Tag Archives: GMO

Vandana Shiva: Fearmongering in Oregon

I’m excited to share today’s guest post by a buddy of mine, Jayson Merkley. Merkley is a Fellow with the Cornell Alliance for Science and the campaign co-founder of Vegan GMO and happens to live in Salem, Oregon, just down the road from me. The other day he alerted me that Dr. Vandana Shiva, a well-known international anti-GMO activist, is scheduled to speak at Willamette University today in Salem. I encouraged him to submit an opinion piece to the Salem paper – the Statesman Journal – and he submitted the below letter but was, for unexplained reasons, denied. I think it’s really unfortunate that Willamette University is giving Dr. Shiva a platform to spread her misinformation when she’s well-known in the science community for lacking the credibility she claims on subjects. So I decided to share Merkley’s letter here – please share it widely. Additionally, if you’re in the Oregon area, there will be a protest outside the University tonight during Dr. Shiva’s scheduled talk hosted by the Portland MAMyths. Feel free to join them.   – Sara

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jaysonAs a conscientious eater and agricultural advocate I’m extremely disappointed to see the University’s Department of Environmental and Earth Sciences hosting Vandana Shiva as part of their Dempsey Lecture series. Don’t get me wrong; I am a strong supporter of Willamette soliciting diverse voices to represent various perspectives as part of the series, but Dr. Shiva lacks the credibility to add to a productive conversation, and her blatant anti-science stance should not be promoted by a science department. As an ethical vegan I’m quite sympathetic to ethical issues in food production, which makes it all the more frustrating to see legitimate concerns for developing world farmers obfuscated by misleading claims about innovative ag technology.

Dr. Shiva is an Indian philosopher with a long track record of distorting the truth—especially around modern agriculture. Driven by her opposition to genetically engineered (GE) crops, Vandana has gone so far as to say in a 2011 speech that fertilizer is a “weapon of mass destruction.” This opposition to a basic input for plant growth leads one to question her most basic knowledge of agriculture, and speaks volumes to her ability to sensationalize the conversation.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated statement from her, but rather a reflection of the dramatization she uses to attack a variety of modern agricultural techniques. When it comes to GE crops, Dr. Shiva employs a wide range of claims to make her point, all of which can be debunked with a simple Google search.

One staple of her presentations is an attempt to link GE crops to many modern maladies including autism, diabetes and Alzheimer’s. Using the logical fallacy that correlation equals causation, she refers to graphs that show these diseases growing at a similar rate to the consumption of GE crops. Not only is there is absolutely no proof that any disease is related to GE crops, but thousands of studies have disproven that claim and corroborated the safety of GE food over the past two decades.  Trillions of meals containing GE food have been consumed during that time without a single documented case of negative effects. A similar graph could show the incidences of these diseases correlating very well with the growth of organic food sales, but no one would credibly make the argument that organic food causes autism.

In fact, every major world science organization has concluded that biotech foods are as safe for human and animal consumption as their non-GE counterparts including the American Medical Association, the American Dietetic Association, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Health Organization, the International Council for Science, the French Food Agency, and the British Medical Association.

Dr. Shiva’s activism on agricultural issues has crossed the line of civility in many areas, but perhaps none as much as when she blames the tragedy of farmer suicides in India on GE cotton. Farmer suicides in India have been a major problem for decades, well before the advent of GE crops. Studies have shown that a lack of affordable credit and virtually no crop insurance programs are the likely cause—not GE cotton. And while suicide is a problem in India, the rate for Indian farmers is actually less than that of the general population. Falsely using these tragedies to oppose GE crops is unconscionable, and the fact that Dr. Shiva continues to use this as an argument, despite the evidence to the contrary, is just another example of her lack of credibility and her attempt to inappropriately blame a technology for a very real problem in order to scare people away from a useful agricultural tool.

Why is this opposition so dangerous? Because millions of real lives in the developing world are being affected by Dr. Shiva’s activism. Perhaps the most damning example is her continued opposition to Golden Rice. It is estimated that this genetically engineered variety of rice, donated royalty-free to farmers, could help provide vitamin A to the more than 190 million children under age five who suffer from vitamin A deficiency which can lead to blindness and eventually death. A 2014 study concluded that the absence of Golden Rice over the last decade has caused the loss of over 1,424,680 life years in India alone. This is the real tragedy in India, yet Dr. Shiva continues to vociferously oppose Golden Rice simply because it’s a result of brilliant genetic engineering and would be a clear demonstration of the positive benefits of GMOs.

We can all agree that the future of our worldwide agricultural systems involves a complex conversation and to find a solution will require every tool we have and many we don’t. By the end of the 21st century, it is estimated that we will need to feed an additional 3 billion people, requiring farmers to grow more food in the next seventy-five years than has been produced in all of human history. Unfortunately, Dr. Shiva has proven time and time again that she is more concerned with standing in the way of progress toward that goal than she is about actually finding solutions to feed the world.

Willamette University must have higher standards than this, and I can only assume when they discover the background on who they’ve invited, they will agree Vandana Shiva does not meet those standards. Speakers who are known for mis-representing the facts to impressionable minds should not be given the platform of credibility provided by a lecture series at a well-respected University. The rhetoric she uses is simply unacceptable. I urge the University to cancel the event, and be more thoughtful about who it invites in the future. Additionally I’d like to urge the Willamette University student body and my fellow citizens of Salem to take a stand on behalf of Indian farmers; let’s do what we can to give them access to more tools, not less.

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Review: Arctic Apples (nonbrowning GMO apples)

Yup, that's a picture of my son eating a GMO apple. (That's his nail polish, not mine.)

Yup, that’s a picture of my son eating a GMO apple. (That’s his nail polish, not mine.)

Last fall I had this brilliant idea that I should profile an Arctic Apple grower for my Farming in Focus series. I think people would be interested to see the new GMO apples growing on real trees and being harvested by real farmers – it would make for fresh, accurate GMO imagery to combat the ludicrous syringe stuck in a tomato image that seems to show up in every article about GMOs. I got super pumped about my idea and shot off an email to Okanagan Specialty Fruits (OSF), the creators of the Arctic Apple. I got an email back right away from Joel Brooks, OSF’s Marketing Communications Specialist, saying that it was a great idea but unfortunately since the apples were only just approved this year, the first commercial orchards aren’t mature enough to produce fruit yet. Brooks did offer, though, that they have a limited supply of apples this year off their test trials (where filming is not allowed) and would I like a sample to try?  Of course I would, yes, please!!

A few months later a box of eight Arctic Golden Apples arrived on my front door and I don’t think my kids quite understood why I was so excited about a box of apples. For a while I just looked at them in awe and was a bit paralyzed about how to make the most of these eight apples. So I posted about it on Facebook and got some good ideas and a lot of general excitement from readers!

fb arctic apple post

I was tempted to put them all into a delicious GMO apple pie, but that wouldn’t show off the true benefits of the Arctic Apple. I wanted to demonstrate and test the traits that set these apples apart from traditional Golden Delicious apples. Using RNAi (RNA interference, one of the hottest new applications of biotechnology for which Andrew Fire and Craig Mello won the 2006 Nobel Prize) scientists at OSF have essentially “turned down” the browning effect in apples. You know when you slice up an apple for your toddler and they proceed to eat three bites and then let the remainder sit on the plate for an hour and ultimately refuse to eat it because it’s brown and “icky?” Not the case with Arctic Apples. This minor tweak using the apple’s own genes is revolutionary for a number of reasons: 1. it will significantly cut down on food waste (around 40 percent of apples are currently wasted due to un-appetizing but fully aesthetic browning) and 2. greater convenience will hopefully encourage more consumers to eat fresh fruit.

My kids love apples, and now that they’re both school-aged, I’m faced with packing them a healthy lunch and snack every weekday. In the winter especially, it’s tricky to find fresh fruit to send with them to school. I want to send apples because they have a long cold-storage shelf life, but the options are to send the whole thing and know that a good portion of it will end up in the trash (plus with loose teeth it’s hard to take a bite out of a whole apple), slice it up and risk them not eating it at all because it gets brown, soak the slices in lemon juice which my kids routinely reject, buy pre-packaged slices that are expensive and that my kids also think taste weird, or send apple sauce that has admittedly less fiber and is messy. What if you had apples you could slice up on Sunday that would stay fresh in the fridge all week and you could dole out a few slices a day in lunches? Convenient, frugal, waste-free and good for you! Sign me up.

Arctic Golden on the left, conventional Golden on the right (with sticker.)

Arctic Golden on the left, conventional Golden on the right (with sticker.)

Testing the Apples

I did a few tests to demonstrate and test the non-browning trait. First I went to the store and bought a bunch of conventional Golden Delicious apples. Because in order to truly do a side-by-side comparison on taste and appearance, you have to compare apples to … well… apples. First I sliced both apples and put them in their respective bowls to observe. I took care to

Slicing the first Arctic Apple.

Slicing the first Arctic Apple.

slice the Arctic Golden first so as not to contaminate it with PPO (polyphenol oxidase, the enzyme that causes browning and which there is less of in Arctic Apples) from the conventional apple.

I started this experiment at 12:15. It was hard keeping my kids’ hands (and mine) out of the bowls, so we left the house and came back to observe the appearance at 5:15.

Freshly sliced, Arctic on the left, conventional on the right.

Freshly sliced, Arctic on the left, conventional on the right.

After five hours, arctic on the left, conventional on the right.

After five hours, arctic on the left, conventional on the right.

As you can see, there are considerably fewer slices in the second picture because … children. But you can also clearly see the Arctic Golden is visibly less brown. I’ll be honest, though, I wasn’t super wowed. Not because the Arctic Golden browned, it didn’t really, but because the conventional Golden didn’t brown as much as I thought it would and it’s not as striking as I’d hoped. I emailed Brooks at OSF to see what was up with that. I hypothesized that maybe the reason they chose the Golden variety as the first variety was because they inherently don’t brown as much? He told me that’s not the case. “The thing is, the speed and overall amount of browning can vary quite a bit,” Brooks said,  “Not just by variety, but even among apples of the same variety for a number of potential reasons. Even the exact same apple would brown at different speeds in areas with different temperature, humidity, sunlight, etc. Golden Delicious isn’t one of the faster browning varieties (though it certainly can be dramatic, as shown in our timelapse), but it is one of the quickest to show bruising, especially because of its yellow skin.” He recommended I give the Arctic and conventional apples a good smack on the counter and see which fares better, but unfortunately by the time I got around to emailing him, we’d already eaten all the apples. So, something to test next time! He also told me that the reason they chose Goldens to start with is because, “it’s a great tasting variety with supply-chain issues that the nonbrowning trait can help address.” Because the light skin bruises so easily, it’s a harder apple to get from farm to market without damage.

Not cheap. That's $3 for less than a pound. Granted, you're not paying for the core, but you can get un-sliced apples for less than a dollar a pound!

Not cheap. That’s $3 for less than a pound. Granted, you’re not paying for the core, but you can get un-sliced apples for less than a dollar a pound!

My next experiment was what I call the lunch box taste test experiment. I went to the store and bought some pre-sliced, commercially available apples with citric acid to prevent browning. I put a few in a labeled ziplock bag in a lunch box with a cooler pack. I also sliced up a conventional Golden apple and soaked the slices in a bowl of cold water with lemon juice before putting the drained slices in a ziplock bag in the lunch box. Last, I sliced up an Arctic Golden and put those slices in a third ziplock in the lunch box. Then we loaded up the car and took the lunch box with us on a hike.

