Tag: farming

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.

 

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‘The Third Plate’ : Dan Barber’s book entertaining but fallacious

third-plateDan Barber is a highly regarded chef with substantial experience who is known for his two restaurants, Blue Hill in New York and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Westchester (Pocantico Hills). Both restaurants emphasize creative uses of vegetables and grains and de-emphasize meat, although their menus certainly include it, and represent some of the best examples of “farm to table cooking.”

His book, The Third Plate is an entertaining description of his restaurant and the accompanying farm give you some great insights into how great chefs think.  Unfortunately, his book has some serious fallacies that diminish its credibility as we describe later below.

Barber’s Pocantico Hills restaurant is located on the former Rockefeller estate. The renovation of the buildings as well as the accompanying working farm was funded by David Rockefeller, apparently to the tune of about $30 million. The book tells the story of how Barber’s Stone Barns restaurant developed in association with the farm, where they have the freedom to try out and breed unusual historical vegetables and grains. This “third plate” refers to an evolution in cooking from plates with meat and some small veggies on the side, to meat with better tasting and better cooked veggies, to some imagined future plate where the “steak” is made from vegetables and meat becomes a side dish. After the renovation, the cooks realized that the water they were using was far superior than before, this was because they installed a water softener. Check out WaterSoftenerGuide.com to learn how hard water is a problem.

Currently, Stone Barns offers one or two prix fixe menus, which for two with wine pairings, tax and tip can cost you as much as $898. With those prices in mind, you have to recognize that there are a lot of us who will probably never eat there. The reviews for that restaurant are exceptional and apparently so is the food. An evening’s dinner may consist of ten or more courses, starting with small servings of grains or vegetables, with meat in later courses. The menu varies frequently and may vary with each table depending on how the waiters feel you are appreciating what you have just been served

Barber is a good writer and story teller, and the book describes his work with the farmer and with plant breeders to develop and introduce the grains served in the restaurant, starting with the heirloom Eight Row Flint Corn, which was grown by early settlers but had all but vanished at the time he started.

His book is nominally divided into four sections: Soil, Land, Sea, and Seed, but the discussions flow freely around these ideas and you are likely to find some topics revisited in each section.

Foie gras

After his initial soil and farming discussions, Barber spends several chapters on foie gras, with a long bucolic description of a farm in Spain where geese are not force fed, but simply provided with sufficient food all summer and then naturally gorge on acorns in the fall. The farmer, Eduardo Sousa, simply talks to his geese to get them to do what he wants: and some call him a “goose whisperer.”

Then Barber visits the Hudson Valley Foie Gras company with Eduardo, and finds that the goose feeding is not cruel at all, where the “force feeding”  (gavage) takes only about 5 seconds per bird (ducks in this case). The kicker in this otherwise rather fascinating tale is that Eduardo decides that the Hudson valley ducks “didn’t know they were ducks.” And that Barber segues from that bizarre conclusion to his own: “What’s intolerable is the system of agriculture that it reflects.”

It is at this point that I lost touch with Barber’s point of view. Raising geese for slaughter one way or another, as long as they are humanely treated, seems to me completely comparable and I have no idea what he is getting at.

Fish Farming

Barber devotes over 100 pages to the sea and buying and cooking seafood sustainably, since many popular fish like bluefin tuna are threatened by overfishing. He visits the well-regarded chef Angel Leon of Aponiente on the Iberian Peninsula, who has learned how to cook the fishing fleet’s discarded by-catch, seasoning it with a phytoplankton broth. Barber also visits the fish farm Veta La Palma, where they raise fish in existing ponds and canals, where the fish are mostly fed from nutrients that occur naturally, producing some of the most sought after sea bass in Europe (and eventually the US).

He also describes the almadraba in Cadiz, where the villagers have been capturing migrating tuna using mazes of nets for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

He also spends some time praising Gilbert Le Coze, the founding chef of New York’s pre-eminent seafood-only restaurant, Le Bernardin, but for some reason avoids mentioning for many pages that Le Coze died in 1994, and that Eric Ripert, the chef since 1994, is principally responsible for Le Bernardin’s current exalted status in the food world.

Barber also tells us the story of Glenn Roberts and his founding of Anson Mills to produce artisanal grains, including graham flour (a kind of wheat) and revitalizing Carolina Gold rice, where they discover that the crops grown in conjunction with the wheat or rice affect the flavor of the grain.

Fallacies

While Barber’s book is entertaining enough to plow through in a day or two, there are some real problems with some of what he tells us.  Starting early on and repeating throughout is Barber’s insistence on the superiority of organic farming, although he provides no good reason for that, and does not acknowledge that “organic” is a USDA marketing label that allows you to charge higher prices rather than a set of superior techniques. At no point does he explain why the farm is “organic” nor why the farm would be less successful had they chosen careful conventional farming techniques.

Studies (USDA data) have shown that organic farming yield 50-75% as much as conventional farming, and that the produce is no safer or more nutritious or flavorful than conventional produce. This is simply the naturalistic fallacy promoted by the organic marketing associations.

