Category Archives: Using my MomSense

These are research-based, investigative, and journalistic-style stories. I’ve interviewed at least one expert in the field for these stories.

Hold on honey, what’s this buzz about bees? Part 3 of 3.

In the first post I covered why bees are important, outlined what’s been happening over the last few years and what might be causing it. Last time I addressed the false idea that pesticides are solely to blame, and discussed why bees are probably not headed for extinction. Now let’s talk about why they’re not headed for extinction – research, possible answers, and what you can do.

What’s Being Done?

bee on finger-1Lots. It seems like everyone is doing research on bees. “The initial government grant money was spent well, spent wisely, served its purpose,” entomologist Dr. Dewey Caron said. “We’re really now at a crossroads. Most of these large government grants will be the seed money. Now it’s time for industry, other funding, including the beekeepers to pick this up.” And the industry definitely seems to be stepping in. Even though Monsanto doesn’t manufacture insecticide, they do sell seeds with insecticide in the seed coating, and they’re clearly vested in agriculture as a whole. They’ve joined and created a number of honey bee coalitions and conferences, and hired Jerry Hayes from the Florida Department of Agriculture to head up Beeologics, an Israeli-based company Monsanto acquired in 2011 that researches and develops biological tools to provide targeted control of pests and diseases. Bayer Crop Science, who does manufacture insecticide, created a Bee Care Program dedicated to promoting bee health and technological solutions and has created two Bee Care Centers that bring together beekeepers, farmers, and researchers interested in bee health. Both Bayer and Monsanto are working with Project Apis m. to provide better forage for bees. The USDA has dedicated $4 million for honey bee habitats and has a number of research projects and programs, one of which provides incentives to encourage farmers to plant more bee-friendly plants on their acreage. Universities across the country have entomology departments dedicated to research on bees, including Oregon State University that also has a Master Beekeeping Program, and some universities (including OSU and Washington State University) are developing sentinel hives that aim to collect crucial data that could provide beekeepers with better guidance on managing bees. President Obama created a Pollinator Health Task Force that is developing a strategy to create new public-private partnerships and increase citizen engagement.  Oregon also created a task force on pollinator health that released a report last November, although it was criticized as not being strong enough. Additionally, programs have been started to increase pollen and nectar sources for bees, one such example is Operation Pollinator that started ten years ago.

There are private local projects as well. Local weather and geography plays an important role in if bees survive the winter or not. Tim Wessels and Glen Andresen at Bridgetown Bees are focusing on breeding better queen bees for the Portland urban environment. The urban backyard beekeepers face different challenges than rural beekeepers: fewer drones (male bees) and less communication about what neighbors might be spraying in their yards.  The team is in their third year of breeding queens that they hope will be hardier in terms of weather, resistance to mites and other factors. Last winter was particularly harsh here and only two out of more than a dozen queens survived. But the goqueen-1od news is that a harsh winter provides heavy selection pressure and the 12 to 15 queens going into this winter should have the characteristics they’re looking for. They’ve made some management changes this year that they hope will give those queens an upper hand, “We’ve enclosed them a little better, left more honey [in the hive], started earlier, and we’ve given them more bees per colony,” Wessels said. “If the hive has a critical mass of bees – for cluster[ing around the queen] – then they can generate enough heat. In much colder environments than Portland, if something is compromising that – like there are fewer bees, they just can’t keep up with the cold.”

Finally, it should be noted that statistics from the USDA, FAO and StatisticsCanada show that worldwide bee populations have actually increased since 2008, rather than decreased. In the US alone, we’ve seen a 13 percent increase in bee population since 2008.

Where’s the Answer?

All six beekeepers I talked to agreed that better communication between beekeepers and farmers could provide some answers to the problem. “Absolutely there should be better communication,” Wessels said, “but we’re stuck in this cycle – who’s going to go first.” He believes there should be stronger rules for pesticide applications, better enforcement when those applications aren’t done correctly.  Commercial beekeeper Mark Johnson believes the beekeepers have to take some of the responsibility, too. “We need to work more closely together instead of adversarialy,” he said. “At bee meetings they start pointing fingers at pesticides. I don’t know a single farmer that wants to spray pesticides – it costs money and time. I would say instead of yelling and screaming and pointing fingers – work more closely together.” Sarah Myers at Bayer says they’re making those recommendations to farmers. “Communicate your practices with local beekeepers,” she said.  “Tell your beekeeping neighbor, can you wait a few days, or cover the hives, move them, all these things simply by having a conversation can eliminate some of the problems.”

There’s another thought on where the answer is coming from.  At a recent Portland Urban Beekeepers meeting, the editor of Bee Culture Magazine predicted during a presentation that it will be a technology answer, and it will come from the very companies that many folks are blaming for the bee demise in the first place. Caron agrees. “I think it’s going to be a technology solution,” Caron said.  “That takes money. I don’t see a lot of that money coming from the public coffers. We need to avoid getting side-tracked by blaming that evil chemical giant. Who’s going to come up with that solution? It’s them! Bayer and Monsanto are going to come up with it.”

bee on berry flower2-1What Can You Do?

The big answer remains to be seen, but in the meantime there are a few things you, as a consumer and homeowner, can do to help mitigate the situation.  I got some good advice from the commercial beekeeper, Johnson. “Encourage those who are politically in power to increase research,” he said. “We have a lot of questions and I think our research is in the neophyte stage.” Wessels and Andresen had other suggestions. “For one, limit your use of pesticide for cosmetic purpose,” Wessels said. “Absolutely don’t use them for cosmetic purposes and when you do use them, do what the label says because that’s the law.” Many people don’t know that it is your legal responsibility to apply pesticides correctly. “Oftentimes the problems are caused by neonics used against the law. In an urban setting we don’t know if people two houses down are spraying their linden trees for aphids, and consumers often don’t peel back the sticky label.” They also recommend having something blooming in your yard year round and planting good pollen plants in groupings instead of single plants (there’s a list of good plants for Oregon on their website, and here’s a more comprehensive list.) You can also put out water – bees need water. “We’ve had three summers where we’ve had about two straight months without rain. A bird bath is great, but dump it out regularly.”  If you’re really adventurous, you can even start your own hive.

Johnson was skeptical about how much impact planting flowers in your yard will actually have, but he agreed it can’t hurt. “On my ten acres I could never plant enough flowers to feed a beehive. They need huge areas to feed a hive. It doesn’t hurt to plant plants in Portland, but even if everyone planted their front yard in clover I don’t think it would feed very many hives. It’s a good start, and it can’t hurt.” He told me that a hive needs five pounds of nectar per day during the summer to feed their brood, and on a good day a hive can bring in up to 15 pounds. For perspective, even if your whole backyard is raspberry bushes it might produce one to two pounds of nectar. Where Johnson thinks we can make a bigger impact is with trees planted by the city and the strips of grass along the roads. “City trees should be nectar producing or pollen producing,” he said. “What really makes sense is the sides of freeways. That’s huge. Outside the central city – from here to Corvallis – you’ve got 75 to 100 feet in the middle of the road and on the side. Those plants would be tremendous.”

The final recommendation? Support local honey. Caron told me that roughly two thirds of the honey used by Americans is imported. And there was some interesting discussion at the Portland Urban Beekeepers meeting I attended about where it’s coming from and what’s actually in that imported honey. So even if you don’t want to change your landscaping, or start a hive, or get involved politically, you can at least spend a few extra pennies and buy local honey.

That’s it, folks. That’s some of the fascinating information I learned about bees. Hopefully you learned something, too. And next time your crazy friend posts something on Facebook about the bees dying and taking us with them, speak up and tell them what’s actually going on. And make sure to send them a link to this article. 🙂

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Hold on Honey, what’s this buzz about bees? Part 2 of 3.

Last time we talked about why bees are important (they help pollinate a third of our food and contribute considerably to crop values), outlined what’s been happening over the last few years (the difference between Colony Collapse Disorder and increased overwintering loss) and what might be causing it (a perfect storm of parasites, disease, poor nutrition, stress, and pesticides.) Now let’s talk about those pesky pesticides and if you should really be all that worried.

bee frame-2C’mon, It’s the Pesticides, Right?

So now we get to the meat of the hysteria: pesticides can also weaken the bees. And here is where, in my opinion, it gets really tricky. I’m sure most of you who live in Oregon remember hearing about some 50,000 bees that died in a Target parking lot after linden trees were sprayed with a neonicotinoid insecticide which later prompted the Oregon Department of Agriculture to temporarily restrict the use of neonicotinoids (also known as neonics) on linden trees. The EU also enacted a two-year moratorium on neonics after the European Food Safety Authority identified risks to bees (although there has been some recent controversy on if the scientists involved in that decision skewed the data to make it look worse than it actually is.) As a result of that ban, many canola farmers in the EU are experiencing crop losses this year of 20 percent to 50 percent due to an infestation of flea beetles. And herein lies the problem: farmers are facing an uphill battle to feed an ever-growing population on increasingly less land, and pesticides can help protect those crops. But are these pesticides also harming bees, therefore threatening our food supply? Certainly, there are plenty of groups screaming yes. Whole Foods even has a campaign to encourage consumers to “go organic” as a way to help the bees. Oddly, though, none of the six beekeepers (even the one who is vocally anti-GMO and pro-organic) I talked to support a ban on neonics or even seemed fully convinced that there was enough scientific evidence to say that neonics, when used properly, are definitely harmful. “We’ve gotten very side-tracked with the neonics,” said beekeeper and entomologist Dr. Dewey Caron.  “It is a landmine, but there is not much data to suggest that the real problem is neonics.” Caron explained that even without that evidence, many backyard beekeepers still believe that if they keep their bees away from pesticides, they’ll be ok.  “To say that I don’t let them near neonics so that will keep them happy and healthy is probably not true.”