Arctic slices, conventional slices soaked in lemon juice water, and store-bought slices (with citric acid to prevent browning.)

Arctic slices, conventional slices soaked in lemon juice water, and store-bought slices (with citric acid to prevent browning.)

After the hike we pulled out the apples for a snack. I had both my parents and both my kids do a blind taste test of the three options, and then asked them to do the same for me (closed my eyes, they gave me three slices one by one and I reported which one tasted the best.) All five of us unanimously chose the Arctic Golden slices as having the best taste. I could taste the lemon apples (yuck, no wonder my kids won’t eat those) and the store-bought ones hardly tasted like apples anymore. But the Arctic Goldens tasted super fresh and crispy and weren’t brown. Conclusion: send Arctic slices in the lunch box. Which is what I did with many of

Sending Arctic Apples in my kids' lunch box!

Sending Arctic Apples in my kids’ lunch box!

the remaining apples.  We also just straight up ate a few of them plain because they were really tasty and I wanted to evaluate the apple in its pure form. When I got down to just three apples, I went ahead and made that GMO apple pie (mixed with some conventional apples as well.) It was delicious, but as I’m not much of a pastry chef, I didn’t take a picture of it because my crust didn’t turn out picture-worthy. 🙂

GMOs 2.0

More than anything else, the GMO apples mark an important and necessary advance in the biotechnology arena from products with farmer benefits that non-farmer consumers may not really understand to products with beneficial traits specifically designed for consumers. Not only do the apples appeal to kids, but they also appeal to adults who care about reducing food waste. I asked Brooks what role OSF (and maker of the non-browning Innate potato, Simplot) play in the biotechnology conversation. “We see these [products] as signs of a positive shift for biotech crops and public perceptions,” Brooks said.  “It’s much easier for consumers to appreciate a new technology when they can witness the benefits firsthand. Products like Arctic apples and Innate potatoes do just that, while also offering value throughout the rest of the supply-chain. And, we feel that our commitment to transparency and open communications is also symbolic of a trend towards improving communications between agricultural innovators/producers and the general public.”

Arctic Golden slices destined for a GMO apple pie.

Arctic Golden slices destined for a GMO apple pie.

If you take it even one step further, think about the potential of this technology for future products. I know it takes a long time (like 10 years) for a new biotechnology product to get to the market, but I can hardly contain my excitement about the potential of a nonbrowning avocado. I have no reason to believe that OSF is working on that, but it seems like such an obvious application of the technology, so I had to ask. As expected, Brooks wouldn’t say, but he did say this, “We do have other biotech-enhanced crops in the works besides nonbrowning apples, including those with consumer-oriented traits (such as other nonbrowning fruits) and also some with agronomic benefits. We are playing some of those cards somewhat close to the chest until we have more to share, though!” I’m keeping my hopes up.

I can’t wait until I can try more apples, but others have already done some cool experiments. This New York Times article shows a cool test of Arctic Apples in a smoothie (the smoothie doesn’t turn brown in the fridge!) and what happens when you bash the apples around in a backpack all day (they don’t bruise) and this guy tested how applesauce looks using conventional versus Arctic apples.

In the meantime, the first roll-out of the Arctic Apple seems to be going well. “Our first true test markets will be in fall 2016,” Brooks said, “But the reception we received in response to samples we provided at tradeshows or mailed out was phenomenal! Lots of positive blog posts and social media messages, plus a few strong articles in mainstream media.” OSF recently applied for US approval of their next nonbrowning variety, Arctic Fuji, and they’ll also be seeking approval in Canada. The next variety in the pipeline is Arctic Gala, with plenty of other Arctic varieties on the horizon.

Stay tuned for my next review as I’ve just received a bag of Innate potatoes!!

 

 

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Roundup: What It Is (and What It Isn’t)

pesticide appliedI have a neighbor/friend who recently asked me if I knew how to stop our neighborhood landscaping crew from spraying Roundup in the common areas. She didn’t know that I blog about agriculture issues, nor did she know I used to work for Monsanto. I told her my position and asked her why she had concerns.  It boiled down to all the things that people think about Roundup: it’s bad for the environment, and it’s possibly carcinogenic. She suggested we look for an alternative that is unquestionably safe. During this conversation another friend of mine piped up and admitted that, “I don’t really know much about Roundup, I’ve just heard it’s bad.” Then a few weeks later I was helping out in the school garden at my children’s elementary school when I heard one of the adults tell the kids that “pesticides are bad.”

Pesticides are incredibly useful, but that’s not what the public thinks. So today I’m going to talk about the most commonly used herbicide in the world: Roundup. This post is really meant for the lay-person, so if you’re looking for in-depth analysis, you’re probably not going to find it, but I will provide links throughout on where you can find more information.

This is a long post because there’s so much to cover, so I’ll summarize up front. I’m going to talk about

  • What Roundup is: a broad-spectrum herbicide containing glyphosate as its active ingredient.
  • How it’s used: to kill weeds in agricultural, forestry, and industrial settings as well as around the neighborhood.
  • What Roundup Ready is: crops that have been bioengineered to tolerate Roundup so just the weeds die and the crop survives.
  • Why it’s beneficial:  (for crops) reduction in tillage which results in less run-off, better soil, and carbon sequestration.
  • Alternatives to Roundup: more harmful or less effective herbicides or less-efficient, energy intensive options.
  • Is it safe:  yes.
  • Does it cause cancer:  no.
  • Do farmers douse fields: no, or use it too much: it’s complicated, and super weeds: they’re not that super after all.

The bottom line is that you shouldn’t be concerned about Roundup. If you don’t want to use it in your yard, don’t.  But as far as herbicides go, Roundup has a long, safe history and is a useful tool for farmers. It’s not the end-all-be-all of agriculture, but it’s an extremely valuable agricultural tool.

What is Roundup? (for the non-scientist)

Roundup contains the active ingredient glyphosate, which is a non-selective, systemic herbicide. Throughout this post I’ll use the two terms interchangeably, but Roundup is a brand name for glyphosate like Tylenol is a brand name for acetaminophen. There are dozens of other herbicide brands that also contain glyphosate, but Roundup is the most well known. An herbicide is something that kills weeds (for clarity: pesticide is the umbrella term that includes herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, etc.) Non-selective means that it doesn’t just work on one kind of weed (like just broad-leaf weeds or just grasses), it works on virtually all plants. In contrast, selective herbicides (like Dicamba) are likely what you’ve seen advertised to use on your lawn to kill dandelions and clover – it doesn’t kill grass, only broadleaf weeds. Don’t spray a non-selective herbicide like Roundup on your dandelions, it will kill the dandelions but it will also kill your grass. Systemic means that it doesn’t just damage the sprayed leaves of the plant; it gets inside the plant and disrupts the functions that keep it alive. Compare this to vinegar, which is a contact herbicide (non-systemic) and will only damage the part of the plant that gets sprayed with vinegar, but the weed isn’t dead, just damaged and it might come back. Systemic herbicides are very effective because it’s less important that you completely cover the plant, just a little will do the trick.

If you want to know more, there’s plenty of information out there about how glyphosate actually works in the plants (it inhibits specific enzymes only found in plants and blocks the shikimic acid pathway.) Here’s a good video on how glyphosate works. And here’s a good detailed overview of the mode of action (warning: very sciencey).

How is Roundup used?

In non-agricultural settings like your yard and neighborhood, Roundup is really effective in places where you don’t want anything to grow: cracks in pavement, along rock borders, in mulched areas in your flower bed. It’s what landscape crews are probably spraying in hard-to-mow spots like under fences and around trees. It’s also commonly used by state transportation departments to manage roadside vegetation instead of mowing which creates emissions and is labor-intensive.  It is also used by parks departments to get rid of noxious weeds like poison ivy and invasive weeds like blackberry, and along railroads or power line corridors to prevent weeds and trees from causing disruptions.

In agricultural settings, Roundup is used to increase cropping efficiency. Weeds compete with crops for resources like sunlight, water, space and nutrients. Weeds that get a stronghold will out-compete crops by shading them from the sun and stealing valuable nutrients. In the end, not treating for weeds means farmers make less money and get far less production out of every acre, and it means we need more acreage to feed the same number of people and wastes resources like water on something we can’t eat.

It’s important here to point out a very big difference between managing weeds in your yard which is primarily for aesthetic reasons and managing weeds on a farm which is entirely for efficiency reasons. The downside to weeds in your yard is looking at a weedy yard. Yes, it looks untidy and it might even decrease the value of your house and your neighborhood, but it’s not a huge problem. Not managing weeds on a farm is a big deal and not really an option. Even organic farmers who aren’t allowed to use synthetic herbicides have to manage weeds or suffer unsustainable yield losses.

What’s Roundup Ready and Why is it Beneficial?

One of the reasons that Roundup is so popular among farmers (aside from the fact that it’s a highly effective and extremely safe herbicide) is because of the development of Roundup Ready crops. In 1996 Monsanto introduced glyphosate-tolerant “Roundup Ready” soybeans, the first major GM crop that was bioengineered to survive applications of Roundup. Soybeans were quickly followed by Roundup Ready cotton, canola, corn, and later, sugar beets. For farmers this meant that they could go from spraying many different herbicides in an attempt to get effective weed control, to only spraying primarily one herbicide. It offered farmers simplicity and flexibility. Not surprisingly, Roundup Ready crops were rapidly adopted by farmers. In fact, the technology is said to be the most rapidly adopted technology in the history of US agriculture. Today, 90 percent or more of all soybeans, corn, cotton, canola and sugar beets grown in the US are Roundup Ready.

no tilled pea field

This is what a no-till field looks like. Last season they grew fescue. They harvest the fescue, spray Roundup, and plant peas right into that fescue residue on the field. (Photo courtesy of Kathy Hadley)

Roundup Ready crops (and the use of Roundup in agriculture generally) has also contributed to the adoption of no-till and conservation-till methods which help reduce soil erosion and water runoff and increase organic matter and nutrients in the soil. Importantly, no-till also sequesters carbon in the soil and reduces the amount of fuel consumed because farmers don’t have to drive machinery over their fields as many times, thereby reducing agriculture’s carbon footprint.  It’s estimated that in 2013 alone, biotech crops reduced carbon emissions equivalent to taking 12.4 million cars off the road for one year; no-till and conservation-till methods helped contribute to that figure. The use of herbicides like Roundup allows farmers to kill weeds without tilling (literally digging and turning over the ground to mechanically destroy weeds).  Roundup is perfectly matched to no-till agriculture because it removes essentially all existing weeds before planting, and has no residual toxicity to crops that emerge later. No-till has become increasingly popular in conventional farming as it saves time, money and fuel, sequesters carbon, water, and maintains soil structure.