One of the first anecdotes in the book describes farmer Klaas Martens, who had been farming conventionally for some years and suddenly developed a sort of weakness in his arms after spraying 2,4-D. According to the story, no doctors were able to diagnose his ailment, but this caused him to switch to organic farming because as his wife said, “he was being poisoned.”

The trouble with Martens’ story is that it contradicts all known toxicology data on 2,4-D. The National Pesticide Information Center fact sheet on 2,4-D says the “No occupational studies were found reporting signs or symptoms following exposure to 2,4-D under normal usage,” and even on acute oral exposure (drinking it) no symptoms like Martens had are observed. Since Martens condition was never diagnosed, we have to take this as mere rumor.

One particularly offensive statement later in the book comes from a young farmer who comes to Barber saying that “My father just got cancer, so I am switching to organic farming.”

Throughout the book, Barber continually mentions chemicals used in conventional farming as “poisoning the soil.” Since more than 98% of all farms in the US are conventional, this would imply that they must all be failing. Now, since most farmers have at least bachelor’s degrees and well understand how important caring for their soil is, this is pretty ridiculous. We would all be starving if this were true.

Even more ridiculous is Barber’s quote from Rudolf Steiner, who hatched the idea of biodynamic farming out of a series of mystical rituals, such as burying oak bark in a cow’s skull in the middle of your field. Steiner also had a lot of other crazy theories such as the one Barber quotes with a straight face, that the heart is not a pump for our blood, but that the blood that drives the heart. To support this nonsense he quotes “holistic practitioner” Thomas Cowan, who is deep into the same nonsense and Sally Fallon Morell of the discredited Weston A Price Foundation.

Barber is no friend of biotechnology either, making it clear he would never serve any genetically modified food in his restaurant (this is pretty hard to accomplish, actually). His example is the 2009 infestation of Late Blight that devastated everyone’s tomatoes in the Northeast.  There was one small patch of tomatoes on the farm that were not affected, Mountain Magic, an experimental seed from Cornell, bred to be blight resistant. (You can buy these from several seed catalogs today.) But Barber’s restaurant customers resisted them, fearing that they might be “genetically engineered.” He decided he needed to perpetuate the fallacy of tomatoes “bred the old-fashioned way at a land grant like Cornell, [versus] GM tomatoes from a company like Monsanto.”

The only GM tomato ever marketed was the Flavr Savr tomato, bred to be shipped ripe rather than green. Eventually, the tomato failed, but not because it didn’t have better flavor as Barber says, but because Calgene had trouble keeping costs down so it would be competitive.

Finally, Barber is skeptical about the whole idea of the Green Revolution, started by plant breeder and Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug. His criticisms on the use of fertilizers to create higher yield seem to echo those of the mendacious non-scientific activist Vandana Shiva.

In fact, Barber is critical of the whole idea of modern agriculture, where farmers buy new seed each year rather than saving seeds from last year. Farmers have not saved seeds since the 1930s, because of the problems of storage and disease control as well as those of controlling new generations of seed. Barber thinks they should all be saving the best seeds from the fields each year on each farm instead, turning each farm into its own primitive seed development company. Few farmers would agree that this is a good division of labor.

In conclusion, Barber has written an entertaining and informative book on the relationship between high end cuisine and small scale agriculture, but seems oblivious to the fact that he and his restaurant are living a bucolic fantasy which can only work on a small scale, with the subsidies of the Rockefeller family and his high-priced restaurant.

Originally published on Examiner.com in September, 2014

 

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.

Mark Bittman is a blithering nincompoop

amish paste
Amish Paste

Mark Bittman is a well-respected food writer. While he did not, as far as I can tell, ever attend culinary school, he took the time and trouble to inform himself in detail about all aspects of cooking and explain it to his admiring readers.

This does not apply to his views on biotechnology and agriculture, which he seems to have gathered from propaganda releases from the Organic Consumer’s Association, and his current employer, the extremist Union of Concerned Scientists. On these issues he is woefully uninformed, and should not be taken seriously.

In today’s blatherfest in the New York Times, he fantasizes that the S.764- National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard   signed by President Obama in July could spark additional consumer movements to give consumers “more information,” whether or not it is accurate or useful.

He starts by claiming that “Big Food and its allies” spent $100 million to counter the movement to label GMO foods. Of course, he does not mention how much the anti-GMO propagandists spent to fill Congress’s ears with pseudo-scientific nonsense.  In fact, as we have already explained.  The bill says that labeling is required for

“…a food that contains genetic material that has been modified through in vitro recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) techniques.”

It also says that labeling can be a barcode, a QR code, a URL or a phone number where you can get further information. He bemoans the fact that not everyone has a smartphone. Not everyone has a price code scanner either, and most supermarkets provide price code check scanners throughout the store. This is not a serious issue.

