Category Archives: Food Safety

Growing Food In A Dryer, Hotter Future


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,

Kenya, Scotland, India: GMO crops in the news


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?


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

The Chipotle Saga


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

About Those Cows….


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:


A Third Way To Describe How Food Is Grown?



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


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.

The Whole Foods-Chobani Episode: The Whole Truth?




When Whole Foods recently decided to discontinue carrying Chobani Greek yogurt, the first news reports attributed this to Whole Foods’ decision to eliminate GM products from their stores. But now, another reason has emerged. Whole Foods, it is argued, wants to reap larger profits from the current Greek yogurt frenzy by introducing their own version of it; a “private label”, apparently, is the term although I always thought of it simply as “store brand” ,the plain cousin of the glamorous big brands but just as good and a boon for a mother on a budget! So the issue of GMO/Organic was simply not relevant here.

This comes just after another GMO vs Organic issue which grabbed the headlines: “Organic Milk Better for You” the media announced quoting a study which found higher levels of omega 3 in certain types of milk. Read a little deeper and you will find that the real cause of higher levels of fat in the milk was determined by the what the cows ate. Grass fed cows produced milk with higher levels of  omega 3. Is this true for all organic milk? Well, it depends. It turns out that cows can be fed grass for only 4 months a year and still qualify for the organic label. Are they living on fresh air the rest of the year? No they are eating feed which would mostly consist of corn. So technically, it seems, you could have a cow feed partly on GMO corn  and partly on pasture and that cow would have healthier levels of omega 3 because it was grass fed, organic feed is not the determinant here.  So next time you think about paying the steep price of organic milk because you think it will be better for your children, remember that in this case “from grass fed cows” would really be the label you need to see.

This kind of smudging of facts is not uncommon in the charged discussions on GMO foods, but then I found something that went beyond mere dancing with words. Consider this label:

IMG_0005The label says “NON GMO Project VERIFIED” . So, what is n0n-GMO here? The potatoes? salt? pepper? Genetically modified potatoes are not a part of the food supply of any country on the planet. It is not possible for me to enjoy a genetically modified potato chip even if I was craving it, so why this label?  Perhaps in the hope that the consumer who hears a lot of fear mongering on this issue and, without actually checking on the particular details in the midst of a grocery run, will make a decision to buy this product instead of another.

From all the studies and research that I have followed so far, there appear to be no safety issues with GMO foods so there seems no reason to slap on what is tantamount to a warning label. But faced with the argument that no label indicates something is being hidden, I would advocate labeling because this is only one variable influencing the consumer’s decision to buy; and price is, I think, the variable that carries the greatest weight in that decision making process. But the real troubling issue here is how labeling can be subverted so that the concerns that are supposedly being met here (health, food safety etc) are simply a facade for the drive toward higher profits.

Just Label It!



I watched the GMO labeling debate closely in California and cheered when the proposition was defeated there. But when I read the arguments from the pro-labeling side,(based mostly on misinformation and unsubstantiated fears) I began to think that blocking labeling is perhaps not the best strategy. GMO foods, it has been proven, again and again, are  safe for human consumption. The pro-label lobby has therefore, framed the debate in terms of the “consumer’s right to know what is in their food”. It is hard to make the case that the consumer should not know/does not need to know what is in their food and so, blocking labeling makes it seem like the producers of food containing GM ingredients are hiding something. One would like to ask the question: how would knowing this be useful to the consumer anyway? If they do not want to purchase GMO products, there is already a label for them: it says “organic” or that fascinating mystery term, “natural” which many seem to rely on.

It is important to remember that this debate is being played out in parts of the world that have the luxury to debate about food. In other areas, where people are going hungry every day, children are malnourished and suffering from dietary deficiencies, food on the table is a survival issue. Biotechnology offers a way to combat global hunger. By  blocking labeling and letting the “there is something to hide” misinformation gain ground, we are denying choices precisely to those who are most vulnerable. If we continue to block labeling, the ultimate aim of the anti-GM lobby; to take biotechnology out of the options forever, would be achieved and this would be a disaster in the struggle to deal with hunger and malnutrition.

Instead, imagine a situation where the labeling issue is actively owned by those seeking to make sure the benefits of GM foods actually reach the public. Companies need to proactively steer the labeling issue in a positive direction: uniform labels for the whole country so that the same chaotic battles do not have to be fought over and over again in each state, providing more opportunities for spreading misinformation. The actual words on the label are crucial and that should not be dictated by the naysayers. Ideally, I would propose :”This product contains GM ingredients which have been more rigorously tested than most products in your grocery store. They are produced using less pesticides and so are better for the farmers who grow them and our planet. They are also fortified with Vitamin A (for example) which will prevent blindness and death in millions of children.” But that is a dream and in the real world, companies will have to work hard to merely ensure that negativity is minimized.

