Dietary pesticides (99.99% all natural)

Plants are not just food for animals… The world is not green. It is colored lectin, tannin, cyanide, aflatoxin, and canavanine [Janzen (16)].

A false claim keeps crossing my desk: that organic foods are safer; and especially safer due to the prohibition of synthetic pesticides. This is false. In fact the motivation for development of many of the synthetic pesticides in use today is to reduce toxicity for both consumers and agricultural workers. This effort has been successful, but due to the vested interests in the “organic” marketing designation the prohibition against synthetic pesticides prevails.

John R. Block was U.S. secretary of agriculture from 1981 to 1986, so he is a good source for a concise summary of what “organic” really means:

The Organic Seal does not and cannot signify any health or safety criteria whatsoever. It merely certifies that products were produced using less modern inputs.

“Let me be clear about one thing,” said USDA Secretary Dan Glickman when organic certification was being considered. “The organic label is a marketing tool. It is not a statement about food safety. Nor is ‘organic’ a value judgment about nutrition or quality.”

Yet USDA’s own research shows consumers buy higher priced organic products because they mistakenly believe them safer and more nutritious.

The science is clear on this point: As numerous studies, USDA monitoring, and a massive “meta-analysis” recently conducted at Stanford University confirm, organic foods are no more nutritious, nor do they carry any fewer health risks, than conventional foods. In fact, a good case could be made that conventional food may be considerably safer.

 My quick summary is organic labeled products are limited to pre-scientific agriculture.

Are natural pesticides better? Definitely, not – though, because natural pesticides are not regulated,  we know much less about their toxicity. Bruce Ames is one of the heroes of environmentalism, so NY Times science writer John Tierney turned to the Ames et al 1999 paper to document his column Synthetic v. Natural Pesticides: the captioned Dietary pesticides (99.99% all natural). This paper is open access, free PDF here, by B N Ames, M Profet, and L S Gold: Division of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, University of California, Berkeley.

When a toxicologist says “99.99%, by weight, of the pesticides we eat are natural” she is probably referring to this paper. I like the way John Tierney characterizes the Ames work

Dr. Ames was one of the early heroes of environmentalism. He invented the widely used Ames Test, which is a quick way to screen for potential carcinogens by seeing if a chemical causes mutations in bacteria. After he discovered that Tris, a flame-retardant in children’s pajamas, caused mutations in the Ames Test, he helped environmentalists three decades ago in their successful campaign to ban Tris — one of the early victories against synthetic chemicals.

But Dr. Ames began rethinking this war against synthetic chemicals after thousands of chemicals had been subjected to his test. He noticed that plenty of natural chemicals flunked the Ames test. He and Dr. Gold took a systematic look at the chemicals that had been tested on rodents. They found that about half of natural chemicals tested positive for carcinogencity, the same proportion as the synthetic chemicals. Fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices contained their own pesticides that caused cancer in rodents. The toxins were found in apples, bananas, beets, Brussel sprouts, collard greens, grapes, melons, oranges, parsley, peaches — the list went on and on.

Then Dr. Ames and Dr. Gold estimated the prevalence of these natural pesticides in the typical diet. In a paper published in 2000 in Mutation Research, they conclude:

About 99.9 percent of the chemicals humans ingest are natural. The amounts of synthetic pesticide residues in plant food are insignificant compared to the amount of natural pesticides produced by plants themselves. Of all dietary pesticides that humans eat, 99.99 percent are natural: they are chemicals produced by plants to defend themselves against fungi, insects, and other animal predators.

We have estimated that on average Americans ingest roughly 5,000 to 10,000 different natural pesticides and their breakdown products. Americans eat about 1,500 mg of natural pesticides per person per day, which is about 10,000 times more than the 0.09 mg they consume of synthetic pesticide residues.

