Tuesday, December 13, 2016

How Can Pesticides Be Safe?

Many people may find it difficult to imagine how a pesticide could ever be safe. To understand how that is possible, it is helpful to make the comparison with something more familiar: electricity.
It is hard to envision modern life without electricity. As much as we enjoy and need this source of energy, it involves some hazards. Electricity can, and sometimes does, cause injury or death.  Yet overall, we think of using electricity as a reasonably safe aspect of our lives.
Safety can’t be precisely defined. What we perceive as safe is something where the benefits more than offset the minimal risks. We can enjoy electricity’s benefits with little risk through two main strategies: 1) using low-hazard forms of electricity and 2) keeping ourselves from being exposed to hazardous forms of electricity.
The Low-Hazard Approach
Increasingly, we power the devices central to our lifestyles with forms of electricity that are practically non-hazardous. The prime examples would be our cell phones, Bluetooth devices, or portable music players that run on low-voltage, direct current electricity which is nearly incapable of causing us harm.  That same, low-hazard approach plays an important role in pesticide safety.
In the middle of the last century, a number of the early pesticides in use were chemicals that were quite toxic to mammals, and thus to humans. The U.S. began to seriously address the issue with the establishment of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970. Soon, the truly dangerous pesticides were removed from the market or their use was greatly restricted.
Since then, billions of dollars have been spent on the discovery, testing and regulatory review of new, far less toxic pesticide options. In the charts below, I’ve examined the toxicity of crop protection materials that have been used through looking at historical U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) data on Washington State apples and California pesticide reporting data from all crops in 2013. In these charts, the toxicity is based on feeding studies with rats or mice, which is used as an indicator of potential toxicity to humans. Other measures of toxicity have similar trends.
The EPA has four toxicity categories to classify the acute hazards of pesticide products. For use in apple orchards, the data show that pesticides from EPA Category I, Highly Toxic, were never more than 10% of the total pesticides used, and that their use has steadily declined. These would be pesticides as toxic as the nicotine that is sold for e-cigarettes. Only 0.2% of the pesticides applied to California crops in 2013 were in this category.

EPA Category II, Moderately Toxic, includes materials with toxicity in the same range as the capsaicin in hot peppers or the caffeine in coffee – familiar and even sought-after natural chemicals in our diets. That category represents very limited use on apples today, and only 18% of what growers applied in California apple orchards in 2013.
The pesticide use category that has grown is termed Slightly Toxic (EPA Category III). Toxicity for crop protection materials in this category is in the same range as the citric acid in a lemon or the vanillin in a vanilla bean.
The largest category of pesticides applied to apples and other crops today is Practically Non-Toxic for mammalian consumption (EPA Category IV). Comparing this to our use of electricity, we can see that low hazard is a major strategy through which we minimize pesticide risk.
To understand how something that is designed to kill or otherwise control a pest could be non-hazardous, consider the example of chocolate which has a flavor ingredient that we humans love but which can be toxic to our pet dogs. Chemicals can have different effects on different species. Scientists use the terms specificity and mode of action to describe how chemicals have their specific effects. With modern pesticides, the mode of action is normally the inhibition of some specific enzyme that is important to the viability of the pest. If the enzyme is inhibited by the pesticide, the pest might stop eating, stop growing and/or die.
That enzyme often isn’t one that even exists in humans and other animals ourselves or in other groups of organisms unlike the pest. A modern insecticide usually only affects enzymes that are found in insects or even a few kinds of insects. A modern herbicide might only inhibit an enzyme that is needed for the growth of plants. A modern fungicide inhibits an enzyme in a pathway of enzymes that is found in certain fungi. While all of these products should still be handled with a reasonable degree of caution, they are, like the electricity that powers our cell phones, low hazard and thus low risk. We can feel safe about their use.
Limiting Exposure Risk When There Is a Hazard
We still need the more hazardous forms of electricity (such as the 120 volt alternating current) for needs like lighting, heat, air conditioning etc. To minimize risk, we’ve developed safe guards such as systems of insulated wiring, childproof plugs, circuit breakers and GFCI outlets to keep us from being exposed to that hazard. Where we need 220 volt service, we have even more ways to avoid exposure. To be connected to the grid we need the extremely hazardous, high-voltage electricity coming to us from wherever it is generated. The high-power transmission lines are designed to make it unlikely that anyone will be exposed to that extremely hazardous form of electricity.
Some pesticides that we need to manage certain pests represent a possible hazard to mammals, like humans, or sometimes to other non-target organisms like birds, fish amphibians or aquatic invertebrates. The safe use of these pesticides is all about limiting exposure. For all pesticides used in agriculture, anyone who is directly involved in the mixing or application of the chemical must follow specific requirements regarding protective clothing and equipment. For low-hazard materials, that might just be gloves, closed shoes and a dust mask. For something that could be a significant human hazard, those restrictions would include a respirator and a protective whole-body TYVEC™ suit.
Restrictions can also dictate how soon after an application anyone can re-enter a treated field (re-entry interval or REI). For low-hazard pesticides, that time period can be a few hours or less. For more hazardous pesticides, the REI can be a number of days. For pesticides that are hazardous to fish or other aquatic organisms, restrictions mandate how close applicators can apply them to waterways. Similarly, for pesticides that are hazardous to bees or other pollinators, restrictions control when applicators can apply them relative to bloom times and/or times of the day when bees and other pollinators are working.
For all pesticides, the EPA conducts an extensive risk assessment and uses that information to set up a detailed set of restrictions designed to prevent the existence of any residues of concern to consumers by the time the crop is harvested. The details of this system are discussed in another post titled, Do I Need to be Concerned about Pesticide Residues on and in My Food?
The moral of this story: just like electricity, pesticides can be used in a way that meets our need for clean, productive farming while giving us a comfortable and functional level of safety.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Do You Really Need To Worry About Pesticide Residues On Your Food?

