Category Archives: Food Safety

The Mystery of the Suddenly Appearing GM Wheat


You have been reading about the sudden appearance of GM wheat in a field in Oregon, the ongoing USDA investigation into how it appeared there, the possibility of a boycott of American wheat by countries worried about GM wheat in their food supply, and the possibility of stiff losses to farmers (90% of Oregon wheat is exported). However, being a member of that vast group,  Clueless Urban Consumers, you held back on giving your opinion on social media because you were discovering a whole new world which you knew very little about , and did not feel comfortable asking out to the world  the questions burning in your brain: for instance,” where do baby wheat come from anyway?”; and, “wait, what, there are different kinds of wheat?”

Here is something to start with: wheat is not pollinated by insects, it self pollinates inside the flower while the flower is closed. Why is this important? Because bees or insects flying around cannot carry pollen to other wheat plants and enable  cross pollination. The pollen is heavy and cannot be carried far, anyway. Extra pollen may fall to the ground but is not viable for long so the possibility of pollen in soil getting moved to the field planted with regular wheat is remote.

There are several varieties of wheat and the distinctions are important. The wheat grown in Oregon is soft white winter wheat, bought by Japan and Korea where it is used for noodles and crackers. There is also, “hard red winter wheat, “hard red spring” “hard white wheat’ and keeping all these varieties separate is a special concern of wheat growers and there are associations on every state to ensure that correct procedures are followed.

Now to the incident in question. A farmer in Oregon discovered that some wheat plants in his fields were resistant to glyphosphate and contacted researchers at Oregon state University where it was determined that this was indeed, genetically modified wheat. GM wheat was tested by Monsanto from 1998 to 2005 and last grown in Oregon in 2002. Monsanto then withdrew the application and closed the trial. After this, proper measures should have been taken to deal with the seeds and other materials from the trial. (It is important to note here that this GM wheat had been certified safe by the FDA, but before the deregulatory process could start, there were threats of international boycott, protests etc so GM wheat never came to the market). Also worth noting,   Monsanto is currently testing GM wheat in Hawaii and North Dakota.

So if I have understood all this correctly, some questions arise. The obvious one, how did the GM plants get to this field? No one, wheat growers, scientists, or even those opposed to GM technology else has a plausible explanation of how this wheat could come up, years after testing had stopped in a field  which has been cultivated regularly without any previous occurrence of GM wheat.  GM corn and soy are widely grown in the US so logically there would be a higher probability of these sprouting randomly than wheat.

And that brings us to some notable observations: if I wanted GM technology to vanish overnight or even scare the population enough to push through my agenda of labeling everything in sight, what crop would I pick to create a fuss over? One that had already been the object of controversy which lead to abandonment of the GM version, (and , double bonus, the GM version was being tested by the company that has been made virtually synonymous with biotechnology in agriculture by anti-GM groups), one which forms a huge share of exports and is essential to the livelihood of many people , one where the distinction between varieties is crucial, one that would stir international controversy: wheat is the perfect answer.  Is it possible that this is not a random occurrence?

While we wait for for the USDA to publish its findings, it is important to remember that even if this wheat entered the food chain it is perfectly safe for human and animal consumption. So there is no reason for panic. All this does is stir, once again, the pot of fake science and fear that some people cannot seem to let alone. Let us take a step back and understand this: every time fears are raised and technology is abandoned, farmers and consumers, specially in the developing world, lose options. There is so much noise about GM seeds being expensive, well, look at how expensive the process is: if GM wheat ever comes to market the whole process would have taken decades, and who has the resources to stay the course over that period of time? Not universities or governments or research institutions but, you guessed right, a corporation like Monsanto.

The Price of Fear


An interesting piece on the price we pay for our fears, in The European Magazine. This question is central today in much of the issues being debated in the food world. There is distrust of biotechnology because there is no way to prove that they are “completely” safe. If its not food, then its public health which is vulnerable to fear and distrust.The irrational (and, as proven recently,) baseless fear of vaccination is being blamed for a measles epidemic in Wales and also a persistent Pertussis outbreak in the US. Why have we become so fearful?

If our ancestors had not been adventurous and ready to take a risk, we would be living in a very different world. One where we would never have been to the Moon because no one could show conclusively that it was safe to travel there or even tried a fruit like the rambutan which, looks somewhat scary but is actually delicious.