Alternatives to Roundup

Let’s pretend that activists managed to get Roundup banned like they claim it should be. It’s naive to think that farmers would stop using herbicides to manage weeds, because as I already mentioned, weed control is critical to successful crop production. Likely it would mean that conventional farmers would use a different herbicide (or combination of herbicides).  When Roundup was introduced, it displaced other more dangerous herbicides like alachlor which is more toxic than glyphosate, considered to be likely carcinogenic at high doses, and poses potential chronic toxicity concerns or MCPA which is much more toxic than glyphosate.  Because of this and its bioaccumulation issues, MCPA is a restricted use pesticide in the US. Pesticides have come a really long way in the last few decades in terms of safety, which is great news, but as I’ll talk more about below, Roundup is one of those really safe herbicides. Taking it out of the toolbox would not result in the use of less herbicide or the use of a safer alternative.

I took this picture at a Costco in California.

I took this picture at a Costco in California.

“But, Sara, what about an organic approach? I saw on Pinterest that you can use a combination of vinegar, salt and dish soap for a chemical-free and more effective alternative to Roundup!” First of all, who says these mixtures are organic? “Organic” means the USDA program for non-chemical pest control and fertility enhancement. It does not mean you can spray anything you can whip up in your garage. The vinegar / salt / soap mixture is not chemical-free or great for the soil. Vinegar contains the chemical acetic acid, and salt (sodium chloride) sticks around for a really long time in the soil and can make it difficult to grow anything at all for a long time (think salt flats). Soap is also a chemical, and interestingly, commonly used in synthetic pesticides as a surfactant.  Just because you are more familiar with those chemicals, does not make them safer alternatives. Acetic acid is more toxic than glyphosate. Does that make vinegar scary? No. It just means glyphosate is pretty darn safe. Andrew Kniss actually did a great analysis of that home-made herbicide and concluded that, “The acetic acid in the homemade mixture is nearly 10 times more lethal than the glyphosate in the Eliminate mixture. And this doesn’t include the salt.” And, as mentioned, these home-made mixtures are non-systemic and merely destroy sprayed foliage.  In addition, pesticides are regulated and approved by EPA and state authorities, and you may not spray non-approved non-labeled mixtures for pest control on food crops.

What about other organic alternatives? The thing is there aren’t many organic herbicides. There are some (yes, organic farmers DO SPRAY PESTICIDES) like clove oil and citrus oils which are approved in the USDA program, but they are primarily contact herbicides (non-systemic) and require higher doses to be effective. There are other methods like mulches and flooding, and mechanical methods discussed below, but even the organic farmer in Tomorrow’s Table confessed that weeds are really a weak spot in organic farming. Maybe you could make it work on a small organic farm, but it’s just not feasible on a large scale. Not to mention it’s a less efficient use of resources.

What about mowing, hoeing, weed-whipping or just pulling them out by hand? Sure, you can do that to avoid spraying anything at all. Easy peasy. OK, get your gardening gloves on and head out to weed 500 acres, which is a small farm in the Midwest. That’s about 500 football fields worth of mowing or weed whipping with a gas-powered device, all the while consuming fossil fuels and spewing exhaust. Or you could hire a group of people to remove weeds out in the sun (a known carcinogen) using man-power (and possibly contributing to sore backs and arthritis.) In fact, as I’ve discussed before, in 1975 the use of the short-handled hoe was banned to prevent worker injury and in 2004 California banned hand-weeding to prevent back injury (except organic producers are exempt because without the use of hand-weeding, they’re pretty much at the mercy of weeds). Consider that US farming covers slightly less than 1 billion acres, with perhaps a third of that considered prime crop growing land. The entire US population working all summer could not effectively hand weed US crop production acres. And what fraction would be willing to try?

Now, if you want to avoid spraying anything in your yard or neighborhood, it’s totally doable. Like I said, there’s a big difference between managing weeds in agriculture and managing them in your backyard. All you have to do is not mind looking at weeds and convince all your neighbors they don’t mind either. Or you can try to mobilize a group of neighbors to regularly weed your neighborhood’s common spaces in their free time. Considering that most of my neighborhood relies on hired landscape crews to mow and maintain their own small (less than a quarter acre) lots, I’m doubtful that’ll work. But, you can try.

Safety of Roundup

Roundup less toxic than caffeineRoundup is an extremely safe herbicide. In fact, it’s 25 times less toxic than caffeine (from LD50 levels based on oral ingestion in rats.) Like I said in the very first section, glyphosate only works in plants and bacteria, not in animals. Glyphosate is not well-absorbed in animals, it doesn’t accumulate in tissues and is excreted largely unchanged.  From an environmental perspective, glyphosate binds very tightly to the soil so it doesn’t contaminate ground water and is broken down by microbes in the soil so it doesn’t persist or migrate in the environment.

Glyphosate has been used safely for more than 40 years, and it’s the most widely used and most comprehensively evaluated herbicide.  There are more than 800 studies demonstrating its safety. The US Environmental Protection Agency classifies glyphosate as “practically non-toxic,” and there are a whole slew of regulatory bodies around the world that have come to the same conclusion. I’ve written extensively before on how regulatory bodies determine which pesticides are approved and how much is safe to use, and this blog post concludes that based on those figures you could eat 62 pounds of produce every day and still come in 100 times lower than the no-effect level. Monsanto recently said you could eat 900 pounds of fruits or vegetables every day for the rest of your life without worrying about any health problems from glyphosate residue.

Yes, you can find plenty of stuff on the internet that contradicts what I’ve just said. Activists will point to (debunked) studies that claim glyphosate causes everything from autism to Parkinson’s. The regulatory bodies that make these safety determinations have access to the same studies that you can find on the internet and many more that are proprietary. If the majority of the global scientific community didn’t think those studies were good enough to reverse their conclusions, neither should you.

But, I Read in the News Lately That Roundup Causes Cancer.

Nope, Roundup does not cause cancer. You might think you read that because last March a division of the WHO called the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) categorized Roundup as class 2A, probably carcinogenic.  What does that mean? Well, importantly, IARC does hazard identification, not risk assessment. That means they’re looking for potential, not likelihood; they’re not required to take real-world exposure situations into account. There was no new study done, IARC looked at the same existing body of research that EPA and all other global regulatory bodies have access to, but really only expressly considered publicly available information. After IARC’s announcement, EPA stood by their conclusion, saying the research, “does not provide evidence to show that glyphosate causes cancer, and it does not warrant any change in EPA’s cancer classification for glyphosate.” EPA’s not the only one who disagrees with them, either. Not surprisingly, Monsanto disagrees as do lots of other scientists in the field. Additionally, the European Food Safety Authority just announced earlier this month that they again looked at the evidence and concluded Roundup is unlikely to cause cancer in humans and recommended increasing the safe limit for consumption.

To put IARC’s classification into perspective, other things in the same “probably carcinogenic” 2A category include working as a hairdresser or night-shift worker, acrylamide which shows up in coffee beans and French fries, and red meat. The category one step above, carcinogenic to humans, includes alcoholic beverages, outdoor air pollution, working as a painter, exposure to the sun and wood dust. IARC is also the same organization that just classified processed meat as carcinogenic, indicating that from their cancer-causing perspective, consumption of hot dogs are more dangerous than exposure to Roundup.

Ok, even so, why wouldn’t I want to avoid something that even some scientists think may cause cancer? (I’m going to assume if you feel that way, you’re also going to avoid all the things I listed above, like sun exposure, alcohol, bacon and exhaust fumes: you should be consistent, after all.) I get that, but it’s also important to note that even if we agree IARC’s classification is consistent with the science (of which I’m personally not convinced), the committee themselves noted that the hazard is really for agriculture applicators, not consumers. They’re not talking about residue on your food, or spraying your rock border, they’re talking about farmers who are applying Roundup on a large scale. Even for those farmers the risk is low, because federal regulations mandate how and when to apply, and what precautions should be taken when applying pesticides.

What About Super Weeds and the Increase in Herbicide Use?

Graphic courtesy of Nurse Loves Farmer

Graphic courtesy of Nurse Loves Farmer

I hear the term “dousing” used a lot when people refer to farmers and pesticides, particularly Roundup. “They’re just dumping that stuff on we have proof because now all these weeds are resistant to Roundup!”  First, the dousing:  Nurse Loves Farmer did a great post on how inaccurate that term is and pointed out that typically farmers use about the equivalent of a can of soda of Roundup on an acre of crops. Remember, an acre is about the size of a football field.  Additionally, farmers don’t want to spray pesticides if they don’t have to. It’s expensive and a waste of their time. I was blown away at the advanced technology I saw when I rode in a sprayer – it is so precise that the boom (the arm on the machine that sprays the pesticide) uses GPS guidance and will turn off if it passes over a portion of the field it knows has already been sprayed. Would you mow your lawn twice in the same day? No. Farmer’s don’t spray pesticide if they don’t need to.

Next: has the use of herbicide gone up? One of the claims about GMOs is that they would reduce pesticide application. That’s definitely true for insect-resistant crops, but it’s trickier for herbicide-tolerant crops. In reality, the use of Roundup alone has increased as a result of GMOs that are immune to its effects. This is intuitive, and I already touched on it – a farmer who switched from conventional to Roundup Ready corn used to spray three or four different herbicides and now only sprays one. Lots of farmers adopted this approach, and the use of Roundup went up. That’s actually a good thing, because as we already discussed, Roundup is a safer herbicide than many it replaced.  Total use of herbicide is also trending down, but more importantly, the move to safer herbicides means the environmental impact of herbicide use has gone down.

What about super weeds? The term super weed refers to weeds that have become resistant to an herbicide, in the same way that some bacteria are now resistant to antibiotics. This is not new and certainly not unique to Roundup. In fact, there are many other herbicides with greater resistance issues than Roundup (including the ALS-inhibitors used to treat the sunflowers that Chipotle switched to because they claimed Roundup Ready crops created too many superweeds). Roundup is the most widely used herbicide and (according to the International Survey of Herbicide Resistant Weeds) there are seven herbicides with more resistant weed species.

That being said, there are good ways to manage resistant weeds. They’re not super at all; you can still get rid of them with another herbicide, or by physically pulling them up or tillage. Farmers are starting to use combinations of herbicides to prevent resistance, and seed companies like Monsanto are developing crops engineered to withstand multiple herbicides in an effort to help stem resistance. Over-reliance on one particular herbicide leads to resistance because it increases the selection pressure for weeds that have naturally developed resistance.  It’s like always using the same antibiotic over and over to treat an illness. Not using the right amount of an herbicide can also increase the chances of developing resistance, just like when your doctor tells you to use an antibiotic for a whole week but you stop after three days because you feel better.  Roundup resistant weeds have taught us a good lesson about over-reliance and following proper usage rates, but it’s not a fundamental problem with Roundup: it’s more about how the herbicide has been used.

In summary, don’t be afraid of Roundup and don’t sign petitions to ban it because that won’t solve anything. If you don’t like Monsanto, that’s an entirely different issue (Monsanto’s not the only company that sells glyphosate, anyway).  If you want to pull weeds by hand, go for it – I weed my own garden (mostly) by hand because it’s small, I enjoy it, and sometimes I’m too lazy to walk to the garage and get the sprayer. But know the facts: Roundup isn’t evil, it’s a very thoroughly tested, efficient and effective herbicide with a long history of safe use and it’s a tremendous tool that enables farmers to farm sustainably and efficiently.

