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Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Three Foods I Wish I Could Buy At Costco

A typical Costco store front, image STU PENDOUSMAT

(This article was originally posted on Forbes on 8/6/19)

I enjoy shopping at Costco. I’ve been a member since the days when it was called Price Club. I like the diverse and yet selective range of products they offer and of course their reasonable prices. I find the staff friendly and helpful and I appreciate the fact that the employees must be treated fairly since so many are the same folks I’ve seen working there for years. The food court is an awesome deal and I almost always get my gas at Costco because it is the lowest price option in the area.  The free sample thing is fun and sometimes educational. The store is well lighted, and its aisles are uncluttered. Their wine selection is great, and Costco is where I always get my eye exams and glasses.

Cool room image from Yelp by Greg M. Used with permission. 

I particularly appreciate the way that they keep much of their fresh produce in a walk-in cold room. Yes, it’s a bit uncomfortable, but by keeping these foods cold until sale, they are extending the shelf-life for the consumer and thus reducing food waste. Yes, the packages of produce they sell are large, but I can share them with friends and neighbors in cases where I can’t get through the whole amount in time. I think it is really cool that Costco uses the empty boxes from their produce shipments to package up a customer’s purchases to take home. It is also my understanding that Costco negotiates reasonable, long-term supply contracts with the grower/shippers who supply their fruits and vegetables. Treating farmers well is a big plus on my list.   

So, you can see that there is a lot that I like about Costco. But there are three specific food items I would really like to be able to buy there but it seems unlikely that they will become available. This is because, like many retailers, Costco does not want to wade into the controversy surrounding genetically engineered foods, commonly called “GMOs.” As a scientist who has been watching the advances in molecular genetics since 1976, I find it tragic that the opponents of this method of plant improvement have been so successful in suppressing even the most logical applications for food. In many cases the losers here are that small minority in our society that still feeds us. The even greater tragedy is the extent to which those groups have blocked even free, improved crops for farmers in the developing world. But there are three specific foods I’d like to talk about which have been specifically modified for the benefit of consumers and which have actually made it through the tortuous regulatory process that the crop biotech industry self-imposed well before the first commercial plantings of biotech crops of the mid 90s. Overall, I think of Costco as a rationally, ethically run business that values its customers and respects their intelligence. Carrying these three foods would be a great way to demonstrate that respect. 

Product 1: Arctic® Apples
Arctic Granny on the left still white while ordinary apple has started browning losing flavor, aroma and vitamins
A seven employee, farmer-founded business in British Columbia called Okanagan Specialty Fruits (OSF) developed apples that don’t turn brown when cut or bruised. They did this by simply turning off the gene for the enzyme called Polyphenol Oxidase which is what causes the browning and also degrades things like vitamins in the process. The patent they needed to license to do this was from CSIRO, a government sponsored research organization in Australia. Some plants, especially those in the nightshade family, have that same enzyme as part of their pest defense, but it isn’t really needed for the human-tended and already quite “genetically modified” versions of those species. OSF was acquired by the brave, diversified biotech company, Intrexon in 2015 and they began commercial production of the apples in 2015, launching in test markets in the Midwest in 2017. It takes several years for new orchards to come into production, but as of today there are around 1,235 acres of several varieties being grown in the US and in Canada (Arctic® Grannys, Arctic® Goldens, and Arctic®Fujis). These apples are being sold in some grocery chains in the U.S. I once met all 7 of those employees (the company has now grown to 27) during their research phase and they mailed me a box of the apples back in 2014. They were really cool! You can cut them even as much as several hours before you eat them, and they still taste and smell like a freshly cut apple. You can keep apples from browning with something like citric acid, but that changes the taste and smell. Imagine slicing these for the kid’s lunch, bringing sliced apples to a potluck or getting them at a salad bar. These apples can also be dried without the need for sulfites so that the taste is not compromised and they are not problematic for people with an allergic response to that preservative. Costco – would you please start offering these apple products among your apple options? At least at my Carlsbad, CA Costco you only offer 2 or 3 non-organic choices of apple cultivars not including my favorites. I reluctantly deal with that limitation, but don’t your customers that care a lot about food waste and flavor also deserve the choices they would prefer?