fresh fruits and vegetables
Some of the healthy fruits and vegetable we can enjoy (Image from Wikimedia)
Many Americans have concerns about pesticide residues on food – particularly for fruits and vegetables. In contrast with that oft-communicated perception, the safety of our food supply is well documented. One reason for this disconnect is that there are activist groups (non-governmental organizations) that consistently promote the idea that consumers should buy organic versions of certain crops in order to avoid pesticidesA recent study documented how that sort of message induces some lower income Americans to simply avoid fruits and vegetables all together. The truth is that our food supply is extremely safe because farmers are careful to use pesticides in ways that don’t lead to residue problems at the consumer level and because of rigorous regulation followed by farmers over the last several decades.
The common perception of organic as a safer option in this regard is also at odds with reality. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which oversees organic certification, clearly states on its National Organic Program website: “Our regulations do not address food safety or nutrition.” Organic farmers can and do use pesticides from an approved list, but that list is not based on safety criteria. Organic growers are limited to natural chemicals and to a limited list of synthetic materials. As with any crop protection material, the EPA has the responsibility to evaluate and regulate their safe use. That oversight is why consumers can confidently enjoy both conventional and organic foods.
In this post I will describe the testing, regulatory and training systems that are in place in the US to protect consumers from risks associated with pesticide residues. I will also describe the intense monitoring system that demonstrates year-after-year that this system is working.
All farmers face challenges from a variety of pests and although they use a number of methods to manage those threats, pesticides are a critical part of that “toolbox.” The broad category “pesticide” includes certain chemicals that occur in nature as well as various synthetic chemicals. There are also pesticide products based on living biological agents. The responsibility for pesticide regulation is with the Environmental Protection Agency or EPA. It determines how pesticides can be used safely, based on their particular intrinsic properties, and by restrictions on how and when they can be used.

