Tag 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, freedigitalphotos.net)

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)

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 FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Can a Rice Gene Save the Banana?



Can a gene from rice help combat the pathogen that threatens the extinction of bananas? That was just one of the many interesting issues featured in Dr. Pamela Ronald’s lecture at the SAIS Global Issues in Agriculture series. Dr. Ronald is a plant geneticist at the University of California, Davis. Many of us following the debate on GMOs  might have read her book, “Tomorrow’s Table”, co-authored with her husband, Mr. R.W. Adamchak, who is an organic farmer.

Speaking to a (mostly) non-scientific audience, Dr. Ronald explained in clear terms that growers have been trying to enhance desirable traits in crops forever. The older method of simply crossing Type x with Type y and waiting to see whether the hybrid plant had the desired trait . This method focused on the outward result but modification at the genetic level did take place but was unobserved. Genetic modification today is precise,  and efficient and enables quick and accurate results. In addition, it is backed by years of research data.

Why do we need genetic modification anyway? Consider, Dr. Ronald said, the case of the GM papaya. The papayas grown in Hawaii were attacked by the ringspot virus which devastated the crop, even moving the crop to another island did not help. Ultimately, the plants were “vaccinated” with a dose of the virus which enabled them to resist when the virus actually attacked. And so it is that we still have papayas in Hawaii. Perhaps a similar solution could be found for coffee rust? We will never know if we cannot try this option in the real world. Dr. Ronald spoke of her own work with rice: how a rice gene could possibly be used to battle the pathogen which threatens  bananas with extinction.

One possible application of genetic modification could be in building climate resilience in crops.Dr. Ronald shared her work on building flood tolerance in rice. In many parts of the world rice is grown in flood prone areas and with increased flooding possible from climate change; the development of a strain of rice which can stand water logging for up to 17 days as compared to the current maximum of 3 days is great news. But all these wonderful possibilities would take years to negotiate the stringent regulatory process and even then be opposed due to fear mongering. In that context, I was hoping to ask Dr. Ronald for her views on labeling of GMO products. But , sadly, there was not enough time; most of the discussion was taken up by two journalists from Germany, which, given that country’s staunch opposition to GMOs was interesting….

The main point to learn from this lecture was that the seed (around which so much of the storm is swirling) is but a small part in the whole process of growing food and we need to incorporate all options, technology and good agro-ecological practices to achieve sustainable development.

While I was learning all this; with ease, I would like to add, as Dr. Ronald is great at making all this scientific information accessible to those not from a science background; I wished more people could hear her, instead of being bombarded by myths of “dangerous farming” and GMOs killing bees.

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.

Bangladesh Gets Bt Brinjal


It has been a recurring theme here at Thought+Food that the debates going on about the food system should not be overwhelmed by special interest groups. Instead, there must be room for the farmer to make her voice heard. This piece from a farmer in India who looks on in frustration as Bt Brinjal is being adopted in Bangaladesh while it has been blocked in India by the fear mongering of  anti biotech interests drives home this point. If anyone thinks we can solve our food problems by shutting out the very people who grow the food, then the road to reform and progress will be long one indeed.

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.

“Is there enough planet for all of us?”

That is the question posed at the beginning of the Global Hunger Report released today by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). The report examines the issue of hunger  framed by conditions prevalent today; such as increasing pressure on resources like land, water and energy, demographic changes pushing the planet’s population towards 9 billion by 2050, climate change and institutions and policies that are falling short of their goals.

To make the food system more sustainable, the report recommends a more efficient and careful use of resources, end to subsidies, investment in education and meeting the challenge of climate change, among others. Most of this is frequently discussed but the political will to make it happen often falls short. Everyone needs to get involved in whatever way they can to push for these changes.

The report does conclude, that,  yes, there is enough planet for us all, we just have to make smart and thoughtful choices.