What is a serious issue is Bittman’s continuing insistence that you “have the right to know what’s in your food.” This seductive slogan (sort of like the “death tax”) makes people believe that GMO foods contain different and dangerous ingredients. They do not. “GMOs” are not an ingredient: they are a breeding process that allows farmers to grow better crops. They are nutritionally identical to the non-GMO version or they WOULD have to be labeled.  There is no there there, as he sheepishly admits in paragraph 9. The foods are the same, and after over 20 years on the market, not a single illness has been found that can be attributed to biotechnology.

But he then goes on to claim that our system for declaring products safe “leaves much to be desired.” Really? Years of feeding trials and FDA-mandated testing doesn’t count? Where’s his evidence? I venture to suggest he has none other than the usual ignorant left fearmongering.

He suggests that using GMO crops has encouraged the growth of weeds that are resistant to herbicides.  Overuse of a single herbicide can indeed lead to weed resistance, but this is a farming problem, not a biotechnology problem, than can be solved with crop and herbicide rotation. In fact, pulling weeds by hand can lead to weeds evolved to look mimic the crops. “Superweeds” are just weeds that are hard to kill, as Porterfield explains and result from overuse of a single herbicide.

BIttman further sloganeers about the “fertilizer and pesticide dependent monoculture that is wrecking our land and water.” Citation please? Here’s one:  Klumper and Qaim in PLOS One.

On average, GM technology adoption has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22%, and increased farmer profits by 68%.

Doesn’t sound too bad. And clearly the land is not being ruined or this would not continue. And as Katiraee explains, a “monoculture” is just a big field of the same crop: whether corn or spinach. That’s how agriculture works: they grow a lot of food. This is not harmful and it has nothing to do with “GMOs.” And pesticides are part of large scale agriculture: they are not overused, because that would be wasteful, but you can’t grow a lot of food without controlling pests, as Jenny Dewey Rohrich explains.

Bittman says consumers should now be demanding even more information on agriculture, such as whether traces of pesticides remain. They don’t. The level of pesticide applications permitted by the USDA leaves far lower amounts of pesticides than can ever be harmful to humans, even if eaten every day. And again, we need to go back to Bruce Ames’ research on pesticide residues that found that the carcinogenic pesticides that plants themselves make to defend themselves occur in concentrations 10,000 times higher than any farmer-applied pesticide residues. They are so small that they simply don’t matter.

He then asks if we should want to know how well the workers were treated and paid. Were they unionized? Some are, and there are in fact already union labels on such foods. Look for them.

 

Jill Stein spouts pseudoscience: not a credible presidential candidate

JillSteinDr Jill Stein is a perennial candidate: she has run for many offices, including Massachusetts governor andfor President in 2012, and has never won any election, beyond a representative to the Lexington, MA Town Meeting (this is a low bar, indeed). Nor has she any experience in government. She runs under the banner of the Green Party, which is a minor party which an attendee described in the New York Times as “kind of small and disorganized and, honestly, just weird.”

Now Jill Stein is trained as a physician and graduated from Harvard Medical School, where she presumably had to study science in both her undergraduate and graduate curriculum. However, she retired from medical practice in 2005 and seems to have been ignoring science ever since. Her anti-science statements are both alarming and somewhere between ridiculous and just plain dumb.

WiFi Signals? Really?

For example, she recently said that it is dangerous to expose kids to WiFi signals! There is, of course, not s shred of evidence for such a claim, and as Bob Park explained so eloquently some years ago, microwaves are too low energy to break any chemical bonds, so they can’t really cause any harm. This sort of statement is simply pandering to the fears of the uninformed, and a cheap way to troll for votes,  in much the same way Trump has been doing.

Bees

But it gets far worse. Her platform says she will

Ban neonicotinoids and other pesticides that threaten the survival of bees, butterflies, and other pollinators.

There is no evidence that neonicotinoids have any effect on the population of bees. The USDA says that the three major causes of colony collapse are then Varroa destructor mite, the Israeli acute paralysis virus, and the movement of colonies to use in pollination. Neonicotinoids, like any insecticide can kill any insects, but they were developed to be safer than any prior insecticide. For most major crops, they pose no real harm to bees. The exceptions are cotton and citrus. And, of course, there is no bee population problem, the population has been growing steadily for some years.

The Precautionary Principle

Stein says we should uphold and expand the Precautionary Principle, which says that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm, in the absence of scientific consensus, the burden of proof that it is not harmful lies with those proposing the action. The problem with the principle as stated is that the level of risk is no longer considered, and that such policies are likely to block innovation.

Support organic and regenerative agriculture

Sorry Jill, organic farming is a prescientific technique based on the naturalistic fallacy, and having yields 50%-80% of conventional agriculture. It is essentially a marketing term. Thus, purchasing organic produce is the purview only of wealthy white people. There is not enough land to expand organic’s low yield techniques and still feed our growing populace; it cannot feed the world. Further, there is substantial evidence that organic has a higher carbon footprint (because of composting of manure, as well as more tilling) and is less sustainable because of its likelihood of polluting the ground water. No-till farming using low impact herbicides is much more the technique of the future. Organic farming still uses pesticides, just different ones that they have to spray more often because they are ineffective, and organic crops are nutritionally equivalent to conventional ones.