 

 

 

 

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Are Conventional Farmers Doing it Wrong? 2 of 2

Yesterday I talked about why the organic label isn’t an indication of “rightness” when it comes to farming practices. As I mentioned, in order to provide some specific examples of how conventional farmers are also using some of the same practices that many believe define organic production, I surveyed a group of conventional growers. I asked seven questions and got responses from 11 conventional farmers from across the US. Verbatim answers are below (not all, because some had similar answers.) Caveat: this is in no way meant to be a study, I understand it’s a small, volunteer-based sample, but I hope it helps some people understand that organic production is not the only way to farm sustainably.

conv farm QA (1 of 3)Before we get into those examples, though, let’s talk a little about one thing that will come up in their answers: tillage. Tilling (literally digging and turning over the ground) is one way that farmers prepare the soil for crops. It does a number of things, one of which is to mechanically destroy weeds – and killing weeds is important because they steal resources (like water and nutrients) from crops and reduce efficiency. There are many benefits to tilling like incorporating nutrients into the soil, but there are also disadvantages such as release of carbon into the atmosphere and increased erosion.  No-till and reduced-till agriculture has become increasingly popular in conventional farming as it saves time, money and fuel, sequesters carbon, and maintains soil structure.  Conventional farmers use herbicides to kill weeds instead of tilling, which is something that organic farmers can’t do. (To be clear, tilling does not eliminate the need for herbicides, many farmers who till still use herbicides.) One of the farmers I reached out to said, “On a national level, the switch to no-till is huge in terms of environmental benefits. Carbon is stored in the ground and not released into the atmosphere, and secondly, erosion is drastically reduced. These two things alone makes conventional farming (with the use of no-till) superior environmentally to organic – at least on a large scale, as it is very difficult to farm organically without relying on cultivation for weed management.”

Ok, the Q&A. It’s long, but worth the read.

Question #1: Do you use cover crops? (Note for readers: Things that are grown when a farmer is not growing a crop to sell. Advantages: reduced soil erosion, weed suppression, soil amendment.)

  • Yes, we use cereal rye, hairy vetch, or tillage radish for cover crops
  • We have done both cover and not. We prefer cover crops out of convenience. Who wants their seeds blown away with all of your top soil?
  • We have just planted oats as a cover crop. We harvested peas in the field this year and are planning on putting in radishes in the spring. By planting the oats, we capture any remaining nutrients, which will be held by the oat crop. When we spray out the oats in the spring those nutrients will then be released back into the soil and will be available to the radish crop. Furthermore, having a crop growing keeps the soil “alive.” There is another whole layer of life in the soil in form of various microbes, and they are kept healthy by having a growing crop at all times.
  • We use cover crops and use soil samples to see what the soil and crop needs
  • No. There are not many/any economically viable cover crop options in our area. We do “rest” ground by putting it through a three year alfalfa rotation.
  • Sometimes. Everything we do is about conserving moisture – cover crops use moisture. It takes six inches of water to get wheat to a point it will help as a cover crop.

Question #2: Do you use crop rotation? (Note for readers: this is the opposite of a mono-crop – not growing the same thing on the same field year after year. Advantages: keeping pests and disease in check, reduced need for synthetic fertilizer, soil health)

  • conv farm QA (2 of 3)Yes, we rotate crops. We’re in a ten year battle over raising canola because we’re looking for crop rotations that are good fits
  • Don’t most people? Grow too much of the same thing, and it is like watching inbreeding!
  • Oh yes. We grow ten different crops. We rotate according to market demands, crop history, weed history, soil needs. Our soils are in excellent condition.
  • Yes, we rotate our corn and soybeans every year, and we no-till.
  • Yes, intensively. Typically winter wheat, corn, safflower or sunflowers, malt barley. If needed we’ll then go to summer fallow or back to wheat. Also this would be when we’d put ground in alfalfa and leave it for a few years.

Question #3: Do you use Integrated Pest Management (IPM)? (Note for readers: the strategy behind IPM is to try to control pests before they become a problem using things like beneficial insect populations and judicious use of pesticides.)

  • On our farm we hardly use insecticides because of crop rotation and the use of GMO crops.
  • We keep beneficial insect habitats in place
  • Yes, we use a variety of chemicals from different groups to avoid resistance issues, including organic options if that is the best fit, soil tillage or lack thereof (no-till). Several oat varieties we grow naturally suppress nematode activity, and we pay attention to protecting/enhancing beneficial insect populations.
  • To an extent. Not very formally, but we have a crop consultant who advises us, and we never blindly spray, just because we are told. We often weigh the cost/benefit of spraying. We don’t release natural predators, but we do consider carefully if it is worth spraying.
  • I have used IPM for decades. That is one thing that drives me up a wall about internet farmers. They come up these ideas that farmers have done for decades

Question #4: How do you limit pesticide use?

  • conv farm QA (3 of 3)First off, pesticides are expensive, so we don’t want to use any more than we have to from a financial perspective. Furthermore, when we chose which crop to grow, we take into account the history of the field, and if we can predict a weed or insect problem, we may chose not to grow that crop, or to grow it in a different location. Also, by planting wheat later in the year, we can avoid aphids. We may choose to plant a variety that we know has better disease resistance thereby potentially eliminating a fungicide spray.
  • We never use more then we should on herbicides, it’s not beneficial to the crop, soil, environment, and it’s expensive! When we spray we always choose a day with little wind and cooler weather. We are always mindful of where it may drift.
  • We grow non-organic oats and alfalfa, which get sprayed with nothing. Our Roundup ready corn and soy get sprayed as minimally as possible.
  • We raise GMO crops, scout fields, apply as needed – for insecticide when the count per plant reaches a specific threshold, and for herbicides we use the maximum rate (really cuts down on the need for additional applications which in the end is less pesticide) and time it so that other methods (canopy of rows) controls weeds.
  • Scout fields – especially when looking for pests to see if they meet at economic threshold for applying pesticides
  • GMOs
  • We use bt corn and cotton. When we don’t have to spray for worms we don’t kill off beneficial insects and then we don’t have to spray for secondary pests such as spider mites.

Question #5: Do you reuse by-products or take advantage of other farms’ by-products?

  • We run cattle too, so after we combine our grass seed, we bale straw for winter feed/bedding, and also bale wheat straw for bedding. Once straw is gone and fields start to re-grow, we use them as summer pasture. Also, a silly example – we got five goats to eat brush. When we bale alfalfa, I pick up the alfalfa the rake missed into a garbage can and take one to the goats every night until the alfalfa gets too big to drive on.
  • We try to keep our straw on the farm and just chop the straw finely. In the end of the hot summer it shades the soil, keeping it a little cooler and helps retain a little moisture and protects the plants and soil a little from the intense late summer heat. As it breaks down it adds organic matter and nutrients back into the soil.
  • I graze all of my grain crops. Reduces tillage.
  • Examples from farms I’ve visited for my Farming in Focus series:
    • by products (1 of 1)Lynn Trupp (March – sheep farmer) uses spent brewers’ grain that he gets for free from a local brewery.
    • Brenda Frketich (April – nine different crops) has an arrangement with a nearby cattle farmer where he cleans up her field by baling leftover plant material from the pea harvest and feeds it to his cows.
    • Marie Bowers Stagg (July – wheat) bales up leftover wheat stubble and sends it to a mushroom farm to become a home for baby mushrooms.
    • Ben Coleman (August – hops) composts leftover plant material and spreads it back on the fields.

Question #6: If you use irrigation, are there ways you’ve made it more efficient? (And other thoughts on water)

  • We adopt new technologies and are constantly looking for ways to conserve water. We’ve gone from flood irrigation to sprinklers to sprinklers heads in bubble modes. Those sprinklers are 97 percent efficient. This year I am installing drip irrigation. Very expensive but it is almost 100 percent efficient.
  • We have done drip, sprinkler, and flood. We now have 100 acres on the underground drip that uses the same amount of water that used to only flood about 40 acres. Using the low drops on the sprinkler has been an excellent upgrade for our 160 acres of alfalfa. As far as water efficiency, the drip is better than the pivot sprinkler and a bizillion times better than flood.
  • water (1 of 1)We have linears with low flow, drop tubes if possible rather than hard hose big guns as they are much more efficient (Sara’s note for the reader: “linears” are big spraying metal arms held between two wheels that slowly rolls across a field and waters from above. “Big guns” are stationary single pivots that water in a circle like you might do in your lawn.) We also have a field in wheat that has a few gently, rolling hills in it and must be worked before planting green beans, so in that field we are leaving all the wheat residue. When we work the soil in the spring, that wheat residue will provide a nice amount of mulch around the surface, which will help prevent the water from running down the hills.
  • We use drip irrigation. We manage storm water through installing roof run off management, critical area stabilization, a heavy use area, woodland management, and structures for water control, including a sediment control pond that has been in use for over 60 years. We use stream fencing to exclude livestock from accessing local streams. Our detailed Nutrient Management Plan is evaluated and updated every three years to address the nitrogen and phosphorous loading into local groundwater that feeds into Chesapeake Bay tributaries. We continue to remain vigilant and do our best to monitor and improve the watershed and soil health of our property.

Question #7: How do you preserve soil quality?

  • We soil test before making fertilizer blends.
  • We currently hold the award for farmers of the year in soil and water conservation for our region in Iowa and enroll in as many conservation stewardship programs as possible to preserve soil quality and minimize pesticide use. By lowering boom height on sprayers, having wider buffer zones from waterways, using no-till methods and cover crops, keeping beneficial insect habitats in place, etc. we are pretty proud of our farm practices.
  • Over the last 30 years our conventional farm has been inducted into our state Ag Hall of Fame and been awarded our county Soil Conservation Farm of the year (twice!) and Small Business of the Year, partially for our work in improving our farm to be as environmentally friendly as possible.
  • We use a variety of methods for soil quality – soil testing, amendments, micronutrient application, minimum and no-till when applicable.
  • This is huge to us. Our farm was not in great shape when we bought it, and we have put so much into improving the soil. The biggest issue to us was low pH, so we have put on lots of lime and our pH levels are now perfect for what we grow. This is important as nutrients in the soil are more available to the plant when you have the right pH. Furthermore, we switched to mostly no-till. This turned out to have huge, unexpected benefits to the soil. Increased earth worm activity, increased organic matter which improves water holding capacity and makes the soil more “mellow.”
  • We do conventional tillage but our equipment leaves a lot of plant material on the surface to control erosion (54 mph winds yesterday and the soil wasn’t blowing), we use field tile to control surface runoff, we have buffer strips along waterways. We also don’t remove plant matter (corn and soybean stalks) but till it in.
  • We are exclusively no-till and have been for 15 years. We keep water ways and highly erodible land in grass. We soil test and apply nutrients accordingly. We also use a stripper header for our cereal grains which leaves 99 percent of the crop residue in the field.
  • No-til when possible which greatly reduces soil erosion. We soil tests every year and put on compost and manure.

That’s all for the Q&A – I hope you learned a few cool things. I’ll leave you with a final thought on sustainable farming from one of the farmers who responded, “Personally, I’m in favor of taking the very best out of all management systems and combining them to suit your own farm. We can do best for our farms and soils if we adapt our management based on our own situation, and not get tied into a set of inflexible rules. I have nothing against organic agriculture. In a lot of ways, organic farmers have done a better job of nourishing and protecting their soil than conventional farmers, but I think conventional farmers are catching up. We can always learn to do better, and that is one of the things that is really exciting about being a farmer.”