EPA Risk Assessments

Before any new pesticidal product can be sold in the United States, an extensive list of toxicological tests must be performed and reported to the EPA. The company that makes or which will sell the product is responsible for the cost of this testing, but most of the work is performed in contract labs that are closely audited by EPA. The tests evaluate many different facets of potential toxicity for human and environmental health, both in terms of short-term effects (acute toxicity via consumption, by skin exposure, by inhalation exposure…) and long-term effects on development, organ health, reproduction, and potential carcinogenicity. In addition, a great deal of data has to be generated to show what happens to the chemical over time on the food, and in the environment in terms of its persistence, movement, and breakdown into innocuous ingredients. It costs on the order of $286,000,000 and can take more than 10 years to generate all of this required data. EPA then uses these data to conduct an extensive “risk assessment.” Based on that assessment, EPA develops “label requirements” specifying how, on which plants, when, and how much of the pesticide can be used. These risk assessments cover issues of worker safety, environmental impact and also what sort of residues might be left by the time the crop is harvested, and any potential risk to human health.
Some safe, delicious apples ready for harvest in western Washington this summer

Pesticide Tolerances (or MRLs)

With regard to pesticide residues at harvest, EPA designs the label requirements to make sure that any residues still present when the food gets to the consumer are below what is called a “tolerance.” (Outside the US this is called an MRL or maximum residue limit). The tolerance is set to insure that there is a substantial margin of safety (typically 100-fold) between the allowed residue and any level to establish reasonable certainty of no harm to humans. EPA then sets limits on how much of the pesticide can be applied and how close to when the crop is going to be harvested so that the tolerance is unlikely to be exceeded when farmers use the product.
These tolerances are very conservative limits and represent such small amounts that they can be difficult to envision. For instance, a tolerance might be five (5) parts per million. That can be visualized as to two drops of water in a five (5) gallon carboy. Some tolerances are set as low as one part per billion (e.g. one drop in 528 carboys). In summary, tolerances are extremely small levels of pesticide residue, set as a conservative standard for human safety, and customized to the specific properties of the each chemical.


In order to be allowed to apply pesticides, farmers have to be trained and certified about how to comply with the chemical-specific label requirements. They have to maintain that training through on-going classes.

Is the System Working?

Every year, as part of a USDA effort called the Pesticide Data Program (PDP), thousands of food samples are randomly gathered from normal food channels and consumer markets. The samples are taken to labs where each sample is screened for the presence of hundreds of different chemical residues. The data that the USDA generates is transparently published both in raw and summarized form. Year after year, what the data show is that the system is working! The vast majority of samples have either no detectable residues or residues that are below the assigned tolerances – mostly far below. The fact that a small residue can be detected does not mean it is of concern. Modern analytical chemists have the ability to detect chemicals at very low levels. The reason that the numbers below tolerance are still published is not that they are of concern, but rather as transparent documentation that these products should be of little concern to consumers and regulators.  Several governmental agencies evaluate this information each year and confirm that consumers can confidently enjoy their food supply without concern about pesticide residues. The results were just released for 2015 and again document how well the system is working.  The FDA also has a residue testing program from which it concludes, "Results in these reports continue to demonstrate that levels of pesticide residues in the U.S. food supply are well below established safety standards."  California does its own residue testing and concludes, "California tests show low or no pesticide levels in many fruits and vegetables." Similar residue testing is conducted in Canada and the EU with equally encouraging results.  With this overwhelming body of evidence, how can the fear of residues persist?

What About the “Dirty Dozen List?”

Unfortunately, each year there is an organization called the Environmental Working Group (EWG) that takes the USDA PDP data and grossly misuses it to create a “Dirty Dozen List.” Instead of looking at how detections relate to carefully developed tolerances, EWG essentially treats all detections as significant – an approach that has been completely rejected by independent experts in the field of toxicology. EWG then recommends that certain crops be sought out as organic. Similarly misguided recommendations to purchase organic are published Consumer Reports. This makes no sense, since organic is not a safety certification. In fact, organic crops often have the same sort of low-level, detectable residues of pesticides as conventional (example data from the US and Canada). This point is conveniently ignored by these organizations.
In conclusion, we have a system in the US that both enables farmers to control pests and which protects consumers so that they can enjoy healthy foods without worrying about pesticide residues.

You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me at sdsavage@gmail.com

Friday, October 21, 2016

Could The Humble Potato Change Your Image of GMOs?

