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Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Pests In Paradise

Our adventure started here after an 8-mile hike to Snowmass Lake near Aspen, Colorado
(originally posted on Forbes, 5/11/15

I learned something very important about crop pests in a most unexpected setting – a paradise-like wilderness area in the Colorado Rockies.  It was the summer of 1978 and I had gotten married the year before. This was my first chance to share a favorite place, the Snowmass/Maroon Bells Wilderness Area, with my wife.  We backpacked into Snowmass Lake and day-hiked to high passes through huge meadows filled with beautiful wildflowers.  However, on this trip, I noticed details I had never observed on earlier visits as a suburb-dwelling teen.  With “new eyes” from my first year of agricultural training, I saw that many of the plants showed signs of insect feeding damage or gall formation.  They exhibited symptoms of fungal infection – such as rusts and leafspots.  There were pests in this paradise! And they were host specific – not interlopers carried in on the boots of visitors like us.
View from Buckskin Pass
Thinking about it, I realized that this wasn’t really surprising.  Plants have the unique “super power” of turning sunlight, water and carbon dioxide into the food that directly or indirectly feeds everything else – including us.  It makes perfect sense that insects and fungi have evolved to “harvest” that energy, in even this pristine ecosystem.  I then realized that what we call “pests” are simply part of the natural order.  Thus, it is to be expected that we often have to find ways to deal with “pests” of cultivated crops.  The need for pest control isn’t an artifact of human farming. Practical farming needs may complicate pest control, but the basic phenomenon of pests is entirely “natural.”

On one hand, we might say that a “pest” is simply a human concept for cases where this natural phenomenon interferes with our agenda.  However, it seems that plants “agree” with our assessment that these damaging, dependent organisms are pesty. Plants are obvious targets, but they don’t just take it.  I once heard a presentation about the genetics of a particular alpine wildflower that grows in exactly the same kind of meadows we were visiting in 1978. This species has genetic “factions” employing two different strategies to deal with insects that want to eat it.  One is to put energy into rapid growth and seed production, so that even with bug damage, the species survives.  The other strategy is making chemicals to protect the plant from the bugs, leaving less energy for seed production.  Depending on the season, one strategy or the other is more successful.
Chemical defense is common among plants.  In some cases we have come to like the pesticidal chemicals they make. The caffeine in coffee and the capsaicin in hot peppers were “intended” by those plants to ward off “pests.”  Many vegetables we enjoy, such as tomatoes, eggplants and cauliflower, still make some of a not-so-nice “natural insecticide” called nicotine.  But don’t worry. You would have to eat an enormous amount to be hurt by the nicotine, caffeine or capsaicin.
So since pests are part of the natural order, and since plants fight back with their own “pesticides,” human use of pesticides makes sense as part of a pest management strategy for the plants we tend.  That is particularly true now that we have developed many products that are quite specific for certain pests, and very low risk for us or for the environment. Pesticides are also necessary tools for those farming under the organic rules.  Synthetic pesticide residues are present at even less consequential levels in our produce than plant-made chemicals.
A slightly modified quote from the Princess Bride (modified from

If you have the chance, I encourage you to visit those Colorado wildflower meadows.  They are beautiful, and unless you look for it, you probably won’t notice the battle between plants and pests that is going on in the background.  The wildflowers survive, even with the damage.  The season is also short, so there are not many generations of the pests. We humans require a higher standard of pest protection for our crops. To make the most responsible use of our land, water, fuel or other inputs, we cannot tolerate too much pest damage or the crop is diminished.  Besides, as even my grand daughter realizes, pests are yucky!  

You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me a

Friday, May 8, 2015

Does Science Belong On Your Dinner Plate?

(Originally published on Forbes 5/5/15

I was recently asked to give a talk in Toronto addressing this question: “Does science belong on my plate?” The quick answer is:

“No, because Science isn’t a “thing” you can serve or eat. Science is really a verb - a process, a method, a conversation.”

A longer, better answer is:

“There is a rich history of innovation and change in the human food supply extending over millennia. More recent innovation examples that have been achieved using sound science are a continuation of that tradition. They certainly belong on our plates.”

Many consumers have the impression that, until recently, food and food production was something little changed. This mistaken view is understandable considering modern society’s isolation from the production of food, and marketers’ penchant for using romanticized imagery and narratives to sell food products.