When new seeds and fertilizers were introduced to the Indian farmer in 1963, they too may have been fearful but they adopted this technology thereby bringing in the Green revolution that ultimately saved so many from hunger, malnutrition and untimely death. Instead of obsessing about what is on my plate and in my food, can we agree to try something that might provide solutions for those who have nothing on their plates? At this point in the discussion usually some one jumps up to say that production alone cannot solve the problems of the food system. I could not agree more but I would point out that by spending all our time and energy talking about GM food/organic cultivation/local or not, we have little left to spend on enormously important matters like consumption patterns, food waste, or malnutrition, among others. That is also part of the price we pay for being fearful , we are left with less than optimal solutions because we did not use our time and resources wisely.

And we can start with baby steps, perhaps move on produce item from the organic to regular column on our grocery list and try that or trace a news report to the actual study they are talking about and decide for oneself what to believe. And if you should choose conventional watermelon instead of organic this week,  you could  also try out this watermelon stroller, bringing you portable and chilled watermelons just in time for picnic season!

Antibiotic Use in Organic Apple and Pear Cultivation


Apple and pear trees are apparently susceptible to an infection called fire blight which is capable of devastating entire orchards. To combat this, organic farms received an exemption which allowed them to use antibiotics (Streptomycin and Oxytetracycline) to combat the disease. This issue is in the news now, because the exemption is set to expire in 2014. It was hoped that by now other methods would have become available to treat this problem so that antibiotics would no longer be needed. While some progress has been made, more work is required before the use of antibiotics can be completely discontinued.

So, given the controversy over labeling and the consumers’ “right to know” it is a little disconcerting to find that this organic produce has no label disclosing antibiotic use.  Even more interesting was the rationale offered for the use of antibiotics: they apparently leave little residue, not enough to be harmful to consumers, anyway. The same logic offered for conventional produce would be vilified as a conspiracy to “poison” consumers.

Does this mean we should support the continued use of antibiotics? Absolutely not. In fact, the article mentions that in addition to antibiotics better cultivation practices are being used to keep the healthy and this is the way to go:make use of all the knowledge and techniques that are available to achieve the common good.

Is the “Rice Revolution” for Real?


This week, the media was full of reports about a “rice revolution ” in India. The trail started from the article in the Guardian, which claimed that record yields of rice had been achieved in the state of Bihar, in India, without GM or herbicides. It reported how 5 farmers decided to use the SRI system( System of Rice Intensification) and came up with unprecedented yields of 22 tonnes per hectare. Nobel Prize winning economist Prof. Stiglitz is quoted as saying this type of inspiring organic farming should be studied and replicated elsewhere.

So, first I needed to understand what SRI involves: it is a set of techniques for managing soil , water, planting conditions to increase yield ,which was first noted in Madagascar by a priest and then tried out elsewhere as well. Improving agroecological practices is crucial for the food system but can this be replicated effectively to solve the system’s inherent problems? This question is best answered by looking at the report which gives details of this effort: the farmers start off with hybrid seeds from Bayer and Syngenta, and plants in the SRI as well as regular fields receive doses of inorganic fertilizer so this rice crop cannot actually be termed “organic”. The experiment provides pesticides to the regular crop but uses cono weeding to control pests in the SRI field. More labor is required in the SRI field for careful application of water but less water is actually required for the process, also fewer seedlings are planted in the SRI field and so less labor is required on that account. So what we have a is conventional seeds with good farming practices giving encouraging results. This is not unknown, to the contrary, many advocates have been recommending such a  mix of methods rather than depending for the sake of ideology on any one particular option.

Whether the results from Bihar can be replicated over time, countries and scale to have a real impact remains to be seen and one can hope that it will be useful specially for smallholder farmers. But long before that, the waters have been muddied by people pushing agendas. It seems strange that a year’s effort from five fields is touted as proof that biotechnology is useless but years of tests and safe consumption of biotech crops are dismissed as lies. For fixing a global food system breaking down under the strain of feeding a growing population and quite unprepared to withstand the shocks of climate change, we need the calm  of the middle not the chaos of the extreme and we owe it to the planet and to our children  to make that happen.

GM/ Organic/ Conventional : What is a Seedless Watermelon?