Hash browns cooking - regular potatoes on the left and the new "White Russet" biotech potatoes on the right
Last week I got my first chance to cook with a "GMO" Potato.  I made one of my favorite breakfast dishes - hash browns!  I was excited to try that with these new potatoes because they have been modified to turn off the gene for the enzyme that makes them turn brown when cut (polyphenol oxidase), or in this case grated.  With regular potatoes, even if you work quickly, the grated potatoes begin to darken before you can get them into the pan.  I've gotten around that by grating them directly into the hot oil, but that is far from ideal in terms of safety.  With these new potatoes I had plenty of time to grate them and shape them.  They turned out not only looking far better, but also came out crispier and better tasting.  It is going to be difficult to put up

These potatoes have been approved for sale and are in many stores, but are not yet in stores where I live.  Colleagues at Simplot Biosciences were kind enough to mail me a bag.  I also posted a video about using this excellent new product.  There is a next generation of potatoes going through the USDA deregulation process.  In addition to the traits that reduce food waste (non-browning/bruising, low sugars in storage) and enhance food safety (reduced acrylamide production during frying), the latest potatoes also have a gene from wild potatoes that makes them resistant to a disease called late blight.  That is what caused the Irish Potato Famine in the 19th century and an issue for potato growing to this day.  The following is the comment I submitted to the USDA in support of deregulation:

(Submitted to USDA on 10/11/16 - https://www.regulations.gov/docket?D=APHIS-2016-0057)

I am writing to support the deregulation of the X17 and Y9 potato lines which involve the same modifications as in previously deregulated lines.  Potatoes are a difficult crop to breed because they only rarely make seed and are polyploid.  While new lines are being developed, there is a substantial advantage of being able to modify older varieties that have proven field performance and desirable characteristics for cooking.  In this case the modified lines are Ranger Russet and Atlantic which are both important commercial varieties.

As with earlier lines, the RNAi gene silencing mechanism has been used to reduce the potential for acrylamide formation during cooking, reduce sugar production during storage which lowers quality, and reducing bruising and browning.  Together the last two traits will help to reduce food waste.  I believe that consumers will also find these potatoes to be quite desirable.

This week I had the chance to cook some of the Russet Burbank cultivar with this non-browning/bruising trait.  I like to make hash browns with fresh potatoes but because of the browning issue I have to grate the potatoes directly into the hot oil.  With these modified potatoes I was able to grate the potatoes and form them into servings prior to frying.  The non-modified potato I used for comparison was definitely inferior in terms of appearance and taste (I've included a picture of the hashbrowns - the upper one is with a standard potato and the lower one is with the down-regulation of the polyphenol oxidase gene.  I will certainly be looking forward to seeing more of these potatoes in commercial channels.

Top hashbrown from a standard Russet Burbank, lower from a White Russet, modified version.

Some critics have implied that the RNAi gene silencing mechanism could have unintended effects.  I believe that this discussion developed by Food Standards Australia New Zealand does an excellent job of debunking the paper by Heinemann et al which is often cited in this context.  Small double stranded RNAs are abundant in the food supply and this mechanism of gene regulation is widespread among eukaryotes.

As a plant pathologist I am particularly excited about one of the traits included in these new potato lines - resistance to the late blight fungus, Phytopthora infestans.  Not only did that disease cause the Irish Potato Famine in the 1800s, it represents a major management burden for potato growers around the world today.  To be able to include plant resistance in an integrated control program will be extremely helpful for potato growers.  The gene, VNT1, comes from wild potatoes native to South America.  To move that gene through conventional breeding would be slow and it would be very difficult to get back to the horticultural and culinary characteristics of desirable potatoes like Ranger Russet or Atlantic. This is an extremely logical application of modern biotechnology and one that would make a great deal of sense for other crops like grapes or coffee which also have pools of genetic diversity which are hard to utilize using conventional or even marker-assisted breeding.

To conclude it makes perfect sense to deregulate this crop as it presents no plant pest risk and substantial societal benefit in terms of food waste reduction and disease management.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

A Day Of Accidental Ag Tourism

(This post originally appeared on Better Food Stories 10/3/16)

A few weeks ago I flew to Pasco, Washington and then drove up to Yakima. Eastern Washington is a very dry region, but it has several major rivers and the Columbia Basin Reclamation Project that allow for a flourishing and diverse agricultural industry. My progress was slowed by an irresistible urge to continually exit the main highway to take pictures of these carefully tended crops and to see some of the on-going innovation in planting systems.

