protection chemicals, sophisticated equipment, and good information in order to do their crucial job.  Through the agency of such farmers, something like the 12,000 maize winter nursery acres on Kauai can enhance production efficiency and/or reduce risk on hundreds of millions of acres of that crop around the world.  It would be a tragedy to let unfounded and unevaluated fears compromise that contribution.

You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me at  If anyone wants help with access to  the information about pesticides and their use data I'm happy to show you how to find it. I tweet a bit @grapedoc

Monday, July 22, 2013

10 Ways That We Already Reduce Food Waste (6 to 10)

Food waste is a big problem, particularly in the developing world, but also in the rich world.   I have seen quite a bit written recently about how one of the best ways to improve the sustainability and lower the footprint of food production would be to reduce waste.  While this is absolutely true, the perspective that has been missing is that we have been working on this issue for a very long time and have made significant advances over the last several decades.

That does not mean there isn't plenty of room for additional progress, but that is harder than many might imagine.  I think that by considering what has already been done, we can get a perspective on the remaining challenges.  I'd like to focus on fruit and vegetables and to talk about just 10 of the many ways that industry routinely reduces food waste.  I already posted methods 1-5 and this is the second half.

6. Sprout Inhibitors  

Potatoes kept too long in the pantry

Most of us have experienced having a bag of potatoes begin to sprout.  If you catch this early you can still use the potatoes, but fairly soon these potatoes become unusable.  Globally, potatoes are stored on a huge basis.  Whether it is for supplying the fresh market or for making efficient use of processing facilities for fries or chips, it is necessary to store potatoes for many months.  If the potatoes are stored cold enough so that they don't sprout for a long time, they accumulate "reducing sugars" and brown excessively when cooked due to the Malliard Reaction. So, at a key point in storage, potatoes are exposed to certain volatile chemicals which keep them from sprouting.  There is continuing innovation in this area and recently some new options have been developed which have some advantages.  In any case, without these tools there would be a great deal more wasted potatoes.

7. Active Packaging

"Bagged Salads" are, at least for old-timers like me, a relatively new innovation in the produce industry.  They have revolutionized salads both for home and at most restaurants.  In the old days, salad was made with "iceberg lettuce," one of the only forms of that vegetable that could handle shipping.  Some innovative post-harvest scientists in the 1990s came up with plastic bag materials which have selective gas exchange properties and effectively create a "modified atmosphere" in the bag that allows something as labile as "spring mix" to be shipped as a ready-to-use salad product.  The main barrier these companies had to overcome was getting retailers to display them in a refrigerated display.  Once they did that, our salad consumption radically changed to a much more interesting and health-enhancing option, which also happens to fit our convenience-driven lifestyles.  There are many other examples where consumer level packaging is used to reduce food waste by actively modifying the atmosphere in the bag.

8. Ethylene Management

Plants make a volatile hormone that is the simple, small molecule, ethylene.  It is involved in various processes like stress response, but for many fruits and vegetables it is a key factor in ripening.  Species whose ripening is very much effected by ethylene are called, "climacteric."  For many species, we manage the influence of this hormone to reduce food waste.  Bananas and tomatoes are classic, climacteric crops.  Long ago we learned that if you harvest these crops at a certain early stage of maturity, you can ship them a long ways, and then induce the ripening process by putting them in a room with ethylene.  The entire ocean shipped commercial banana industry and most of the Florida tomato industry is based on this process.  For many crops that are picked at riper stages, it is better for food waste reduction if they don't "see" more ethylene en-route to the store/consumer.  There are a variety of technologies for taking the ethylene out of storage rooms, shipping containers, or even cases of the product.  There is another particularly cool technology for managing ethylene "perception" by crops.  Fruits and vegetables receive the hormonal signal of ethylene through specific receptor proteins that bind ethylene and trigger a cascade of gene expression.  The receptors then release the ethylene and wait for more signal.  Researchers at North Carolina State University in 1997 discovered some other small, volatile compounds, which are bound by those same receptors, but in an irreversible fashion.  When extremely tiny amounts of this non-toxic gas are introduced, the fruit/vegetable stops "seeing" ethylene.  One of these has been commercialized and has greatly improved the quality of apples in storage, keeping them crisper and more fresh tasting.