Even though these natural chemicals are as likely to be carcinogenic as synthetic ones, it doesn’t follow that they’re killing us. Just because natural pesticides make up 99.99 percent of the pesticides in our diet, it doesn’t follow that they’re causing human cancer — or that the .01 percent of of synthetic pesticides are causing cancer either. Dr. Ames and Dr. Gold believe most of these carcinogenic pesticides, natural or synthetic, don’t present problems because the human exposures are low and because the high doses given to rodents may not be relevant to humans.

“Everything you eat in the supermarket is absolutely chock full of carcinogens,” Dr. Ames told me. “But most cancers are not due to parts per billion of pesticides. They’re due to causes like smoking, bad diets and, obesity.”

He and Dr. Gold note that “many ordinary foods would not pass the regulatory criteria used for synthetic chemicals,” but they’re not advocating banning broccoli or avoiding natural pesticides in foods that cause cancer in rodents. Rather, they suggest that Americans stop worrying so much about synthetic chemicals:

Regulatory efforts to reduce low-level human exposures to synthetic chemicals because they are rodent carcinogens are expensive; they aim to eliminate minuscule concentrations that now can be measured with improved techniques. These efforts are distractions from the major task of improving public health through increasing scientific understanding about how to prevent cancer (e.g., what aspects of diet are important), increasing public understanding of how lifestyle influences health, and improving our ability to help individuals alter their lifestyles.

You can read a detailed account of their work in the Handbook of Pesticide Toxicology.

Plant Science Expert Panel

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Sense about science is hosting a valuable Q&A between the public and a panel of plant scientists. You can participate

Send questions via our online form, Twitter to @senseaboutsci using #plantsci, or email us at plantsci@senseaboutscience.org.

The linked science panel page is comprised of expert answers attached to the public questions. As you would expect given the makeup of the UK science panel, the quality of the responses is high. I’ve selected one example demonstrating the nuance offered by Professors Jones and Leyser:

“The environment secretary, Liz Truss, has said that US farmers growing GM crops use less water and less pesticide. Is she right to say this?”
08/01/2015

Prof Jonathan Jones:
GM is a method that can be used to confer many different and useful traits. Liz Truss is right to say GM crops can reduce the environmental impact of agriculture. In the US, Bt maize and Bt cotton require less insecticide to control insect pests. Glyphosate (Roundup) is a less damaging herbicide than the herbicides it replaced. Unfortunately, like antibiotics, reliance on one compound (glyphosate) has selected herbicide-resistant weeds in the US, reducing glyphosate effectiveness for weed control. Another GM trait in maize has been used to elevate tolerance of drought stress. For the UK, blight resistant potatoes will require less fungicide applications, and there are many other potential nutritional and agronomic benefits that could be conferred using the GM method.

Prof Ottoline Leyser:
Farming practices associated with each GM crop differ, depending on the specific characteristic that has been introduced. It is therefore not meaningful to state that growing GM crops results in less water and pesticide use, because it depends entirely on which GM crop you are talking about and what the normal practices are for the equivalent non-GM variety. For example, there is very good evidence that the use of GM cotton engineered to resist insect attack has reduced the use of insecticides in cotton production compared to previous practice. However, the use of GM technology to increase vitamin A production in rice does not affect how much pesticide is used.

One type of crop where there has been a particularly vigorous debate about the environmental impacts is herbicide-tolerant crops. There is no doubt that the widespread planting of herbicide-tolerant crops has led to an increase in the use of the specific herbicides tolerated by these crop varieties. Some argue that this has reduced the use of alternative, more environmentally-damaging herbicides. Others point to the negative effects on insect biodiversity caused by the reduction in weeds associated with more effective weed management. Others still highlight the emergence of weeds resistant to herbicides. These debates are important, but they have nothing to do with GM. While many herbicide-tolerant crops have been produced using GM methods, others have been produced using conventional methods, and all the arguments are about herbicides and their use, not about GM. Just as it is inaccurate to say that GM crops reduce pesticides, it is equally inaccurate to say that they cause superweeds.

We need to be able to choose the best solutions to each challenge facing the food supply chain. In some cases this will include a particular GM crop, but in many cases it will not.