This is a great bread product, but that image has nothing to do with how the wheat for that is produced today.

The truth is that innovation and change have been central to food and farming throughout human history - both before and during the scientific era. One of my goals as a new Forbes contributor will be to tell some of the stories behind interesting and important innovations that have changed what is “on our plates” in very positive ways.

Feast or Famine

From the beginning, a fundamental challenge for humanity has been that sources of food tend to be either over-abundant or scarce. Thus, innovations around food storage and preservation have been key to our survival (e.g. drying, salting, pickling, cheese making, fermentation…). Even the ancient storage of dry grains involved innovations like using herbs to line the urns to reduce damage from insect pests.
Cold storage has been used to spread-out the supply of food beginning with caves or cellars. Later people used stored ice from the winter, and eventually came up with refrigeration. Susanne Freidberg’s excellent book, Fresh, describes just how transformative and controversial the innovation of mechanical refrigeration was as it was slowly adopted around the turn of the 20th century.


Another major theme of human food-supply innovation has been “genetic modification.” The “natural,” pre-domesticated forms of our food plants are barely recognizable vs their modern forms. Over millennia, humans consciously or unconsciously selected for more desirable specimens, and in so doing, they achieved dramatic genetic changes even with no understanding of the underlying biology. While this worked well for grains and vegetables, a few thousand years ago people realized that you cannot propagate a desirable specimen of a tree or vine by replanting its seeds, because they don’t grow up to be the same as the parent. So, people innovated various ways to “clone” these desirable cultivars – rooting, grafting, budding etc. A “transgenic” innovation of that category saved the European grape industry in the 1870s when it was on the verge of collapse due to a deadly new pest. The innovated solution was to use American grape species as the protective rootstock on which to graft venerable varieties of the traditional species, Vitis vinifera. That system still protects virtually all of the world’s grapes today.
This cool vineyard I saw in Sicily a few weeks ago survives because it is on American rootstock

In the last century, increasing scientific understanding has enabled continued innovation to enhance the food supply in terms of quality and availability. By better understanding plant physiology, innovative controlled atmosphere storage systems were developed that have greatly enhanced our access to fresh fruits throughout the year. Similar packaging and shipping innovations have reduced post-harvest waste and expanded value-added, “fresh cut” options for consumers. Science-based advances in chemistry, biology, and toxicology have enabled innovative new methods of crop pest management with far better health and environmental profiles. Rapidly advancing understanding of genetics has enabled a growing and increasingly precise “tool box” for crop innovation (cross breeding, hybridization, wide crosses, mutation breedinggenetic engineeringmarker assisted selectiongenome editing).
The long tradition of food and agricultural innovation continues, enhanced by the application of the scientific method.  So, yes – “science” in that form certainly belongs on our plates.  I'm happy to talk about this in the comments here and/or at 

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

My Comments To The USDA On Agricultural Coexistence

Today I submitted a comment on the official USDA regulatory forum on the question of coexistence in agriculture.  Here is a link for background from a workshop on this topic held in North Carolina this March.  Here is a link of you want to comment (>4500 people have so far and the comment period is open until May 11, 2015).

The point I hoped to make was that coexistence between different kinds of farming is something people have known how to do for a very long time, but it requires a certain level of reasonableness and cooperative spirit.  That is rarely a problem when you are talking about real farmers and if there are rational standards for "adventitious presence."  The issues to do with coexistence today arise from downstream players making unreasonable demands and by those which are not, by their own statements, interested in coexistence.  The USDA seems to be trying hard to make this an open dialog, but there are aspects of this debate that need to be recognized for what they are.

Text Of The Comment I Submitted 4/28/15

While the coexistence of diverse commodity and identity preserved crops is a long-standing, successful feature of American agriculture, some aspects of the current coexistence discussion warrant careful consideration.  Particularly for row crops, the definition of acceptable “adventitious presence” is critical in any identity preservation effort.  That threshold drives the costs of isolation and segregation protocols as well as the level of risk for the producer.  The threshold of adventitious presence should logically be driven by objective issues of functionality in the intended use and/or by levels that are practical in the real world.  That sort of system has long enabled coexistence in farming.