One of the ways that farmers use neonics is with seed treatments – the farmer buys the seed already coated with a small amount of pesticide to help protect the seed while it’s in the ground and as it germinates and grows out of the soil. The planting process of these seeds can churn up pesticide-laced dust from the coating that can be carried by the wind to where nearby bees might be foraging.  In response to that, last year Bayer Crop Science, the primary manufacturer of neonics, introduced a new lubricant for seed coatings that reduces planting dust by up to 90 percent. I reached out to Sarah Myers at Bayer to get her take on what’s happening with the bees and what role pesticides play in recent bee deaths. Myers is a beekeeper who works in the North American Bee Care Center at Bayer and is the president of the Wake County Beekeepers Association.  “It would be nice if we could say if we eliminate pesticide use honey bee health would increase, but it’s not the silver bullet that many people are looking for,” Myers said. “There is a risk associated with it, but how you mitigate that risk is key.” Myers explained that although neonics are a systematic insecticide they don’t affect the nectar, so for a honey bee or other pollinators, they are very safe. “The science is there,” Myers said, “but getting folks to understand the science versus the emotional drive is the tricky part. A product that kills the insect is easier to identify than how you use the product. Some applications are safer than others – the key is to read the label and think of how you’re using the product.” That label explicitly warns against spraying on a blooming crop that attracts bees, which is exactly what happened in the Target parking lot in Wilsonville.

While there have been some studies that want to claim that neonics are the sole cause of CCD, these studies appear to be flawed and haven’t demonstrated a direct connection or correlation to CCD. What seems to be more likely is that neonics can cause sub-lethal effects in bees – meaning that bees exposed to safe levels of neonics may have an increased susceptibility to pathogens. This brings us back to the perfect storm situation I mentioned earlier – pesticide exposure at safe levels could be one contributing factor (compounded with poor nutrition) that places stress on the bees making it harder for them to overcome viruses, bacteria and pathogens introduced by parasites like the varroa mite. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater – there may be ways to mitigate this risk without banning an otherwise very useful and safe insecticide.  “If we were to take neonicotonoids away, which have a safer profile [than some alternatives], and replace them with the older chemistries, that would be going backwards in science” Myers said. “I know a lot of farmers are worried, they need better technology. As a beekeeper, I certainly wouldn’t want us to go backwards in science.”

How Big of a Deal is This, Really?

Comb.

Comb.

I asked this question to each of the beekeepers I interviewed because from what you read on the internet, the bees are doomed for extinction. But not one of the beekeepers I interviewed was overly concerned about the honey bee species. Tom Chester, a local beekeeper in his 19th season of keeping bees who also teaches beginning beekeeping courses, told me, “I don’t think it’s a big deal at all. I think there’s a lot of effort going into bees and I’m pleased there’s research going into bees. It’s a good thing, but I’m not overly concerned.” It doesn’t seem like the honey bee is headed for extinction, but even if it were, it’s not the end of the world that many people think it is. Myers obviously cares just as much about keeping the species alive as anyone, she’s been a beekeeper since college and has a small honey business with her dad, but she’s not concerned for our food supply. “Say tomorrow we didn’t have any honey bees,” Myers said, “we would not starve.  Our diets would change – we would eat more grains and cereal, but our native bee species would have to make up the difference.”  Myers told me that in North America we have 4,000 bee species, and honey bees are one of them. If honey bees disappeared tomorrow, those other pollinators would still continue to pollinate the fruits and nuts that are facilitated by honey bees. We would still have some of these things in our diets, but we wouldn’t be able to meet the demand so food prices would go up. “I don’t think that will ever happen, though,” Myers said. “I do think honey bees are improving. Bees have been around a long time, they’ve had ups and downs. I don’t think we’ll get to the point where we have a concern for our food supply.”

Which brings up a good point – we’ve been recording higher overwintering losses for the last nine years.  If this were really impacting food prices, wouldn’t we have already seen that happen? “The short answer is no,” Caron said.  “We have been saying it will cost you more for a bee-pollinated crop but the bee input for apples is 15 percent of the total cost. If bees go up a little bit, say five dollars a colony, but that’s only 10 percent of 15 percent, do you now pay an extra dollar an apple? No. We can’t point to a specific instance where this crop now costs more or now growers are getting out of growing it because of pollination. We cried wolf that would happen, but it hasn’t.” What about honey, though, that must cost more, right? “The price of honey right now is sky high,” Caron said, “but not because there are fewer bees. It’s because we’re changing our honey buying habits.” Caron explained that before World War II there were closer to five million managed bee colonies in the US. Now there are half that many, but that’s not strictly due to CCD or overwintering loss, it’s primarily because we moved to alternative sweeteners like refined sugar, high fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners and so people got out of beekeeping as the demand dropped. Now there’s a trend to get back to natural foods like honey, so the demand is higher.  “Most of the honey is going into prepared products,” Caron said, “so now the honey we buy to put on our tables is a specialty. We changed our honey-use habits.” Something that needs mentioning here that Myers pointed out to me – even though we’re seeing a 30 percent overwintering loss, that doesn’t mean it’s a compounding decline in population. In the spring, beekeepers either divide their hives (and the bees breed more bees) or they purchase new bees from breeders to make up the difference. We’re not continually losing a third of the bee population every year.

There was one beekeeper I talked to who, when I asked the question of how big of a deal this is, said, “Oh, it’s a very big deal.” Mark Johnson has been a commercial beekeeper for 43 years. Unlike all the other beekeepers I interviewed, he makes a living keeping bees – he provides pollination services to farmers starting with the California almond bloom in February, moving from crop to crop all spring and summer and then he harvests honey in August. “I run about 1200 hives, and my boys have a couple of 100 as well,” Johnson said. “We do both pollination and honey but honey is only about 20 percent. In western Oregon if you tried to keep bees for honey you’d go broke, it’s mainly renting hives to farmers.” Johnson told me he doesn’t really think our food supply is in jeopardy unless commercial beekeepers are unable to make a profitable business. From his perspective, it’s a big deal because of the finances.  “How many businesses can lose 25 percent every year and stay in business? It’s a huge problem for the beekeeper,” Johnson said.  “I have expenses a hobbyist doesn’t have – it’s terribly expensive when a hive dies. And when I tell a farmer I’ll bring him 200 hives and now I only have 140, but he needs 200 to pollinate, I’ve lost good will – I’ve been with some of these farmers for 38 years. If I lose that contract it’s terribly expensive for me. That cuts hugely into any profit.”

bee on berry flower-1The other thing Johnson pointed out to me is that he started seeing this problem not in 2006, but in the late 80s and early 90s when the varroa mite first showed up in Oregon. “It hit me in 1989, but nobody cared until 2005 or 2006. The first year I didn’t think I had a problem, then the next year I had between 80-90 percent die off. In 2005, what happened for the first time ever, there weren’t enough bees for the crop that needs more bees than any other crop in the world – California almonds. For the first time they realized it would cut into agriculture and that made the news.” Now Johnson treats with miticide to control the mites as almost all commercial beekeepers do. Many backyard beekeepers don’t treat for mites because they like the idea of the organic approach, but backyard beekeepers are reporting a higher overwintering loss despite the better diversity of forage that the urban environment provides. Some of the research suggests that the most prominent pesticide in bee colonies is beekeeper applied, but according to Caron, treating for mites can improve survival by 30 to 35 percent. So that’s a personal decision each beekeeper makes. Chester recommends that you at least test for mites, then you can decide what you want to do about them, because as he said, “It’s not about if there are mites, you always have mites. I highly recommend that you test for mites. That gets you thinking about mites, and then you can decide if you want to treat.” For Johnson, the hope on the horizon is the research now going into bees. “Things like the USDA team following 20 commercial beekeepers (who collectively manage about 40 percent of the total bee population) and sampling protein, checking brood, comparing what beekeepers are doing,” Johnson said. “We haven’t had that kind of research until the last year or two. It’s going to be five to ten years until you can look back and see long term results, but it’s very encouraging. And it’s because of politics and the media. Sometimes the media can be our friend.”

In that way, from a commercial beekeeping business perspective, it’s troubling. But as far as the species, it’s not doom and gloom, as Caron told me. “We’re not at a risk of extinction – we’re not at the dire last stand for bees. What we’re seeking to do is to keep it from getting to that point. A rescue takes a lot more money and effort than to try to conserve. So that’s where we’re still at.”

Next time we’ll get into what kind of research is being done, where the solution might come from and what you can do to help.

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Hold on, Honey. What’s this buzz about bees? Part 1 of 3

“Bees are wild animals… Strictly speaking one never ‘keeps’ bees – one comes to terms with their wild nature… The only time I ever believed that I knew all there was to know about beekeeping was the first year I was keeping them. Every year since I’ve known less and less and have accepted the humbling truth that bees know more about making honey than I do.” – Sue Hubbell, “A Book of Bees”

Hubbell wrote “A Book of Bees” in 1988 with fifteen years of beekeeping experience. At that time, the topic of bees had not reached the hysterical level of media coverage that it has today, but her message in the above quote rings true in light of recent research into what’s happening with the bees: it almost feels like the more you know about bees, the less you really know about bees.bee frame-1 Perhaps you’ve seen some of the recent hysteria about bees. (I’d love to use some of the memes here but I’m not sure about copyright infringement, so I won’t.) Pictures of dead bees with captions like, “If we die, we’re taking you with us,” and “Genetically Modified Crops have killed millions of bees” pop up regularly online. Maybe you just have a vague feeling that you read something one time about bees dying off and that it’s bad. Until, of course, a friend on Facebook posts something that paints a pretty terrifying picture: bees are dying off, we’re practically in a Beepocalyspe, and it’s all because of evil Monsanto and their toxic pesticides. If we don’t save the bees, they will all die and no one will have anything to eat. The only answer is to boycott Monsanto and Big Ag, ban GMOs and pesticides, and by all means buy as much organic as you possibly can. Man, that sounds bad, right? I even saw a bumper sticker just the other day while driving on I-5 that said, “Give Bees a Chance, Go Organic.” Right next to it was one that said, “Millions Against Monsanto.”

