Tag: agriculture

‘The Nation” spreads farming misinformation like a manure spreader

DSC_0006The Nation is a venerable  magazine, having been founded in 1865, and for over 150 years has been providing political commentary, mostly on US administrations and events. While it writers skew to the left, this is not entirely the case and major writers have included Henry James, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Frederick Law Olmsted, W.E.B. Dubois, E.M. Forster, Emma Goldman, Sinclair Lewis, Willa Cather, H.L. Mencken, Upton Sinclair, Margaret Mead, Mark van Doren, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Bertrand Russell, Pearl S. Buck, Albert Einstein, I.F. Stone, Eleanor Roosevelt, Hannah Arendt, Jean-Paul Sartre, Harold Clurman, Edmund Wilson, W.H. Auden, Anne Sexton, Martin Luther King, Jr., Gore Vidal, and Toni Morrison.

With that cast of literary luminaries, you would think they could handle an issue on The Future of Food, focusing primarily on agriculture.  Unfortunately, the left tends to be agriculturally and scientifically illiterate, and much of what the contributors to this issue say is just plain nonsense.

Danny Meyer

Starting with an interview with noted restaurateur, Danny Meyer, written by food extremist Anna Lappe, we learn that in creating Shake Shack,

Our meat is free of antibiotics and artificial growth hormones; the eggs and chickens we use are cage free; the French fries are non-GMO.

How much could go wrong in one sentence?

  • All meat must be free of hormones and antibiotics by the time it is sold. Small amounts of growth hormones may be used in beef, but it must have washed out of the animal’s system before it can be sold. And you would find 1000 times more estrogen in 8 oz of cabbage than in 8 oz of beef. Hormones cannot be used in dairy cattle, veal calves, pigs or poultry.
  • All neat chickens are always cage free. And while chicken used for eggs can be raised free range or in various kinds of cages, a serious study in the Journal of Poultry Science has shown that the birds do best in conventional cages.
  • And what exactly does non-GMO potatoes mean? “GMO” is a breeding process, not an ingredient. The slogan is just fear marketing,  since thousands of peer-reviewed papers have shown that GM foods pose no harm. The JR Simplot company has developed the Innate Potato which is resistant to late potato blight and  produces lower amounts of acrylamide when fried. Why wouldn’t this be the more healthy offering?  Fear-based marketing based on organic industry sloganeering.

Zoe Carpenter

Zoe Carpenter’s lead in column asks (twice) whether consolidation in the agricultural sector will mean that farmers will pay more for inputs like seeds and earn less. The seed business is not a monopoly. There are any number of suppliers farms can choose from and if they choose a more expensive seed, it is because if performs better for them.

Raj Patel on Fair Trade

We have already written extensively on Fair Trade, which, no matter how well intentioned, has not turned out to be more profitable for farmers. This is because farmers are guaranteed a floor price, and they will sell their lowest quality crops into the fair trade market, and sell their best quality crops on the open market. It also has no effect on how temporary workers are treated. And the idea that organic bananas are produced without pesticides is a fantasy spread by the organic industry. Organic farmers just use organic approved pesticides. And, of course, as Bruce Ames showed years ago, plants generate 10,000 times more pesticides themselves than are ever detected from spray residues.

John Boyd on Small Scale Farming

Boyd echoes the canard that farmers who buy genetically modified seeds can no long replant them the next year. But as Amanda Zalukyj points out, farmers really don’t want to save seeds. It’s a huge effort to clean and save seeds, and this practice “went out the window” with the advent of hybrid seeds in the 1930s. These varieties don’t breed true in the next generation anyway.

Dana Perls on GMOs

Perls echoes disproven claims about GMO crops requiring “massive increases in the use of toxic herbicides.” Much of this claim comes from a discredited paper by Benbrook which failed to take account of the relative toxicity of newer herbicides like glyphosate. However, noted weed scientist Andrew Kniss has studied this issue in some detail.