The current problems for co-existence arise in what many participants in the North Carolina workshop described as "sensitive markets."  Principally this means products intended for "non-GMO" and/or organic markets.  Unfortunately, a significant proportion of those markets have been established at the consumer end through fear-based marketing and advocacy.  For these IP segments there is no "reasonable level of adventitious presence," because the categories were never based on any reason-based functionality or safety criterion.  Perhaps "fear-based marketing" sounds like a harsh term, but if you look at examples of promotional campaigns generated by very large, for-profit, organic and non-GMO food companies, it’s hard to come up with a friendlier sounding descriptor:

1. This recent video produced by Organic Only, a consortium of organic marketers including may of the largest ones:

2. Several productions from the large, non-GMO promoting fast food chain, Chipotle:

3. This humorous, but not fair 2005 production from the Organic Trade Association: 

Coexistence requires, by definition, some level of fair play and mutual respect from the parties involved.  The corn and soybean growing neighbors who are trying to make a living in commodity and IP markets may have that sort of working relationship, but the demands coming down to them from "sensitive markets" are often driven by rather successful, fear-for-profit business models.   These downstream drivers are certainly not on the "coexistence" page at all – in fact exactly the opposite.  Some explicitly state that their goal is the elimination of biotech crops via the agency of GMO or non-GMO labeling and its effects on markets.  As is usually the case, the farmers have virtually no leverage in these exchanges.  With this enormous gulf in terms of power and intention, the prospects for rational co-existence are not encouraging.

There are certainly players in the organic and gmo-free segments that could be reasonable participants in a coexistence discussion, but their voices do not represent or apparently influence other important players.  It would be irresponsible to fail to explicitly acknowledge this “elephant in the room.”

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Why Organic Can't Fulfill Our Food Supply Ideals

Almost any farmer or consumer could agree on the following ideals for our agricultural system:

"Farming in ways that are best for us, best for the environment, and best for providing an adequate food supply."

I believe that these are the goals and ideals of organic customers and organic farmers, and I share them. If organic could deliver on these “triple best” goals, I would be among its strongest supporters, but I don't believe that it can.  The organic rules are based on the assumption that “natural” is always best.  That assumption originated in a pre-scientific era, and it does not hold up to what we have learned over the last century.  The "natural" definition is great for marketing purposes, but often not the optimal criterion to guide farming practices. 

The Original Contribution of the Organic Movement

The important contribution of organic early in the last century was its focus on improving soil health/quality.  The pioneers of the organic movement worked out certain farming methods using “natural fertilizers” to mitigate the nutrient-depleting and soil-degrading effects of the plow-intensive farming of the late 19th and early 20th century.  The organic focus on natural also meant that it eschewed some of the early pesticides, which were later found to be problematic for health and the environment.  For a period of time, organic may have been, in fact, the best farming option for us and for the environment.

A pretty picture, but for soil erosion and soil health this
kind of farming was highly undesirable

Since then we have learned more and more about environmental systems, genetics, microbiology and human health.  Based on that, increasingly rigorous regulatory processes were put in place and farming practices have changed dramatically.  Sometimes organic growers were in the lead in making those changes.  But increasingly, the “natural” constraints of organic are making it difficult or even impossible for organic farmers to implement what we now know to be best for us, best for the environment, or best for the food supply.  I'd like to describe six specific examples of those limitations.

1. Nitrogen Fertilization

One of the greatest challenges of farming is providing a growing crop with the necessary mineral nutrients when it needs them. When nutrients are free in the soil and not being actively absorbed by the growing crop, they have the potential to move into ground water, or to wash off into surface water.  If they do, they can become health issues and/or foster algal blooms that cause “dead zones” in bodies of water.  Excess nitrogen in soils can lead to the generation of the potent greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide. There are specific conditions under which natural fertilizers like manures or compost can reduce these problems, but there are also conditions under which the uncontrolled, nutrient release pattern from natural fertilizers can be quite problematic. Depending on how and when they are delivered, “synthetic” fertilizers can be deployed in ways that do a better job of providing the crop’s need without as much risk of these forms of pollution. For example, drip irrigation systems are very efficient ways to deliver fertilizers but cannot be used for most forms of organic fertilizers. Triple-best farming requires the ability to use both natural and synthetic fertilizers in the right settings and with the right delivery methods. There is even the possibility of making synthetic nitrogen using renewable energy.  

