Category Archives: Food Safety

Growing Food In A Dryer, Hotter Future

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Yesterday I got a pleasant surprise when WordPress notified me that I had 500 posts. It seems like a long time ago that I started this blog, a journey prompted by the food safety scares of 2008: e coli in lettuce and tomatoes.  And while some of today’s stories are similar, I do see many hopeful notes of progress. One area in which encouraging news is growing is the issue of food production in a time of climate disruption. How will we grow rice in drought like conditions? The solution could be “Sahbhagi Dhan”.  Research is ongoing on how plants “remember drought”, or how they are equipped to deal with total water deprivation: efforts that could create varieties of alfalfa, sorghum, corn and soy beans that will flourish and nurture us in a very different environment.

And sometimes the research yields not only good results for nutrition but is also a treat for the eyes, like this lavender lime, full of beneficial bioflavonoids , that will add a lovely burst of color to our plates!

(Image Courtesy: “Agriculture Rice Green Field and Blue Sky Background” by blackzheep, freedigitalphotos.net)

Kenya, Scotland, India: GMO crops in the news

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Big developments in the agricultural biotechnology world in the past few days:

First, Scotland announced it would ban the cultivation of GMO crops. This follows the recent EU policy change allowing member states to make their own decisions regarding the use of biotechnology. Given that no GMO crops are currently being grown in Scotland, this is symbolic. It would be interesting to know if they will stop importing GMO feed for livestock as well.

 Kenya announced that the ban on GMO crops would be lifted in two months. The ban was put in place in 2012 as a reaction to the now retracted Seralini study. Scientists had been pushing for the ban to be lifted, pointing to the potential benefits of biotechnology particularly in view of the disease affecting maize, the main crop.

In India, activists announced their decision to oppose the possible approval and introduction of GMO  mustard. Mustard oil is a traditional and healthy cooking medium. Currently, India is unable to meet consumer demand for mustard oil and has to import from abroad. The GMO mustard seeds are expected to increase yields and meet domestic demand, in the process farmers incomes would also rise. The research was funded by the government but approval is likely to be a slow process due to the unfounded fears surrounding this technology.

Interesting times ahead……

(Photo credit: Trains @Glance™ !!! / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA)

Will Humans Let Science Save the Banana?

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The answer, it seems, is at best a weak “maybe”. Still it was heartening to see an article in the media that was nuanced enough to acknowledge the public’s unfounded wariness of biotechnology with the pragmatic acknowledgement that in this instance, genetic modification is the strongest option in the tool box.  The piece also explores the reasons why relying on banana biodiversity alone cannot suffice. This is really the middle ground that we should be focusing on, instead of the yelling-across-lines-in-sand  type of communication which characterizes most food debates. The problems are real and the solutions will be a combination of various options and  rejecting some options out of baseless fear is not an optimum step. Some solutions and even, improvements, have been suggested, the hope is that they will not be blocked.

(Image Courtesy: bplanet at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

The Chipotle Saga

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Much has been written about Chipotle’s recent GMO policy announcement, most of it amazingly sane and factual. This is quite a change from the reflexive aversion to anything GMO that the media often comes up with. It is cheering to think that the fog of hysteria is slowly lifting to let the facts shine!

  • Here are some interesting reads on this:
  • From The Washington Post
  • From the Iowa Farm Bureau
  • From a farmer who raises pigs
  • From NPR who can’t take it seriously
  • From Quartz who point out that all corn is genetically modified so what about the tortillas?

 

(Image Courtesy: tsunamistudio at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

About Those Cows….

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When work , laundry, dishes are all piling up and you want to run away from it all, the best place to go is Pinterest. I know because I have been there a lot. Scrolling down the crafts feed is bewildering:  it is simply bursting with ideas for rustic, barn weddings: lots of burlap, distressed wood, tables laid out on emerald green fields with a picturesque cow or a duck adding an idyllic note. This gorgeous visual has very little to do with an actual, working farm as one writer pointed out here, but neither is it true, as the piece describes, that in the real world cows are raised in “warehouses” and are a source of pollution. In the comments, those who actually raise cows contributed facts to the discussion, most of which would be new to that many among us, far removed as we are from the realities of food production.

It is common to read about cows contributing to global warming by releasing methane into the atmosphere. It is argued that if we stopped raising cows for food, this would be a greener choice. But if we just stopped eating beef what would happen to the cows? Well, they would live long and prosper, (check out the calculations in this excellent blog) leading to exploding cow populations which would be standing there chewing, polluting and watching barn weddings and wondering what this was all about. The only way to do away with the methane problem would be to actually kill all the cows.