A classical, widely spaced orchard

Tree fruits like apples, pears and cherries have long been important to this region. It was fascinating so see some of the innovation used to grow these crops. The image above is from a more classic orchard where large trees are grown with fairly wide spacing between trees and with large swaths between the rows. The next image shows a newer style orchard, in which trees are planted at high density along the row (every 18” or so), and supported by a trellis.
A newer, high-density, trellised orchard
This system gets the trees into full bearing within 2-3 years and can be harvested without the use of ladders (a worker safety and efficiency advantage). The space between the rows is also narrower requiring smaller equipment in terms of tractors, sprayers etc. Note that weeds are controlled in the row with herbicides for water efficiency, and the “middles” support a diverse “cover crop” which stabilizes and feeds the soil.
An alternative "V"shaped trellis system for apples
In the photo above we see a different trellising strategy. In this case, the high density trees are trained in a “V” shape with the goal of even more efficiently capturing the sunlight. Driving further down the road I saw something unusual in the distance and decided to investigate.
An interesting, covered orchard in the distance
It turned out to be another high-density, trellised apple orchard, but in this case it was being grown under a shade cloth to filter the light. This would reduce the chance of fruit getting a “sunburn”, and as you can see, this orchard had an abundant crop of picture-perfect fruit nearing maturity.

High density trellis under shade cloth


Hops, a highly aromatic plant, have been grown in this region since the 1870s, but even more so of late to meet demand for the booming craft beer industry. Hops are a vine which is trained on very tall (20’ or more) trellises. It is quite impressive to see! From the side of the field (below) it is a giant green wall.
One of the many "hop yards" in Washington serving the craft beer boom
Hops grown on trellises with telephone pole sized supports


Washington state is home to a flourishing grape industry with many excellent offerings for wine aficionados. It has also been a long-term source of juice grapes, which is what you see in the vineyard below. Note again the clean vine-row and the cover crop in the “middles.” This is the best way to use water efficiently, build soil quality, and prevent erosion on these hilly locations.
Eastern Washington is also home to many other crops. I’ll just throw in two more examples of a sweet corn field and an alfalfa field.
Sweet Corn 

The next day I had the privilege to spend time with a number of representatives of the grower organizations and others that support these Washington farmers. The meeting was organized by the Washington Friends of Farms and Forests, which is a grass roots alliance of those who grow the crops or tend the timberlands. I’ll be working with many of these folks for the next few months documenting some of their challenges and strategies tending these diverse plant species for the benefit of the broader society. As always, it was great to see real farming in action!

Monday, October 3, 2016

Why Wheat Is Like Wine

Wheat harvest on the Palouse in Idaho
(This post was originally on the Better Food Stories blog 9/26/16)

There is a term in the wine grape industry called “terrior” which celebrates the fact that fruit quality for wine making is greatly influenced by cultivar, climate and soil type.  Year-to-year differences in weather further influence the quality of specific “vintages.”  Wheat may be a humbler crop, but it is like wine in the sense that there are different classes of wheat for different end-use products and there are different regions where each type excels based on climate (wheat can be hard or soft, spring or winter, red or white, and there is a separate type called “durum” for pasta).  There are even year-to-year differences in quality.  For instance, to make an artisan bread, it is best to use flour from hard red spring wheat, that comes from the northern plains (North Dakota, Minnesota) or from the prairie provinces of Canada (e.g. Alberta and Saskatchewan).  For Asian noodles one wants a soft white winter wheat from the Pacific Northwest.  For crackers a soft red winter wheat is best from a place like Southern Illinois or Kentucky.  For pasta, a distinct type of wheat called durum is used and this is grown in Arizona and in the northern plains.

There are several important measures of wheat quality that reflect important properties of the dough, like strength and elasticity. These properties drive features, like how well the dough will rise and balance of different classes of starch, which influence the texture of baked products.  A yearly report on U.S. hard red spring wheat examines eight categories of “grading” data and eleven measure of “kernel quality.”  53% of U.S. wheat and 60% of Canadian wheat are exported around the world and purchased by customers looking for specific qualities (based on FAOStats data 2011-13). Europe is a major producer of wheat and has much higher wheat yields compared to the lower rainfall production areas in North America, but European countries still import a great deal of wheat for high quality bread and pasta and use much of their domestic production for animal feed.