2. Low Risk Pesticide Use

What makes a pesticide safe for us or for the environment is not related to whether it is “natural."  Some of the most toxic chemicals known are produced in nature. The reason that the American consumer can have confidence in the safety of crop pesticide use is that the EPA demands a great deal of data for its multi-dimensional risk assessment for any chemical, natural or not, that is going to be used for pest control.  These tests involve multiple dimensions of human toxicity as well as assessments of environmental fate and environmental impact. Some, but not all “natural products” meet those standards.  Some, but not all, synthetic products meet those standards.  The details of how synthetic or natural pesticides can be used are then dictated in “label requirements” specific to the properties of that chemical (e.g. how long before the crop is harvested, what worker protection standards are needed, what considerations are needed relative to sensitive environmental settings…).  It is this regulatory process, not naturalness, which ensures environmental safety and residue levels that are safe even by very conservative standards.  In many cases the "synthetic" options are the very best choice among the approved options. 
(Note: the graph of California use data shown earlier has been removed.  Sulfur classified in that figure as Category II is actually Category IV for oral acute toxicity, Category III for dermal toxicity)

3. Fully Integrated Pest Control

Baby Spinach Growing In Coastal California

Organic farmers have been early adopters of many pest control options other than classical, chemical pesticides (genetic resistance, biological controls, crop rotations, natural pest enemies, and pheromone-confusion…), but at least since the 1970s, this has also been a growing component in “conventional agriculture” called Integrated Pest Management(IPM).  In many crop systems, modern synthetic pesticides are one important component in these mixed approaches.  For example, there is a problem in the current, California spinach crop, which has around 50% organic production.  There is a disease of that crop called downy mildew and it is transmitted from season to season via survival in the seed.  Through conventional breeding, it has been possible to develop spinach that is resistant to that fungus.  The conventional growers also use a relatively benign synthetic fungicide as a seed treatment against the disease - thus they are using an integrated program of genetics and a fungicide.  For the organic production, the seed treatment is not allowed.  Without the multiple control strategy, the fungus has rapidly mutated to get around the genetic resistance, and six good sources of resistance have been lost within a few years.  Each time, the newly virulent strains have emerged first in the organic fields. This gap in the IPM program is now putting the entire California spinach industry at risk.  There are similarly precarious situations in other crops.

4. Biorationals

It takes a lot of money to do the testing needed to commercially develop and insure the safety of any new agricultural pesticide - more than $200MM.  That level of spending is appropriate to meet our modern safety standards, but it means that the commercial development of any new synthetic pesticide can only be justified for a very large market within the agricultural realm.  For problems that only affect a small part of the food supply, it is not possible to justify the investment in a new option.  Fortunately, the EPA has a special, lower cost registration process for low toxicity chemicals that already occur within the food supply. 

The sprouts of potatoes are actually rather toxic, so don't eat them

A good example of this is a new product for preventing sprouting in stored potatoes.  The compound 3-decen-2-one already occurs in at low levels in potatoes as well as in mushrooms, tuna fish, yogurt and soy.  An identical, synthetic version of the chemical can now be used with stored potatoes and it is a better, safer option than the old sprout inhibitor, CIPC.  Because of a purist interpretation of the organic rules, the new sprout inhibitor cannot be used for organic potatoes.  Instead they are treated repeatedly with clove oil – a more costly and less effective option with no other “triple best” advantages.

5. Soil Building

Starting in 1960, farmers have been working out farming systems that do not require physical tillage of the soil.  When these are combined with the use of cover crops and GPS guided equipment use, it is possible to raise the important row crops (wheat, barley, canola, soybeans, corn, cotton…) in no-till or minimum-tillage systems that improve soil health and quality.  It is also an important “best” system to prevent soil erosion, reduce water pollution risk, and sequester carbon to mitigate climate risk. 

No-till Soybeans Following Corn

This system is much more like the way soils are built in natural prairie habitats and is not dependent on outside inputs of organic matter as is the case in the typical organic systems.  In order for these new options to be pursued efficiently on a large scale, herbicides are necessary as are controls for certain pests which are favored in a non-tillage system.  Organic growers don’t have many of the practical tools to manage these issues, and so they are ironically unable to fully or cost-effectively pursue these best, reduced tillage protocols.

6. Genetic Improvements

Genetic modification of crop plants has always been an important means of making farming better able to meet our food supply goals.  In recent history it has become possible to make more precise genetic modifications using the tools of genetic engineering – tools which were in fact drawn from nature. For example,  restriction endonuclease enzymes occur naturally and cut DNA at specific target sites, and the Ti plasmid of Agrobacterium which inserts DNA into chromosomes of plants.  In the last few years, even more precise and efficient tools for genetic modification have been discovered within a group of ancient microbes we call the Archaea (e.g. the CRISPR-Cas9system). 