Paul Collier on African Agriculture and Urbanization

Paul Collier, author of The Bottom Billion, is a thoroughly reliable source on development economics and development policy options.

In a recent review of Roger Thurow’s new book, The Last Hunger Season, Paul Collier asks: “Why is Africa so dependent on imported food, despite being the least urbanized and most land-abundant continent?” Though the answer is simple, African agriculture is not sufficiently productive, the solutions are more complicated and controversial.

Though new seed technologies and commercialized agricultural practices are likely the best ways to produce more food and overcome hunger, Collier notes that these approaches don’t currently attract much support from African governments, NGOs, and development agencies. Among the concerns is that a switch from smallholder to commercial agriculture would lead to an influx of migrants to cities that are not prepared to accommodate them. But as Collier suggests, this transition looks inevitable.

This, to my mind, is the more fundamental long-term failing of African development: The children of smallholders should, and will, pour into cities. So it is vital that cities become engines of opportunity: That is what cities are for — high density is the handmaiden of economic activity. Millions of young people could be productively employed in Africa’s cities, so the key policy issue that governments and development agencies need to address is what has been impeding urban success — and it isn’t the low productivity of smallholders.

Collier does not get into detail about what is impeding urban success but governance is no doubt near the top of the list. Policy approaches to accommodating the influx of urban residents in cities in the developing world will have to account for the limited capacity of many governments to enforce the rules. This is a theme in Solly Angel’s new book, Planet of Cities. Angel’s approach to planning for urban expansion recognizes that urban growth is fastest in the parts of the world where governance is relatively weak. He envisions a public strong role in planning for urban expansion, but one that is narrow enough to have a reasonable chance of being executed by capacity constrained governments.

Source: Paul Collier on African Agriculture and Urbanization; NYU Stern Urbanization Project Brown Bag Discussion Series.

A Marriage of Two Agricultures & Vermont, the Stupid State

Jason Sibert interviews Raoul Adamchak co-author with geneticist Pamela Ronald of one of our favorite books Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food. Jason introduced the interview with the story of the Stupid State Vermont, the first US state silly enough to:
  • Shut down Vermont Yankee, the nuclear plant providing >70% of Vermont electrical generation.
  • Attempt to ban GMOs by mandating labeling.

Jason wrote:

Just three weeks ago, Vermont became the first state to mandate the labeling of food containing genetically modified organisms. To understand just how feverish the debate over GMOs has become, consider that when the bill was passed into law, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin compared the issue to other state laws banning slavery and allowing same-sex marriage. “Today, we are the first state in America that says simply, ‘Vermonters have spoken loud and clear: We want to know what’s in our food,’” Shumlin declared.

The framing of a consumer’s “right to know” has proved to be a powerful political instrument. Around the country, state legislatures are considering labeling GMOs, with the goal of many to ban them. At the same time, the environmental benefits of organic farming are touted as the better alternative, as synthetic pesticides and fertilizers are prohibited. But is the whole argument misguided? And do genetic engineering and organic farming both have something to teach us?

Please read Jason’s short interview which leads with this smart question: Can organic and biotech be considered converging technologies?

Yes. They both aim for an ecologically sound form of agriculture and both aim to reduce toxic inputs. For example, both organic farmers and farmers of pest resistant GE crops use a nontoxic insecticide called BT.

Organic farmers spray BT, whereas farmers that grow BT cotton don’t need to spray because the bacterial gene encoding is built into the crops genetic code. BT is a favorite tool of farmers because it does not harm mammals and is specific to pests and that is why organic farmers have used it for over 50 years.

 

Jennie Schmidt: The Costs of GMO Labeling

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Jennie Schmidt is the proprietor of TheFoodieFarmer “Blogging about how your food gets from field to fork”. Jennie is very different from your typical Whole Foods customer, who has never set foot on a farm – she knows farming in depth. In particular she understands the supply chain – which is why she is especially qualified to write the captioned essay on what “right to know” really costs. This is the real deal, carefully researched, first-hand explanations of what is involved in establishing traceability of every ingredient that goes into food on your supermarket shelf. Read Jennie for the particulars. She closes with this summary:

Those who say GMO labeling won’t add to the consumer’s grocery bill need to go back to Economics 101 and some basic high school math.