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Are Conventional Farmers Doing it Wrong? 1 of 2

I just finished reading the book Tomorrow’s Table. It’s co-written by an intriguing married couple: he’s an organic farmer and she’s a plant genetic scientist.  I had really high hopes for a book that argues in support of combining organic agriculture and biotechnology.  If this book could reach the organic consumer, we might be headed to the middle ground necessary to feed our growing population.

It took me four months to finish it and it’s less than 200 pages. I finally got tired of it looking at me from the bedside table, and I reached the renewal limit at the library so I forced myself to finish it.

I should be fair. There are excellent points made in this book, especially for people who are solidly in the organic, GMO-hating camp or even those who are only leaning that way and working to form a fact-based opinion. The book does a good job of softly addressing and alleviating concerns associated with GMOs and clearly outlining the benefits and necessity of biotechnology for solving problems unsolvable by other methods. The take-home message is a truly important one – biotechnology has a place in organic agriculture, the two are not and should not be mutually exclusive. Getting over the ideological hurdle that divides GMOs and organic is a monumental task, and these authors offer a uniquely personal perspective on how we can bridge that gap.

IMG_20140705_122648136But back to why I didn’t like it: I really wanted to be open-minded and like Raoul, the organic farmer who wrote only two chapters. But in the end, I just couldn’t stomach his I’m-better-because-I’m-organic attitude. One page into his first chapter I read this, “The goal of conventional farming is high yields and inexpensive food. The goal of organic farming is health: health of the soil, the crop, the farmer, the environment, and the consumer.”

And that’s only just the beginning. He makes conventional farmers out to be pesticide-wielding, mono-cropping old-timers who only care about the bottom dollar and just haven’t gotten the memo about caring for the “soil, the crop, the farmer, the environment, and the consumer.” In contrast, he makes organic farmers out to be agricultural martyrs – hard working, salt-of the earth big thinkers who are doing it the “right” chemical-free way, even if it doesn’t make a lot of money, yields less and means sometimes you get worms in your corn.  I was so pissed off when I read that chapter that I literally got out of bed and booted the computer back up so I could write down my idea for this post.

Are conventional farmers doing it wrong? Are organic farmers the only ones using crop rotation and cover crops? Are they the only ones who have heard about beneficial insects and are the only ones thinking about soil quality? Are they the only ones with concerns about water quality and pesticide run-off? Are they the only ones thinking about the consumers who eat the food and the families that live and work on the farm?

No, of course not. To suggest that organic farmers care about the health of the soil, the crop, the environment, and the consumer and conventional farmers don’t is at best disingenuous at worst just flat out lying.

The very common insinuation that they are, in fact, doing it wrong is the reason conventional farmers get pissed off about organic agriculture. It’s the reason almost every conventional farmer I’ve ever met does an eye roll when they read organic marketing. I’m not even a farmer, but I’m tired of implications that conventional farmers don’t care, don’t know, are old-fashioned, and are ignorant because if they weren’t those things, they’d farm organically.  Don’t fall for that nonsense because it’s just not true.

Frketich_preview-1I put out a few messages on Facebook asking conventional farmers to tell me what I already know: conventional farmers do farm sustainably, in the true sense of the word – in a way that can be sustained long-term.  I wanted examples I could share that would help people see that conventional farmers are doing it right, and constantly working to do it better.  I asked seven questions, and tomorrow I’ll post verbatim answers I got from farmers who responded, but here’s the bottom line: many conventional farmers do the same things organic farmers do in terms of caring for the soil, environment, crop and consumer. They use cover crops, crop rotation and beneficial insect populations when it makes sense on their farm. Every single farmer who responded to my questions had detailed ways that they reduce pesticide use and preserve soil and water quality. Are there some farmers who probably aren’t doing it right? Maybe, but that goes for organic farmers, too. People are people, and a label, be it organic, local, or natural is not going to help you distinguish the right from the wrong.

I’ll be back tomorrow with specific questions and answers about conventional farming practices, but for now I’ll leave you with a quote from one of the farmers who responded to my questions, “We’re in farming because it’s in our blood. It’s what our families have been doing for generations, and it’s why we CARE. We care about the land, because it’s as important as family, it’s part of who we are. We care about the environment because it’s what makes up the land. We care about the animals because they allow us to make our living and we are grateful for them. We care about the crops we raise because we care about the consumers that buy them. We care.”

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Gwyneth Schmyneth

Wouldn’t it be cool if I were a celebrity? Like, say for example, that I got rich and famous for some beautiful landscape photographs that I took, or for some song I wrote on the piano, or for some movie I acted in. Let’s say I got so famous that millions of complete strangers knew my name and cared about what clothes I wear and where I go on vacation. You’d see my face on magazines in the checkout aisle at the grocery store and you’d stop to read about whom I am dating or what clothes my kids wore on their glamorous beach vacation. I’m not sure I’d actually like that, because then I wouldn’t be just a regular person anymore, but at least I’d have super powers. I’d have the power to sway how you feel on controversial topics that I have no expertise on simply because I am famous. That would be pretty awesome.

But, unfortunately, I’m not famous. I don’t have millions of dollars. I don’t fly in a personal jet, I don’t own any private islands, I don’t hire someone to take care of my kids while I’m out posing for the paparazzi in my expensive, designer clothes.  So I guess my opinion is not as convincing and not as important because I’m just a regular, not-famous mom.

At least, that’s the impression that I get when I read in the news that Gwyneth Paltrow hosted a news conference in Washington D.C. to try to influence how Congress votes on the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act that would create a uniform, science-based labeling standard and prevent costly state-by-state GMO labeling laws. Somehow her opinion on GMO labeling is very important because she’s not just famous, but she’s also a mom.  And as a famous mom, she’s going to stand up there and represent all of us poor, not-famous moms who are too busy taking our kids to soccer practice and microwaving pre-packaged frozen dinners to understand about GMOs. We need that warning label on our packages of Oreos because otherwise there’s just no way to know if it’s bad for our kids.

moms4gmosOnly, that’s bullshit.  I don’t need Gwyneth Paltrow to represent me. And I have absolutely no idea why anyone would give a flying you-know-what about what Gwyneth Paltrow thinks about GMOs. She did not become famous by being an expert in biotechnology, or food, or nutrition – she’s just a good actress. She is not any more of an expert on GMOs than some random mom at the supermarket, so why does anyone think her opinion matters? What she thinks doesn’t matter any more than what Jenny McCarthy thinks caused her son’s autism or how Neil Young feels about Monsanto or how Sarah Palin feels about climate change.  The only people who should be influencing how you feel about science are scientists.

What do the scientists think about GMOs? That’s who’s important. Those are the real celebrities we should be listening to. Like the scientists at the FDA. Or the ones at the American Medical Association, those at the National Academy of Science, and the ones at the European Commission.  They think GMOs are safe and are the same as non-GMO foods. They think putting a label on foods that contain ingredients derived from GMO crops doesn’t provide consumers with any useful nutritional information any more than putting a label on foods grown with irrigation would provide useful nutritional information. I think those scientists are convincing because they understand the thousands of studies that have been done on GMOs, including the same studies that anti-GMO groups who score celebrity representation claim demonstrate GMOs are unsafe or damaging to the environment, and they’re still not changing their minds. Not because it’s a conspiracy, but because those studies aren’t convincing. Gwyneth Paltrow doesn’t have any information that the FDA doesn’t have. For me, at least, I’m going to listen to the people who are truly experts at determining what’s safe and what’s not instead of actresses and song writers. Unless, of course, I’m looking for advice on acting or writing songs.

This is exactly why I recently participated in a campaign to support the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act and challenge celebrity moms who are trying to represent all moms.  A bunch of us “regular” moms got together and wrote an open letter to the celebrity moms demonstrating that we do, in fact, accept the scientific consensus on GMOs and don’t feel that GMOs need a stigmatizing mandatory warning label. Most of those “regular moms” aren’t just offering their run-of-the-mill opinion on the subject, either. Most of them (like Julie Borloug, granddaughter of Nobel Peace prize laureate and father of the Green Revolution Dr. Norman Borlaug) actually are subject matter experts – scientists, science communicators and farmers.  If you’re going to listen to how moms feel about GMO labels, you should listen to these moms.

But here’s the thing – you don’t have to listen to any moms to decide how you feel about mandatory GMO labels, particularly celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow who are not a reliable sources for science-related issues.  Inform yourself – read evidence-based information, talk to a farmer, or talk to a real expert on GMOs.  Then, if you agree with us non-celebrity moms on GMOs, join us: sign this letter and pledge to judge GMO food with facts, not fear.

 

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Outside looking in: March Against Monsanto

MAMyths-18

Walk for the Cure shaming? Really?

Last weekend I went to my very first protest. I’ve never been to a protest because I’m not really the kind of person who intentionally puts myself in situations designed to stir up trouble. Especially not one like the March Against Monsanto that is pretty well known for being an anti-GMO angry mob. Usually, I would stay far away from those kinds of protests.  But, this time was different because this year there was a group called March Against Myths about Modification (or MAMyths) protesting the March Against Monsanto with pro-GMO messages. That’s a little more my style, except I still don’t really like the idea of poking a hornet’s nest. One of the reasons I started this blog was to give myself an outlet to talk about these issues, because I don’t really like to do it at dinner parties, in line at the coffee shop, or at the bus stop with my kids in tow. I was pretty reluctant to go at all; I’m generally non-confrontational and agreeable with strangers. I decided to go by promising myself (and my husband) I was only going as an observer, as a journalist covering the event for my blog. I wouldn’t get into any angry debates and if it got ugly, I’d just get back on the bus and go home.  I took my camera and my notepad in my shaky hands and rode the bus to downtown Portland. I spent much of the ride practicing yoga breathing and giving myself a pep talk.

See what that shirt says on the far left? Classy.

See what that shirt says on the far left? And that child with a “Monsanto is hella sick” sign? Classy.

At first, I was afraid no one was going to show up. I arrived at the park and I didn’t see anyone holding a pro-GMO sign. At one end of the square was a stage surrounded by people holding signs that read, “Buzz Off Monsanto, You’re Killing Us,” “Monsanto is Murder,” “Hell No GMO,” and one pregnant lady was holding a sign that said, “Quit Trying To Get In My Genes.” There were little kids holding anti-Monsanto signs, people dressed up in bee costumes, people in straw hats passing out “GMO-free” organic tomato plants (I held back the urge to tell them that there aren’t any GMO tomatoes), a guy with an oversized bike, some people dressed up like clowns, and a couple of people wearing Halloween masks. I seriously started to re-think my attendance. But soon enough a few people came out of the woodwork wearing green and once a few people were standing together, 15 people emerged from nowhere. Understandably, no one wanted to be the first to hold up an, “Ask Me About GMOs” sign. But once there was strength in numbers, they set up a table, put some pro-GMO literature on it, passed out “I heart GMO” stickers, and turned to face the “angry mob.” There were about 20 MAMyths supporters facing about 200 who had come to March Against Monsanto.

MAMyths-25

See? Smiles.