An agricultural supply and potato processing company called Simplot has a relatively small biotech subsidiary called Simplot Plant Sciences. They developed non-browning potatoes turning off the same gene as is in the Arctic® Apples – PPO. In addition, using all genetic material from potatoes (“cisgenic”), they reduced the amount of the amino acid asparagine which can be converted to acrylamide – a possible carcinogen - during frying. They also worked with the Sainsbury Laboratory in the UK and the 2Blades Foundation to move some disease resistance genes from inedible, wild potatoes into commercially relevant cultivars. This is a really good thing for the potato growers because they have to spend far less time, fuel and money on fungicide sprays to control “Late Blight”, the disease that caused the Irish Potato Famine. This would have been extremely difficult to do with conventional breeding because potatoes very rarely reproduce through seeds. Back in 2016 I was gifted with a bag of these potatoes by Simplot. I put up a video of making hash browns with these and with regular potatoes. With the White Russets™ I was able to grate them and take my time forming them into nice shapes and to fry them without any of the browning that is normally unavoidable. They came out nicer looking and crispier. My conclusion was that these potatoes could “make America grate again.”

So, these non-browning produce options are much better in terms of the sensory experience, but they also help to reduce food waste throughout the supply chain and at the consumer level. 

The many sustainability advantages of Innate non-browning potatoes
Today making a non-browning crop is even easier using something like CRISPR technology and the USDA has concluded that it isn’t even something that needs to be regulated. People have been working on non-browning mushrooms, and they should totally work on non-browning versions of bananas, lettuce and avocados! A way to reduce food waste and give customers a better sensory experience sounds like a good thing for a Costco to offer. Costco: could we please get these options at your stores?

Costco is a major marketer of salmon in the US and they do a great job of that. Salmon is a delicious fish and a healthy option for consumers. But there is an even healthier and more environmentally desirable kind of salmon Costco could be selling in the near future. A small company in Canada licensed a technology from the University of Toronto and the Memorial University of Newfoundland in 1996 (That’s a very innovative country, eh?). It was a genetically engineered a line of Atlantic Salmon with a growth-related gene from chinook salmon and a promoter from Ocean Pout, that allows these fish to grow far faster and with less need for food. These improved fish can gain a pound of weight from a pound fish feed making them 10 times as efficient as some wild-caught fish.

Comparing the Feed-Use-Efficiency of various meats
IMAGE FROM MARINE HARVEST, 2016. (Other sources say that the conversion rate for cattle is 6:1 and of course these and other ruminants give humans access to the huge energy supply in the form of cellulose and make millions of acres of pasture land not suitable for crops a usable resource for the production of human food)

These AquAdvantage® Salmon are raised in inland aquaculture tanks and only sterile female fish are in the tanks so in the extremely unlikely case that they escaped to the ocean they would not have any effect on wild fish populations.

What one of the terrestrial fish-raising tank looks like
This multi-layered safety protocol has been scrutinized by regulators in the US and Canada over many years resulting in FDA approval in November of 2015 and the final approval for commercial sale in Canada in 2016. 4.5 tonnes were sold in the second quarter of 2018. The first US production site opened this year in Indiana. Ideally more sites can be placed near other population centers to minimize energy use for shipping. The terrestrial production eliminates issues of water pollution sometimes associated with ocean “farmed” salmon, “wild-caught salmon” or true oceanic fishing sources. The entire salmon industry has been shifting away from fish meal and fish oil for feed and these Salmon will be at the cutting edge of that trend. By sourcing from the crop Camelina or using yeasts, both of which have been modified to produce the healthy health-promoting omega-3 fats, and even the astaxanthin pigment that gives salmon its red color. There are also some efforts to raise insects to feed to the fish.  These land-based sources can allow many more people to improve their diet without putting more stress on ocean resources. The other upside is that by using these feeds it is possible to avoid the mercury and microplastics issues that are unavoidable in ocean water. These pollutants can “bioaccumulate” in the ocean food chain having gotten there because of littering and from coal-powered electricity generation.

This is all a great example of Ecomodernism – the philosophy that technology can be a means of achieving environmental goals. Doesn’t this seem like the sort of “green,” healthy option that a company like Costco ought to be offering their customers?

If Costco would rise above the threats from anti-GMO groups and offer these options alongside of “conventional” or “organic,” I believe that there would be lots of scientists like me who would happily volunteer to come in and answer customer questions during a launch program at one of those sample carts we so often enjoy at the stores.