True traceability in our food supply system will be hugely expensive.

Its likely that as a nation, we’d never capitalize all that infrastructure to achieve true traceability.

Which goes to the crux of the matter – this isn’t about labeling, as I cited in my last GMO blog, labeling is a means to an end. As noted by many activist groups, the ulterior motive behind labeling is not about a consumer’s right to know, it is about banning the technology.

Say NO to mandatory GMO labeling. Stand for science.

I liked Jennie’s essay so much that I posted the following comment:

Jennie – thanks heaps for taking the time to document some of the true costs that the “right to know” lobby wants to impose on consumers. I’m happy to see you already have a well-deserved pat on the back from Prof. Kevin Folta.

When we see such a “movement” promoting regulations that don’t make sense – that’s a good time to ask “who benefits?” If we follow the incentives we find there are a number of special-interests who are funding this campaign. David Tribe framed the smelly bedfellows as Big Quacka and Big Organic.

A concept from Public Choice economics that helps us understand how these hidden interests operate is called “Bootleggers and Baptists”. In your GMO labeling case the Bootleggers include Whole Foods and trial lawyers. Back in the CA Prop 37 fight I wrote a few posts on this concept, such as How California’s GMO Labeling Law Could Limit Your Food Choices and Hurt the Poor and Scott Andes: Why California’s GMO Labeling Proposition Should be Defeated.

The key idea is that the Bootleggers have learned that the best media reception is obtained by fronting the Baptists, preferably worried-looking moms holding their beautiful babies.

The Bottom Line: if you want to know about food and farming – talk to farmers, not to Greenpeace.

Vandana Shiva and the GMO Suicide Myth

“Every 30 minutes an Indian farmer commits suicide as a result of Monsanto’s GM crops. In the last decade more than 250,000 Indian farmers have killed themselves because of Monsanto’s costly seeds and pesticides.”

Shiva lies, lies, lies,...

Keith Kloor wrote a carefully-researched exposé of this zombie-myth. I say zombie-myth because it appears to be unkillable by evidence-based logic. The myth was manufactured from thin air by anti-globalization activist Vandana Shiva, beginning with her 2009 op-ed in the Huffington Post.

I knew the suicide story was an activist fabrication. What I did not know was how successful Shiva has been at establishing the myth as received wisdom. Believers include Prince Charles, Bill Moyers and Stanford’s “Population Bomb” Paul Erlich, and of course  Greenpeace, which favors issues that aid their fund-raising.

It is the perfect story for uncritical media: emotional and truly tragic. If India is to reduce these tragedies they need to work on the real causes – not Shiva’s fiction. As you might expect, the explanation for the suicides is complex:

a 2012 paper in The Lancet that surveyed India’s suicide mortality rate noted: “Studies from south India have shown that the most common contributors to suicide are a combination of social problems, such as interpersonal and family problems and financial difficulties, and pre-existing mental illness.”

Researchers such as Cornell’s Ronald Herring are finding at least one factor that helps account for the increases in suicides from the early 1990’s. That is the unanticipated consequence of banking reforms which led to increasing penetration by “foreign and new generation private banks … [that has] led to fewer loans to agriculture and farmers. With increased competition, banks saw lending to the farm sector as unprofitable and unreliable”. In other words, where institutional credit became unavailable to small-holder farmers, the void was filled by money-lenders.  This helps explain why suicides have been concentrated in five of India’s 28 states:

Banking practices vary across India … states with the highest incidence of farmer suicides were those that offered the least institutional credit to farmers. This forced small farmers into the hands of private lenders who charge exorbitant interest rates (as high as 45%). In those states where farmers had better access to institutional credit and farm insurance, there were markedly fewer suicides. Indian banks also offer credit to farmers with irrigated land, as this makes farming more viable. “Irrigation does drive bank lending,” Sadanadan said at the panel. “In states where there is greater irrigation, they [banks] lend money to the farmer.”