9. Minimal Processing

Sometimes it makes sense to change the way that things like vegetables are shipped versus what was traditional.  The best example is broccoli.  For a long time it was sold by the bunch with a substantial amount of stem.  Few consumers used the stem. Then the industry started offering "broccoli crowns," which were just the flower that most people actually eat.  Now one typically sees "broccoli florets" which are already pre-chopped for steaming or stir-frying.  In both cases, the stem section is not discarded; it is chopped and put into "slaw" (broccoli is the same species as cabbage so it works well for that).  So not only is the stem saved from going into the landfill via consumers, there are fewer pounds shipped, and more of the product used as food.  There are many other examples like this.

10. Fresh-Cut

A rapidly growing part of the produce industry meets a combination of demand for convenience and the goal of reduced food waste.  Most consumers don't know it, but most restaurants and many food manufacturers don't cut up their own produce in kitchens or processing lines.  Much of this work is now done near the source.  One great example is from the largest processor of onions in California - Gills Onions.  They provide huge amounts of sliced and diced onions to restaurants and food companies.  They generate a huge amount of onion skins, as well as any onions that are not usable.  As you can imagine, that can be a rather large and stinky waste issue.  Gills installed an anaerobic digester that turns much of that waste into methane, which they then burn, as a renewable, carbon-neutral energy source to power their processing facility.  The restaurants etc. would probably not made such good use of the waste.  

On the consumer side, the carrot industry was transformed when the idea of carrot sticks was introduced.  First of all, the carrot producers were able to use tons of carrots that did not pass purely cosmetic standards for sale because even a crooked carrot could be turned into several usable sticks.  Also, they were able to use the remainder of the carrot for various products like slaws, juice or for animal feed.  When we all used to peel carrots at home, lots of that ended up in non-optimal scenarios, like the landfill.  Also, once again, this and other "fresh cut" options have served to help over-busy consumers to eat more produce.  Another great example is apple slices.  These can be generated from small apples that would not fit industry/retailer standards and which might go to low value and somewhat reduced nutritional options like sauce or juice.

I've really only scratched the surface of the food waste reduction innovations that have been put in place.  Again, there is room for improvement, but much of what is left to do is really in the hands of retailers and consumers.

You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me at  I tweet a bit @grapedoc e.g. when I put up a new post.

(sprouting potato image from Stallio. Bagged salad image from Gudlyf.  Broccoli floret image from Sk8geek.  Diced onions image from Steven Depolo)

10 Ways We Already Reduce Food Waste (1 to 5)

Food waste is a big problem in the rich world, and even more so in the developing world.  Recently, much has been written suggesting that one of the best ways to improve the sustainability and lower the footprint of food production is to reduce waste. While this is absolutely true, the missing perspective is that efforts to reduce food waste have been going on for a very long time, and significant advances have been made over the last several decades.

That does not mean there isn't plenty of room for additional progress, but that is harder than many might imagine.  I think that by considering what has already been done, we can get a perspective on the remaining challenges. I'd like to focus on fruit and vegetables and to talk about just 10 of the many ways that industry routinely reduces food waste. I'll cover methods 1 to 5 here and 6 to 10 in tomorrow's post.

1. Cold Chain Management

The introduction of large-scale ice delivery and ultimately refrigeration completely transformed the global and local food system.  For a detailed and fascinating description of that radical change in the food supply, I recommend Susanne Freidberg's excellent book, "Fresh: A Perishable History."
A fascinating book I'd highly recommend

 I would like to describe some of the recent refinements of the “cold chain.”  Fruits and vegetables are living, breathing organisms, but all these life processes slow dramatically at cold temperatures. It is often said that an hour at room temperature is like a day in the refrigerator in terms of the fate of produce.

For many commodities, the most urgent need is to get rid of the field heat within the produce.  This is now typically done with either forced-air or hydro-cooling. When fresh produce is shipped in trucks or train cars, it is now routine to have continuous monitoring of temperature throughout the load to warn of "temperature excursions" that could compromise future quality and shelf-life.  Sophisticated receivers of produce know that different items need to be held at different temperatures.  Some things do best held just above freezing.  Some tropicals cannot take cold. Tomatoes lose flavor if stored too cold.  Something like a peach can't be held at a compromise middle temperature range (which was common in the past) because that causes it to develop that mealy, disappointing texture most of us have experienced.  Some retailers, notably Costco, have recognized that it is best not to break the cold chain all the way until the sale. Their walk-in cold rooms help you reduce food waste at your home and reduce food waste in their store.