Diagram of the CRISPR system via Wikipedia

As deployed within the unprecedented and rigorous regulatory framework for "GMO Crops", these tools have become an important means through which triple-best crop improvements can be made.  In her book “Tomorrow’s Table,” UC Davis molecular biologist Pamela Ronald has made an articulate argument for why these tools should be embraced for organic farming. But such suggestions are not even considered by the fierce defenders of the organic rules.  Even when genetic engineering is used to transfer something like a gene from wild potatoes into commercially relevant potatoes, the resulting triple-best crop will not be available to organic farmers (as in the case of the new, Innate 2 potato from Simplot)
European experiment showing healthy potatoes on the left that have the wild potato gene vs susceptible potatoes on the right without that gene

 A Missed Opportunity to Embrace Best Practices by Organic

There was a window of opportunity in 1990 when the organic rules could have been updated to use science-based criteria rather than the restrictive obligation of natural.  In that year, the US Congress tasked the USDA with formulating a national organic standard, and that research-oriented agency was inclined to bring modern knowledge into their rule-making process.  Such an approach was vigorously opposed by key elements of the existing organic advocacy community.  When the national standard emerged in final form in 2000,  at had only enshrined the "natural requirement" which continues to limit the ability of farmers to pursue many triple-best strategies such as those I’ve described above. 

Unfortunately, some of those who market organic products, and some who advocate for organic, continue to make unsupportable claims that organic is best for us and for the environment.  Many consumers accept these claims and believe that they are doing the right thing by paying the premium prices for organic items.  If we really had a food supply that was only safe and responsible for those able and willing to pay higher prices, that would represent a huge failing of public policy.  Fortunately, that is not the case.  Consumers and farmers with high ideals for the food supply can support farming in the ever-innovative mainstream system as it continues to find ways to farm that are best for us, best for the environment.

You are welcome to comment here and/or to write me at

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Hate Speech For Profit: Organic Marketing Gone Bad

There is a new video about farming which is so nasty and misleading that I believe it qualifies as "hate speech" for financial gain.  Only Organic, a consortium of organic marketers, hired a professional ad agency to produce a YouTube video staging a fake elementary school performance about Old MacDonald vs New MacDonald - a critique of farming.  A primary spokesperson for "Only Organic",  Stonyfield Farm founder Gary Hirshberg, describes it this way:

“In a playful way, our new video turns the spotlight on the true costs of conventional farming and the harm it does to environmental health. We hope people find 'New MacDonald' as engaging and shareable as our previous content and that it furthers the conversation around why going organic is beneficial to our environment. A world with more organic food and farming is the future we should choose for ourselves and our children.”

Apparently Hirshberg considers it "playful" when:

"Soon after the curtain comes up, the scene descends into chaos as the children assume the role of conventional farmers - injecting livestock with antibiotics, dragging out caged chickens and spraying toxic chemicals on genetically modified crops - all of it culminating in a pesticide plume that envelops the stage," 

Sorry, Gary, but this depiction of mainstream farming is not "playful." You might also want to see this definition of propaganda. It is certainly not something that "furthers the conversation." It is a malicious distortion that demonizes the work of the small minority of citizens who still farm.  It is designed to make consumers believe they must buy organic food to be safe and responsible.  This is hate speech for profit!  The indoctrination of the child actors only makes it more despicable.

Only a tiny fraction of rich world citizens have any direct knowledge of, or interaction with farming.  Thus most people have no base of personal experience from which to assess the validity of the emotive images that are used in these manipulative campaigns.  Anyone who has actually spent time on farms and interacting with farmers knows that real farming is nothing like what is portrayed.

Not A New Phenomenon

Unfortunately this sort of over-the-top, negative marketing strategy is not new.    It follows the Scarecrow animated piece from Chipotle which is similarly manipulative. (see a good satiric take from Funny or Die).  Chipotle also put out a Hulu mini-series called "Farmed and Dangerous" complete with exploding cows and hyper-evil characters. Chipotle calls their examples of "hate speech for profit," "entertainment." They also claim that their company is about "food with integrity." Apparently not integrity that extends to their marketing activities.  Several years ago the Organic Trade Association sponsored a "Store Wars" video which wasn't quite as nasty, but still in the same basic genre.
Farmed and Dangerous from Chipotle
What is "playful" or "entertaining" about trying to frighten people into buying your products by unfairly demonizing someone else?