As with all crops, wheat is attacked by various pests. Unlike grapes, it is possible to deal with some of the pests by breeding resistant varieties of wheat (winemakers are reluctant to accept new grape varieties preferring the traditional favorites that have been in use for hundreds of years).  A key advance in the “Green Revolution” of the 1960s was developing resistance to a particularly damaging fungal disease called “Stem Rust.”  That resistance held up for decades, but in 1999 a strain of the fungus overcame the trait, and since then wheat breeders worldwide have worked to breed a new resistance gene into all the different genetic backgrounds for the diverse wheats grown around the world.

In wet climates, wheat can be infected by many different fungal pathogens and commercial production requires the use of several protective fungicide treatments, starting with seed treatments and spaced throughout the growing season.  In drier North America, diseases are not as problematic, but do sometimes require treatments to preserve yield and quality.  If it rains during the time when the wheat is flowering, a fungus called Fusarium can infect the crop and wheat has proven to be very difficult to breed for resistance. A well timed fungicide spray can help against this disease, but that is not always possible. This particular fungus can produce a mycotoxin chemical in infected wheat kernels called Deoxynivalenol or DON.  It is also called “vomitoxin” because of the effect it has on animals that consume contaminated grain. In our food system, the consumer is well protected from exposure to such toxins, thanks to the care and expense taken on by farmers.
The global wheat industry is really made up of many distinct sub-crops, but as a whole, wheat production has been making steady progress in keeping up with growing global demand with only minimal expansion in planted areas (see graph below).  Some of that progress has been made by diminishing pest damage through a combination of breeding and crop protection agents like fungicides.  Also, a great deal of modern wheat production is in “no-till” systems where weeds are controlled with herbicides instead of by mechanical tillage.  This system greatly reduces soil erosion, lowers fuel use and leads to improved soil health and carbon sequestration.
The green part of each par shows the proportion of the increased production achieved through higher yield rather than additional planting area
So the next time that you enjoy a wheat-based product, think about the effort and risk that a wheat farmer faced, not only to produce the grain, but to produce it with the positive qualities needed and with the absence of issues like DON toxin.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Another Biotech Apple That Can Help Change The Conversation About "GMO Crops"

A picture of the Arctic Granny that appeared in a great article in the trade magazine, Growing Produce last year.

Non-browning apples and potatoes are part of a second wave of biotech crop improvements which I believe will change the public conversation about "GMO crops" in a positive way.  A third Arctic Apple cultivar (Fuji) is currently going through the USDA deregulation step which will open the way for commercial production over the next few years.  Apparently the public comments to USDA have been overwhelmingly positive.  I decided to add my own comment because I've had the opportunity to meet the great folks at Okanagan Specialty Fruits who developed these apples, and the folks at Intrexon who are supporting the commercial phase.  I am very impressed with what they have accomplished and the plans they have for bringing these great products to consumers.

I've copied below the text of the comment I submitted to USDA today.  If you would like to comment you can do so at this link:


My Comment to USDA About The Arctic Fuji, Non-Browning Apple

"I am writing in full support of this particular deregulation of the Arctic Fuji apple.  I do this as an agricultural scientist, as a long-term observer of crop biotechnology (40 years), as a consumer, and as a grandfather.  USDA-APHIS is completely justified in concluding that this RNAi-based, non-browning trait represents no "plant pest issues" so that commercial planting can proceed.  The "genetic contamination" issue that is sometimes raised is meaningless for a crop like apples that is never grown from seed but which is vegetatively propagated and which is commonly pollinated with crab apple.  Pollen movement presents no problems for apple growers or for consumers.  As a plant pathologist I concur with the conclusion from field tests which indicate that the trait has no effect, positive or negative, on the pest resistance profile of apples.

What this trait does provide is a combination of food waste reduction and opportunities for desirable consumer options such as full flavor and aroma sliced apples, no-sulfite dried apples and, use in smoothies etc.  I've tasted examples of all these uses with previous cultivars and can highly recommend them to my fellow consumers.