Label GMOs, and put a moratorium on GMOs and pesticides until they are proven safe.

A compromise GMO labeling bill has been signed into law.  However, it tells us nothing useful, because “GMOs” are not an ingredient, but a breeding process. There is nothing in the food to distinguish from crops grown without biotechnology. And while proving something safe is not an actual scientific possibility, the level of risk of GM crops has been studied for over 20 years and every major scientific organization including her American Medical Association, the National Academies of Science, and the European Food Safety Association have declare that GM crops pose no more harm than conventional crops. GM crops as well as all pesticides undergo years of government mandated testing before they can be released.

She also made the crazy assertion in an E-mail quoted by Dan Arel that

“…evidence is now showing that once these foods reach our digestive tract, they can affect our very DNA. “

What utter nonsense. You eat genes every day in every single food, but somehow these magic genes affect your DNA? This was ridiculed by my colleague Laya Katiraee, comparing it to a boa constrictor eating a rat and creating a hybrid “rat-strictor.”  And Stein surely learned this in medical school.

But Stein goes farther than standing for meaningless labeling. She has been expressing the entire spectrum of anti-GMO activist misinformation for years. Here she is speaking at a March Against Monsanto event in 2013 and mouthing the same misinformation. 

Stein seems to support homeopathy

Homeopathy is a pseudo-scientific practice where medicines are diluted so many millions of times that not a single molecule of the medicine remains. It is that solution that is used to “treat patients.” The Green Party Platform supports homeopathy as well as naturopathy, herbal medicines and other quack treatments.

How does Stein stand on those? With an evasive round-de-lay of accusations against corporations:

The Green Party platform here takes an admittedly simple position on a complex issue, and should be improved.

I agree that just because something’s untested – as much of the world of alternative medicine is – doesn’t mean it’s safe. But by the same token, being “tested” and “reviewed” by agencies directly tied to big pharma and the chemical industry is problematic as well. There’s no shortage of snake oil being sold there. Ultimately, we need research and licensing establishments that are protected from corrupting conflicts of interest. And their purview should not be limited by arbitrary definitions of what is “natural.”

Would you buy a used car from someone that evades the point like that?

Pandering to the Anti-vaccine unscientific left

In Stein’s Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) she said vaccines were important but that she was suspicious of those in the US,

Still, vaccines should be treated like any medical procedure–each one needs to be tested and regulated by parties that do not have a financial interest in them. In an age when industry lobbyists and CEOs are routinely appointed to key regulatory positions through the notorious revolving door, it’s no wonder many Americans don’t trust the FDA to be an unbiased source of sound advice.

This is pseudo-scientific paranoia. She is saying that the entire FDA is corrupted by industry lobbyists, when in fact, nearly all of them are from academic backgrounds. All she is doing is trying to gain the support of the anti-vaccination crazies who refuse to accept the fact the vaccines are safe and are not harmful.

Of course, she also brings up the anti-GMO anti-science movement’s favorite “Manchurian candidate” bogeyman, Michael Taylor:

A Monsanto lobbyists and CEO like Michael Taylor, former high-ranking DEA official, should not decide what food is safe for you to eat.

Of course, Michael Taylor was never a lobbyist nor a CEO. He was a consultant to Monsanto for 18 months, who left because he disagreed with their policies, and now is an FDA commissioner. If issues come up that he worked on while in industry, he recuses himself, as he should. Here’s the whole story.

Stein’s anti-vaccine stance has also been criticized by Dave Weigel in the Washington Post and by Emily Willingham in Forbes where they note that as a doctor she should be educated enough not to criticize recommended vaccine schedules or traces of organic mercury used as a preservative.

Willingham notes that “ …I’m never, ever going to get on board with a party that claims an environmental mission but fronts someone who compromises scientific evidence and public health for the sake of pandering.”

And Amanda Marcotte, writing in Salon criticizes her pandering as well as noting that Dr Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia concludes, “I think she’s anti-vax.” And while Kim LaCapria, writing in Snopes believes that Stein is not anti-vax based on her press-releases, many, including Dr David Gorski in his Science Blogs, have concluded that she is engaged in “left wing anti vaccine dog whistles.”

This is exactly the sort of dancing around the truth that we continually accuse Donald Trump of doing, and for that reason, neither is qualified to be President. In fact, Trump has said that he really likes the Green Party, because he figures that Green Party (Stein) voters would otherwise vote for Hillary. Dan Arel confirms my views in his column in Patheos.com. He won’t vote for Stein and neither should you.

 

 

 

Organic Farming Can Feed the World?

ripeningA “new report” cited by the Huffington Post suggests we are going about things all wrong and that organic farming can “feed the world.”