What If Organic Received This Sort of Treatment?

To put this in perspective, imagine if there was a comparable group to "Only Organic" from the "Conventional" side. They could hire an ad agency to produce a video and stills depicting fresh fruits, vegetables and other foods sitting in pools of fresh, steaming animal excrement or having the same coming out of a manure spreader onto a ripe crop of lettuce or strawberries.  They could call Organic, "Poop-based agriculture" and label their own products as "grown without the use of animal fecal matter."  That would, of course, be an unfair,  nasty depiction of the organic requirement to use only non-synthetic fertilizers. But if this fictitious group had the morals of "Only Organic" or Chipotle, they wouldn't hesitate to use that sort of emotive imagery. In contrast, when trying to counter the distorted "analysis" behind the Environmental Working Group's highly irresponsible "Dirty Dozen List", farming groups like the Alliance For Food and Farming take the high moral ground and tell consumers they can be confident in both the organic and conventional fruit and vegetable supply.

Consumers need to recognize when they are being manipulated for someone else's gain.

How should society respond to this sort of brazen, fear-for-profit behavior?  As consumers we should vote with our dollars by boycotting all the products from the companies behind "Only Organic," first and foremost Stonyfield Farms for its "leadership" role (see full list of companies at the end of this post).  We consumers need to recognize when we are being manipulated for someone else's gain.  Instead we can take confidence in the farmers who produce food that is remarkably safe and affordable.

I don't believe that these marketing strategies reflect the ethics of real organic farmers, certainly none that I've met. Someone made the excellent suggestion that organic farmers could start a "not in my name" campaign to say that they don't want to see the whole organic movement dragged down to this low level, and they don't want to see their neighbors and fellow farmers maligned.

The farming community lacks the vast resources available to these big organic food marketers and their NGO allies like EWG.  However, many farming community individuals are trying their best to get their side of the story out to the rest of society.  You can get their perspective on real agriculture by visiting these links:

What Farming Is


The Farmer's Life

Ask the Farmers

Nurse Loves Farmer

The Farmer's Daughter USA

The Foodie Farmer



Janice Person has posted a great list of farm blogs
as has Michele Payn-Knoper

A Suggested Boycott List of "Only Organic" Member Brands and Entities

Stonyfield,  Annie's Homegrown,  Orgain,  Naturpedic,  Happy Family,  Rudi's Organic Bakery,  Dr Bronner's Magic,  Organic Valley,  Uncle Matt's, Earthbound Farm,  AllergyKids,  Late July Organic Snacks,  Nature's Path,  National Cooperative Grocers Association,  Independent Natural Food Retailers Association,  Pete and Gerry's Organic Eggs,  Honest tea

Write these companies and tell them that you don't respect "Only Organic's" hate speech!

You are welcome to comment here and/or to write to me at

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Marketing Of Non-Existence

In the past, people chose foods because they were available, tasted good, or were “good” for them - meaning they contained specific nutrients or vitamins known to be beneficial for good health. Orange juice supplies vitamin C, milk has calcium and meats and beans provide protein. But sometime in the last century we in the rich world began making food choices in a new way - we started buying foods for what is NOT in them. It started with sugarless “diet” drinks and then moved into foods that were “cholesterol-free” or “low fat,” “non-fat” or “low in saturated fat.”  Walk through a grocery store some time and notice how many items are now being promoted with labels about what isn’t in them. What a symptom of a rich world problem.

For many people throughout history, and for still too many today, having enough food has been the challenge.  From that perspective, to seek out foods lacking specific common nutrients would not only be a totally foreign concept, it would be scandalous.  Historically, when humanity has been privileged to enjoy a sufficient and diverse food supply, there has been an epicurean tradition that celebrates foods for what they are!  How far we have come from either hunger or simple food enjoyment.