I have had the opportunity to share a box of a previously deregulated cultivar, Golden Delicious, with friends at a pot luck dinner last November.  I offered slices that had been prepared 4 hours before the event and showed how they were still white and aromatic while the conventional slices were browned to the point that no one wanted to take more than one comparison taste.  The non-browning Arctic apples truly "changed the conversation about GMOs" because it was a concrete example of how biotechnology can provide a meaningful consumer trait.  As Fuji is my favorite apple variety I am particularly enthused about being able to buy and share this next cultivar when the production is ramped up.  As many children do, my grand daughter loves apples, and I see this product as a way to further encourage that healthy inclination.

I fully realize that some of our international trading partners have irrational and problematic attitudes about biotech crops, but with a fully "identity preserved" crop like apples, there should not be a risk to our export business.  I am confident in the plan that OSF and Intrexon have for stewarding the main sliced product line and the co-product lines.  I believe that a timely deregulation of this and subsequent cultivars will send the appropriate message to the global market for apples.

Finally, I believe that this trait demonstrates that even a small commercial entity can navigate both the technological and regulatory path to biotech product development.  The vast majority of the work even with this cultivar was done by a company with around 8 employees!  While our system would benefit by some stream-lining and greater emphasis on product over process, this remains an important precedent.

So again, I want to express my whole-hearted support for this deregulation decision.

Steve Savage, Ph.D."

My grand daughter holding a Fuji apple she picked in
my yard a couple of years ago (unfortunately the browning kind)
You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me at savage.sd@gmail.com

Monday, June 13, 2016

The Non-GMO Food Label Is A Lie

(This post originally appeared on Forbes 6/11/16)
You may have noticed more and more food items being marketed as “Non-GMO Certified.” As Americans, we are familiar with food being sold for what it is not, so we don’t think much about the fundamental absurdity of this new labeling.
After decades of being sold “non-fat,” “zero cholesterol” or more recently “gluten-free,” this looks like just one more marketing claim. In fact, the non-GMO label is fundamentally different because it is based on an entirely false assumption.
The truth is, virtually all the foods we eat have been “genetically modified,” and often in dramatic ways. The widespread belief that our food still resembles what our ancestors domesticated out of “nature” is only a demonstration of how little we understand history and science. However, the Princess Bride meme above is pertinent, because this new appeal to our ignorance is definitely coming from “someone who is selling something.”
How some crops looked before they were domesticated.  Lots of genetic modification involved, just not understood when it was done

Recently, I saw an ad in a trade magazine that compelled me to go tilt with the windmill that is “non-GMO” labeling. The ad was promoting the potential “Texas-Sized Sales” of bags of Sweet Scarlett’s grapefruits. I love those grapefruits. They are tasty and sweet, a beautiful red color, and seedless. I’m happy that my favorite stores carry this excellent product. But at the bottom of this particular ad, I noticed the logo declaring that these are “Non-GMO Project Verified.” That crossed a line for me.

These delicious grapefruit varieties are a textbook example of how crops were genetically modified back in the 1960s and '70s using a method called “mutagenesis breeding.” Basically, seeds (or in this case pieces of budwood) were exposed to gamma radiation in substantial doses, and then sifted through to find ones with mutations to their DNA that had desirable qualities. You don’t get much more “genetically modified” than that! That positive plant breeding story could certainly be made to sound scary in terms of unintended consequences, but in fact, thousands of modern plant varieties were modified this way. To date there is no track record of bad effects on consumers. There are now far more precise and controlled ways to genetically modify crops, but only certain new methods have been singled out for opposition as “GMOs,” while clumsy old methods, like mutagenesis breeding, escape this demonization.

So my problem with calling these grapefruits “non-GMO” is simple. These fruits are absolutely “genetically modified." To call this product non-GMO is a lie. That is true for most other non-GMO labels. These are also lies that dovetail with another long-term lie that has been widely disseminated in the Internet age - a “lie with pictures.” I'm talking about the widely used, stock-photo images illustrate of ready to eat fruits and vegetables stuck full of large hypodermic needles that are used in campaigns against “GMO food” Those images bear absolutely no resemblance to how plants are genetically engineered, but they are a powerful lie that has been quite effectively used to manipulate consumers.
What is truly disappointing is that the non-GMO “labeling lie,” and its inevitable connection to the photo-lie, is officially sanctioned by the very federal agency charged with truth in labeling for foods. In its guidance document on the subject, the FDA says that while it “prefers” more accurate wording on labels, it “will not pursue enforcement actions” with regard to the use of the “non-GMO” terminology. Thanks for protecting us from inaccurate labeling, FDA.