In summary, this analysis suggests that GMOs have had a positive effect (or at the very least neutral or non-negative effect) with respect to herbicide use intensity and mammalian toxicity…

Perls also makes very unscientific claims that vanillin produced using genetically engineered yeast is not “natural,” because “synthetic biology” is involved. She also claims it drives out 200,000 rain forest farmers. Which do you think is better overall for the environment?

Hacking the Grain- Madeline Ostrander

This genuinely fascinating article about attempts to create perennial grains to replace wheat is well worth reading. However, it starts with the mistaken assumption that large fields of s single crop (which they call a “monoculture”) are somehow bad. Andrew Kniss debunks this in some detail, noting that Pollan and his followers never explain why this is so bad. He admits that all of Ireland was growing the exact same potato, reproduced vegetatively so that there was just a single genetically identical potato grown throughout the country. That is why the Phytophor infestans blight wiped potatoes out so completely.

This is not a problem in grain farming, however, because while there may be many thousands of acres of corn or wheat, they are not all genetically identical.

It is important to recognize that you do not need perennial wheat or corn to avoid tilling the fields, which releases a lot of carbon into the atmosphere, and upsets the delicate layering that good soil should have.  No-till farming is regularly done using low impact herbicides like Roundup (glyphosate) to reduce annual weeds and then plant using a seed drill instead of a plow. You can use glyphosate-resistant seed or not as you wish. I actually use this technique in my home vegetable garden.

The rest of Ostrander’s article is a fascinating description of the development and breeding of a perennial grass, they call “Kernza,” which has the potential to be milled and baked much like wheat flour.  The lead scientist on Kernza domestication, Lee DeHaan is profiles on the Land Institute page, and you can read more about his research here.

“Mass Exposure” by Rene Ebersole

In the worst article in the magazine Rene Ebersole recycles all the discredited canards about Roundup (glyphosate) being dangerous. Ebersole starts with the assertion that an “international scientific committee” ruled that glyphosate is a probably human carcinogen. She is referring to the IARC, a small French group that took refuge under the umbrella of the WHO when their funding ran out.

Unfortunately, the group’s credibility fell, when it was realized that they ruled that compounds were “probably” carcinogenic” without considering any dosage issues. As we noted, they ignored decades of government studies, cherry picking just a few that seemed to fit their agenda. Further, it became known that activist Christopher Portier, who was still working with the Environmental Defense Fund, inserted himself into the deliberations and went about telling European governments of these false findings.

The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR)  disputed these findings. There are dozens of studies and reviews showing no finding of genotoxicity or carcinogenicity.  And as James Gurney reported, the papers they cherry-picked were full of scientific weasel words like “induced a positive trend,” and the statistical test “often gives incorrect results.”

And, responding to the IARC report, the European Food Safety Association(EFSA) reviewed studies including those from the BfR and concluded:

“…glyphosate is unlikely to pose a carcinogenic hazard to humans and the evidence does not support classification with regard to its carcinogenic potential according to Regulation.”

More to the point, the IARC report has recently been further discredited, when it was discovered that the conclusions were edited or changed, as summarized by Ridley, and that Portier had received $160,000 from law firms involved in suing Monsanto.  And just yesterday, Hank Campbell reported that the US Congress is so disgusted with these irregularities that it may be considering “pulling the  plug” in future IARC funding.

Ebersole goes on to claim that Monsanto is being sued because Roundup “Caused them to develop non-Hodgkins lymphoma (NHL).” They have no actual evidence, and Derek Lowe, writing in Science explains the difference between hazard and risk,  and concludes that there is little evidence linking glyphosate and NHL.

Finally, Ebersole quotes Carey Gillam who describes herself as “research director for US Right to Know.” Gillam is not a scientist. She was once a journalist working for Reuters, but after producing a steady stream on attacks on Monsanto, she was dismissed and now works for US Right to Know, a propaganda organization supported by the organic food industry. Further, Gillam has just published Whatewash: The Story of a Weedkiller. This book has not been well received among actual scientists, however, who consider it just more of or propaganda.