I’ve been hearing this buzz (ha!) on social media and when I asked my readers on Facebook what I should look into next, the resounding answer was “find out what’s happening with the bees.” Now, almost seven months later, after hours of research, interviews with six beekeepers, reading Sue Hubbell’s book and hearing a talk by the editor of Bee Culture Magazine, I feel I can solidly answer your question: it’s complicated and they don’t really know for sure. (See what I mean? The more you know, the less you know.) And the fact that they don’t really know makes it easy for activist groups to fill in the blank with half-cocked ideas.

This and the next two posts will give you a glimpse into what’s going on and what I learned about bees, but you won’t walk away with a hard and fast answer, because there isn’t one. I know not all of you want to read three long posts on bees, so I’ll give you the bottom line up front: There are a handful of things that are contributing to a higher level of bee losses, but there is no smoking gun, and bees are not on the brink of extinction. Should we be aware of what’s going on and keep looking into solutions? Absolutely. Should we panic, jump to conclusions, ban pesticides and try to scare people into buying organic to save the bees? Absolutely not; the sky is not falling.  The answer is coming, but it will take the cooperation of the beekeeping industry and the agriculture industry, and it will take research and technology (read: money and time). This is not something that is easily summed up in a quick bumper sticker, which is probably why many people are confused about it.

This first post will address why bees are important, what’s actually happening, and what might be the problem. My next two posts will address what role pesticides play in the issue, how big of a deal this is, what’s being done about it, and what you can do to help. Let’s start by talking about what we do know.

Why Are We Even Talking About Bees?

Although you might think honey bees are simply pesky stinging insects that we tolerate so we can have their honey, bees actually help create a third of our diet by pollinating more than 90 different crops and they boost crop value by $15 billion each year.  Almonds in particular are completely dependent on honey bee pollination. In fact, the California almond business requires the use of 1.4 million colonies of honey bees, approximately 60 percent of all managed IMG_20140724_143428520honey bee colonies in the United States. So, if you’re an almond farmer or if you really like almonds (or almond butter or almond milk), the fact that bees are dying at an unsustainable rate is concerning. Concerning for the farmer because he can’t make a profitable crop without pollination and concerning for the consumer because that means the cost of almonds could go up. Almond farmers in California are already paying around $170 per hive for pollination services. One of the beekeepers I interviewed told me when he started keeping bees 43 years ago it was $11.25 per hive and he saw the price double in 2006 when almond growers started feeling the pinch.

So that’s why bees are important. But what’s actually happening with the bees – what does it mean that they’re “dying off?” There are essentially two things going on – one phenomenon that you’ve probably heard of, called Colony Collapse Disorder (or CCD) and another that’s less of a phenomenon and more of an exaggeration of normal beekeeping – increased overwintering loss. CCD is characterized by a sudden disappearance of most adult honey bees in the hive. They often leave behind the queen, honey and capped brood (bee larvae) but no dead bee bodies. While this phenomenon is not exactly new (it’s been documented as far back as 1869) it was given the name CCD in 2006 after a large number of beekeepers began reporting exceptional losses. Overwintering loss, on the other hand, is a standard part of beekeeping. Bees are active in the spring, summer and fall when temperatures are above 55 F. They collect pollen and nectar to make honey that they store in the hive to feed themselves over the winter when the cold temperatures and wet weather make it impossible to leave the hive (and there are very few flowering plants in the winter with which to make food.) A typical hive needs roughly 100 pounds of honey to survive the winter. The bees cluster around the queen and use body heat that they produce by consuming honey to stay alive. Because of the nature of this hardship, some of the bees don’t make it to spring. Normally about 10 percent of the bees die before spring – that is a number that is acceptable and standard to beekeepers. What’s new and concerning is that instead of this 10 percent loss, beekeepers have been reporting about a 30 percent loss since around 2006. Often CCD and the increased over-wintering loss are conflated (particularly by the media), but they are not the same thing. Most beekeepers are not reporting CCD anymore; they’re reporting increased overwintering loss.

So when you see or hear people talking about the bees dying, this is what they’re talking about – this increased overwintering loss. The reason it’s so hyped up is because it feels a lot like a canary in the coal mine – the bees are dying at a higher level than is acceptable, so it must be indicative of a bigger problem. The difficult part is that so far, we don’t know exactly what that problem is, so it’s hard to come up with a solution. That makes it easy for activist groups to jump in, start pointing fingers and leverage this emotional concern to push a specific agenda like banning GMOs or pesticides. As one of the beekeepers I interviewed said, honey bees are almost right up there with panda bears and snow leopards in the way that people care about them – they have a certain allure. And unlike trying to save snow leopards, you can actually start a bee hive right in your backyard – which is probably another reason the bees are getting so much attention. They’re about as popular right now as backyard chickens.  So you have a beneficial insect that people are familiar with and emotionally attached to that helps grow one third of our food, and it’s having trouble. That sets us up for the next conversation – what do we actually know about bee health?

 “You Never Can Tell With Bees” – A.A Milne

After the numbers started painting a bleak picture in 2006, money started rolling in to find the problem and fix it. The USDA put together a workshop of scientists and stakeholders to create an action plan. Research was done and studies were published. So far the conclusion has been that there is no single cause for the decline in bee health. I talked with long time beekeeper, Dr. Dewey Caron, who is also an emeritus professor in the department of entomology and wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware and an affiliate professor in the horticulture department at Oregon State University. He told me that “It’s an evolving issue. I think when we started it, it was our naïve thought as scientists that we could find a cause and affect a solution. We found out that it’s more like an onion, the more you peel, the more layers there are. There is no quick cause or quick fix.”

upside down bee-1What the research has shown so far is that while there is no single cause for the decline in bee health, there are many factors that, working together, create a perfect storm leading to an increase in bee mortality. Some of those contributing factors are higher loads of pathogens and viruses present in bee colonies, presence of parasites like the varroa mite that pass disease to the bees like mosquitos pass malaria to humans, poor nutrition due to lack of diversity of forage, stress on bees from transporting them around the country for pollination, and exposure to pesticides.  When I asked the beekeepers I interviewed to highlight the most impactful of those contributors, almost unanimously, they all pointed to the varroa mite as a carrier for infection. “We just got finished at a conference and it was a unanimous discussion,” said Tim Wessels, president of the Portland Urban Beekeepers Association and co-founder of Bridgetown Bees, a team of beekeepers who are trying to breed hardier queen bees in Portland.  “There are multiple reasons, but we’re in agreement – it boils down to the varroa/virus complex that is probably at the base of all problems.” Wessels explained that it’s similar to when a human’s immune system is weakened for whatever reason (poor nutrition, not enough sleep, etc.) it makes it that much harder to overcome a virus like the common cold.  Bees may be stressed for a variety of reasons and when a parasite like the varroa mite introduces viruses and bacteria the bees are unable to overcome them.

So how are the bees weakened? One of the reasons is poor nutrition. Just like humans, bees need variety in their diet; they should be collecting pollen and nectar from a diverse source of flowers. Unfortunately, that’s not always happening and part of the reason is because we don’t like weeds and agricultural technology has gotten so good that we can almost entirely eliminate weeds (or things that aren’t what we’re trying to grow). “Monoculture is our enemy from a beekeepers perspective,” Caron said.  “Whether it’s an all-grass lawn or a corn field – that’s a green desert to a bee. Corn fields used to have weeds. Now they don’t. I’m not a believer in a monoculture in a lawn any more than I am in agriculture.” Ideally, there would be something continually blooming for the bees. Instead, when farmers take their bees to California for the almond bloom in February, all they get is almond bloom and nothing else (and you also have an abnormally high percentage of the bee population concentrated in one area making it even easier for disease to spread.) When the crop isn’t blooming, there are no weeds in the orchards or in the fields or in the yards or along the roads. Lots of people want to blame GMOs for the decline in bee death, and while there isn’t any research that actually says that genetically modified plants directly impact the bees, you could make an argument that biotechnology has allowed farmers to eliminate diversity from their fields. (I hope you were sitting down because that might be the only time you hear me say anything that can even remotely be taken as negative toward GMOs.) And, because farmers can get such a good price for corn these days, they’re planting it on every single bit of land they have, leaving no room for native plants that contribute to variety in the bees’ diet. We also love our expanses of green grass. Our yards are all grass, the strips along the highways are all grass (or they’re sprayed with herbicides to keep the weeds down), and the city parks are all grass. That’s just one big green desert if you’re a bee.

That’s it for today. Look for my next post that will talk about pesticides and if this is really that big of a deal.

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Bee Trivia Quiz!

bee on finger-1Get ready, people! My first post on bees is publishing here on Friday! Because my GMO quiz was so popular, I decided to test your knowledge again. This time it’s a fun trivia quiz to help you get in the bee mindset and to test your knowledge of bees.  Take the quiz, learn something, and share it. Then check back here on Friday for the first in a three-part series on honey bees.

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Breaking Down the Labels Series – Eggs Part 1.3: Feed/Supplements and Certifiers

Last time I outlined how the chickens live, but there are also labels that talk about what they eat and with what they are supplemented. (I know, right? Man, that’s a lot of labels.) Chicken feed is primarily grain-based (corn, soy, wheat, sorghum, barley, oats), but can include animal protein like meat and bone meal, and also includes supplemental vitamins and minerals.