The disease that threatens these grapefruits and all citrus is already in Texas

There is another reason that this particular kind of disinformation is a problem. The grapefruit farmers in Texas are facing a threat that is common to all citrus growers. Already, an exotic bacterial disease spread by a newly introduced insect (Asian Citrus Psyllid) has destroyed half of the oranges in Florida. The pathogen and vector have already made it to many other states, including Texas and California, and even with intensive efforts to contain the threat, it is probably only a matter of time before other citrus crops go into decline. For me, this intensifies the absurdity of marketing a very much “genetically modified” crop as non-GMO, because one of the best hopes for saving citrus crops is through modern genetic engineering – the kind where you actually know what you are doing to the genes. How will the marketers then back-track on their implicit message that “GMO” is a bad thing? Most likely the bacteria will win and the farmers and consumers will lose.
I have spent a vast amount of my own time over the last seven years writing blogs and articles defending modern agriculture against disinformation. I have great respect for the farmers who produce our food and for companies like Wonderful Citrus who clean, pack and ship that food to consumers. Thus, I’m uncomfortable calling out this and other food/produce companies who have jumped on the non-GMO labeling train. Even so, I feel compelled to do that, not just in the case of this “Texas Sized” lie, but also across the board. I challenge the food industry to reject this kind of marketing even if it is FDA sanctioned and highly appealing to your marketing folks. I’ll leave you with another thought that has been well articulated by “the Dread Pirate Robert.”

You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me at sdsavage@gmail.com.  I have tried to contact the marketing company for these grapefruits and have gotten no response.  I have contacted the non-GMO certification group, but they have yet to put me in contact with anyone willing to discuss the science related to their certification of this or other crops.  I don't know who to talk to at the FDA about this. If you know a good contact there, please let me know.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Enjoying Genetically Modified Beauty

Just a few of the uniquely shaped and colored flowers on display at the nursery
(This post originally appeared on Forbes on 6/2/16)

On Memorial Day my sister and brother-in-law took me to visit an extraordinary commercial nursery West of Chicago called “The Planter’s Pallet.” There I saw a huge and diverse collection of ornamental species and varieties destined to grace the yards and gardens of local plant lovers. I was inspired both by the astonishing range of form that nature provides, but also by the co-creative role of mankind in amplifying that diversity in ways that appeal to our human enjoyment of color, shape, texture, aroma and even sense of humor. As someone who often wrestles with weighty questions like the role of “GMOs” in the future of the food supply, it was a delight and a relief to be reminded that humanity has a long tradition of tapping into, and “messing with” nature’s diverse offerings – in this case for purely esthetic enjoyment.

It wasn't just about color.  Shape and texture can be interesting as well.

None of the beautiful and interesting specimens I saw in that nursery today had been “genetically engineered” using the tools of transgenesis that were first developed in the 1980s, but most of the examples had certainly been “genetically modified” using a variety of other, “conventional” methods, resulting in far more dramatic changes at the DNA level – changes that no one has probably ever even tried to document. I doubt that some of these plants would even survive on their own for long under natural competition and stresses without human care. They won’t need to. I’m quite sure that none have been safety tested in any way or scrutinized for their potential to become invasive weeds. No one was asked to justify why many of the varieties are patented or sold under exclusive brands. Indeed - this delightful nursery seemed to be “controversy free.”

I certainly wouldn’t want to see these examples of genetic modification become controversial. I’m just glad to have been able to enjoy and celebrate these beautiful, desirable examples of the synergy between long-term evolutionary diversification and relatively recent human ingenuity. Genetic modification can certainly be fun and beautiful.
I'll be doing a series on this topic to talk about other examples of how we humans have done many creative and useful things via genetic change.

As always you are welcome to comment here and/or to email me at savage.sd@gmail.com