The article cites a report by the Friends of the Earth (FOTE)  called Farming for the Future: Organic and Agroecological Solutions. You can read the full report or the Executive Summary. Don’t worry, they both say the same thing, using much the same words.

The short form report has 16 references,  but only  three  from legitimate peer-reviewed journals. The longer report seems to have 171 references, but less than 20 of those references are to legitimate peer-reviewed journals, and many of the references repeat multiple times. For example, there are 5 separate reference entries to Lappe and Collins recycled opinion book  World Hunger: Ten Myths, which echoes the precepts of the FOTE report. You will also find a book on Poverty and Famines by Sen referenced 3 times, a paper by Reganold referenced 3 times, and one by Ponisio cited 4 times.  So the total number of unique references is far fewer. Apparently they never heard of reusing a reference number or using op. cit.

The central thrust of the FOTE report is that the “food industry” has produced “pervasive myths” about the food system that they seek to debunk . The idea that there actually is a monolithic “food system” is taken as a given without proof.

These three myths are all the same thing, really, that farmers already produce enough food, but that poverty is the main culprit in world hunger. They assert that “agroecological farming, including organic farming” can yield more than enough food and that “industrialized agriculture” is only efficient if you ignore the “massive environmental, social and health degradation.”

The problem is that organic farming is less than 1% of US acreage and its yield is substantially lower:  50% to 80% in many cases.  A recent paper by Seufert estimated organic crop yields at only about 65% of those of conventional farms.And one reason is that you only get as much out of a farm as you put in: the nutrients have to come from somewhere.  That is why conventional farms using fertilizers yield much better and are more profitable. Further, the pesticides that organic farmers use are not very effective, because they are restricted to those of natural origin, and they have to be applied more often and at greater expense.

Further, “ecological health” is a somewhat slippery concept, because organic farms may have more run-off both of manure used for fertilizer and of the soil itself which can be better preserved using no-till farming. In that case not only is run-off reduced, but the layers of soil microorganisms are not inverted by plowing. Finally, Savage has calculated that the carbon footprint of composting manure is far worse than that from manufacturing fertilizer.  And remember, plants take up the same nutrients either way.

Now this whole idea that we produce enough food already is a pretty squirrely concept. Right now I have a lot of food growing in my garden. Some (especially the zucchini which are prolific) will probably end up being recycled, but I could hardly sent it abroad effectively.  In fact, this applies just as well to actual farmers. Sending food abroad is expensive and it may end up spoiling.

It is far better to help third world farmers become self-sufficient in the crops their population prefers. For example, Bt brinjal (eggplant) has been wildly successful in Bangledesh and India, reducing insecticide spraying from nearly daily to almost zero. This transgenic eggplant has the soil bacterium Bt (bacillus thuringiensis) inserted into the plant, which kills most insect pests, but poses no harm to humans or animals.

The trouble with developing crops for local farmers is the pervasive opposition to biotechnology promulagated by western (read white) groups like Greenpeace. They campaign relentlessly spreading fear and misinformation, which in fact is seriously detrimental to the health of the third world population. Similarly, the European Parliament adopted a resolution criticizing “intensive agriculture” in Africa, and opposing using GMOs in Africa. White man’s burden anyone?

Agroecology

In this article and those we refer to, you probably have noticed the term agroecology. This confusingly vague term has cropped up in the FOTE report and in similar literature. While it does not seem to be a full fledged academic discipline, you can major in Plant Science at Penn State and take courses in agroecology. You will find similar courses at Iowa State. And, you will find a long, wandering editorial in the journal Sustainable Agriculture asking whether we can feed 10 billion people using classical agriculture and recommending we consider agroecology, without defining it. But African agriculture specialist Isaac Ongu, writing for the Genetic Literacy Project, called agroecology “anti-modern farming.

Agroecology seems to be vaguely a return to the naturalistic fallacy that conventional farming is bad and a return to simple lower-yield methods is better. Professor Stephen Gliessman, who seems to have written the only book on this topic, says that sustainable agrosystems

  • Maintain their natural resource base.
  • Rely on minimum artificial inputs from outside the farm system.
  • Manage pests and diseases through internal regulating mechanisms.
  • Recover from the disturbances caused by cultivation and harvest.

and, that sustainable agriculture is

A whole-systems approach to food, feed, and fiber production that balances environmental soundness, social equity, and economic viability among all sectors of the public, including international and intergenerational peoples.

If you notice some disturbing  vagueness here, you are not alone. To a large degree, “agroecology” seems to be a way of saying

We don’t like GMO crops and think we should be able to do better without them, even though no such evidence actually exists.

In fact, the New Zealand based Food Matters Aotearoa Conference featured such discredited crackpot anti-GMO speakers as Don Huber, Giles-Eric Seralini and Vandana Shiva, all under the banner of “agroecology.”