Ebersole seems to have overlooked the actual science regarding the safety of glyphosate, and also neglected to point out (as Ridley does) that lawsuits against Roundup are becoming a profitable industry for some law firms hoping to extract money from Monsanto. Bad luck, though, that Roundup has been off patent since 2000, and most of it is made offshore.

In conclusion, this is one of the worst issues of The Nation in years, where fact checking has simply gone home for the week, allowing the spread of bad information and bad science.

 

 

Advertisements
Farmer wants subsidy for keeping his pricey chickens outdoors

Farmer wants subsidy for keeping his pricey chickens outdoors

In the article National Burden in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, Wyatt Williams writes of Georgia farmer Will Harris’s experience with bald eagles attacking his chickens. It is against the law (with severe penalties) to kill a bald eagle, and you even need a permit to scare one away with a noise maker.

Soon after Harris began raising meat chickens he began to see bald eagles roosting in nearby trees, looking for a tasty luncheon. And sure enough, as they became braver, they did attack his chickens, the article claims “thousands of his chickens.” This could be true, because the scale of Harris’s White Oak Pastures farm generates millions of dollars of revenue, according to the article.

Now it turns out that there is a USDA program, the Livestock Indemnity Program that essentially reimburses farmers for animals killed by predators. The rate of reimbursement depends on the animal and the region, and they subtract a percentage for normal livestock deaths. In Georgia, the normal chicken death rate is 4%, assuming the chickens are housed in barns. But in Harris’s case, they estimated that since the chickens were pastured outdoors, the normal death rate would be 40%. Much of the article deals with Harris’s attempts to negotiate a more reasonable death rate. They finally settled on 18%.

Well, one might ask, if the eagles are chomping on the poultry in such numbers, why in the world aren’t they using barns to raise the chickens in? (Incidentally, all meat chickens are raised “cage free.”) The disappointing answer in the article is that would

“snip the last strings connecting them to nature.”

Of course, chickens have been raised outdoors for centuries, but according to Hillmire, large scale pasturing of chickens is a “new management practice,” and “pastured poultry growers face steep price competition with the conventional industry and must rely on niche marketing.”  She also notes that

The top issue for pastured poultry growers was carnivore predation of birds, with 44% of growers commenting on this in a question regarding challenges

The end result, of course, is that these chickens are much more expensive.  A package of 2.5 lbs of bone-in pastured chicken breasts runs $18.13, and a whole medium chicken $15.49 and a whole large chicken $20.99. Oh, and shipping is $39.95. They are also available, of course, at Whole Foods, always willing provide overpriced products.

And how do they taste? Well, they “recommend cooking in a manner consistent with classical and rustic cooking techniques, such as slow roasting or braising.” In other words, they may otherwise be tough.

Harris’ chickens are pastured, organic, cage-free, hormone-free, non-GMO and fully buzz-word compliant. If you doubt this, you can admire the beautifully written PR claims on their web site. They make no health or nutrition claims, however. And hormones are never given to chickens anyway: it is illegal.

What this boils down to is that Harris is asking the USDA (taxpayers) to subsidize his risky outdoor pasturing of chickens, for which he then charges premium prices, because people believe (without evidence) that they are somehow better.  In fact, as Simmons explains pasturing uses far more land, and is more harmful to chickens, with death rates estimated at 13%.

This is simply the organic myth writ large. Organic isn’t better, just more expensive.

 

New York Times’ wrongheaded GMO article ignites scientists

New York Times’ wrongheaded GMO article ignites scientists

The front page of last Sunday’s New York Times featured a major article by Danny Hakim titled “Doubts About the Promised Bounty of GMO Crops.”  Hakim is an investigative reporter who has primarily been an economics correspondent. He apparently interviewed quite a number of experts before writing the piece, but he got his main point completely wrong. None of the major biotechnology seed vendors are marketing GM seeds to improve yield, so there is no “promised bounty.”