And maybe they were a bit angry at the beginning, but amazingly, it never got ugly. People wandered over with pissed-off looks on their faces and started asking questions. One guy actually thought they were joking. But the MAMyths group faced them with smiles and calm voices. They handed out the flyer and started a conversation. I stood by the side and watched. Almost every single time, the anti-GMO person would start off really guarded and defensive but after a few non-hostile sentences from the pro-GMO side, their aggression deflated. They realized the group wasn’t there to fight. In fact, MAMyths had a sign that said, “Don’t start a fight, start a conversation.” And that’s what they did, conversation after level-headed conversation. A lot of them started like this, “Ok, I don’t know a whole lot, give me your spiel.” They talked about the scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs, and how GMOs have helped farmers increase yield and decrease the impact on the environment. For the most part, it was very civil. Some people remained unconvinced, agreed to disagree and walked away. Some talked for a good ten minutes or more and there were definitely a good number of people that seemed to walk away questioning their previous assumptions. Maybe a few were even fully convinced.

We love GMOs has a civil conversation with death bees.

We love GMOs has a civil conversation with death bees.

Some weird things did happen, though. A woman who seemed to be in charge of the march came over and demanded MAMyths get off the square because they had reserved the whole place. Fortunately, MAMyths had already called the city and confirmed they didn’t need a permit, so they stayed put and she didn’t bring it up again. One lady did a walk-by yelling, “I’m going to find out who funds you!” To which a few MAMyths folks mumbled, “Let us know when you find out.” One guy yelled, “You’re in the wrong F@!#ing place, you better get the f@!# outta here, I’m serious!” But the group ignored him. I overheard, “Oh, so you’re pro-vaccine, too?” and “You LIKE high fructose corn syrup?!” Then one of the MAMyths guys went and bought the whole group Starbucks coffee, which was awesome. But then the coffee drinkers caught flak for drinking Starbucks by one lady who walked by and yelled, “Starbucks? Really? Low wages and they treat their employees bad? Nice.” But that was balanced out when a lady gave the group a Starbucks gift card because she said her employer gave it to her and she wouldn’t use it, but they might. Maybe the craziest thing was when a lady dressed in a bee costume started doing a wavy dance at the group with her Stevie Nicks-style scarf and said, “I’m reprogramming you because you’re children of darkness.” Even though it was clearly a waste of time, one of the MAMyths crew engaged her in a very nice conversation about her conspiracy theories. All in all, I’d say it went pretty well.  I’m pretty sure most of the MAMyths crew felt good about it.

MAMyths-9There’s only one thing I’m really disappointed about. At the beginning of the event I looked around for reporters and spotted a few. I walked up to each of them to find out who they were and to make sure they knew about the counter protest. The Portland State University paper was there and a few other small publications, but I was pleasantly surprised when one guy said, “I’m with OPB News (Oregon Public Broadcasting).” I told him about the counter protest and said he’d know who they were because they’d be the ones wearing green and holding pro-GMO signs. I told him he’d be welcome if he wanted to talk to anyone in the group. He nodded.

Then he proceeded to ignore the whole group of 20 smiling people who were striking up difficult conversations about unpopular topics among people holding hate signs. Later that day he published 19 photos of the event, and not a single one of them included the MAMyths group. I can come to no other conclusion than he didn’t want to tarnish Portland’s “keep it weird” image with pictures of regular people supporting GMOs. I guess OPB would rather publish sensational images of clowns driving oversized bikes and people dressed up in bee costumes and people holding signs that say, “Monsatan Evil Seed” next to a hand-drawn picture of a skull, and a group of grandmothers singing anti-Monsanto songs.  Maybe he didn’t think a group consisting of farmers, scientists, moms, students and vegans who support GMOs was newsworthy enough. Maybe next year someone needs to dress up as a big dancing Arctic Apple if they want to get the attention of OPB. It would be one thing to deem the entire event not worthy of news coverage, like the Oregonian did. But to come to the event and only cover the part you want readers to see? As a journalist, I find bias like that pretty inexcusable. But, no worry. MAMyths will be back next year to give OPB another chance to do it right.

MAMyths-20

Wait, is that a Starbucks cup in your hand?! Oh the inconsistency!

I know they’ll be back again because we all learned something pretty important while we were there. March Against Monsanto is not intimidating. It took a lot of courage for that group of 20 people to show up to a GMO protest and hold a sign that said, “We Love GMOs.” But in the end, there was nothing scary at all. In fact, most of the people were just using the march as an excuse to get out and be angry about something. They weren’t even all angry about the same things – some people were marching with “increase the minimum wage” signs and some people were going on about chemtrails and government conspiracies. It was like everyone was pissed about a different issue and they were all coming together and talking about it like it was the same thing. They just use Monsanto as a catch-all for everything they’re upset about, even things that don’t make any sense. That’s not scary, it’s just well, kind of stupid.

I’m glad I went after all. It’s about time some reasonable people stood up next to March Against Monsanto so we can all see the juxtaposition of rational next to irrational. Maybe some people will change the way they think about GMOs, maybe not. But it’s a really good place to start.MAMyths-12

 

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Confessions of a Former Monsanto Employee

In March, National Geographic published an issue called “The War On Science,” and of all the cities in the entire United States, can you guess which city was called out in the very first paragraph of that article for its anti-science tendencies? Oh yes: it was Portland.  The article went on to say, “We live in an age when all manner of scientific knowledge … faces organized and often furious opposition. Empowered by their own sources of information and their own interpretations of research, doubters have declared war on the consensus of experts… And there’s so much talk about the trend these days … that science doubt itself has become a pop-culture meme.”

Nowhere is this culture more alive than in the city where I live. We’re one of only a few major American cities that don’t fluoridate our water, despite the scientific and medical consensus that it is a cheap and safe way to improve dental health for everyone. We also just narrowly avoided being one of the first states in America to label GMOs; the vote literally came down to less than half a percentage point – I’m almost certain it will return to the ballot and possibly pass next time. There’s a county in Oregon that has banned the growth of GMOs, and there’s another county currently trying to do the same on a ballot measure next week, even though the state has passed legislation to prohibit county-by-county bans. To get around that, Benton County is trying to give legal rights to plants.

Yes, I  used to work for Monsanto.While all this is going on, I’m sitting here shaking my head. And sometimes, shaking in my boots. Why? Because when I’m at the bus stop talking to another neighborhood parent and they say to me, “What did you used to do before you became a stay-at-home mom?” I get this sinking feeling in my stomach. Do I tell them that I used to work for the very company that created GMOs? A company that many Oregonians consider representative of all that is evil and wrong with our world? Sometimes I just say, “Oh, I used to be in public relations” or “Oh, I’m a photographer.” Neither of those are un-true.  But sometimes I just say it: “I used to work for Monsanto.” Every single time I’ve done that it stops people in their tracks. I mentioned it to my dental hygienist the other day, and she literally pulled her tool out of my mouth and looked at me, “Oh…. oh. Really?!” Yes, really.

And the thing is, in all honesty, I’m freaking proud of it. I loved working there – I got to go to work every day and do something I feel passionately about. I got to help people better understand a technology that I think holds immense promise to change our world for the better. The people I worked with were awesome, and the company was great – I got amazing benefits and reduced summer hours! Sometimes I still kick myself for ever leaving. If Monsanto had an office in Portland, I’d be knocking down their door trying to get a job.

But I don’t talk about that here. There’s a very real reason I don’t share my last name on this blog – I know Monsanto employees who have been threatened in climates similar to Portland. I don’t wear my Monsanto jacket here (even though it’s a really nice jacket.) And I certainly have never shown up at a March Against Monsanto.

Except maybe that’s changing. Why? Because there’s a new grass-roots movement that’s standing up to March Against Monsanto and making an effort to help people better understand GMOs. Next Saturday, for the first time, there will be a group of pro-GMO people (YES! Pro-GMO people in Portland!) standing up for logo w proper coilscience. They’ll be standing right next to a horde of protesters carrying posters with sculls and crossbones, blaming GMOs for every health problem under the sun, and accusing Monsanto of controlling the food supply and killing bees, butterflies, and everything in between.  The pro-GMO group will be holding signs that say, “I heart GMOs” and “Ask me about GMOs.” They’ll be handing out leaflets that talk about all the amazing things GMOs have actually done:  like resurrecting the American chestnut tree from the brink of extinction, saving the Hawaiian papaya, and reducing carbon emissions associated with agriculture equivalent to removing almost 12 million cars from the road for one year. They’ll be approachable. They’ll be honest. And they’ll be accurate. They’ll be everything that March Against Monsanto isn’t.  They’ll March Against Myths About Modification. (That’s their name, MAMyths.)

Now that is the kind of movement I can get on board with. And it couldn’t come at a more necessary time. I really believe that in my lifetime, we’ll be facing problems that have the potential to make or break our species. I could give you a bunch of statistics here, but the bottom line is that we have too many people for this planet to support. We’ll Fork and knifeneed to make some drastic changes if we want to stay on this planet at all. There are lots of ideas about how we’re going to make that happen, but one thing is for sure: we already have a technology that has the potential to help address many of those problems. Is it the magic bullet? No. Can biotechnology feed every starving person in Africa? No. But it can help. If only we’ll let it.

How can we convince people that GMOs are not evil? How can we convince people that the story is not about Monsanto, or chemicals, or patents? The story is about the next generation of GMOs and their potential to help. Here are some examples of what I mean:

  • rice with beta-carotene that could help the 124 million children in the world who are chronically deficient in vitamin A, a deficiency that accounts for about one-quarter of the total global burden of disease from malnutrition
  • insect-resistant eggplant that would allow farmers in Bangladesh to spray less pesticide where pesticide poisoning is a chronic health problem
  • cassava (a staple for millions of people in developing countries) with increased protein, beta-carotene and other nutrients
  • crops that are self-fertilizing that would allow farmers in developing countries who don’t have fertilizer to grow more productive crops
  • crops that can photosynthesize better and produce 50 percent more food per acre
  • drought-resistant crops that can produce more with less water

Some of those are ten or more years away from development, but some of them, like Golden Rice and  Bt eggplant, already exist but are being blocked somewhat in part to hysteria fueled by activists like March Against Monsanto.

That brings me back to next Saturday in Portland. This is where we can help. This is right here, right now. For a long time, academics and scientists have been doing what I call the “soft sell.” They’ve been rather quietly and calmly explaining the science, the safety, and the benefits of GMOs and hoping that eventually it catches on. And maybe for some, it is working. But it’s not working fast enough. We are badly losing the information war on GMOs. Perhaps now is the time to be a little more forceful, and that’s exactly what MAMyths is doing. They’re standing up proudly and loudly to say, “I support GMOs and I want to tell you why.”

Of course, that’s a little scary. Especially in a city like Portland where people might get a little riled up over that. But the good news is they have the facts on their side.  And, even better, they’re real people who aren’t backed by industry. They’re people just like me: with children whose health we care about, who have a very serious vested interest in the sustainability of our food supply.

Maybe you should go. You could always go get a beer or some dried GMO papaya afterward. Or, if you don’t want to go, I understand. But you can at least join the movement online and use your voice to support science.

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Q&A with Simplot Scientist Nicole Nichol

It’s been more than 20 years since genetically modified crops (or GMOs) were first introduced in 1994 with the Flavr Savr tomato. In those 20 years a lot has changed – for one, the Flavr Savr didn’t stay on the market (it was discontinued after three years) and now we have eight more commercially available GMO crops. It’s been nine years since the most recent GMOs (sugarbeets and alfalfa) were introduced in 2006. I like to think of the existing GM crops as the first generation of GMOs – a generation that focused on benefits for the producer by protecting against pests. One of the reasons I so strongly support GMOs is not because of what they’ve done so far (although it has been impressive) but because the technology has  incredible possibility to revolutionize both our impact on the environment and the nutritional profile of our food. We are quite literally on the brink of a second generation of GMOs that have the potential to reduce waste, use our dwindling resources more efficiently, and make our food better for us. Of course, the only sticking point is that we have to convince people to stop demonizing the technology so we can actually realize the possibility of what lies ahead.