How did we get here?  This trend goes back to the 70s when were told that fats not only made us fatter, they gave us heart disease. There was a particularly negative focus on cholesterol and “saturated fats.”  Some of these messages came to us through pronouncements by health authorities, but the message was mostly transmitted through a proliferation of food items marketed based on having “no-cholesterol,” being “low in saturated fat,” or foods that were “non-fat,” “fat-free,” or “low fat.”  Food companies marketed against saturated fats like butter by promoting margarine and other foods made with “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.’  “Lean pork” and “skinless chicken” were marketed as alternatives to the high saturated fat content of “red meat.”  Since the 1970s, “fat” has been a perennial “food demon.”

Over time, those anti-fat efforts are looking less and less wise from a public health point of view (more on that below). Unfortunately, the marketing side of that campaign embedded a problematic trend in our collective psyche. Consumers jump on the bandwagon of each new, non-existence item that is being sold.  Multi-billion dollar markets develop rapidly even in cases where consumers are not even clear about the identity of the “offending” component (e.g. “Gluten-free,” “Non-GMO”). “No-High Fructose Corn Syrup” labels have proliferated even though it is the rare person who understands the difference between various sugars, or the reality that too much of any kind of sugar is equally unwise.  Consumers tend to assume that any new absence claim means something important and that it is something for which a price premium is due.  Whole Foods Market has honed this kind of up-sell marketing to an art form.  They are so good at it that I think it would be more honest for them to modify their logo as shown below.

Some of these No-/Non/Free- products are at least theoretically about a health issue, but much of the non-existence marketing has been linked to our rich world obsession with being thin – a quest that has been remarkably unsuccessful. It turns out that those decades of anti-fat marketing, manufacturing and messaging hasn’t done a thing for our collective waistlines.  Instead, it has taken us down some unfortunate paths – something that should give us pause when we see every next, non-existence marketing campaign. 

So, How Did That Low Fat Thing Turn Out For Us?

In seeking to avoid the demonized “saturated fats,” food manufacturers and restaurants shifted us towards those “partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.”  That gave us trans-fats that turned out to be truly problematic from a health point of view. Meanwhile, saturated fats are looking to be largely vindicated, particularly if eaten in moderation (which isn’t such a bad idea for anything – it just won’t sell diet books).  Packaged foods promoted as low fat or no fat often needed added sugar to make them palatable.  More sugar was not a good idea from a health perspective.  Also, fats are important to give us the sensation of being full so you know when it makes sense to stop eating.

Recently, the FDA suggested that it is backing off on the warnings about dietary cholesterol.  This is part of a broader trend in nutrition and public health that has been steadily chipping away at the long-running story that fats are something to avoid.  There is a new book by Nine Teicholz titled The Big Fat Surprise that is gaining traction in the nutrition community.  I don’t expect a full, Gilda Radner, “Never mind” moment, but the message is changing.

Whether these things will ever translate into less marketing of no-fat/low-fat I don’t know.  What I do wish is that the people who have the good fortune to have access to the amazing, modern food supply would begin to question most, if not all of the “non-existence” marketing messages.  I wish that more people would simply find the freedom to enjoy a diverse, moderate diet filled with foods we buy for what they are! Existence is cool.

You are welcome to comment here and/or to write me at

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Science Is A Verb

Canola was one of the first biotech crops launched in 1996

It has now been more than 20 years since the first genetically engineered crops (“GMOs”) were commercialized.  Yet controversy persists.  Farmers – both in the developed and developing world -have enthusiastically embraced these crops.  There have been zero documented health issues, and a great many documented environmental benefits, from the use of this technology.  There is a strong, global consensus in the scientific community that this technology is being used quite safely.  However, GMO opponents continue to vilify these crops and point to a small set of studies, which claim to have identified problems.  Why this disjoint with one side represented by many farmers and most scientists, and a few scientists and many activists on the other?  To explain what is going on here I’d like talk about an insightful statement I heard at a conference last fall in Saskatoon:

“Science is a verb.”

In an allusion to the John Mayer song, “Love Is A Verb,” CamiRyan noted that as with the word “Love,” “Science” is a legitimate noun. But in both cases, it is the action, the process, and the effort – the verb - that really matters.  Science is a verb in the sense that it is a method (activity) involving the making of hypotheses, the design of experiments and the analysis of data.  But a critical part of the scientific process is the conversation phase after the experimentation is done.  Scientists share their findings with the broader community through publications or presentations at meetings.  What happens next is a back-and-forth discussion including a critique of methods or interpretation, and a comparison with previous findings.  If there are flaws in the experimental design or interpretation, other scientists will point that out.  To participate in the conversation, scientists need to be willing to hear and respond to feedback. If there are conflicting results, it may require additional hypothesis making and experimentation.  Only when the conversation runs its course do the conclusions become a part of accepted scientific understanding.