Getting back to Friends of the Earth

The FOTE article suggests that there is something evil about “chemically dependent industrial production” of crops, but shows no real proof for their hyperbole. Conventional farming allows for no-till, which is far better for the soil, and built-in insecticides like Bt which reduce chemical spraying.  And  farmers are not stupid: conventional farms use every “agroecology” trick that has been developed for soil care, including crop rotation, cover cropping, intercropping, conservation tillage, composting, managed livestock grazing and combined animal and plant production.

Further, the idea that there are “factory farms” is not really true. Nearly 97% of all farms in the US are family-run farms. And you can be sure that if there is an agricultural technique that will improve their yield or their animal’s welfare, they are using it already.

The argument that you should use organic (or pre-scientific) methods because they are “sustainable” is simply untrue. There isn’t enough cropland in the US (or the world) to grow crops organically. It’s inefficient, and more likely to damage the soil because of runoff after tilling. Further, the inefficient insecticides organic farmers are restricted to have to be applied much more often and are thus more likely to pollute.

Nor are organic crops necessarily pesticide free as the industry likes to claim. In fact, the provenance of organic-labeled imported foods is very difficult to police, as Porterfield has pointed out.

“Organic” is essentially a marketing term devised to raise the price of produce (and demonize biotechnology). As Roger Cohen wrote in the Times, Organic is “a fable for the pampered parts of the planet — romantic and comforting,” and as Henry Miller wrote in Forbes, organic isn’t sustainable.

 

 

Organic Valley highlights inauthenticity with the usual lies

Organic Valley highlights inauthenticity with the usual lies

The New York Times yesterday highlighted the farmer’s co-op Organic Valley, talking about their new half million dollar web site and their emphasis on “highlighting their authenticity.” Well, we had to take a look at the web site that the Times referred to, and found a number of lovely feel-good pictures of rural bliss (and $9 a gallon organic milk). And the usual misinformation with better lipstick on all the pigs, er, cows.

Their whole campaign boils down to the specious claims of “Why Organic?” which are the same old hokum:

Research shows that organic foods are higher in antioxidants and other nutrients

Actually, papers by Brevata and Smith-Spangler and earlier by Dangour, et. al. found no nutritional differences between conventional and organic crops. And the paper that Organic Valley refers to by Baranski et al  was published at the University of Newcastle by  a series of authors associated with the organic industry, and sponsored by the organic funder the Sheepdrove Trust. Further, organic advocate Charles Benbrook is one of the study’s principal authors.  It has been attacked and discredited in Campbell’s article here. Further, they hype the presence of antioxidants, which have not been found to be at all healthful.

Because chemicals are bad for you

You don’t think that is overstatement, do you? Water is a chemical (wags call it dihydrogen monoxide). Then they say organic food keeps pesticides out of kid’s bodies. Hold it there, Casey! Organic farmers spray with pesticides, too, and many of them are really toxic, just naturally occurring. Here’s an article with a list of some of the worst.  Here’s a complete list.  But probably the most damning evidence against these “evil chemical” claims is Bruce Ames’ classic paper in PNAS, showing that the pesticides plants produce on their own (many quite toxic) are present in concentrations 10,000 times greater than those detected as pesticide residues. In other words, you can stop worrying, there just aren’t any dangerous chemical residues on our food: our food, whether conventional or organic is perfectly safe.

The web page also cites the discredited report by the IARC claiming that Roundup is carcinogenic. The WHO and the UN, as well as the EFSA have reported that in fact Roundup is perfectly safe

Kids and cows should not be exposed to synthetic hormones and antibiotics.

Well they aren’t. In fact they cite no scientific papers here on this issue. But we have some. Some farms use synthetic rBst to increase milk production, currently maybe 17%. But it has been found that the milk from rBst treated cows is in all ways identical to that from cows not given that hormone.
And as far as antibiotics go, no milk is allowed to contain antibiotics by FDA regulation. If any are found in testing, the entire load is discarded at great financial loss to the farmer.

Antibiotic resistant infections are very real

So, the claim instead of treating their sick animals with antibiotics, they use “natural holistic measures” to treat their animals. This sounds like animal cruelty. Animal’s milk cannot be shipped until after a washout period so no antibiotics are ever found in milk. If you believe that not treating sick animals is good farming practice, please come buy the large bridge I have for sale!

We’ve all heard GMOs are bad

Here is where the mendacity reaches a fever pitch. Because since organic foods are no healthier and actually have a lower yield, let’s demonize a perfectly safe crop breeding technique. GMOs are, of course, not an ingredient at all, but a way to create new crop varieties with desirable traits, tested on average for over 10 years before they can be marketed.

No one really knows if GMOs are safe for human consumption

Actually, we have a pretty good idea. Biotechnology in plant breeding has been declared no more harmful than conventional agriculture by the National Academies of Science, the Royal Society, the European Food Safety Association and the WHO among hundreds of other scientific organizations. And there has never been a verified case of any ill effect from a GM crop.

GMOs increase superweeds. No, they don’t. Overuse of herbicides can cause herbicide resistance over time. That is called evolution and is usually solved by crop and herbicide rotation.