Which brings me to the Innate Potato. No pressure, or anything, but I seriously hope the two newest GMO crops (the Innate™ Potato and the Arctic® Apple) can change the way people think about GMOs. Why do I hope that? Because these two biotech crops are directly and intentionally aimed at benefits for the consumer. And, best of all, they were not created by Monsanto.

Thaner family, picture courtesy of NIcole.

Nichol family, picture courtesy of NIcole.

So, today’s post is a Q&A with Nicole Nichol about the non-browning/low-acrylamide Innate Potato which has recently received USDA and FDA clearance. Nichol is a Biotech Regulatory Compliance Specialist at Simplot Plant Sciences. She helps to make sure Simplot follows all the regulations when working with biotech crops.  Before that she was a Transformation Associate Scientist in Plant Sciences for three-and-a-half years, where she used Agrobacterium to mediate the genetic engineering of plants.  Nichol grew up in a small mountain town in Colorado that was pretty devoid of agriculture due to the altitude.  She earned a bachelor’s degree in biology at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana and a master’s degree in plant breeding, genetics and biotechnology from Michigan State University  where she studied GM potatoes for drought tolerance.  She now lives in Meridian, Idaho with her husband and three kids ages 6, 3, and 14 months.

Warning: this post is pretty sciency. When you ask a scientist questions about their science, expect to get very sciency answers. That said, it’s incredibly interesting stuff. Read on.

It’s MomSense: What are the benefits of Innate potatoes?

Nichol:  Innate potatoes in general have the benefit of being biotech potatoes that only use potato genes to alter the desired traits. In a sense we are doing precise breeding.  You could achieve the same traits using conventional breeding but it might take decades, if not longer, to get the same quality of potatoes.  Our first generation of Innate potatoes have two traits: non-browning/reduced black spot as a result of downregulating the PPO enzyme and reduced acrylamide as a result of reduced levels of the amino acid asparagine.

It’s MomSense: Tell me more about acrylamide – what is it?

Nichol: Acrylamide is a naturally-occurring chemical compound found in many foods and beverages. In our diet acrylamide is formed during the Maillard reaction which involves heat, reducing sugars (glucose and fructose) and the amino acid asparagine.  Acrylamide forms in coffee, prunes, potato chips, breakfast cereals and many other foods.  We have basically been consuming acrylamide since we discovered cooking with fire.  The more toasted or burnt your toast or fries are, the more acrylamide it is going to contain.

It’s MomSense: How much is present in a serving of french fries?

Nichol: From 39 samples of fries from Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the U.K. and the U.S. the mean level of acrylamide was 537 µg/kg (WHO, 2002). Or to try and put it in more familiar terms 0.000537 grams per 35.3 oz.  A large fry from a quick-serve restaurant is 5.9 oz.

It’s MomSense: How much will the Innate potatoes reduce acrylamide levels?

Nichol: Innate potatoes will reduce acrylamide levels by 50-70 percent over the conventional variety (depending on the variety of Innate potato and method of cooking).

It’s MomSense: What does the science actually say about acrylamide and cancer in humans?

Nichol: The toxic effects of acrylamide in food have been described as negligible in the literature (WHO, 2002 and Lineback et al., 2012). Neurotoxicity has been observed in rodent studies using a chronic drinking water method.  The WHO Consultation concluded that the NOAEL (No Observed Adverse Effect Level) to be 0.5 mg/kg/day for humans.  The estimated average chronic human dietary intake of acrylamide is 1 µg/kg body weight/day, meaning the average person would have to eat 500 times more acrylamide than they typically do in a day.

In laboratory studies, acrylamide has been shown to be carcinogenic. Using somatic and germ cells in Petri plates, acrylamide can induce changes to DNA.  In studies using acrylamide treated rats they did have a slightly higher incidence of tumors.  After looking at all the data available, the WHO in 2002 declared acrylamide to be a Group 2A classification—probably carcinogenic in humans.  The classification falls in line with other carcinogens that are formed in food as a result of cooking.  The WHO also recognizes that further studies are needed to have a better understanding of the carcinogenic potential of acrylamide.  Their recommendation is to follow general healthy eating habits that moderate fried and fatty foods.

It’s MomSense: Tell me more about the non-browning aspect – is there anything actually harmful about eating a browned potato, or is it purely aesthetics? How much does this reduce the browning?

Nichol: There is nothing harmful or unhealthy about eating a browned potato. Although this may appear to be purely for aesthetics, this does have an impact on consumers, processors and growers. It is estimated that 1.4 billion pounds of fresh Russet potatoes (the ones you buy in the grocery store) are wasted each year in the U.S. because of the browning and bruising.  If all Russet potatoes were converted to Innate potatoes, the U.S. would save 400 million pounds of waste in the retail and food service channels and a significant portion – perhaps upwards of 1 billion of the estimated 3 billion pounds discarded by consumers according to the Journal of Consumer Affairs.   Along with the less waste this would also save $90 million in producer costs, 60 million pounds of CO2 emissions and 6.7 billion gallons of water.  In our Innate Russet lines there is a 35-44 percent reduction in bruising compared to conventional Russets.

Innate vs conventional potato

Innate potato (left) and a conventional potato (right), 30 minutes after being peeled.

It’s MomSense: Back in the 90s, Monsanto and others were working on a GM potato that got abandoned largely because McDonalds and the fast-food industry said they wouldn’t source GM potatoes. In light of the recent Innate deregulation, McDonalds again affirmed it wouldn’t be sourcing this new GM potato, either. Seeing as Simplot is a large supplier of McDonalds potatoes, that must have come as no surprise. Why do you think the market is ready now and wasn’t in the 90s? How does McDonalds’ decision impact Simplot?

Nichol: I don’t know if the market is that different now than it was in the 90’s, I think our traits and how we are handling the market introduction is what is going to be the difference for GM potato this time around. Our traits touch the consumer, the processors and the growers.  For our market introduction, we are being very limited in who and where the crop is grown so that Innate potatoes will not be in potato market categories that are commonly exported.  Currently we only have deregulation in the U.S. and until deregulation is complete in other countries we will have a strong stewardship program intended to keep the potatoes away from the process and dehydrated markets.  In addition, we have a very limited amount of Innate potatoes at this time and it will be a few years before we would have enough seed inventory to supply quick serve restaurants.

It’s MomSense: What makes this product different from other GM products? I’ve read this is a cisgenic product, why is this an advantage?

Nichol: To date, this is the first commercial GM product that has sourced the genes for the traits from the plant’s same gene pool. The term cisgenics has been used to describe genes from within the same gene pool of the target species.  Transgenics generally refers to genes sourced from species outside of the targets specie’s gene pool.  Another way to think of it is that a cisgenic plant could be achieved through conventional breeding, where a transgenic plant can only be achieved using biotechnology methods.  We also do not use antibiotic marker genes in the development of our commercial Innate lines and the marker genes are typically used to develop other GM crops.  Antibiotic markers are safe, we however wanted to stay all within the potato genome for our products.  In some ways this made it a little harder for us to produce our Innate potatoes but we think it will help in consumer acceptance.   We have decided to call our technology “Innate™” to focus on technology that doesn’t involve foreign genes.

It’s MomSense: Where do the genes come from? Would it have been easier to do with transgenics?

Nichol: The genes come from Solanum tuberosum (the common cultivated potato) Ranger Russet variety and Solanum verrucosum a closely related species. Our traits are achieved by turning down the gene expression and this is actually best achieved by either using cisgenic approaches or synthetic DNA sequences.  It would have been less work to include an antibiotic resistance marker gene and this would have been a transgene.

It’s MomSense: This would be the very first GM product with a direct consumer benefit, and it feels like this product was intentionally aimed at consumers (has a healthy angle because it reduces carcinogens, and has an environmental angle because it reduces food waste, all using genes from within the potato family.) Do you believe this product will change the way consumers view GMOs? Was that part of the goal all along?

Nichol: It was part of the vision from the beginning to have a biotech product that has direct benefits for the consumer. If we end up changing consumers’ views of GM products, to being more positive overall, I think that will be an ancillary benefit.  My personal opinion is that 10-20 years from now fruit and vegetables with the non-browning trait will be just as common as seedless produce is today.  (And just to be clear those seedless varieties were not produced with biotech methods.) There is already the Arctic Apple, and just imagine avocados, bananas, pineapples, etc. that won’t turn brown!

It’s MomSense: I understand this product uses RNAi. Many folks get that confused with Terminator technology that is widely demonized by the anti-GMO crowd. Can you explain what RNAi is, how it’s used in this product, and how it’s different than Terminator?

Nichol: RNAi, or RNA interference, is a way to downregulate gene expression. Terminator technology refers to the overall way to keep pollen or seeds of genetically modified plants sterile.  Cells from bacteria to humans use gene downregulation all the time to ‘police’ what is going on in the cell, it does not mean it will lead to sterility.  The confusing part is that you could use RNAi to achieve the Terminator effect.  It’s like saying birds lay eggs, but not all eggs are from birds.  Initially the anti-GMO crowd came out very negatively against Terminator technology.  However, there has been a renewed interest in this technology by the same crowd that was once against it.  This is because there are difficulties in maintaining pure organic (a.k.a. GM free) seed stocks.

If you want to learn more about RNAi I recommend the tutorial from the PBS NOVA series.  It has a good ‘non-science’ analogy: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/body/rnai-explained.html.

RNAi evolved as a defense mechanism against viruses and that is why it is present in bacterial, plant and animal cells.  Normally in a cell double stranded DNA is the template to make single stranded RNA.  Single stranded RNA is the template to make proteins, and proteins are the all-important building blocks to life.  RNAi comes in, and like a defensive player in sports, it will double up the coverage making the single stranded RNA partially double stranded.  This defensive RNAi is very specific and will only double up on the single stranded RNA if the templates match.  Once the match is found that whole piece of single, and partially double, stranded RNA is chopped up like yesterday’s newspaper in a shredder.  The result is whatever gene (DNA) made that RNA will not be made into the protein and so the gene is considered downregulated or silenced.  In our Innate potatoes we use this RNAi to play defense against the gene that is the template for the PPO enzyme that causes the browning and another RNAi to play defense against the gene that is the template for the amino acid asparagine.  If you are reading this and have some basic biochemistry knowledge you may be wondering how we can “silence” an amino acid, because amino acids make proteins and are definitely necessary.  This is possible because the amount of RNAi can vary.  So to bring back a sports analogy if you have three defensive players (RNAi) and five offensive players (regular single stranded RNA) the three defensive players will only be able to partially cover their opponents.  Thus we only get partial gene downregulation.  And just like in sports, sometimes the defense can still steal the ball and score when they are outnumbered; we can still have less acrylamide with there still being some asparagine out there in the cells.  We have also used a tuber specific promoter so that this gene downregulation only occurs in the tuber (the part of the potato plant we all know and love) and not in the leaves or roots or other parts of the plant.