Vegetarian-fed eggs come from chickens that were fed a vegetarian diet. As I said before, chickens are naturally omnivores, they eat egg in hay-1meat. This is the single most mystifying label to me. Why would you feed a chicken a vegetarian diet? “It doesn’t make a lot of sense in terms of the diet of the hen,” Satrum told me. “However, the Internet has done a good job of scaring people about animal proteins. Meat and bone meal is a by-product from slaughter houses and it’s a very good product. It’s cooked, it’s cleaned, it has lots of protein, phosphorous, and calcium. If it wasn’t used as an animal feed it would probably be in a landfill somewhere. So it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. We don’t do it for the bird; we do it because it makes the marketing easier.” You heard that right, from a third-generation chicken farmer, his answer was basically: because the Internet told them so. So how do farmers make sure these chickens get the proper nutrition from a vegetarian diet? Satrum told me they supplement with non-animal derived protein often from soybean meal and mined calcium and phosphorus. Instead of feeding the chickens an existing product that has lots of the nutrition they need, we put it in a landfill and feed them stuff we have to mine out of the earth … OK, then.

Omega-3 enriched eggs are from hens that have been fed a diet supplemented with things like flax seed, marine algae or fish meal to increase omega-3 levels. There are different types of omega-3 fatty acids, but the bottom line is that they are believed to play an important role in your health: normal blood clotting, brain function, prevention of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and some inflammatory and auto-immune diseases.   Chhatriwalla told me that several studies have shown that the supplementation of chicken feed with omega-3 fatty acids will produce eggs significantly higher in omega-3’s, some as much as a 40 fold increase. “That being said,” she said, “levels that high would not taste good due to the fishy aroma of omega-3’s.”  All eggs naturally contain about 30 mg of omega-3 per egg, supplemented eggs around 100-200 mg. The tricky part, Chhatriwalla pointed out, is that no one really knows how much omega-3 you need.  Health experts recommend one serving of omega-3 rich foods per day (around 1000 – 1500 mg).  You can get that through about a serving of fatty fish like salmon, a tablespoon of canola or soybean oil, or a handful of walnuts or ground flaxseed. You would have to eat six to seven omega-3 enriched eggs to get that requirement.

Hormone-free eggs are quite possibly the most blatantly misleading label, because there aren’t any eggs that have added hormones. The USDA does not allow the use of hormones in poultry production. This is so misleading that the FDA requires any label making claims about no added hormones include a statement that says, “Hormones are not used in the production of shell eggs” in order to prevent consumers from thinking some eggs do contain added hormones. That’s not roundabout at all…

IMG_20140628_111548178Antibiotic-free labels are also a little misleading because all eggs in the US are antibiotic free, even if they don’t say so, because by FDA regulation, any eggs produced by hens being treated with antibiotics for illness would not be sold for human consumption. “In general antibiotics are used rarely in commercial egg production, because pullets, young hens, are vaccinated for appropriate diseases and management conditions keep the vectors of disease away from the birds,” said Hermes. “Stated simply, commercial layers raised indoors rarely get sick.” He also pointed out that in organic production, any medicated birds, young or old, must be removed from the organic stream, none of their eggs can be labeled organic. I found that part particularly interesting. So what happens to the “organic” hen when she’s recovered and off antibiotics? Can she be moved to a non-organic stream? “That is what is supposed to happen,” said Hermes, “however that assumes that the organic producer has a place to put these now ‘non-organic’ birds and an outlet for non-organic eggs.  The large commercial producers with some dedicated non-organic production could do this, however the logistics are difficult in these cases. The small producer with a few dozen or even a few hundred hens may not have an outlet.  In most cases I suspect that these birds are euthanized.” That right there is a reason, in my opinion, to not buy organic or antibiotic-free eggs. If you needed a reason.

Organic eggs come from hens that have been fed an organic diet without any direct-fed animal protein (but I think they can still eat bugs if they catch them.) I’m including this in the food and supplements section because the organic feed part is the only thing that really differentiates these eggs. Certified organic eggs are verified by third-party certifiers as mandated by the National Organic Program and must also meet other requirements: they have to be cage-free, they have to have access to the outdoors (but amount, duration and quality is undefined – for example it could be a parking lot and the birds may not even use it) and the use of hormones and antibiotics are prohibited (the hormone part is redundant since it’s prohibited in all poultry production, organic or not.) We’ve already discussed all those other elements, so the only thing new is the certified organic feed.  You’re probably already familiar with my thoughts on organic, but if not, see here and here.  To sum it up, you’re not limiting your exposure to pesticides in any meaningful way by eating organic eggs, and there is no substantial nutritional difference.

Third-party certifiers

chicks-1Oh yes, there’s more. If just the different ways of raising hens and what they’re fed isn’t enough, there are also claims on labels that talk about the third-party certifiers. It seems this is a way to make it easier for the consumer to know if they’re getting what they think they’re getting; a voluntary accountability system, so to speak. That would be fine if there weren’t a handful of different ways to get certified, making it even more complicated than before. Each certification system has different requirements for the duration and quality of indoor/outdoor systems, how much space each bird gets, what they eat, etc. I asked both Karcher and Hermes if they could recommend one certification system that they thought did it best. They both agreed they’re just variations on a theme. In fact, when I asked Karcher which one he could recommend that could help a regular person feel like they’re doing the “right thing” without getting duped he said, “Ha! When you find the answer to this one, please share!! Seriously though, every third party certification is, in my opinion, a one-up from the other one to entice the consumer to believe that this particular certification is the best. If consumers take the time to read the certification programs, they would find slight differences amongst them. Depending on what a ‘regular’ person believes, will ultimately dictate which program is the best.”

At the very least, most of the third party certifiers have definitions for what free-range and pasture-raised means, so that’s something. I’m not going to go more into the specifications of all the certification systems because it’s too lengthy, and I had a difficult time finding a good scientific source that listed each certification system without disparaging the others.  Eighty percent of all eggs produced in the United States are produced under the United Egg Producers certified guidelines, so that’s a good place to start. Others to look into are: Certified Humane, Animal Welfare Approved, American Humane Certified, and Food Alliance Certified.

One very last point that’s worth noting: it’s easy for consumers to change their opinions on how laying hens should be raised. It’s not so easy for producers – they have already committed significant amounts of money to certain production systems. Imagine that you’ve already got millions of dollars dedicated to conventional housing systems and then California voters decide they don’t like your system. You can’t make that change quickly or easily, and, ironically, if you’re a small producer it might be financially impossible. It’s going to take time, and as consumers, we have to appreciate that. “In my experience of nearly 27 years in Poultry Extension,” said Hermes, “the poultry and egg industries are committed to producing safe, high quality products for their consumers, while being dedicated to the welfare of the birds.  So while public opinion in recent years has decided that caging is bad for hens, even though the science favors cages for their physical well-being, industry can’t make sweeping changes that cost millions of dollars over night.”

That’s it! That’s all I think you need to know on eggs. Now I’m off to have an omelet. I hope this helps you use your Momsense to make informed decisions as well. Stay tuned for the next in this Breaking Down the Labels Series: a look into labels for the actual poultry we eat.

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Breaking Down the Labels Series – Eggs Part 1.2: Housing Systems

Last time I gave you my conclusion, today I’ll talk about housing systems.

But before we get to that, let’s settle the egg shell color debate: brown versus white. This has nothing to do with the inside of the egg; it is completely dependent on the kind of hen who laid the egg. Different breeds lay different colored eggs, but the inside is exactly the same. brown vs white eggsBrown eggs come from red-brown feathered breeds that tend to be larger than other breeds and require more food, which could explain why they’re more expensive. The inside of the egg is only affected by what the hen eats. (Laying hens require a high-protein diet but will eat just about anything they can find or scratch from the ground: bugs, grass, seeds, fruit, etc. Commercially-produced chickens generally eat a grain-based diet.)

Housing (sources for label definitions: Egg Nutrition Center)

There are two primary differences between how hens are raised: they’re either in a house their whole lives, or they’re outside for all or some of their lives. You can imagine why a farmer (and a consumer) would want to put chickens in a house  – it makes it easier to control what the chickens eat and collect the eggs, and it protects the birds from predators, parasites and disease. On the flip side, it may restrict some or all of the birds’ natural tendencies, like the ability to spread their wings, forage, dust-bathe, nest and perch.  Within the house, birds can either be in a cage or not. Cages allow easy collection of eggs and help keep the house clean and the birds healthy – one of the major obstacles in raising chickens is managing the manure. Cages allow a conveyer-belt system to continually remove the manure. Obviously, the size of the cage can greatly restrict birds’ natural behaviors, and many cages don’t allow birds to turn around. That being said, caged chickens have the lowest mortality rate of any of the systems. Cage-free systems have increased hen-to-hen aggression and incidence of broken bones that both contribute to higher mortality rates. While cage-free systems definitely allow the birds to perform many more natural behaviors, they are inherently dirtier because manure cannot be removed as well or as often.

Conventional eggs (those that don’t have a label saying anything about the housing of the chickens) come from hens that have spent their whole lives inside a cage inside a house. It is the most restrictive production system as far as space for the bird, but also the most affordable system.

  • Pros of this system: lowest mortality, cleanest houses, lowest cost.
  • Cons of this system: least amount of natural behavior for the chicken, some feather and foot issues due to cage confinement.