Central to Shiva’s myth is the claim that farmer suicides are caused by the complete failure of “Monsanto’s seeds”. But Shiva is never bothered by evidence that contradicts her preferred narrative:

Bt cotton has been all the rage in India since it was officially approved in 2002. The technology has been adopted by over 90% of Indian cotton farmers. Multiple studies point to significant reduction in pesticide spraying and subsequent cost savings for cotton farmers. (Similar findings attest to the same in China, where Bt cotton accounts for 80% of its crop.) India’s agricultural minister said in 2012 that the country “has harvested an average of 5.1 million tons of cotton per year, which is well above the highest production of 3 million tons before the introduction of Bt cotton. ” India is the world’s second-biggest cotton producer, behind China. Apparently, Indian farmers have come to overwhelmingly embrace genetically modified cotton.

Yet there is an enduring belief that Bt cotton has failed in India, with tragic consequences. This failure, the story goes, has resulted in burdensome debt and caused more than a quarter-million Indian farmers to take their own lives. Ronald Herring, a political scientist at Cornell University, has studied the seeming paradox and written on it extensively. As he observed in one paper, “It is hard to imagine farmers spreading a technology that is literally killing them”.

…when India approved Bt cotton (thus far the only GMO crop permitted in the country), it quickly became a surrogate cause in the larger ideological battle. In this battle, the Bt cotton-Indian farmer suicide narrative that Shiva helped to craft proved to be powerfully seductive and immune to contradiction or correction. Not only does there seem to be no evidence that farmers using Bt cotton seed are more likely to commit suicide than others, but farmers that do use the seeds appear on the whole to be benefiting from them. A 2008 meta-review of data between 2002 and 2006 “suggests that Bt cotton has been quite successful in most states and years in India, contributing to an impressive leap in average cotton yields, as well as a decrease in pesticide use and  in farmer revenue. ” The authors of this paper, published by the International Food Policy Research Institute, say that their analysis “is sufficiently well documented to discredit the possibility of a naïve direct causal or reciprocal relationship between Bt cotton and farmer suicides. ”

These conclusions have since been corroborated by additional studies that found that Indian farmers using Bt crops spend less money on pesticides and earn more money from higher yields. In fact, a 2013 study in PLOS ONE found that in India “the adoption of GM cotton has significantly improved calorie consumption and dietary quality, resulting from increased family incomes. ”

In 2013, after attending Shiva’s talk at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, I asked her about the mounting evidence that contradicted her “suicide seed” claims. She dismissed them breezily and said, “Those are the Monsanto studies. ” But neither Monsanto nor the biotechnology industry funded any of the aforementioned studies. Never mind; that same week, she went on a news program in the United States and said: “Two hundred and seventy thousand Indian farmers have committed suicide since Monsanto entered the Indian seed market. That’s more than a quarter million. It’s a genocide. ”

Keith Kloor’s article puts a bright spotlight on what Shiva is doing.  It is obvious that Vandana Shiva will only stop this sham when it becomes unprofitable. So please help make it unprofitable for her to continue — direct your friends to the true history behind this destructive myth.

Kevin Folta: letter to the editor of Food and Chemical Toxicology re Seralini retraction

Dr. Folta’s letter has been published. Personally I think the letter makes it obvious that the Seralini paper was designed to deceive.

Dear Prof. Hayes,

I have been withholding comments to the journal for a long time. I regularly participate in biotechnology education. The Séralini et al. paper in your journal frequently is presented as evidence against GM crops. I am one of thousands of independent, public scientists worldwide that see this work as a manipulation of the scientific process to achieve activist gains. I firmly stand behind the journal’s decision to retract the work.

