Monday, February 15, 2016

Using DNA To Fight Fabric Fraud

California Pima Cotton
(This post originally appeared on Forbes 2/13/16)

The most desirable cotton is distinguished by having extra-long staple fibers (Egyptian, Pima) and such cotton commands a price premium. But as the cotton moves around the world, and through the fabric value chain, there is the potential for it to be diluted with or fraudulently replaced with lower price, lower quality materials. Clothing manufacturers like to make quality-related or sourcing claims, but the closer an item gets to the retail shelf, the more difficult it is to certify that the garment is really made from the type of cotton they intended. A company based on Long Island called Applied DNA Sciences (NASDAQ: APDN) has developed ways to identify what is real and what is not in this market. They can verify cotton items by identifying the native cotton species via DNA testing. Their methods can tag and test cotton textiles and finished goods using DNA technology to provide a means for traceability to the source were the cotton was grown and harvested. They employ sophisticated DNA testing of the type typically used in human forensics – the kind of thing you might see on an episode of CSI.

Scanning Electron Micrograph of Cotton Fibers (Wikipedia)

How does this work? Each cotton fiber was originally a living plant cell, and so it had the full compliment of cotton genes. By the time the cotton boll has matured, the cells are no longer viable and the DNA begins to degrade, something that continues during the many steps of ginning, spinning, weaving, dying etc. Still, enough DNA fragments remain to allow ADNAS to detect important elements of its genetic signature. They can already tell the difference between something like the premium Pima varieties and common upland cotton also known as fiberTyping Recently ADNAS has partnered with the Agricultural Research Service Genetics Unit of the US Department of Agriculture to genetically verify multiple types of individual cotton cultivars, and assist the cotton industry in protecting quality, traceability and economic investments. The USDA scientists have an extensive collection of cotton germplasm from around the world. Like many crops, the cotton has to be adapted to the growing conditions in each region. That means that cotton grown in India, China, Spain, Egypt or Uzbekistan may have unique and detectable differences in their DNA. In the near future a clothing company may be able to make label claims about cotton quality and origins no matter how convoluted the path has been from the farm to the store. In addition to quality issues, responsible clothing manufacturers want to be able to avoid sourcing their cotton from parts of the world where undesirable practices like forced child labor are known to happen. This will also protect the farmers who grow the high quality product. There are many other logical applications of this sort of technology such as olive oil, premium wine or the dietary supplement industry.

Applied DNA Sciences has an additional system that it calls “SigNature-T” which can be used to intentionally “tag” cotton or other commodities for aspects of how they were produced - things that go beyond anything specific to the plant’s own genetics. For instance an on-the-ground certifier could inspect a crop to document the fact that it was grown with sustainable farming practices like no-till and cover cropping. ADNAS has identified certain unique, botanically-derived, DNA tags which they can produce, and then apply in tiny amounts to the cotton at a step like ginning. Later, that DNA signature can be detected to say, “yes, this cotton was produced with x,y or z desirable methods” because those specific DNA tags can only be there if the certifier allowed it. The same thing could be done in many crops to verify a variety of claims.

USDA-ARS Shot Of No-Till Cotton

Cotton has been a logical place for ADNAS to begin because it represents literally hundreds of millions of tons of product from around the world, and they have the capacity to do the tracking for that kind of volume. But all plant-based products carry with them distinctive “stories” written in their own DNA or which could be added as micro amounts of DNA tags. Through the incredible advances in the field of molecular biology, those stories can now be used to encourage and reward “integrity” in the system.

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Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Why The Current Round Of Ag-Chem Consolidations Worries This Agricultural Scientist

This no-till field is good for the environment and the food supply.
Such innovations involve many expert contributions

I am concerned that we may be on the verge of a major loss of knowledge and experience in the agricultural sector. In the 40 years I have worked with agricultural technology companies I have witnessed many changes. There was a major round of consolidation in the late 1990s and that is happening again today. There are reasons that these trends can make business sense and can be good for shareholders. There can also be problematic aspects of consolidation. Many expressed concerns with antitrust issues in the Monsanto-Syngenta connection, which didn't end up happening, and now with the Dupont-Dow merger, which looks like it will.

That isn't what worries me -- it will still be a competitive sector. I'm concerned about a likely loss of expert knowledge about agriculture.