Enriched-colony eggs are a newer development. This is in-between conventional and cage-free – a few birds together in a bigger cage with areas for natural behaviors. Satrum is working on converting some of his operation to enriched-colony housing. “It’s a cage but it’s a much larger cage, like a big condo cage, with nesting and perching and scratching areas – kind of cage-free but in a caged environment.” This change is largely driven by economics – the most affordable eggs are from conventional systems. Enriched colony is lower-cost than cage-free but with some of the benefits of cage-free.  Larger cages have been in the news lately. In 2008 California passed Proposition 2 which mandates that by January 1, 2015 all egg producers in California and all eggs being importer to California come from hens that can lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs and turn around freely (this isn’t exactly the same as enriched-colony, but similar.) California is currently battling a lawsuit over Prop 2 from other states that fear future restrictions on livestock production as part of the slippery slope California may have started.  In 2012, the United Egg Producers and the Humane Society attempted to pass the Egg Bill that would have set national standards for egg production making enriched-colony housing the norm. That bill met fierce opposition from the meat industry for the same reason California is currently being sued and never passed. Despite resistance from the meat industry, I would bet that enriched-colony will soon be the standard for egg production.

  • Pros of this system: very low mortality, hens are able to perform some natural behaviors in a limited way, less disease and injury compared to cage-free and pastured, and affordable production cost.
  • Cons of this system: not many. The only I can come up with is that the hens are still caged.

cage free cartonCage-free or free-roaming (not to be confused with free-range) are eggs from hens that live inside a house for their entire lives, and may not have access to the outdoors, but don’t live in a caged confinement inside the house so they get to engage in some natural behaviors like perching and nesting. Some farmers may choose to also give these hens limited access to the outdoors, but they don’t have to and you can’t assume that simply based on the label – the label only means they’re not inside a cage.

  • Pros of this system: birds get to perform lots of natural behaviors.
  • Cons of this system: higher mortality, broken bones and injuries, increased respiratory problems due to dust, and higher hen-to-hen aggression. Preliminary results from a recent study indicate that ammonia and particulate matter is considerably higher in cage-free systems, and workers are inhaling more particulate matter from manure and litter on the floor. This system also requires more labor for egg collection and manure removal.

(Here is a good resource to see and compare conventional, enriched-colony, and cage-free.)

Free-range eggs are from hens that have been allowed access to the outside. This is a bit misleading, because there are no government regulated standards for free-range, meaning these birds could be living an identical life to a cage-free bird, with the addition of a door that leads outside. Because there are no regulations about the length, duration or quality of outside access, this “outside access” could just as easily be a parking lot as it could be a grass pasture. The birds may not know the door is there, or use it, but they have access to it, so they qualify. To be fair, they could also be spending a large amount of time outside, but you don’t know that simply by reading the “free-range” label.

  • Pros of this system:  the same as for cage-free with potential for additional freedom if done correctly.
  • Cons of this system: the same as for cage-free, with the addition that it has the potential to be intentionally misleading. To avoid this, see the section on third-party certifiers.

Pasture-Raised Eggs

hens nestingThere is a lot of hype about pasture-raised eggs these days. It seems like the end-all-be-all for the foodies, so I decided to give it some extra discussion. I have a feeling that when people choose to buy cage-free/free-roaming or free-range eggs, they think they’re getting pasture-raised, but they’re not. Pasture-raised eggs come from hens that are actually living on a pasture, in a barnyard-like setting, not in a house or cage. These hens are allowed to forage for grass, bugs and whatever else they can find, but likely their diet is supplemented with a grain-based feed because there simply is not enough forage to provide an adequate diet.  The birds are provided a nesting house where they go at night and to lay eggs.  There are no regulations for pastured eggs, the USDA does not recognize a label definition for pastured eggs and there are no standards. If you’re buying pastured eggs (at about $6-$8 for 12 eggs compared to the $2.50 for 18 eggs I pay for conventional eggs) you should make certain you’re getting what you pay for. Visit the farm, or at least contact the producer.

Like I said, I visited a farm that raises pasture-fed chickens.  It was a beautiful farm and I learned a lot, but I’m not going to name it here because the owner and I have a difference of opinions on organic and GMO and he preferred to go un-named. I understand that, and I’m ok with it – there is room in agriculture for multiple approaches, and that’s what enables choice. His operation utilized a rotation and multi-species model that moves chickens, pigs, sheep and cows around the pasture on a schedule that allows the animals to feed on the pasture without ruining it. After a tour of the farm, I was blown away at how much attention is paid to the soil and how much work goes into making sure the animals don’t over-use the pasture. Unlike a conventional chicken farmer who might only need to be an expert in chickens, he has to be an expert in chickens, cows, sheep, pigs, and grass and soil science. It was a cool system, to say the least. My husband and I got to taste-test the eggs that my kids collected while we were on the farm (after visiting the egg-washing room).

Conventional egg on the left, pastured egg on the right.

Conventional egg on the left, pastured egg on the right.

Could we see the tell-tale pasture-raised orange yolk that indicates a diet rich in fatty bugs? Yes. Could we taste a difference? Yes: they were definitely richer tasting than our conventional eggs. Enough so that we would pay $6 per dozen? No – like I said, we eat a lot of eggs. But maybe we would if you could make an argument that this approach is better for the environment or more nutritious.

So is it more nutritious? Chhatriwalla told me that unfortunately there aren’t very many studies that have analyzed the nutritional content of eggs from pasture-raised hens. There are a few and one concludes that while the fat and beta-carotene content were higher in range-produced eggs, the authors noted that it was not great enough to prove a true nutritional advantage of one egg type over the other. What about an environmental advantage? While at first glance it might seem this approach seems more in-line with the way nature intended, it doesn’t seem to be the most efficient use of resources. “Pasture-raised is fine for specialty,” said Satrum. “It’s difficult to do true pasture-raised on a large scale.  As long as you have a small production and lots of land and a warm climate, it can be done just fine. For a commercial producer, you need lots of space. You won’t find commercial producers doing a pasture production, it’s very rare.” As I noted in the beginning, the natural way comes with the good and the bad, including higher incidence of mortality, disease, worms and predation. These downsides do reduce efficiency (and increases cost), and it requires a lot of land that could be producing more for people to eat. If we didn’t have a growing population that needs to eat and finite resources, it would be fine. But we do. And frankly, not everyone can afford to pay a dollar an egg for something that’s pretty much nutritionally the same.

  • Pros of this system: best opportunity for the birds to perform natural behaviors.
  • Cons of this system: higher incidence of mortality and morbidity, reduced resource efficiency, highest cost, no USDA recognized label definition and no standards.

What else should you know about housing systems?

chicken-1So which is better: caged or uncaged? “Anything that adds stress is a negative to the welfare of the chicken,” Satrum said. “Air quality and cleanliness of the house is going to impact the hen. There’s always a little bit of trade-off with the different systems. In the traditional cage systems, the more modern ones are very clean, they have very good air quality, there is very little dust in the house and that’s beneficial for the hens. Cage-free has more space and exercise per hen, but it’s a maybe a little dirtier environment. A lot of it comes down to the management of the farm and the design of the buildings, none of that you can really tell from a label unless the farmer’s being very transparent.” Satrum mentioned that the equipment for cage-free is also more expensive and the labor costs are higher,  which translates to a higher cost to the consumer.  “In terms of animal welfare,” Satrum said, “It’s probably going to vary from farm to farm. Generally as we get more experienced at cage free, we’re getting better at it.” He told me that the mortality rate was initially pretty high in cage free, it’s improved a lot, but typically there is still a higher hen mortality rate in cage-free production. Of course, there are ways to manage that. You’ve heard of a pecking order, right? That’s a real thing. In large groups chickens have to establish a social order of bonds and to do that, they peck at each other. There are ways to deal with hen-to-hen aggression, one of which is to alter the beak of the bird. I read a lot of terrible things about beak-cutting online, but you can’t always believe what you read. “Beak trimming/cutting is pretty much a thing of the past,” said Satrum. “Today the tips of the chicks’ beaks are actually precision laser treated at the hatchery right after being hatched.  This one time treatment makes it so that the tip of the beak does not grow a long sharp hook on the end but still maintains a completely natural appearance and function.” Karcher and Hermes also agreed that beak-trimming can be ok when done correctly. “A few moments of discomfort during the trimming process results in much less injury due to normal hen aggression later,” Hermes said. He also noted that work is being done to breed hens that wouldn’t need beak trimming. Another thing to note is that beak trimming is not unique to cage-free production, it’s standard practice in laying hens regardless of the housing system.  Beak trimming is not the only way to control hen pecking; Satrum mentioned special lighting and proper nutrition can also limit pecking.

Another controversial issue is forced-molting. “Molting is a natural process, generally occurring in the fall,” Hermes said. “All adult birds molt so that damaged feathers can be replaced.  During the molt process, energy and nutrition are used for growing feathers rather than producing eggs, so cessation of egg production also occurs.”  Forced-molting is basically imitating that process in an indoor setting.  Again, reading online give you the impression that producers force-molt by starvation, but that doesn’t seem to be the industry standard. “Feed withdrawal molting is not endorsed as a practice in the industry,” said Karcher. “The common practice is a non-feed withdrawal molt where hens are provided a diet that has sufficient nutrition to maintain her, but doesn’t provide the nutrition needed to produce eggs. At the same time the diet is changed, the lights are reduced from approximately 16 hours to 8 hours which signals her physiologically to stop producing eggs.” It’s a natural process that will happen anyway, it’s simply enhanced in a production setting.

My next post will talk about feed and supplements and third-party certifiers.