In purely economic terms, there is a far bigger market out there as measured by currently undernourished/malnourished people than the few who might switch from buying products post labeling. And, most important to remember, the one piece of information on the label which seals the deal for a consumer on a budget is the price.If there is an initial cost increase involved, companies need to refrain from passing that on immediately to the consumer. Instead, let them read the label, see the price, compare it to the high priced organic option and make their decision.

You can read more on both sides of this here and here.

Golden Rice: Why We Need It


When Golden Rice (rice enriched with Vitamin A) hit the news recently, it seemed like more of  the same: some are excited about its potential while others caution about its negative consequences. Lately, I have found myself too often reading and responding to the same arguments on this topic on Facebook and Twitter so I was intending to just watch from the sidelines the sidelines. What makes the debate on Golden Rice different, though, is that it was developed by scientists and the results of this research were handed over to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). There are no corporations involved so I wondered what  the  anti-GMO group would base their argument on this time; now that the all encompassing Monster Monsanto flag cannot be raised. Instead of  building up their case with evidence, however,  they decided to go the “shout louder” route and opted to destroy a field of trial golden rice being developed by IRRI in the Philippines.

Timely and accurate reporting ensured that we learnt that the farmers who were supposed to be protesting actually watched in dismay, while a crowd which was brought in for the purpose vandalized the field. This has provoked a strong reaction and protests from scientists the world over who came out in support of the freedom to conduct scientific research. This is, by no means, an isolated event. Incidents of vandalism of experimental work in GMOs is so rife that Switzerland recently found that about three quarters of the research budget for GMOs was actually being used for security. Those who demand the freedom to make their choices are, apparently, not too keen on freedom for others to make their own discoveries.

Then came this piece questioning the need for genetic modification of food and there were some points that really merit further discussion. First, the fortification of rice with Vitamin A  through genetic modification does work. There is a suggestion that eating more carrots or yams or distributing supplements might be just as effective in terms of health outcomes and less expensive than the money spent on GM research. Here, we need to open a little window into the world of those who would benefit most from this technology. The children suffering from Vitamin A deficiency often belong to the poorest sections of society, living in remote rural areas or urban slums. Distributing supplements to the would require the use of a public distribution system which can just as effectively used to distribute golden rice itself.

Next, why the focus on rice? In the lowest income groups, the largest portion of expenditure on food is on staples like cereal, even fruits and vegetables might be an occasional purchase. In India for example, the lower income group diet might consist of rice and lentils with chillies or onions as a side (hence the turmoil over the current rise in onion prices!). It makes sense to add the nutrient to the food group that is consumed at almost every meal and it is important to remind ourselves that in this world, far removed from our own comfortable one, there would be perhaps two meals a day (and certainly no snacks like those cute carrot sticks that are ubiquitous in schools and sand boxes here); so directing the nutrient in the most effective way is crucial. Carrots, yams or any other vegetable would be available only in season (unlike rice) and even then might not make the budget of many households; thus, they are not the best candidates for addressing the deficiency.

Of course, the best outcome would be for the diet to consist of golden rice and also carrots/yams. This brings us to another point of contention. Why frame this debate as an either/or question? There is a grave problem to be addressed here, let us bring the best combination of tools to the table to solve it. Let us celebrate Golden Rice as much as fortified pearl millet and let us do all we can to bring fresh produce to kitchens all over the world.

And then, of course, comes the question of safety. GMOs, we are cautioned, have not been proven safe for human consumption. So let us look at it one more time: the safety and benefits of genetic modification have been endorsed by many institutions so there is no credibility issue here. If one chooses to mistrust these institutions, then that is their personal choice and this should not be allowed to squander the chance to prevent blindness and death for millions of children. Again, we see the demand for freedom to choose for a certain section at odds with their acceptance of others’ right to the same.

No decision comes without a cost and opting for any course of action will involve a cost: do we allow children to to suffer now and try to find a different solution or alleviate suffering with the knowledge that we have today. (An excellent explanation of costs is here). Would we find a solution that satisfies the opponents of genetic modification? How long would this take if we started today? All this is uncertain. What is certain, however, is that we have a tool that can prevent blindness and death in children today and millions of children in need of it.