Oh, and worse yet, they link to a YouTube video from discredited charlatan Vandana Shiva, who likes to call herself a PhD physicist, when her degree is in philosophy. Michael Specter took down her crazy claims in this elegant piece in The New Yorker.

Organic Valley’s new, beautified web site just perpetuates the same wrong-headed claims (lies) they’ve been spreading for years. Organic isn’t better: it is a marketing slogan.

 

 

 

Organic foods: The triumph of PR over science

corntassels2016According to a press release by the Organic Trade Association, organic food sales grew to $43 billion in 2015. This puts the organic food industry sales just below Coca Cola(#62) in the Fortune 500 and just a bit above American Airlines (#67). By contrast, seed industry “giant” Monsanto had only $15 billion in sales and ranked #189, similar to #181 Whole Foods.

This release was echoed in a different form by the pro-organic publication Food Tank on Tuesday, which also discusses the problem for farmers in transitioning to organic farming, because of the expensive three year period farming organically before they can by certified as organic. The articles note that the OTA has asked the USDA to create some sort of organic transitional designation. Incidentally, the same article was published nearly word for word in the Christian Science Monitor Wednesday.

Today the New York Times’ Stephanie Strom following suit, covering the same “story,” but with considerably more detail. She notes that on average the price of organic goods is 47% higher (according to Consumer Reports) but accepts the claim of Annie’s president John Foraker that “almost every consumer wants organic.” She correctly notes that organic farming is more labor intensive but fails to mention that organic crop yields are considerably smaller, with the USDA estimating that corn, wheat and soy yields are 68% to 73% of those for conventional crops.  A recent paper by Seufert found the organic yields to be only 65% of conventional crops.

But all of these articles, particularly Strom’s make no mention of the Organic Big Lie:  that organic foods are safer or more nutritious. They are not. Papers by Brevata and Smith-Spangler and earlier by Dangour, et. al. found no nutritional differences. And the pesticide residues for both conventional and organic crops are negligible compared to the safe minimum daily dosage.

Soil health

One of the major claims for organic farming practices has been that the soil is better treated, and not depleted of nutrients. Of course, all the good ideas from the development of organic agriculture have long been adopted by all farmers, so this is not particularly persuasive any more. However, farmers have in recent years adopted no-till farming, where they do not plow up the soil every year, turning the soil over and exposing the lower soil layers that are better left unturned. Instead, they simply apply a low toxicity herbicide like Roundup in the early spring to remove all the weeds and then use a seed drill to plant below the surface. This is far kinder to the soil, and uses less fuel than plowing up the entire field every year, and reduces soil runoff. Unfortunately, this is not available to organic farmers who are not allowed to use such herbicides, even when they are overall kinder to the soil and the environment.

In the same way, use of manure to add nutrients back into the soil has been encouraged in organic farming, and is now practiced by many types of farmers. However, it has a serious drawback, in that the composting of manure emits more greenhouse gases (methane, nitrous oxide) than conventional farming using conventional fertilizers. Manure composted in an anaerobic digester eliminates these problems, but is seldom used in smaller farms. Steve Savage explains in this article how large the carbon footprint of compost actually is, and why using nitrogen fertilizers are far kinder to the atmosphere.

Cows also do not make fertilizer themselves, as Savage explains, in this article. They eat grass, which may well have been fertilized, and their manure contains the nitrates that enrich the soil. This is essentially laundering nitrogen fertilizers through cows to make organic-permitted fertilizers, and at significant expense.

So, to conclude, the idea that organic crops are safer or more nutritious is the organic industry’s Big Lie. And they have sold it to the public so successfully, that everyone imagines organic foods are a desirable goal. They are not: they are a scam.

Organic Consumer’s Association eats its young in startling diatribe

Organic Consumer’s Association eats its young in startling diatribe

Last week the U.S. Senate passed a compromise GMO labeling bill which sets a national standard for GMO labeling and would override the patchwork of laws such as Vermont’s and those proposed in other states.

The Roberts-Stabenow bill, by Kansas Senator Pat Roberts(R) and Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow (D) allows foods to be labeled directly on the package, or using a web site, phone number or QR code where consumers can get more information. The bill will go back to the House this week for approval. Since the House had approved a rather similar bill earlier, it is expected to pass.

This bill requires such labeling only for foods that actually contain genetic material, which would exclude sugar produced by GM sugar beets, or aspartame produced by genetically modified E. coli. But unlike the Vermont law which took effect July 1, cheese produced using chymosin made by GM processes is not exempted, since it still contains DNA. Corn products would be labeled, by corn syrup probably would not be. Further, the law provides no penalty for noncompliance.

The Vermont law has proved to be as restrictive and expensive to comply with as people predicted, because the keeping track of the supply chain for every component in a food product can be quite onerous. In fact, we recently learned that many Kosher foods will no longer be available in Vermont, because the small companies that produce them found the law too expensive to comply with. Further, the Price Chopper grocery chain has compiled a list of some 3000 products from small producers which they will no longer carry.