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Breaking Down the Labels Series – Part 1: Eggs

chickenThis is the first story in my first ever series. Get ready, people. A series! It’s a big commitment, so I’m going to be vague on how many stories there will be and on how long it will be in between stories.  This summer (read: 24/7 children in my personal space) has wreaked havoc on my research and writing time; I’ve literally been working on this story since June.  Side note: how long will it be until my children stop yelling “MOMMY!” in an emergency-sounding voice from across the house to ask un-emergency questions like if it’s true that girls have more taste buds than boys? It’s OK, school starts soon.

Anyway, the goal of this series is to talk about what some of the labels on our food actually mean. I read an opinion piece in the Oregonian recently that said, “Our marketplace is literally drowning in labels, most of which have little meaning except to promote the sales of some products over others.” There is a LOT of marketing going on at the grocery store, and it’s often really hard to know if something you read on a package truly says something about that product’s health or environmental benefit or if someone is trying to take advantage of your desire to feed healthy food to your family. Take the word “natural” for example. That means virtually nothing because the FDA has not defined what “natural” means. In fact, Consumer Reports recently launched a campaign to ban the natural label from food because it is so misleading.

So with that in mind, in this series I plan to get out and talk to people in the field that can help us understand what some of these labels mean. At the end of the day, I hope these articles help you (and me!) go to the grocery store without feeling like you need a cheat sheet to figure out what to buy.eggsI’ve decided to start the series with eggs for a selfish reason. My family eats a lot of eggs and every time I buy eggs I’m flabbergasted by the choices. Brown eggs, white eggs, eggs from hens fed a vegetarian diet, or a diet high in omega-3, cage-free, free-range, pasture-raised, organic, natural, farm-fresh, hand-gathered, antibiotic-free, hormone-free, and on and on and on.  Most of the time I just buy the cheapest eggs because there are simply too many choices and I promise myself I’ll look into what they mean later. So now I’m doing just that. In order to write this article, I:  visited a local farm that sells pasture-raised chickens and eggs (among other things); interviewed Greg Satrum, third-generation egg farmer and owner of Oregon’s largest commercial egg farm, Willamette Egg Farms; consulted with registered dietician Emily Chhatriwalla based in Kansas City, MO; and consulted with two extension poultry experts: Dr. James Hermes at Oregon State University and Dr. Darrin Karcher at Michigan State University.

Why are there so many choices, anyway? I asked Satrum this exact thing because he would know, his operation produces many varieties:  conventional, cage-free, omega-3, organic and vegetarian-fed eggs. I asked him why he would do that and he gave me a straight answer: it’s all about a marketing advantage. “It’s basically driven by consumer preference. Most major producers have the whole line of products. If you’re not producing specialty eggs, it can work against you in the selling of conventional eggs. Retailers prefer to deal with a limited number of suppliers; if they have a whole bunch of suppliers it becomes difficult. So producing the whole line of products gives you an advantage.” Satrum admitted it’s tough for a consumer, “you almost need a half-hour tour” to figure it all out, he said.

I know not everyone is going to want to read my 5,000 word treatise on eggs – the labels are so complex it’s hard to be concise, and as we know, I’m not particularly good at that anyway. I decided to break this “first post” into three individual posts to make it more digestible. This post will give you my conclusion first and then if you want to know more about why I reached this conclusion, you can read the next two posts.

My Momsense Conclusion Up Front

My conclusion is that it really depends on what matters most to you. Each system has pros and cons, and depending on what’s the most important to you, you’re going to come to a different conclusion than me. For my family, I think enriched-colony is the best production system. Remember, though, eggs are a great source of nutrition for you and your family; they’re high in vitamins and minerals, quality protein and antioxidants. Don’t let marketing and fear-tactics scare you away from eating them. Worry more about making sure to include eggs in your diet, and worry less about the details, especially if you’re concerned about your budget.

Because there is no clear winner, I’ve broken it down by what I think the consumer’s end goal is. Below is my guideline for choosing eggs based on research and interviews.

  • pastured eggsBird Welfare:  This is really complicated. What is “best” for the bird is debatable. Is it better that they have the most freedom with the complications that come with it (increased mortality, disease, parasites, predators), or is it better that they give up some of that freedom in return for better health? If it’s the first, then you need to seek out eggs from pasture-raised production. Don’t buy eggs labeled organic, cage-free or free-range and think you’re getting that, you’re not. Go to your local farmers market, find a producer who claims pasture-raised, ask him or her questions about what that means, and visit the farm to verify it. The USDA does not recognize a label definition for pastured eggs, and there are no standards, so you must take it upon yourself to verify. If the health of the bird is more important to you, I think the best solution is enriched-colony housing. Go online and find a local producer who is using enriched-colony (like Willamette Egg Farms in Oregon.) If you can’t find that, go with cage-free, but look for a producer that meets standards set by a third-party certifier. Take a look at the different certifiers and find one that you think makes the most sense. Don’t get worried if you feel like you can’t distinguish between them, experts told me it’s just variations on the same theme. Just pick one you think sounds good to you.
  • egg cartons on shelf-1Nutrition:  Do you not so much care about how much the bird can do natural behaviors, but you just want the most nutritious eggs at a good cost? Buy conventional eggs. They’re just as nutritious as the rest. Chhatriwalla’s conclusion was that she couldn’t recommend one type of egg over the other based on nutrition alone. Don’t concern yourself with claims about added something-or-other. If you want to add omega-3 to your diet, find a direct source like flaxseed meal, soy or canola oil, or fatty fish. Organic eggs also aren’t better for your health – I’ve written previously on why organic isn’t going to limit your exposure to pesticides in any meaningful way. As for safety against food-borne illness, the best thing you can do is to store and cook your eggs properly. See here for more on that.  Use the money you saved on not buying nutrient-enhanced eggs to buy more vegetables.
  • Environmental Impact:  Do you just want to make sure it’s best for the environment? Based on my cursory look at this and preliminary results from a recent study by the Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply, I think it makes sense to buy enriched-colony or conventional eggs, as they seem to be the most efficient use of land and resources with the smallest impact to the environment. To adequately make this call, I’d have to talk to an environmental scientist who is an expert in this area so we can consider all the inputs needed to raise chickens and properly look at it from all sides. I will save that for another time, because this would be an interesting comparison for more than just eggs. I’ve also previously outlined that I don’t think buying organic is better for the environment, and none of the other egg production systems seem to offer an environmental advantage either.

The two main categories of information found on labels relate to how the chickens are housed and what goes into the chickens’ body (feed and supplements). The other main label component is third party certification which is a way of defining what the first two categories mean.

Tune in next time for a discussion on housing systems.

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WTFF, Oregon? Why The Fear Farming?

oregon field-1Every seasoned parent has had the experience of someone who doesn’t have kids giving them advice on parenting or waxing eloquent on the right way to raise kids. We all know how that feels. Sometimes they say it out loud and sometimes they just say it with their eyes. The point is we’ve all been there and it’s annoying for a good reason: they haven’t been there and they don’t know.

Why am I talking about this when the title of this story is about farming? Here’s why: there’s a measure on the ballot in Jackson County, Oregon that will let county voters, many of whom don’t know the first thing about real farming, dictate farming practices. To me, that feels a lot like people who don’t have kids telling me how to parent. Now, before you get all hot under the collar, I do know that farming impacts more than just the farmer: we all put food in our bodies and we all share the environmental resources and impact. And I’m also not saying we shouldn’t be aware of the practices farmers are using; I’m on board with the whole watchdog idea. What I object to is using fear and scare tactics to convince people to ban a technology they know very little about and don’t use. Especially when that technology provides real benefits and isn’t a threat.

15-119

Courtesy of Protect Oregon Farmers Facebook page

Here’s the background if you don’t know it: measure 15-119, for which the voting period ends on May 20th, would ban the growth of genetically modified crops in Jackson County. The measure is spear-headed by Our Family Farms Coalition. OFFC claims that organic farmers are at risk of contamination from GM crops and the only way to fix that is to ban farmers from growing them.

When I first heard about this, after I took a few cleansing breaths, I tried to think of some reasons this might make sense. Maybe Jackson County has some unique growing conditions that make it impossible for organic crops to co-exist with GM crops as they do successfully in the rest of the United States. Because GM crops have been grown in the US since the mid-90s, and as I just wrote about in my last post, it’s proven technology. There are established ways for different farming techniques to coexist without impacting your neighbor.  So what makes Jackson County unique?

I talked to Scott Dahlman, executive director at Oregonians for Food and Shelter, a non-profit that promotes education on agricultural technology, to see what I was missing. His answer, “Jackson County is a unique area, but there is nothing unique about it that would make it more susceptible to cross contamination.” But certainly there must be some farmers who have suffered financially as a result of GM contamination, right? Turns out, no. “They’re using fear,” Dahlman said.  “They ‘might’ get cross pollinated. Some organic farmers tilled under some of their crops because of fear, but they never had it tested to confirm contamination.” He then pointed me in the direction of a USDA report to the Secretary of Agriculture from 2012 that discussed creating a compensation method for farmers who have suffered economic loss as a result of contamination from GM crops. “They committee met for two years,” Dahlman said, “They didn’t come up with a compensation method because they couldn’t find a single incident of that happening. A big part of that is because under USDA standards, as long as you don’t plant GM seed, even if it’s cross-pollinated you don’t lose your organic certification.” It says clearly in the organic standards that certification is process-based and the unintended presence of GM material alone won’t result in the loss of certification.

So I had to ask him, what’s really going on here? The bottom line is that Syngenta grows GM sugar beet seed in Jackson County and some people don’t like that. Dahlman told me that GM seed production goes back at least 17 years in Jackson County, so it’s not something new in the county. A few organic farmers discovered Syngenta grows GM sugar beet seed and “now they know,” Dahlman said. “It’s really about awareness. Although they hadn’t had any issues before, once they discovered [GM seeds] were being grown there, a few organic growers started raising questions. One of the chief proponents of the ban is from California, from Marin County where they have had a ban on GM since 2000. That farmer said ‘why don’t we just ban it, we did in in California.’”