2. Controlled Atmosphere Storage and/or Shipping

Back in the 1950s, scientists learned that if you put produce in storage rooms or containers in which the balance of oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide have been altered, the metabolism of the produce can be shifted so that it can be stored or shipped over longer periods of time without losing quality.  The apple industry adopted this approach in the 1960s and transformed itself from a late summer-fall, seasonal crop, to a nearly year-round crop.  This sort of atmospheric modification - customized for each commodity - is what allows us to enjoy many tropical fruits that would not normally have been able to be shipped here (btw, ocean shipping is extremely energy efficient).  A modified atmosphere used at the wrapped pallet level in strawberries is a major factor in reducing store/customer waste for that popular fruit.

3. Bruise Prevention

I ate most of these delicious apricots before taking this picture

Most fresh produce is delicate and some is very delicate.  The process of picking, handling, sorting, packaging and transport gives abundant opportunity for physical damage.  That damage leads to bruising and often to injuries that open the way for rot organisms or just plain nasty smelling bacteria and yeast to turn good items into food waste.  There have been scores of innovations applied over the decades to reduce all these forms of damage.  The most obvious to the consumer may be packaging which nestles each item to prevent not only physical damage, but also the spread of decay from one fruit to the next.  Very delicate items like strawberries are "field packed" so that they can be carefully loaded into the final consumer package at the edge of the field, minimizing the opportunities for bruising.  Packing lines often move fruit in flumes of water so that bruising on hard surfaces can be avoided.  The suspension on the trucks used for shipping may be enhanced to prevent vibration damage.  These are only a few of the methods used.

4. Waxes and Coatings

Many people dislike the idea of fruit being waxed, but unwaxed fruit rapidly degrades to something that a retailer would have to discard. That is why waxing is a key means of preventing food waste.  The materials used are often from natural sources, but more importantly they have been well tested for safety.  
There is an interesting example of how a wax made a huge difference in the pineapple business.  When I was growing up and until the 1990s, pineapples were often a very disappointing purchase - so sour that they were nearly inedible.  That sort of thing is a major cause of food waste that I call "disappointment shrink." Some researchers came up with a particular wax composition that effectively created a "modified atmosphere" within each pineapple, and this allowed the much better tasting "Golden Pineapple" to successfully make the trip from the tropics to our markets.  Pineapple consumption has been increasing ever since.

5. Post-harvest Fungicides

A lemon infected by the mold, Penicillium

Perhaps the main cause of food waste for fruits and vegetables is decay caused by fungi - what most people would call mold. During the picking process and in packing lines, produce packers eliminate any obviously infected items, but invisible "latent infections" can be present which occurred in the field and spores can get into even the smallest site of damage. If the cold chain is working well, these infections may not be apparent when the store or distribution center receives the shipment.  It may not even become apparent in the store depending on how quickly the produce is sold.  But these infections may turn what you hoped would be delicious into a spore-bomb or maybe a berry which looked ok but which had that awful, moldy taste.  To reduce this major source of food waste throughout the chain, a very small and select group of fungicides have been approved for use in the packing process, mainly for certain kinds of fruit.  Obviously these fungicides need to be products with no mammalian toxicity and also, ideally very low use rates.  Fortunately such options do exist and they are preventing a great deal of food waste.  As a long-term consumer, I have been observing steady progress in this area.

I've really only scratched the surface of the food waste reduction innovations that have been put in place.  Again, there is still room for improvement, but much of what is left to do is really in the hands of retailers and consumers.

Food reduction methods 6-10 tomorrow.

You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me at  I tweet @grapedoc

Image of grey mold on strawberries from Steve Koike of UC Extension (a fellow grad student back in the early 80s).  Fuji apple image from wikimedia commons.  Golden pineapple image from Delmonte.  Moldy lemon image from Monster Pete