When companies merge there is a seemingly irresistible financial incentive to get the most experienced (and thus highly paid) employees to take early retirement as a way to deal with "redundancies." Perhaps this won't be as much of an issue with Syngenta, a chemical discovery and biotech company that agreed Wednesday to be bought by ChemChina, a generics player. However, if the retirement strategy is employed in this or the rest of the current wave of consolidations, it will lead to a loss of deep knowledge and experience that could not come at a worse juncture in the history of the food supply.  (Let me be clear that I have no insider information about any of the pending deals or corporate employment plans.  I have consulted across the industry since 1996, but at the mid-level technology level, not in corporate strategy or financial circles).
Between 1960 and 2010, agricultural output increased mainly through higher yields.
That required a great deal of technical and farmer innovation driven by knowledge
(based on FAOStats data)

Global agriculture is a diverse and complex phenomenon that involves unique challenges and unpredictable risks. The extraordinary success of this industry in meeting food demand while improving sustainability relies on a combination of business understanding and technical knowledge that is not easily learned. People with decades of experience on either the business or science side (or often both) are critical to negotiating the threats and opportunities before us. It will be far from trivial to meet the food demand of the growing population and the consumption desires of the expanding middle classes in previously poor regions. To do this without needing to expand the base of farmed land will require talent and expertise. This increased demand is happening with the added uncertainty of climate change and the spread of "exotic" pests in an ever more connected world. A major wave of retirements could seriously compromise our resources of skill, experience and wisdom needed to meet these challenges.

This likely retirement scenario is even more concerning because of the lack of new, skilled talent coming into the agricultural industry. Ag technology companies have been having an extraordinarily difficult time finding qualified new hires because very few young people today are interested in the scientific fields that are critical for agriculture (entomology, agronomy, soil science, plant pathology, plant breeding...).  I don't know the reasons, but I suspect that the widespread demonization of "industrial agriculture" has much to do with this phenomenon. As it is, companies are having to hire people with other degrees (e.g. environmental sciences or even the humanities) and train them from scratch. That isn't impossible with bright and willing people, but if many of their best potential mentors are departing, it becomes far more difficult.

I don't want to imply that the sky is falling. There are still a great many talented people who will be involved in advancing agricultural technology.  However, I do think that the industry and/or society needs to consider some creative ways to allow continued access to the collective experience of those who may soon "retire".  Consulting or some sort of part time "emeritus" status might be possibilities, but those can have tax and retirement income problems. For many industries we would be wise to fix our system so we don't dis-incentivize a graceful wind-down of careers. Perhaps some of the retirees can be hired by other AgChem companies who need their expertise. With modern life expectancies, retirement in one's 60s can easily mean 20 years of lost contribution potential.  It's not that I begrudge my slightly older colleagues a well deserved rest or the chance to start a new chapter in their lives. I just don't want society to lose the unique aspects of what they know.

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Inconvenient Truth: There Are Pesticide Residues On Organic

(Originally posted on Forbes 2/8/16)

A recent review article in the scientific journal Nature Plants makes the claim that organic produces "foods that contain less (or no) pesticide residues, compared with conventional farming."  That's not what the latest USDA-PDP (Pesticide Data Program) information about pesticide residues says. What that transparent source of tax payer-supported research indicates is that 40 different synthetic pesticide residues were detected on organic food samples at levels similar to what was seen for the comparable conventional food samples. In both cases the amounts are too small to be a health/safety concern, but this certainly does not fit the standard organic narrative.
Commodity breakdown of the food samples used
for pesticide residue testing in 2014
For the 2014 survey, USDA scientists collected just over 10,000 samples of 15 crops taken from ordinary retail food channels.  The scientists then used extremely sensitive laboratory methods to check for traces of hundreds of different chemicals.  409 of the samples were labeled as organic, and residues were detected in 87 of them.  Thus 21% of the organic samples had detectable residues representing 142 detections in 78 crop/chemical combinations.  That detection percent is lower than for conventional, but the PDP testing does not have the capacity to detect several of the most commonly used, organic-approved pesticides like sulfur, copper compounds, mineral oils or Bt.  Those materials can't be measured with the same technology used for the other chemicals, so the USDA has chosen not to test for them. If they did, the detection percentage for organic would be much higher.  One organic-approved pesticide that is measured by the USDA is called Spinosad, and it was detected on 13 organic crops as expected.  However, the other 40 of the 41 different pesticides detected on the organic foods were synthetic chemicals that are not approved for use on organic.

Finding synthetic pesticide residues on organic is not unprecedented.  Earlier, larger surveys of organic conducted by the USDA and by Canadian Food Inspection Agency found un-approved residues in at least 40% of samples.  The normal explanation of this is that it represents inadvertent spray drift or cross-contamination in harvesting bins etc.  Many of the detections are at such low levels they fit those scenarios, but interestingly when I looked at the conventional detections for the same 78 chemical/crop combinations, the organic detections were only significantly lower in 26 cases, and the organic detections were equal to or higher than those in conventional for 30 cases (see chart below).