And while the lengthy article cites a lot of data both in the US, Canada and Europe, it manages to lump together statistics from completely different climates and growing regions, so that his final conclusions are pretty confused. But don’t take my word for it, let’s look at what experts have already written.

Molecular geneticist Nina Federoff, who has been a science and technology adviser to Secretaries of State Condaleeza Rice and Hillary Clinton, as well as having had a distinguished research career, writes in Hakim’s Effort to Skewer Biotech Crops in Sunday’s NY Times, that GM crops were never intended to improve yield.

Writing in the Western Producer, Stuart Smyth says New York Times Ignored GMO Crop Benefits, and goes on to list the benefits by crop and region. Farmers would not be spending money on expensive seeds if they didn’t realize some benefits.

Nathaniel Johnson, writing in Grist on What the New York Times Missed in its Big GMO Story, points out that by lumping together farm statistics from North America where we grow GMO crops with data from Western Europe (where they mostly do not) is very misleading. Not only do the climates differ, but the pests do as well. He suggests Hakim ought to look at all the available evidence rather than just cherry picking data that suits his narrative.

And weed scientist Andrew Kniss writes “Straw men and selective statistics: Did the New York Times botch its critique of GMO Crops?” where he calls Hakim’s statistics “borderline disingenuous.” He notes that the figures he cites are convoluted and misleading, because they aren’t even in the same units, and comparison of total pesticide use in France versus the US ia absurd because the US is so much larger. More to the point is the usage per acre. Kniss converted them to the same units and found that the total herbicide use per hectare is and has been less in the US than in France. They may be the same in the final year measured (2012).

kniss-herbicide
From Kniss: herbicide and insecticide use: US and France.

Following Kniss’s argument further, Kevin Folta, Professor and Chair of Plant Science at the University of Florida writes “Rehashing a Tired Argument” in his Illuminations blog, along with another article “Some Actual Yield Data” that clearly shows the yield improvements provided by crop when biotechnology traits are added.  He noted that Hakim lumped together insecticides, fungicides and herbicides as “pesticides” and only reports the total pounds rather than separating them out, which makes a great different, especially when the lower impact herbicides like Roundup are included. Folta was recently awarded the Borlaug CAST Science Communications prize.

And, of course, Monsanto responded to Hakim’s sloppy reporting, noted that they had talked with him several times while he was developing the article, but that he chose to cherry-pick a few data points to fit his preconceived views. Monsanto’s article refers directly to the peer-reviewed literature. For example, Qaim and Kouser showed that insect resistant GMO cotton increased family income and food security. And Brookes and Barfoot (2016) showed that conservation tillage made possible by glyphosate tolerant corn and soybeans removed  22.4 billion kg of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Further, unlike Hakim’s assertions, GM crops have reduced pesticide spraying by 8.2%.

Finally, even Mother Jones magazine, which normally takes an anti-biotechnology stance comes around wiht two articles. One by Tom Philpott takes a predictably anti-GMO stance as he always has, but in a more nuanced article, Kevin Drum accuses Hakim of “lying with statistics.”

And the ever ascerbic Steven Novella writes The Times gets it wrong on GMOs, noting that the journalist started with a preconceived conclusion and then selected facts to support his erroneous conclusions.

Finally, Professor Jayson Lusk notes that farmers are consistently choosing GM crops because they provide financial benefits despite their higher costs.

In this article, I have summarized most of the blistering opinions on Hakim’s feature article (and one which praises it) but it would seem that scientists and science writers have consistently found the article to be wanting. However, all of the references are linked here and you can read them and decide for yourself.

 

Seed Diversity is not a serious concern. Ignore the Seed movie?

Seed Diversity is not a serious concern. Ignore the Seed movie?

In 1983, the Plant Genetic Resources Project of the Rural Advancement Fund, Inc. (RAFI) circulated a paper describing their study of the availability of varieties of vegetable seeds in 1983 compared to a study of 1903 seed catalogs. Their study, summarized in this 2011 National Geographic chart concluded that there had been a substantial loss of seed genetic diversity: only 16 out of 285 cucumbers remained; only 79 out of 408 tomatoes and so forth, suggesting that 93% of vegetable varieties had gone extinct. Mooney and Fowler published the entire RAFI study in their book Shattering: Food, Politics and the Loss of Genetic Diversity in 1990.