Aside from the fact that it probably violates Oregon’s Right to Farm and Forest Act, and Dahlman believes if passed the measure would unfortunately go into costly litigation for the county, the whole premise of the measure drives a wedge in the otherwise inclusive farming community. “It’s really sad down there right now,” Dahlman said.  “Our organization is big on farmers being able to farm the way they want. If for you that’s organic, awesome. It’s about what works best for you on your land. We’re starting to see one small group of ag basically ban the ag they don’t agree with. Traditionally you’ll have farmer to farmer disputes, but at the end of the day farmers are really good about keeping a big tent. So this is really sad to see.”

15-119 no

Courtesy of Protect Oregon Farmers Facebook page

Two other points that need mentioning: 1. Dahlman pointed out that lots of farmers who object to the measure don’t even grow GM crops, but they don’t want preclude their use of future innovation that might solve problems in their crops. It turns out, even some farmers who don’t grow GM crops don’t want this. 2. Oregon has already said this is nonsense. The state passed a bill last fall prohibiting Oregon counties from banning GM crops. The only reason Jackson County still gets to vote on it is because they already had it on the ballot when the bill was passed.

The GMO-ban supporters started a fear campaign, and now they’re trying to use that fear to convince voters to take away farmers’ choice to use a technology that has been available and approved for 20 years. One of the reasons farmers like GM so much is because it provides flexibility and convenience. You don’t have to like that (repeatedly tested and proven safe) technology and you don’t have to use it, but you shouldn’t be allowed to take it away from others who do choose to use it.

Let me put it another way. Moms use a number of technological advances that make life easier and simpler that I can’t imagine voters taking away. For example, in the 50’s and 60’s, two car families became the norm. Two cars enabled women to work outside the home, the establishment of suburbs and after-school sports, and many other things that are now accepted ways of life.  Could you make an argument that having two cars is bad? (Think increased gas, pollution, traffic, accidents, etc.)  Yes. Should we ban having two cars? No.  It’s the same for farmers with GM crops – these new technologies made such a fundamental change in their farming practices by providing flexibility and pest control options, that they revolutionized their day-to-day operations, and they would never support the government telling them to dial back the clock 20 years by banning this technology.

Let’s imagine a group of moms in your county spearheaded an effort to ban cell phones because of the risk to our children (i.e. distracted driving, they’re reducing kids’ abilities to interact socially, and potential effects from radiation). Imagine they used fear and scare tactics to convince voters that cell phones are too risky. I don’t know about you, but I’d be outraged. I use my phone to take pictures of my kids, show them what scorpions look like when we read that word in a book, rearrange plans on the go, call for help in an emergency, find my way out of a nature walk when we get lost (tip: take a picture of the posted map before you start), and someday I will give my kids cell phones so I can get in touch with them and know they’re safe. Can you really imagine banning a technology out of fear merely because voters haven’t really taken the time to understand the technology or appreciate the real benefits?

You may not live in Jackson County, but if you do, I urge you to vote No on 15-119. If you don’t live there, help me spread the word that taking choice away from farmers is a bad idea.

Here are some resources for further reading:

On the Jackson County issue:

Believe science, not ideology, in GMO debate     Medford Mail Tribune Editorial

Professor Martina Newell-McGloughlin Discusses Genetic Engineering

Jackson County, Oregon Voters – No on Measure 15-119     The Farmers Daughter USA blog

 In opposition to Jackson County Measure 15-119 GMO ban     oregoncatalyst.com 

Local Issues with Larger Repercussions?     Nuttygrass blog

 

On GMOs:

2000+ Reasons Why GMOs Are Safe To Eat And Environmentally Sustainable     Forbes blog 

A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops     New York Times

GMO Thought Experiment: What would a world look like without GMO crops?     International Business Times

 

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How Dirty is the Dirty Dozen?

EWG protest photo-1I have a confession to make: I have, on a few very limited occasions and against my better judgment, bought organic produce because I thought it was better for my family. Shocking, I know. I just wrote a story about what a good job I think the EPA and the USDA do to help ensure our produce has safe, minuscule levels of pesticide residue. How could I be so hypocritical? The answer is fear in parenting. Like so many other parents, I was (marginally and with doubts in my mind) temporarily frightened by media reports that perhaps some produce contained dangerous levels of pesticides and we would be better off with organic. Where would I get that idea? From a list called the Dirty Dozen. Rest assured, though, I have regained my composure and I am back on the conventional produce horse. Worry not, it won’t happen again, because now I know more about how wrong the Dirty Dozen list is than I used to.

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The Dirty Dozen is a list put together every year by a group called the Environmental Working Group. The EWG is a US-based environmental advocacy organization that takes on issues ranging from sunscreen to genetic engineering to cell phone towers and cosmetics. The EWG is well known for the Dirty Dozen list which uses publicly available data to rank produce according to levels of pesticide residue.  The list has been expanded to include the top 15 “dirtiest” produce; those the EWG has determined have the most pesticide residue. The EWG recommends consumers buy organic options of these “most contaminated fruits and vegetables.” The group also puts together the Clean Fifteen, which is a list of fruits and vegetables that fall at the bottom of the EWG’s ranking system for pesticides, ones you can buy conventional without feeling badly about it.

As you might expect, this concept is popular among parents. We’re always trying to balance doing the very best thing for our kids with the impact to our bank accounts. Not everyone can afford organic, so it’s inviting to hear someone say: “hey, don’t sweat it, you don’t always have to buy organic! Just focus on these specific items.” That helps parents feel good. They can check the “doing the right thing” box and move on.

It’s not surprising many parents use this list – the media regurgitates the Dirty Dozen like a mother bird feeding hungry chicks. The EWG packages its message in tidy little soundbites that basically write the stories themselves. Everyone covers it: CBS NewsCNNHuffington PostGood HousekeepingForbesFox NewsShapeWebMDPBS, even Oprah. I could go on and on, all you need to do is a simple Google search.

Seems legit, right? While I have heard the Dirty Dozen talked about in mom circles for years, even enough to convince me to throw a few extra dollars at the idea once or twice, I never actually looked at the EWG’s website to see where the data came  from. I recently did a casual Facebook survey to see how much my mom-friends know. Of the 24 who responded from across the US, 83 percent had heard of the Dirty Dozen and 75 percent could name two items on the list. Conversely, only 21 percent knew who was behind the Dirty Dozen, and only 8 percent had an idea about how the list was put together.

So how is the list created? Turns out, not very scientifically. The EWG states on its website that it uses data available from the USDA and FDA to create six evenly-weighted metrics to rank produce. Not a single one takes the tolerance level (what the EPA deems a safe exposure level) of the pesticide into account; the metrics and methodology don’t consider whether the amount present is actually a problem or not. The EWG’s metrics are instead weighted to basically vilify the mere existence of pesticide residue without consideration of whether the amount present is within the safety limits set by the EPA.

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Not only are these metrics pretty questionable, but the EWG doesn’t make the subset of data it uses available for the public to view.  Without access to the specific data from the USDA and FDA that the EWG claims to be using, it is nearly impossible for anyone to verify or reproduce the EWG’s results.  Not surprisingly, this also makes it difficult to refute or differently interpret the EWGs findings. Nowhere on its site does the EWG even link to the USDA or FDA’s websites. I think I figured out where the EWG gets the numbers, but how would you know for sure if it isn’t said? After looking over the USDA’s Pesticide Data Program reports, I’m still not certain how all six of those metrics are determined or how the ranking system is created. Now, I’m not a scientist, so maybe it’s easier for someone familiar with that data to figure it out. But when you ask scientists, the consensus is disagreement with the EWG’s Dirty Dozen list.

In 2011, the Journal of Toxicology, a peer-reviewed scientific journal, published a study that concluded the EWG’s methodology does not follow any scientific procedures and does not back up their claim that you can avoid pesticides by eating organic varieties of the “most contaminated fruits and vegetables.” Steve Savage, a plant pathologist who has spent his career in agricultural technology, did an independent analysis of the data and concluded the EWG is misleading consumers. The Alliance for Food and Farming, a non-profit group made up of farmers and farm organizations, commissioned an expert panel of five scientists (one of whom has 22 years of experience at the EPA) to evaluate the EWG’s Dirty Dozen and those scientists concluded it is unscientific. Forbes contributor Henry I. Miller did an opinion piece on the EWG’s unscientific-ness, which I thought was great, but sadly it was an opinion piece, not a news article.

Does anyone else find it ironic that we, as consumers, demand that scientists back up their claims with data and peer-review before we even reluctantly (read the comments) consider them, yet moms seem convinced by what appears to be an unscientific, intentionally opaque analysis that isn’t peer-reviewed? Clearly, this gets me fired up.

So I reached out to Teresa Thorne at the Alliance for Food and Farming to talk to her about what the science really says. Her bottom line was that moms should not be afraid to feed their kids fruits and vegetables. “We don’t advocate for organic or conventional, whatever choice you make is the right one for your family when you’re choosing to eat fruits and vegetables,” she said. Thorne said the Alliance is concerned that the EWG is using fear and language that is making people hesitate to buy produce. “Moms deserve truthful, credible information. There are decades of research showing it’s safe; farmers are doing a very good job.”