(Disclaimer: although I know scientists and businesspeople from all of these companies, writing this article was just something that I wanted to do and not anything they asked me to do or for which I was compensated. This article was also not written on behalf of the non-profit CropLife Foundation for which I work part time recording a podcast.)

Monday, June 3, 2019

...And We've Got To Get Ourselves Back To The Garden

Kids at the original Woodstock event  (Photo by Ric Manning, Wikimedia Commons)

(This post originally appeared on the podcast site, POPagriculture, 5/23/19)

Did you know that 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of Woodstock? There may be a 50th anniversary celebration this August in Watkins Glenn, NY, but it seems to have run into some organizational issues.

The original Woodstock music festival was a defining moment for those of us in the “Baby Boomer” generation. It highlighted the emerging “counter-culture” thinking of the time about “sex, drugs, and rock and roll.” There were also anti-war and environmental themes. I was only in junior high at the time, so I just heard about Woodstock on the news and I remember seeing the rather shocking pictures featured in Time Magazine. We all got to hear some of the featured music on the radio from festival headliners including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, and Joe Cocker. Crosby Stills and Nash performed the emblematic song titled “Woodstock,” and that major hit was then featured on their 1970 LP “Déjà vu.”

The song, “Woodstock”, was actually written by the Canadian artist, Joni Mitchell. Joni has always been one of my favorites because she combines creative music with profound poetry. Her lyrics certainly spoke to our generation’s concerns and to our search for identity. If you haven’t heard the song in a while or if you’ve never heard it you should really give it a listen. You can hear both Joni’s version and the Crosby Stills and Nash version on YouTube.

The song spoke of meeting a “child of God” who was “walkin’ along the road” “goin’ down to Yasgur’s farm” to “join in a rock ‘n’ roll band”  and to “camp out on the land” to get his “soul free.” It talked about going there “to lose the smog.” And about “feeling like a cog in something turning.” The war allusion was, “I dreamed I saw the bombers, riding shotgun in the sky, turning into butterflies above our nation.” Joni even made what sounds like a climate change reference with the line, “we are stardust, billion-year-old carbon.”

So, you may be wondering, “how is Steve going to connect this bit of pop culture with agriculture?” That comes from the chorus of the Woodstock song that ended with the line: “… and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.” 

That desire to get “back to nature” was maybe one of the better instincts from that era and still resonates today. There are many ways to pursue the goal of getting in touch with nature, but I think that Joni was “right on” with the whole garden thing. We may not have gotten to rock out with the hippies at “Yasgur’s Farm,” but there are lots of benefits if we do “get ourselves back to the garden,” and that’s what I’ll explore on today’s podcast!

Now gardening is a pursuit that goes back a long time before Woodstock. After all, that was supposed to be Adam and Eve’s job in the “Garden of Eden” in the ancient Genesis narrative! For millennia, people grew a lot of their own food, and not just those who were full time farmers.

My grandpa retired in 1962 and became an even more serious gardener.

My grandpa retired in 1962 and became an even more serious gardener.

I had a happy introduction to the joys of gardening, courtesy of my beloved grandfather. He was a WWI vet who took seriously the WWII era challenge to grow a “Victory Garden” to support the war effort. From early childhood, I got to help Grandpa with his garden, and I’m sure those memories are part of why I have always gardened in the various places I and my family have lived over the years.

Its not like many people in the “rich world” today need to garden to eat. We have the privilege of a remarkable, diverse, tasty and affordable food supply.  I’ve observed the steady improvement of the store-available food since the days of Woodstock, particularly when it comes to the fresh produce options, whole grains and other healthy choices.

But there are still a lot of great reasons to garden. Today it is popular to talk about “urban farming.” I’d argue that is essentially still “gardening.” I’d rather reserve the title of “farmer” for someone for whom growing things represents a significant part of their income, but whether it’s called urban farming or gardening, it’s a good thing.
A good day's harvest from my garden a couple of years ago

Even when I had 25 grapevines in the back yard, I still considered it gardening.
Even when I had 25 grapevines in the back yard I still considered it gardening

I believe there are lots of good reasons to grow things, whether that involves a sizable part of a suburban yard or just some pots on the apartment or condo balcony. So, here is a “click bait” kind of title for today’s segment: “Seven Great Reasons to Get Ourselves Back to the Garden.”

1. Gardening can be a nice break from our indoor lives.
I’m sure that a lot of my listeners are like me in that our day-to-day work involves a lot of time sitting at a desk and looking at a screen. It’s great to have a change of pace, get outside to enjoy the sun, get our hands dirty, and maybe do a little physical work. I’m lucky enough to work from home so I can use time in the garden as a sanity break.