It is the peak of watermelon season and  some consumers will only buy the seedless variety. So, have you wondered why some watermelons have seeds and some do not (the appearance of the mini/ “personal” watermelons is also fascinating for me but that is a topic for another post!) ?  The  explanation is here, basically this variety has been developed by a two step process: first, one  type of watermelon is treated with a chemical that doubles the number of chromosomes and then it is cross bred with another variety to  achieve the final product which contains no seeds.  There is no genetic engineering involved but there are changes involved at the chromosomal level. Would this change the way we categorize this fruit?  And if not, then why is labeling GM so crucial? An informed discussion is essential.

Atlantic Food Summit Today

I will be attending the Atlantic Food Summit today, eager to hear the discussion on childhood nutrition, obesity and most important, how to feed 9 billion people sustainably. I will be sharing  and posting on all of that in detail and for the first time, will also attempt to tweet as it happens! Please follow @thegreenfork for updates. Martha Stewart and Mario Batali will be participating, among others, so it should be a good thing….

What the Farmer thinks of Biotechnology


The voices heard most often in the food debate belong on the consumer side of the table: what foods are safe or nutritious or good for kids. We do not often hear the producers’ side of the story. Many people say they do not want to eat food grown with the help of biotechnology. Consider what this Portuguese farmer has to say and consider the question afresh.

Is Small Always Beautiful?

In the midst of all the bad food news: the obesity epidemic, use of hormones and toxic chemicals in the food industry, food deserts, to name a few; reports of flourishing urban gardens are always encouraging. But are they really a long term solution to the problems in our food system?  It can be argued that their small size prevents them from spurring economic growth in the community in a meaningful way and they can do little to solve the problem of global hunger.

As in most issues related to the food world, it is essential not to take an extreme view. Urban gardens are an important step toward revitalizing devastated urban areas like Detroit or New Orleans and in small ways their scale can be ramped up to spread the benefits in the community but they are not a magic wand which we can wave and fix the food system.

In this piece the author argues that it would be more efficient to have a Wal-Mart instead as that would create more jobs and bring economic growth to the area. Before we knock the idea, check out a Wal-Mart store. In my neighborhood, the store stocks wild caught fish, organic produce, milk and eggs and has organic options to regular cereals, granola bars and other basics on the shelves, all at an affordable price.

We cannot all grow our own food and small farms cannot feed everyone. We have also learned our lessons from the consistent growth of huge industrialized farms and the subsequent breakdown of the food system. Can we try for a middle path where local, nutritious produce is available at prices consumers can actually afford?

From the Yard to the Pot

Urban farming is not just about fresh herbs and juicy veggies from the backyard, many people are raising small animals too; ike goats, rabbits and chicken. The ultimate destination for these animals , of course, is the pot. Their living moments, it is argued are more humane in these urban backyards than they would be in a factory farm, but what about their end? Is it safe, hygienic, desirable? While approving of the idea in principle, would we actually welcome it in our own neighborhood? Where I live, you cannot paint the outside of the house any color you like, much less raise and kill chickens in the backyard. There is a logic behind this, we have chosen to live in a community, in an organized way so collective opinion is important. My right to raise animals for dinner has to coexist with your sanitary or health concerns. Right now, these issues are being debated in Oakland, CA as new zoning laws for urban farms are being drawn up.

To me, these conflicts are similar to the raw milk or vaccine debates. Yes, we have a right to choose what we eat and decide how to nurture our children. But we have all opted to live in a social framework as well and harmonious coexistence is crucial.

The Origins of Dinner

I came late to the interesting challenge posed by Real Eats: go completely unprocessed for October. In other words, if I take up the challenge I can only eat foods that I could make in my own kitchen, that are unprocessed. What is compelling here is their analysis of what actually goes into what we eat, can anything be actually categorized as “unprocessed” in today’s food system? Coffee, wine and cheese are allowed while bread (and the processing of) requires a whole post to itself.

And while we are reflecting on where food comes from, consider the case of organic strawberries which can, legally, be grown from “starters” that are developed in a conventional nursery. So, the plant starts life in a conventional way but after a year is treated with organic farming practices in an organic farm. Would you consider this “organic” and pay a premium for it?  Note that, if these seedlings were to be developed in an “organic” way from the start, the process would be more expensive and the premium on the price of fruit also would be higher. There are no remnants of the chemicals used in the starting stages of the plants in the fruits themselves.