This report was considered gospel for years and is referred to in popular press articles all the time including the National Geographic chart. Now if you are into gardening and get a blizzard of seed catalogs in the mail, this just doesn’t sound reasonable. You see so many varieties in these catalogs, there must be something wrong somewhere.

Well there is. There have been several studies refuting the RAFI study, showing that vegetable varieties are as diverse as ever.  For example Heald and Chapman published an extensive review article called Veggie Tales: Pernicious Myths About Patents, Innovation and Crop Diversity in the Twentieth Century. They point out that the RAFI reports counted seeds in 1903 seed catalogs and compared them to the seeds in the USDA seed bank in 1983, rather than to current catalogs.

In fact, they found that while there were 7262 varieties of 42 vegetables in 1903, there are now 7100. This is all summarized clearly in David Tribe’s article. Further in a paper by van de Wuow found that

 …no substantial reduction in the regional diversity of crop varieties released by plant breeders has taken place.

Seed, the Movie

Since all available research indicates that there is not a decrease in crop diversity, it is surprising that anyone believes the contrary. And this brings us to the movie “Seed, the Untold Story,” soon to be shown in a few selected theaters. It opens in New York and Los Angeles on Sept 23 and Sept 30, respectively. The directors are Taggart Siegel and John Betz, who were responsible for the misinformation about bees in Queen of the Sun, often summarized as “Naked German hippies dancing with bees.”

In this film’s PR, they admit being misinformed by the 2011 National Geographic article and present a number of non-experts who have no idea what the science actually says. These include serial agriculture fabulist Vandana Shiva whose degrees are in the philosophy of science rather than in actual science.

The film also features commentary from non-scientists such as economist/activist Raj Patel, human rights activist Winona LaDuke, anthropologist (and plagiarist) Jane Goodall, and anti-GMO activist and attorney Andrew Kimbrell. None of these people have any scientific training and their support of the misguided thesis o f this film is laughable

To see what this film is about, let’s look at a claim from the press kit:

Farmers from Minnesota to Madhya Pradesh, India toil in economic thrall to the “Gene Giants,” paying hefty licensing fees to plant their patented crops. If they attempt to save their own seed at the end of a season, following a tradition practiced by humans for over 12,000 years, they face ruthless prosecution. (Suffering under this indentured servitude, over 250,000 farmers in India have committed suicide in the last 20 years.)

  • Farmers are not in “economic thrall.” They can purchases any seeds they want from any company. If they choose to buy patented seeds, which cost more, it is because they find them more profitable.
  • Farmers do not save seeds. Farmers, for the most part, do not save seeds, preferring to delegate seed cleaning and storage to experts. If they buy patented seeds, they agree not to save or replant them without paying the license fee.
  • This is not “indentured servitude.” Farmers are free to select new seeds each year from any of a number of vendors.
  • Indian farmers have not committed suicide because of GMOs. Several studies (by Herring and Guere) have shown that since GMO cotton came to India, farms are more productive and profitable than before, and suicides from economic problems have decreased.

The central thesis of this film is that farmers should be able to save seeds and that 94% of seed varieties have been lost. Of course, farmers can save seeds if they are not patented. They usually do not. And we have just shown there is no lost in diversity. This is a film made to spread misinformation and attack biotechnology companies that have made farming more productive and reduced the use of pesticides.

It is worth noting that independent scientists Klumper and Qaim reviewed published literature and concluded that

On average, GM technology adoption has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22%, and increased farmer profits by 68%. Yield gains and pesticide reductions are larger for insect-resistant crops than for herbicide-tolerant crops. Yield and profit gains are higher in developing countries than in developed countries.

This film cites no science and interviews no scientists. It is a misinformed political tract aimed at the gullible.