2. There is satisfaction in “doing it yourself.”
It’s fun to be able to say, “I grew this!” Your garden production doesn’t have to make a significant contribution to your food supply to get that pleasure. For instance, we may never grow our own wheat for bread or many other staple foods, but that does not diminish the fun for what we can produce.

A good day's harvest from my garden a couple of years ago.
A good days harvest from my garden a couple of years ago

3. Gardening is an excellent opportunity to teach kids about where food comes from.
As our society becomes ever more urbanized, we have generations of kids who have no experience other than seeing food bought from stores or restaurants. That’s not a good thing for many reasons, but it is really fun to see the wonder that a child can experience when they can actually watch something grow and then enjoy eating it. Again, this upside does not require homegrown produce to be any significant part of their diet, just that they see how food is grown and/or maybe get their hands a little dirty helping you in the garden. My kids enjoyed helping and now I sometimes get to provide that perspective with my grand kids who are growing up in very urban London. For the text version of this segment, there is one of my all-time favorite pictures that shows the expression on the face of my then 4-year-old granddaughter when she picked her first apple.

My granddaughter picking an apple in my garden.
My grand daughter picking an apple in my yard

My little backyard tree was no great specimen, which I can partially excuse by the fact that apples are not well-adapted to Southern California. Still, it was worth growing it if only to give her that one particular childhood experience.

4. Gardening allows us to have something special to share with others.

One experience that gardening teaches us is that when growing things, you sometimes end up with way more than you can handle or consume. You might be able to deal with that by canning, drying or freezing. I remember that Grandpa always seemed to have lots to share with us and he was such a serious gardener that he provided a lot for his neighbors. If you’ve ever grown zucchini squash, you may have had those times when the crop grows way faster than you even want or need to work into your meals. 

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My grandpa out in his garden.
My Grandpa out in his garden

Grandpa used to joke that during peak zucchini season he would put a bag of the squash at a neighbor’s door, ring the doorbell and slip away so they couldn’t turn it down! I never had to do that, but I definitely had times when I wasn’t keeping up on the squash harvest and some became three foot long “pool toys” for my kids. We used to have a fig tree in the yard and when those became ripe, we had far more than we could eat. We had friends and family members, however, who love figs and who were thrilled to get that treat.

Some of our figs.

5. A garden can be a way to get certain treats that aren’t generally available to buy. 

Now as I said earlier, food choices that are available in modern, U.S. grocery stores are remarkable. There is a whole POPagriculture podcast about that topic titled, “An Apple a Day.” But even so, there are many really interesting and tasty crops that are either too delicate to make it to a store or not known well enough to represent a market. A garden can provide some real treats of that nature.

Beet greens from the garden.

For instance, I like to grow beets specifically for the leafy tops. That particular option isn’t all that available in great condition in the store.

Recently I found a local nursery that specializes in tropical plants and I bought a lychee tree and a dragon fruit tree. I’m spoiled enough to live in a frost-free location where those specimens might just survive in my care and provide some options, that at least for now, rarely show up in stores. I also like to grow some lettuce plants and then harvest it by the leaf, just enough for the salad that night so that it is super fresh.

Freshly picked lettuce leaves.

Now, “bagged salad” is definitely a nice option in stores today, but it’s just fun to supplement my salad until it gets too warm here and my lettuce goes to seed and becomes very bitter. Wherever you live, you might check with the local “Master Gardener” groups to see what backyard specialties you might be able to grow.
I like to grow tomatillos to make green sauce.
Tomatillos for making your own green sauce