Now, it remains true the genetically modified foods are completely safe, as recently emphasized by the National Academies of Science and the Royal Society, and courts have in the past ruled that consumer curiosity is not sufficient reason to require labeling. In fact, while the huge organic industry insists some 90% of consumer want such labeling, research which asks more neutral questions such as “what information should food labels contain?” shows only a few percent of consumers actually care about GMOs.

In fact, the continuing press for GMO labeling comes from the Organic Consumers Association, a lobbying group which has made opposition to GMOs a touchstone, since their objective is to move consumers to more profitable organic foods. Other groups include Just Label It, run by Stonyfield Farms CEO Hirshberg.

However, compromise is the soul of good lawmaking, and a number of these organizations have agreed that this law is way better than nothing. Others, like the Organic Consumers Association have dubbed it the DARK Act (for Deny Americans’ Right to Know). Of course, there really is nothing to know, because “GMO” is not an ingredient but a breeding process.

Nonetheless, the Organic Consumer’s Association has issued a shocking broadside, dubbing these other organizations “ Organic Traitors,” in its article Organic Traitors team up with Monsanto and the GMA on the DARK Act. Nearly frothing at the mouth, OCA president Ronnie Cummins referred to “ Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), the Organic Trade Association (OTA), Whole Foods Market (WFM), UNFI, and a cabal of sell-out non-profit organizations” as traitors, selling out to Monsanto.

Continuing its mendacious claims the GMO foods are dangerous, Cummins claims that over 90% of consumers want such labeling. As we noted, this is not actually true. In fact this article shows the OCA at its worst, making unsupported claims and engaging in a “circular firing squad” with some of its allies. Perhaps they would do better to go back to promoting the presumed benefits of organic farming (which are actually few) rather than making increasingly rage-filled accusations.

No, Bernie, you’re wrong. GMOs should not be labeled

This column was originally published in June, 2015, but still seems relevant.

Dear Senator Sanders:

sport hill squashI am writing to you as one of your supporters. I have made (for me) a substantial contribution to your campaign for President.

But I must disagree with your column in the Huffington Post as well a recent statements urging Congress to pass a bill requiring labeling of food containing genetically modified ingredients. Your logic seems to be that consumers have a “right to know” what they are eating. In fact, this is disingenuous, because “GMO” is a process for breeding plants, not an ingredient. The plants (corn, soy, alfalfa, sugar beets, papaya and squash) are nutritionally identical or they would never have been approved. Testing of a new GM crop variety takes over 10 years, and is the most rigorous testing of any food on the market.

Just as the overall scientific consensus is that climate change is real and caused primarily by humans, the overall scientific consensus is that GM crops pose no more harm than conventional crops. This has been found again and again in paper after paper.

The FDAs position is and has been that new crops do not need to be labeled unless they are demonstrably different from the parent plant. This is not the case: GM crops have the same nutritional profile as their non-GM parent.

You suggest that Vermont’s GMO labeling bill was passed despite Monsanto’s threat to sue Vermont. In fact, Monsanto labels all its seeds. Vermont is being sued by the Grocery Manufacturer’s  Association, the National Association of Manufacturers, the International Dairy Foods Association and the Snack Food Association: organizations that will incur real costs if the Vermont labeling bill is upheld. You can read Robert Sacherich’s analysis of the bill here. Because of the costs of maintaining duplicate supply chains for GM and non GM crops, a Cornell study has estimated that such labeling will cost the average family at least $500 a year in increased food costs.

And to what avail? To label foods that have never been shown to cause any harm in the past 20 years, just to satisfy the curiosity of a few activists? You must surely know that Vermont lost a similar case in International Dairy Foods Association v  Amestoy, where the judge ruled that consumer curiosity is not a valid reason for imposing costs on dairy manufacturers.

You state that most people (90%) want GM foods to be labeled, but this is a misleading number obtained from polls asking leading questions. If you ask people what additional information they think need to be on food labels, both a US study and a European study found that only 2% suggested GMO labeling. This is hardly a groundswell.

You suggest that concerns about toxins and allergens have been “largely brushed aside.” In fact the FDA requires very extensive testing of new GM crops, which can take more than 10 years and cost more than $100 million.

You cite the paper by Aris and Leblanc in Reproductive Toxicology that claimed to find glyphosate and Bt toxin in a sample of mother’s breast milk. However, this paper has been roundly debunked, noting that the sensitivity of the ELISA technique is less than the levels of contaminants allegedly found.

In fact, the only purpose served by GM labeling is to demonize GM crops and push people towards more expensive, but nutritionally identical organic crops. Since much of the anti-GMO protests have been funded by the organic foods industry (which is larger than Monsanto), it is not surprising that this demonization has begun to work. A recent study has shown that organic sales have grown because of this demonization.

In short, I continue to support your campaign, but suggest you need more scientific advisors to keep your campaign credible. Should your staff care to contact me, I can give them a number of names of scientists who can help.

Best regards in your campaign efforts!