There are many appropriate criticisms, but the most severe is the absence of a control rat presented as part of Figure 3. In Figure 3, panels J, K, and L, we see three grotesque rats, suffering and tumor laden. No data can be obtained from this image. Worse, no control is presented, but Table 2 shows that control animals also developed tumors.

Also, it is important to note that the panels are labeled “GMO” rather than the actual trait.

These points suggest a motivation for the authors was to frighten people with images of tortured animals (linked to the word “GMO”), rather than provide data and appropriate controls. The figure is only frightening if the control is not shown. In my expert opinion it is somewhere between sloppy science and deliberate omission to skew perception.

I fully support retraction. I feel that this paper was about perpetuating fear with soft statistics and conclusions that overstep the data, rather than providing sound science. There are many examples, but Figure 3’s lack of agreement with Table 2, coupled to inhumane treatment of research animals substantiates my case.

Best wishes and I fully support a journal-initiated retraction.

 

The Trouble With ‘Scientific’ Research Today: A Lot That’s Published Is Junk

A number of empirical studies show that 80-90% of the claims coming from supposedly scientific studies in major journals fail to replicate.

Henry I. Miller surveys the wreckage of sloppy medical research.

…Another worrisome trend is the increasing publication of the results of flawed “advocacy research” that is actually designed to give a false result that provides propaganda value for activists and can be cited long after the findings have been discredited.

Dr. Miller is referring to the Gilles-Eric Séralini scandal:

(Séralini has made a specialty of methodologically flawed, irrelevant, uninterpretable — but over-interpreted — experiments intended to demonstrate harm from genetically engineered plants and the herbicide glyphosate in various highly contrived scenarios.)

Climate change will make it increasingly difficult to feed the world. GMOs could help

MIT Technology Review:

(…) One advantage of using genetic engineering to help crops adapt to these sudden changes is that new varieties can be created quickly. Creating a potato variety through conventional breeding, for example, takes at least 15 years; producing a genetically modified one takes less than six months. Genetic modification also allows plant breeders to make more precise changes and draw from a far greater variety of genes, gleaned from the plants’ wild relatives or from different types of organisms. Plant scientists are careful to note that no magical gene can be inserted into a crop to make it drought tolerant or to increase its yield—even resistance to a disease typically requires multiple genetic changes. But many of them say genetic engineering is a versatile and essential technique.

“It’s an overwhelmingly logical thing to do,” says Jonathan Jones, a scientist at the Sainsbury Laboratory in the U.K. and one of the world’s leading experts on plant diseases. The upcoming pressures on agricultural production, he says, “[are] real and will affect millions of people in poor countries.” He adds that it would be “perverse to spurn using genetic modification as a tool.”

 

The Lowdown on GMOs: According to Science

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Distrust of GMOs has increased in recent years from initiatives to label, ban, or warn the public. The Lowdown on GMOs features contributions by public scientists, authors, farmers, science writers and journalists answering the hard questions with elegance, ease, and evidence. This is a book for those who want to know what the evidence says and the implications of our actions regarding GMOs. 

This is a very important new book The Lowdown on GMOs: According to Science, compiled by Fourat Janabi. There are many contributors, including University of Florida plant scientist Kevin Folta. Kevin’s Q&A chapter is an excellent place to begin your exploration. Here’s a tidbit:             

(…snip…)The regulatory hoops are too difficult and expensive. Only the big companies can play in that space. Even little companies like Okanagan Specialty Fruits have to deal with the nonsense from those that hate the technology. Opposition to the science keeps the big guys in business, because nobody else can compete.

Who loses? The farmer, the consumer, the environment, the academic scientist and most of all the people around the world that don’t get enough food and nutrition. Who gains? Big Ag. 

I liked the blurb by Mary Mangan – it is very difficult for anyone outside the biotechnology field to access the science:

“It’s hard to find this level of quality discussion on this topic around the internet, where murky misinforming fear-mongers overwhelm the discussions.” ~ Mary Mangan, PhD, President and co-founder of OpenHelix LLC