6. A garden can give you options to do something “green” with unavoidable food waste.
If you consume a lot of fresh produce, there are the parts that have to be trimmed off, husked, or peeled. If your local waste treatment plant does anaerobic digestion, the “greenest” thing you can do is send it down the disposal. What you really don’t want to do is send something like this plant waste into the landfill. As a gardener, you can have a “worm box” or maybe a small compost pile to recycle these materials. If nothing else, you can just bury it in the garden to let it decay and return to the soil. For instance, I like to fertilize things in my garden with my coffee grounds.
You can get the top of a store-bought pineapple to root and grow another pineapple in your own yard.
Did you know that you can grow a new pineapple by planting the top you cut off of one from the store?
7. Gardening can help us to better appreciate what farmers do for the rest of us.
I’ve left what I consider to be the best reason to garden until last. In the modern, developed world, only a tiny subset of our population is directly involved in food production. While that is great because it allows most of us to pursue other fulfilling vocations, it separates us as consumers from the realities faced by those who do produce food. Even worse, we can drift into a sort of “armchair quarterback” stance in our thinking about how we think farmers should do their job. It doesn’t help that farmers are often the subject of seriously unfair and misleading narratives in the press, in the agendas of some activist groups, or on social media. As a non-farmer who got to spend my career with some connection to farmers, I got into blogging because I was so troubled by the misinformation out there about who farmers are, what they do and what they care about. I would encourage people to participate in some farm tours or agro-tourism to get themselves a somewhat more balanced view. If you can’t go to a farm yourself, gardening is a remedy for this sort of possible blind spot and can give you a bit more perspective on the many challenges and benefits to growing food.
Lots of things can go wrong in the life of a food crop and if you garden you are likely to experience at least some of those challenges – just without the potentially catastrophic economic effects faced by farmers. There can be damaging weather events like hail, frost, heat waves or drought and those will show a gardener just how delicate a plant might be vs the ravages of nature.
The other harsh reality of nature that a gardener is likely to experience has to do with pests. You might have the only local specimen of some kind of plant in your garden or on your balcony, but it is amazing how specific insects and diseases can find your crop and mess it up.

My grand daughter's reaction to seeing pest damage on one of my apples! She thinks that “pests are yucky!”
My grand daughter's reaction to finding a pest on the apple!
If you go to your local garden supply store, you can get some products to help you safely manage these pests. There are certainly not as many advanced options as are available to farmers or others with the appropriate certifications based on extensive training, but there are options that will work for you. You might want to check to see if there is any local guidance available to you through a Master Gardeners group or your state Cooperative Extension agents.

Hornworms always seem to find your tomato plants.

One thing I really wish I could buy for my garden would be “GMO” sweet corn. There is usually nice sweet corn available in stores, but it would be fun to grow and it is a crop that can be grown just about anywhere at least some time during the year. Also, my grandpa used to grow sweet corn back in the days when you really had to cook it almost immediately after picking to keep it from going starchy. Breeding advances have turned that into a store-ready crop, but I’d like to grow it for nostalgic purposes, thinking back to the days when Grandpa would say, “Get the water boiling and then I’ll pick some corn.”

A nasty surprise when husking sweet corn.
A nasty surprise you can find when you husk your sweet corn!
There are some nasty “worms” that eat their way into the ears of corn from the tassel end, and its really gross to start husking the corn where instead of finding nice kernels, there is a wriggling caterpillar in its frass (read “bug poop”). Farmers, including organic farmers, have been spraying a biocontrol bacterium called Bt since well before Woodstock, but for that to work you have to re-apply  it every few days. Sweet corn hybrids exist that have been engineered to make their own Bt protein, so they might never need to be sprayed. That elegant and environmentally friendly option has been almost completely denied to farmers and certainly to gardeners because of anti-GMO phobia and the related brand protectionism in food retail. I really wish that wasn’t the case – more for the farmers than for me and other gardeners.

My Frank-N-Food plush asking "Why?" I let this happen to my corn.
My Frank-N-Food plush asking why I let this happen to my corn?
Sometimes, however, I do see some great pest management options available to consumer gardeners. For instance, I’ve purchased tomato plants at the local nursery, which were grafted on to pest resistant “rootstocks.” Often the “heirloom” tomato varieties that we gardeners like to grow are really wimpy when it comes to dealing with soil-borne diseases and nematodes, but if they are on a robust, resistant rootstock they will do much better.
Now, a gardener is likely to accept a much higher level of “cosmetic” pest damage on their own produce than they would in the store, but seeing what pests can do to plants is a good education and hopefully something that generates some perspective about what farmers have to deal with as they manage pest challenges on a much larger scale. A gardener might sometimes get by without any real pest issue, particularly on a quickly growing crop. The same is true when farmers get lucky in a given season. Still, a gardener is likely to get a dose of reality about the fact that nature includes many organisms that like to compete with us for the crops and food that we need someone to produce.
So, whether you want to go to the 50th anniversary version of Woodstock this summer or not, there are still lots of good reasons to want to “get ourselves back to the garden.”