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Thorne also had questions about the EWG’s methodology and lack of information on its website. “In today’s world, when you are putting out a new report or study, why wouldn’t you reference the USDA data you use?” Thorne said.  “Why don’t they link to the data? The answer is the EWG doesn’t want people to know what the USDA and EPA say. Because they say it’s safe.” The USDA just recently released the newest Pesticide Data Program results, again confirming that pesticide residues do not pose a safety threat. Thorne encourages consumers to read that report, but if they don’t want to read the whole report (and it’s long, trust me) at least look at the press release and look at the USDA’s “What Consumers Should Know” sheet about the report. “The EWG manipulate that data and turn it into something very negative, when the government report is very positive,” said Thorne.

Interestingly, let’s take a listen to what the mainstream media has reported on the recent USDA report saying our fruits and veggies are safe: … [insert sound of crickets chirping] … nada.

The EWG often argues that the EPA’s safety limits are too lax and if consumers want to be sure they’re safe they should eat organic. But Thorne brought up a good point that organic consumers might not think about. “The fact of the matter is that the laws and regulations are stringent and protective,” Thorne said.  “Those laws and regulations aren’t just protecting consumers for conventional produce; they’re also for organic produce. Organic pesticides go through the same scientific process as conventional ones. It’s dangerous to damage that credibility unjustifiably. Doesn’t that undermine both?” That’s an interesting point. Especially since, as far as I know, the USDA doesn’t test organic produce for residues of approved organic pesticides.

I also reached out to the EWG for clarification on some of these issues: namely why it doesn’t link to the data, present the data on its website, or submit to peer-review? Also why doesn’t the methodology take tolerance into account, and what’s the EWG’s stance on organic pesticides? After some back and forth, I was told they won’t answer my questions until after they release the 2014 list later this week. (I get it; I used to work in PR.) So I’ll get back to you on that. I’m planning a follow-up article on the media coverage of this year’s Dirty Dozen and I will include the EWG’s answers to those questions.

We can anticipate that the EWG is going to, yet again, misconstrue the USDA’s positive report this week when it releases the 2014 Dirty Dozen list. The EWG will take that data and twist it around and try to convince you to buy organic options to help protect your family from “harmful pesticide residue”. Don’t fall for it. Don’t let the media feed you information and don’t let an activist group make decisions for you about what’s safe and what’s not. Use your Mom Sense, look into the science, and reach your own conclusions.

 

 

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Peeling Potatoes: Worth It or Not?

potato parade-1Recently I was at a friend’s house for dinner with my family. I was chatting with my friend while she was putting dinner together, and while she was peeling the potatoes I remarked offhand that I never peel potatoes because I’m just lazy and it’s too much work. She said, “You’re going to think this is silly, but I’ve read lots of stuff about pesticides concentrating in the peel. Potatoes are on the dirty dozen list and I’m not sure how true that information is, but I feel like it’s a pretty easy way to avoid that. I even read that conventional potato farmers don’t eat their own potatoes, they grown a small organic plot for their families.” I said while I had never heard of pesticide residues concentrating in the peel, I seriously doubted potato farmers don’t eat their own crop. Based on the farmers I’ve met, my impression is that they’re extremely proud of what they do and likely they eat what they grow. But, I said I’d look in to it because I thought it was interesting. After slogging through lots of data and talking to some folks in the field, I’ve concluded you’re not really avoiding pesticides by peeling the potato, but you are reducing the nutritional value you gain from eating potatoes when you take the peel off.

Let me start by saying that this friend of mine is very smart. She used to be a science teacher and has a bachelor’s in microbiology and a master’s in immunology.  I respect her quite a lot, which is why I decided to look into it. If a rational scientifically educated person accepts this, then average consumers with less science reasoning background likely will also.  I did a google search, and I can see where she got that idea.  The media loves to cover the Environmental Working Group’s “dirty dozen” list, and potatoes are tenth on the list. Just google, “do potato farmers eat their own potatoes” and you’ll see what I mean. The Dr. Oz show recently had Dr. Alan Greene on his show claiming he won’t eat conventional potatoes because of their high levels of pesticide residue.  This NBC News article even says that farmers “pour on the chemicals” to ensure a harvest and that you can avoid pesticides by peeling. So how true is that?

potatoes at the store-1I talked to a third-generation Washington potato farmer to find out about this idea that farmers don’t eat their own potatoes. This farmer certainly does. Not only do he and his family eat them, but they save them over the winter and eat them all year round. All of his employees also eat them, and he has family in other cities and states that beg him to bring potatoes when he visits.  He even went so far as to say he doesn’t know any potato grower or any farmer that doesn’t eat his or her own produce.  Does his family peel them? Sometimes, but that’s dictated by what dish his wife is making, not by concern over pesticide residues. (Clearly she’s not as lazy as me.) His farming operation applies pesticides to control pests (like fungus, insects, nematodes, soil borne disease, and weeds) that otherwise would damage his crop. If he didn’t use those pesticides, there would be fewer potatoes, the price would be higher, the quality would be lower, and the potatoes wouldn’t look very appealing.

He also told me that one misconception that really bothers him is that people who are unfamiliar with farming often think farmers spray pesticides just to be spraying pesticides. (Maybe because certain NBC articles say stuff like “farmers pour on the chemicals.”) “Spraying pesticide is expensive,” he told me. “The cost of an extra pesticide spray can make the difference between profit and loss on some fields.”  Farmers aren’t just spraying crops willy-nilly. They’re spraying only when they have to because it costs money and time. That’s time those farmers could be spending with their families, so they’re surely not out there spraying for kicks.

While it seems to be true that some pesticides concentrate slightly more in the peel, that’s not the whole story. The dose makes the poison, right? When discussing pesticide residues, it is very important to distinguish between the mere existence of residue and how much residue is present. What people should really be interested in is: does the amount of pesticide residue on the potato pose a risk to my health? If there is 0.01 parts per million (ppm) of residue in the potato itself, but 0.02 ppm in the peel, that’s a higher concentration in the peel. But at such a low concentration, it’s unlikely to be a health risk (of course, the toxicity of the pesticide is important, too). The risk of injury present while driving to the store to buy potatoes is likely higher than ingesting that teeny tiny amount of pesticide residue.

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I also dug a little deeper into the idea that the pesticides concentrate in the peel. I talked to a chemistry expert who told me that when tolerances are set for certain pesticides, the EPA also looks at what’s called a processed fraction, or a part of the commodity that might be different than the whole commodity (like the peel.) If a pesticide concentrates higher in a processed fraction than the commodity itself, there will be a different tolerance set for that fraction. (For a refresher on what tolerance means please see my primer article on how pesticides get approved.) So, I looked up on the EPA’s website how many of the pesticides that are approved for use on potatoes have a higher tolerance for the peel. Fourteen of the 121 pesticides listed had higher tolerances for the peel. That’s about 12 percent. It’s important to note here that those 121 pesticides have tolerances set for the commodity itself, which means that there are residues throughout the potato, so you’re not avoiding them altogether by peeling.

I also looked up the USDA’s data on potatoes from their Pesticide Data Program. The last time potatoes were sampled was in 2009. Of the pesticides analyzed, only three have higher tolerances in the peel. Importantly, of those three, none were found to be over the tolerance level for the commodity (which has a lower threshold), let alone the tolerance level for the peel. For example, Chlorpropham, also known as Bud Nip, was the most commonly found pesticide in samples, and it does concentrate higher in the peel. The residues found ranged from 0.010 ppm to 23 ppm, and the mean level found was 2.5 ppm. The tolerance for Chlorpropham is 30 ppm in the commodity and 40 ppm in the peel. Not one sample was over the tolerance level for the commodity, and the vast majority was far from it!

Side note: Chlorpropham is an important tool used to prolong the shelf life of potatoes. Those little sprouts that you sometimes find on potatoes when they’ve been in the pantry too long can be toxic when eaten in high doses. The use of Chlorpropham not only helps protect you from that, but it also significantly reduces food waste.

You’d have to eat a lot of potatoes to ingest enough pesticide residues to cause a problem. In fact, there’s a website called safefruitsandveggies.com that will actually do that calculation for you. I asked it to calculate how many servings of potatoes a child could eat in one day without any effect even if the potatoes have the highest pesticide residue recorded for potatoes. The answer:  6,494 servings of potatoes.

A cup and a half of potatoes represents about the recommended daily amount of vegetables for a child.

A cup and a half of potatoes represents about the recommended daily amount of vegetables for a child.

A serving of vegetables for a child is about half a cup. So that’s 3,247 cups of potatoes you’d have to feed your child in one day before you got close to a problem. And that’s assuming every single one of those potatoes were at the highest residue level ever recorded, which we know, from PDP data, that they aren’t.  It is recommended that children have about one-and-a-half cups of vegetables per day, and the USDA tells us that children are not even getting those amounts. It would take a seriously concerted effort to get my kids to eat one and half cups of potatoes in one day, let alone 3,247 cups.

Can you really reduce your risk by peeling the potato? In short, I think the answer is that whatever miniscule benefits might be gained through peeling are likely offset by the loss in fiber and nutrients found in the peel. Twenty percent of the nutrients, and almost all the fiber, in a potato are in the peel. The residue in the peel is very small and far below tolerance; even so, most of the approved pesticides do not have a processed fraction tolerance, indicating they don’t accumulate more in the peel than in other parts of the potato. Most importantly to me, peeling the potato can’t substantially reduce a risk that isn’t there. Why is there virtually no risk? Because the amount of pesticide residue on potatoes (and produce in general) is so small that we can hardly measure it at all. That’s really more a testament to the sensitivity of the tests. The EPA and the USDA set rigorous guidelines for pesticide residues that are conservative and err on the side of being overly cautious for our safety. In practice, the residues aren’t even reaching these conservative limits.

I’m going to leave the peel on, which is good, because I’m lazy when it comes to cooking potatoes. Now I have a good excuse, though. I’m just trying to benefit from all those nutrients and fiber, I’m not lazy. That’s momsense.

 

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