Note how for many chemical/crop combinations the level
detected in organic was similar to or greater than
that in conventional samples

For organic advocates and organic marketers this sort of information leaves one of two possibilities.  They can agree with the EPA and other responsible agencies that consumers need not be concerned about the low-level pesticide residues found in either conventional and organic food.  Alternatively they could choose not to believe those authorities and be forced to conclude that organic food is unsafe.  For consumers the logical take-home message is that between our rigorous regulatory regime and our responsible farming communities, we can enjoy a safe, healthy diet full of fruits and vegetables without having to believe that safety is only available at a price premium.
There are several ways that you can review this information for yourself.  The USDA published a "what consumers need to know" document, a fact sheet, and a 230 page summary.  They also make the raw data available for download (as long as you are up for processing a 2.2 million row, 98MB table).  I like to take advantage of all that detailed, transparent data, and I will be publishing a more complete, independent analysis soon.
Twenty-three percent of the detections in organic were of old organochlorine or organophosphate insecticides or their metabolites (e.g. DDT, monocrotophos...). These are persistent environmental contaminants (they have been banned for decades). These chemicals are found in both organic and conventional samples at levels in the low part per billion range. This is an unfortunate artifact of pre-EPA history, but fortunately not a current health threat.  Three point five percent of the organic detections were for currently-used carbamate and organophosphate insecticides (Oxamyl, Carbaryl and Chlorpyrifos and Dimethoate), but all at levels well below current safety tolerances.  Seven point seven percent of detections were of neonicitinoid insecticides, and 9% were synthetic pyrethroids.  Other insecticides made up 3.5% of the detections.  Fifteen different fungicides represent 25% of the detections. There were detections of two different herbicides, 2 of a miticide and 3 of an insecticide synergist. Again, these detections are, for both organic and conventional, at levels too low to be of concern.  Indeed, what the the data demonstrates is how far below.
The reason that the USDA has been conducting its Pesticide Detection Program since 1991 is to monitor how well the system is working to insure that farmers can control damaging pests and still supply food that is safe for consumers.  What the data has consistently shown is that these goals are being met and that consumers can confidently enjoy a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables.
However, an organization called the Environmental Working Group has severely mis-used these data year after year to construct what they call their "dirty dozen list."  They are funded by many of the big players in the organic market (Organic Valley, Stonyfield Farms, Earthbound Farms, Applegate, Klean Kanteen, Dr. Bronner Soaps, Beauty Counter, Juice Beauty, Brown Advisory, Nature’s Path, Annie’s), and their goal is to frighten consumers away from conventional food and towards organic. The problem is that their non-scientific approach of simply counting detections regardless of the level or identity of the chemical would classify organic as "dirty" as well.  Consumers should simply ignore the disinformation that comes from EWG and consider not supporting the companies that fund them.

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Tuesday, February 2, 2016

A New Gig For Bees: Start-up in Canada Enlists Bees To Deliver Pest Control Agents

A honey bee visits and apple blossom.  It may someday
be protecting that flower from a bacterial infection
(This post originally appeared on Forbes on 2/1/16)

Bees and other pollinator insects are critical for the production of 15-30% of the crops on which we depend. Honey bees also supply us with delicious honey. There is yet another service that we may soon be getting through the agency of this hard-working category of insects. There is a start-up company in Ontario, Canada called BVT (Bee Vectoring Technology), which is enlisting bees in the control of crop pests. This idea has been explored for some time, but BVT is hammering out the practical and regulatory steps needed to make it a commercial reality working with both honeybees and bumble bees. I’ll explain the logic behind this approach below.
Apple trees damaged by fire blight, a bacterial
disease that enters through flowers (photo 

Because bees selectively and efficiently visit the flowers on a crop, they are ideal candidates to deliver biological agents or chemicals to manage several important plant diseases whose infective strategy involves flowers. One example would be Fire blight of apples and pears, caused by a bacterium that only infects through flowers (Erwinia amylovora). An antibiotic or biological control agent delivered by bees would be an elegant solution. There is also a group fungal pathogens which colonize the petals and other portions of the flowers after they decline (various species of BotrytisSclerotinia and Monilinia).These fungi use the energy-base of the dead flower parts in order to grow their way into the green, growing portions of the plant.  They cause serious diseases of sunflowersCanolaalmondsstrawberries, and stone fruits. Once again, bees can be a targeted agent to get fungicides or biocontrol agents in place on the flowers to then deny that foothold to the pathogens.
Brown rot of stone fruits may eventually
destroy the fruit, but the infection of flowers
is a key stage of the disease (
Photo APS)

When bee-delivered, control can be more effective than general, foliar sprays because they can arrive at each flower as it opens, something that happens over a period of time. Bee-delivered products use ~95% less material because they are not being applied to anything in the orchard or field other than the flowers. Obviously the pest control agents have to be safe for the bees themselves and pass all the other regulatory screens for human and environmental safety, but there are many promising options that can meet those hurdles. There may even be agents that the bees can move back into their hives to control some of their own pests.
Note the red Varroa mite on this honey bee.  That serious
parasite also spread virus diseases of bees
BVT’s work is based on 20 years of research initiated at the University of Guelph by entomologist John Sutton, plant pathologist Peter Kevan and agronomist Todd Mason. They have developed a tray of powder placed at the hive door so that the bees pick up some material to spread to flowers. Field trials conducted with Les Shipp of Agriculture Canada have been very encouraging and BVT, is working with bee specialists like Sydney Cameron of the University of Illinois to insure bee safety. The CEO, Michael Collinson, is confident that BVT will be able to make a major contribution to Integrated Pest Management systems and to do so in a way which is good for both farmers and bees.

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