The other unique point about potatoes is that they are a vegetatively propagated crop, they are not grown from botanical seed.  This means that when you grow a potato plant you use a tuber, or at least a piece of a tuber that has an eye.  That eye will sprout, as you have probably seen happen in your pantry, and those sprouts will grow into a plant.  This process can go on and on, year after year, and never requires pollination to get a new plant.  This means that the risk of gene flow from our Innate potatoes to conventional potatoes is not a concern.  So although RNAi and Terminator technology are not related, there is no purpose to using Terminator technology in biotech potato production.

It’s MomSense: Why didn’t Simplot decide to stack this technology with farmer benefits like disease or pesticide resistance?

Nichol: As I mentioned above, the Innate potatoes do have a farmer/grower benefit in that the grower is able to capture more value in their harvested crop with less of the potatoes going to waste due to black spots and browning. As for also including a trait like disease or herbicide resistance, the disease resistance is actually in the pipeline.  We have a potato gene from Solanum venturii (another close relative to the cultivated potato) that confers resistance to potato late blight.  Potato late blight is the disease that caused the Irish potato famine and it is still a big problem in potato production today.  It is a fungi like organism (an oomycete to be exact) and growers have to spend lots of money and time spraying fungicides to keep the late blight at bay.  This trait has been stacked on to our first traits and will be available in our second release of Innate potatoes.  We hope to have deregulation from the USDA for our second version of Innate potatoes by the end of 2015.  We are also working on introducing more genes for late blight resistance to have more global, long term resistance along with resistance to PVY, a virus that results in yield loss and is carried by aphids.

It’s MomSense: The Center for Food Safety and other critics claim RNAi is “untested” and inadequately regulated. Of course, they say this about all biotechnology, so I don’t think it holds much water, but the one point they make is interesting – that somehow this application of RNAi impacts the potato’s ability to fend off pests. Is there any truth to that? Has that been thoroughly tested?

Nichol: PPO has been shown in some literature to be induced when a pest is feeding on the plant and thus is thought to provide some resistance to the pest. However, there was little research on potato plants so we investigated this issue extensively while working on the development of these potatoes.  We found that because we are only downregulating Ppo5 (one of several PPO genes) in the tubers and not in the leaves this reduces the risk of increased loss due to pests. Also there are several genes that code for different variations of PPO and we only silenced one of them.  After growing and storing potatoes across the U.S. for several years there were no significant differences in pest or disease issues in our Innate potatoes compared to the conventional varieties.  RNAi is a very specific mechanism within the cell.  Only the specific double-stranded RNA will be degraded for that specific gene.  The potato DNA that we inserted is very specific to target Ppo5 and Asn1 (asparagine gene) and our studies have not found any “off-target” gene downregulation.

It’s MomSense: Will we ever see the Innate potato in the supermarket or is it exclusively going for commercial use?

Nichol: We hope to have Innate potatoes available in grocery stores as both whole potatoes in the bag like you are used to buying and as washed, peeled, and cut raw potatoes in packaging in the refrigerated produce aisle. Again we will initially not have a large supply to have it in all grocery stores for the next year or two, but we definitely want to get these directly to consumers so they can recognize the value in a reduced bruising, non-browning potato.

It’s MomSense: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Nichol: I briefly mentioned our second version of Innate potatoes that will include the late blight resistance and we have also included downregulation of Invertase. Similar to the PPO and asparagine downregulation, the Invertase downregulation is achieved through RNAi and this will only be in the tuber.  Invertase is involved in converting sucrose to glucose and fructose (those reducing sugars previously mentioned).  With less reducing sugars there will be even less acrylamide formation than in our first version of Innate.  Up to 90 percent less acrylamide than conventional potatoes.  Another benefit to less reducing sugars is that you can store potatoes in a colder storage for longer.  Traditionally certain varieties of potatoes are stored between 46-50°F, for about 4-5 months.  There are other potato varieties that cannot be stored.  Our Innate potatoes with downregulated Invertase can be stored at colder temperatures for possibly a longer time period; even converting varieties that could not be stored into a variety that can be stored.  This is important for potatoes that will be processed into fries or chips.

innate friesconventional friesInnate Burbank (top) and conventional Burbank (bottom), second generation with reduced Invertase.  The dark brown color in the conventional Burbank fries are a result of higher reducing sugars content.

Lastly, I would just like to emphasize that there is no evidence that any commercially available GM crop possess any more risk than traditional crops in terms of health for humans, animals and the environment. As I mother I have no problem feeding Bt sweet corn to my kids and I can’t wait to feed them Innate potatoes from this year’s harvest!

References

Lineback, D. R., Coughlin, J. R., & Stadler, R. H. (2012). Acrylamide in foods: a review of the science and future considerations. Annual review of food science and technology, 3, 15-35.

World Health Organization. Food Safety Programme. (2002). Health Implications of Acrylamide in Food: Report of a Joint FAO/WHO Consultation, WHO Headquarters, Geneva, Switzerland, 25-27 June 2002. Diamond Pocket Books (P) Ltd.

Thornton, M. (2003). The rise and fall of NewLeaf potatoes. Biotechnology: Science and Society at a Crossroad. National Agricultural Biotechnology, Council Boyce Thompson Institute, Ithaca, New York, 235-243.

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Take the GMO quiz: how much do you know?

I’ll admit it, I kind of like taking those stupid online quizzes. You know: what city were you meant to live in, what Harry Potter character are you, etc. These are pressing, important issues, right?! Not so much, but they’re fun, I like doing them, and I bet you do, too. So I decided to make a quiz for you guys! It’s in the vein of a personality quiz, and I fully expect all my dedicated momsensians to get the “Big Ag Shill” title! Make me proud. If you don’t, don’t fret, scroll down below the quiz and read the answers and discussion, and take the quiz again.

 

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*************************SPOILER ALERT*************************** The answers to this quiz are below! Don’t cheat! Take the test first, then read the answers.

 

Question: What does GMO mean?

Answer: GMO stands for genetically modified organism.

 

Question: How many crops come in GMO (transgenic) varieties?

Answer: 6-10 There are currently eight crops that are commercially available as GMO: Corn (field and sweet), soybeans, canola, cotton, alfalfa, sugar beet, squash and papaya. *Edited for clarification* This is excluding food that may be considered “genetically modified” in the sense that it’s a result of selective breeding. You can make an argument that everything we eat is “genetically modified” through selective breeding, which we as humans have been doing for hundreds of years.  But for the sake of simplicity, we’ll consider GMOs to be those produced through genetic engineering or transgenics.

 

Question: Where in the grocery store are you  most likely to find GMOs?

Answer: Packaged food. Aside from papaya and a small amount of sweet corn and squash, packaged/processed foods are where you’ll find the majority  of ingredients that have been derived from GMOs. Examples include corn oil, cornstarch, cornmeal, soybean oil, soy flour, soy protein, soy lecithin, sugar (from beets, not cane), canola oil, cottonseed oil, and corn syrup. These products are often found in baked goods, cereals, snack foods, foods containing corn sugars/syrup, etc.

 

Question: Which of the following is a source for the transgene in the commercially available GMOs?

Answer: Bacteria. Bt crops produce their own protection against insect damage using a protein from the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis. Interestingly, the Bt protein is also used as a spray by organic farmers and gardeners.

 

Question: Monsanto is the only company that makes GMOs.

Answer: False. Monsanto is one of the “big six” companies investing in biotechnology in the private sector. The other five include Pioneer, BASF, Syngenta, Dow, and Bayer. But there are plenty of other smaller players around the world working on biotechnology as well.

 

Question: GMOs allow farmers to

Answer: Spray less pesticide and adopt no-till and reduced-till practices. Bt crops have greatly reduced the amount of insecticide applied to crops, as much as an 18-fold decrease in corn between 1976 and 2010. In fact, in the first 17 years of adoption, biotechnology has reduced pesticide spraying by 503 million kg and has reduced the environmental footprint associated with pesticide use by 18.7 percent. The technology has also significantly reduced the release of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture equivalent to removing 11.9 million cars from the roads. Part of that is due to reduced or no-till practices  made possible by herbicide-tolerant crops like Roundup Ready. Reduced and no-till practices help sequester carbon in the soil.

 

Question: How can you avoid GMOs?

Answer: (all answers with the *) Buy USDA certified organic, buy food with the Non-GMO Project label, or look at the ingredients. Food labeled USDA certified organic is by definition GMO-free, as is food with a GMO-free specific label. Additionally, as I said above, there are only eight crops that are commercially available in GM varieties. Turn the package around and look for the words: corn, soy, cotton, sugar, canola, squash, alfalfa (not in food anyway) or papaya. If those words aren’t listed on the ingredients, it’s not GM. If they are, assume it is GM, because in most of those crops (corn, soy, cotton, canola) more than 90 percent of the crops grown in the US are GM. The exceptions are sugar since only about half the sugar in the US comes from beets, squash and sweet corn (which both have lower adoption rates.) The percentage is closer to 70 percent for Hawaiian-grown papaya, so you can pay attention to the country of origin if you’re interested in avoiding GM papaya.

 

Question: GMOs are banned in 64 countries.

Answer: False. GMOs are not banned in 64 countries. GMOs are only banned in one country: Kenya. In some ways this is semantics, but take the EU for example: while some countries (but not all) in the EU have banned the growth of particular GM crops, the EU imports almost three-quarters of it’s feed for livestock, much of which is GM. Additionally, they are not disallowed there due to safety; it’s more of a political and public perception issue in the EU.

 

Question: The scientific consensus is that GMOs are safe for human consumption.

Answer: True, every leading health organization in the world stands behind their safety, including the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization, the International Society of African Scientists, and the European Commission, to name a few.

 

Question: We’ve been eating GMOs for how long?

Answer: 15-20 years. About 18 years, in fact. GMOs were introduced in 1996 when Monsanto commercialized Roundup Ready soybeans.

 

Question: How many documented human health incidents (that can be attributed to GMOs) have there been since GMOs were introduced?

Answer: None. Not a single one.

 

Question: Organic growers can lose their organic certification because of cross contamination from GMOs.

Answer: False. In fact, no US organic farmer has ever lost organic certification this way. The National Organic Program explicitly states that as long as an organic farmer didn’t intentionally use “excluded methods” (like GMOs), unintentional presence of GM material won’t impact organic certification.

 

Question: GMO corn seed is blue and regular corn seed is not.

Answer: False. (so, so very false.) The only reason I included this question is because there has been an extremely deceptive picture floating around the Internet that came from the Yes on 92 campaign in Oregon (and a terrible commercial) that implies that GMO corn seed is blue BECAUSE it’s GM. No. It’s blue because it contains a seed treatment, which has nothing to do with the seeds being GM. Seed treatments are a pesticide (fungicide or insecticide) that is applied to the exterior of the seed before planting to help protect the young seedling during emergence and initial growth. This is very common for conventional and GMO seeds alike. Regulators require that seed treatment preparations contain dyes to color-mark seeds that have been treated so that they can be recognized on sight and not introduced directly into the human food supply. Even organic farmers use some seed treatments. Additionally, seed treatments allow farmers to use small, very targeted application of pesticides.

 

I hope you learned something today! And if you already knew all of this, congratulations, you’re using your momsense.

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