The other great debate centers around the question : “what is an authentic cow?” What is the difference between a cow grown on GMO feed and one that is not? Surely, there must be a difference, the former cannot be the same as the cows our ancestors raised. But, in fact, they are exactly the same: the animals are the same,the milk and the meat are the same. This study looked at livestock productivity and health from public sources for 100 billion animals, starting at 1983 before the introduction of GMO feed in 1996,  through to 2011 which had high levels of GMO feed in use; and found no negative effects on livestock health or humans who consumed animal products.

And still, today, social media is bursting with people who are concerned because not enough tests have been done over a long enough period of time. “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” Neither, sadly, do dishes, no matter how beguiling the alternative!

(Image Courtesy: freedigitalphotos.net)

 

A Third Way To Describe How Food Is Grown?

 

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When I first started reading about the food system and following discussions on social media, it took no time at all to realize that there was a sharp divide in this world: “organic” to this side, “conventional” to the other and judging by the shrillness of the debate, never the twain would meet. But I am now learning that each of these worlds has their own variations, differences of opinion and intense debate. In the organic community there is a debate over the use of  natural substances as opposed to synthetic ones. While some organic farmers see the utility of substances which may not have been used historically but are useful today, others remain firm on excluding synthetic substances.

There are no magical powers attached to one or the other set of substances: an organic pesticide like rotenone can be more hazardous that synthetic pesticides and arsenic or mercury which are poisonous occur in nature.  Part of this attachment to “natural” is fueled, I suspect by all those memes of scary syringes stuck in produce by people in lab coats.  While the Internet may helpfully suggest a mix of salt, vinegar and dish soap as gentler, more natural alternative to other synthetic weed killers, this study showed that both are as gentle and as effective, it all depends on how they are used.

A lot of misinformation floats around about both types of farming: while there have vocal demands for labeling foods containing GMOs , not many consumers realize that organic producers  are not overseen by the USDA and in fact, the organic certification comes from the National Organic Standards Board (how many of us had heard of this?). This Board is now protesting any involvement by the USDA.

And while we are all getting worked up about which system is better or “purer”, climate change is casting its shadow over our crops, even grape juice , it turns out, will not go untouched! Let us focus on the main thing here: the planet is at a point of crisis. It is time to focus on adopting all those tools and practices that can help us ensure that the growing population can be fed in a way that exerts the minimum pressure on the environment. Can we agree to stop arguing about just two systems and widen our approach to adopt practices that would keep production growing with demand in a way that is compatible with the new climate reality we are living?

 

Of Organic Eggs and Antibiotics

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Reading this piece on organic eggs today I was  reminded of the famous painting of a pipe by Rene Magritte, entitled “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” or “This is not a pipe”, it is merely the representation of a pipe. Or, nothing is what it seems. In the piece, it is revealed that organic eggs are treated with an antibiotic, gentimicin. This is actually used to seal in the tiny hole made to vaccinate the egg against Marek’s disease. This is done on the first day of the life cycle of the egg. But to be classified as “organic”, the egg only needs to be free of antibiotics from the second day of life so this egg will go on to hatch and the eggs from that chicken will come to our tables. Is this still an “organic egg”?  (The organic eggs sold for consumption are, however, not treated with gentimicin). How does this make us feel about the categorization of these eggs as organic?

For me, it is reminiscent of the bump down to earth I felt when I discovered that the organic strawberries that my toddlers loved, and that I paid a hefty premium for, actually started life in the nursery doused with methyl bromide, soil sterilizer and pesticide.  At the time of this report, two years ago, there were no organic nurseries in California which provide fruit and seedlings to consumers all over the world. Yet some would opt for the organic produce from those very seedlings over conventional produce and pay more for it. Are they really getting “organic strawberries”?

The intention here is not to devalue organic methods but to underline the fact that debates on the food system are often disconnected from ground realities. Seedlings, eggs etc will be prone to pests and diseases and we have to find a way to protect what we grow. Insistence on some arbitrary “natural” , or “local” standard ignores the fact that pests do exist in nature and crops have to be protected from them. This insistence on unreal qualities is then exploited by retailers who will use terms like “natural”, “local” or “sustainable” which actually have no backing or meaning to them, on labels  and make a profit by selling a higher quantity.

As the labeling war wages on in different states, it might be a good idea to pause for a moment and reflect on what it would achieve. If current labels mask loopholes, would future labels be of any value? More importantly, is it going to be worth the time, money and resources that are currently being directed into this contest? There are much bigger problems we need to attend to: too many people going hungry , too much food being wasted, sources of water running alarmingly low levels, unpredictable climate posing challenges to our current ways of growing food; all of which  need our energy more than semantics.