There are a dozen or so, much talked about studies, which appear to demonstrate health risks associated with GMO crops. They have notbeen accepted as a legitimate part of the body of scientific understanding. It is because the researchers who did that work never engaged in the conversation phase of science to respond to legitimate critiques about their work and to do what it would take to generate convincing data.  It seems that they had no interest in fully pursuing science as a verb.  It is not because they challenge a dogma, as some of their supporters would claim.

“Parallel Science”

Marcel Kunz, of CNRS in France, has quite articulately described this phenomenon as “parallel science” – a system that claims the mantle of science but which has no intention of contributing to the “orthodox,” scientific conversation.  Examples of “GMO-related” parallel science have been used to generate enough scary “data” to draw the attention of a credulous press and to arm anti-GMO groups with the narrative they need to drive their agenda.

Seralini with one of his unfortunate rats

The classic example is that from Gilles-Eric Seralini et al who published emotive images of rats with huge tumors that they claimed were caused by either glyphosate or maize engineered to be tolerant to glyphosate.  What the Seralini group didn’t show were the images of the “control” rats which also developed such tumors because that is what happens if you raise these unfortunate beasts for that long.  Since the original publication was in a scientific journal, the mainstream scientific community pointed out that control“oversight” along with many other flaws that negated the “findings” of the Seralini group (excellent summary of the criticism here).  But it seems that group never had any intention of engaging in the discussion or responding to the criticism.  Their target audience was not their scientific peers, but rather the press and the activist community.  They arranged a press conference even prior to the publication of their paper and actually made journalists sign confidentiality agreements so that it could come out with full impact prior to any feedback from the scientific community. Those with an anti-GMO agenda seized upon the emotive power of the tumorous rat images, and used them to support their fear-based campaign.  That effort was widely aided by uncritical elements of the press. 

The attempts by other scientists to engage the conversation phase were written-off as part of a grand conspiracy.  The work of Seralini et al did nothing to shift the scientific consensus on “GMO safety,” not because what they said was controversial, but because they were not making any contribution to the body of knowledge because they were not treating science as a verb.

The Real, Four-Decade GMO Safety Conversation

Paul Berg, Nobel Prize-winning scientists who
was one of the organizers of the Asilomar Conference
I would like to contrast this and other examples of “Parallel Science” with the rather extraordinary, very much verb-form of scientific conversation that has been going on about “GMO safety” for the past 40 years.  It began in 1975 with the voluntary, Asilomar Conference that was convened by the earliest pioneers of genetic engineering research.  Because they knew they were moving into uncharted territory about the nature of genes and how they worked, they self-imposed rather restrictive rules for their laboratory work.  Only as the understanding of molecular genetics expanded were those rules relaxed. 

My yellowing copy of the proceedings from the 1988, Davis conference 

A similar conversation example occurred in 1988.  An International Conference "Risk Assessment in Agricultural Biotechnology” was held on the campus of the University of California, Davis.  This was one of many, fully public and fully voluntary discussions of the specific safety issues for what would later be called “GMO crops.”  What was extraordinary about this and other conversations was that it was not just an exchange of information and a mechanism to sort out conflicting information or perspectives.  It was part of a voluntary,  multi-agency, regulatory review process, which had already been put in place even though it would still be several more years until any biotech crops were commercialized.  The conversation has continued with the publication of hundreds of safety studies - a great many of which are independently funded. (See the GENERA database)

This is not the normal path for the development of technology regulation.  Usually there is some unintended and unanticipated problem that arises with a new technology, and a regulatory regime needs to be created to address it.  In the case of “GMO crops,” the regulatory process was set up in advance, and is likely part of the reason for the safe track record as this technology has been deployed on hundreds of millions of hectares around the world over the last 20 years.   This has been, and continues to be an excellent example of "science as a verb."

As scientists, we sometimes misrepresent our craft by saying things like “the science says,” or “the science is settled.” In so doing we are treating science like a noun.  We do that out of frustration with a phenomenon like parallel science and the unnecessary fear and superstition that it has engendered about “GMOs.”  When that happens we should hum the melody from Mayer’s classic song and think the lyric, “science ain't a thing, science is a verb."

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