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Friday, January 5, 2018

Yes, We May Have No Bananas, But Monoculture Wasn't So Easy To Avoid

(This article originally appeared on Forbes, 1/4/18)

Standard retail banana display - photo by Steve Hopson via Wikimedia Commons

In 1923, Frank Silver and Irving Cohn published a song that became a major hit for the Billy Jones Orchestra, with the signature line “Yes, we have no bananas; we have no bananas today.” It turned out to be sadly prophetic as, in the 1950s, the banana trees that supplied the entire global banana export business were wiped out by a soil-borne fungal disease known as “Panama Wilt.”

The industry at that time was almost entirely based on a single banana cultivar called “Gros Michel” (meaning “Big Mike”), and it was susceptible to infection by a strain of fungus called Fusarium. Once the soil of a given plantation was contaminated with that strain, any Gros Michel tree grown there would soon die.

By good fortune, a different banana cultivar that was being grown in the South Seas was able to substitute for Gros Michel as a commercial line, and this new “Cavendish” cultivar became the new banana of international commerce, as it remains to this day. (Check out this interesting blog post about the history of the Cavendish variety and how it actually passed through a greenhouse in England in that process! And here is another good post about the history of this disease and the industry.)

Unfortunately, it's about time for some band to cover “Yes, We Have No Bananas” because, evolution being what it is, a new strain of Fusarium — Tropical Race 4 — has arisen and it is lethal to the Cavendish. The disease is slowly making its way around the world, and since it can be spread in a particle of dirt on something like a boot, it will almost inevitably make it to the Central and South American growing regions that supply both North America and Europe with their bananas.

Although this unfortunate scenario has been on the minds of the banana industry for decades, it is now starting to get more attention in the mainstream press. One part of the story that has been shocking to these outside observers is that such a huge industry would ever be dependent on a single cultivar of banana. As Stephen Mihm put it for Bloomberg, this looming “bananapocalypse” is attributable to a vulnerability that comes from the practice of “extreme monoculture.”
While I understand why observers might be shocked that a nearly $12 billion industry depends almost exclusively on the Cavendish banana, I do want to push back on the implied conclusion that this represents some sort of irrational or irresponsible expression of “big ag” or whatever other demons are imagined by the Food Movement.

Banana tree dying from Panama Wilt (Photo by Scot Nelson)

When you see something that is a standard practice in a very large, nationally diverse and multi-company business like bananas, I would suggest that it is appropriate to ask not “what is wrong with this system” but rather, “What are the practical factors that drive this seemingly irrational practice?”

I’m not a banana expert, but in the mid-1990s, two of my first jobs as an independent consultant had to do with the banana industry. It was during the exciting early years of commercial plant biotechnology, and many industries were asking, “What might this new technology do for our business?” Both of my projects involved early-stage discussions between a major banana company and a plant biotech company — four different entities in all. These were “drawing board stage” projects, with the goal of figuring out if certain ideas could ever make economic sense: Would they be something worth years of effort and millions of dollars for research? Still, overall, biotechnology looked like a way for this industry to tap into genetic diversity.

The fun part for me was getting to do a deep dive into the details of how bananas are grown, handled, shipped and marketed. I got to travel to Honduras, Costa Rica and Ecuador to tour banana plantations and interact with experts at the major banana export companies. As I said, I’m not an industry insider, but I think I can shed some light on why there are not more kinds of bananas grown for export.

As modern consumers, we are offered an amazingly diverse selection of fresh fruits and vegetables year-round, so it is important to think back to the early days of this offer of plenty. Having grown up in Denver in the 1960s, I can recall that, except for a few summer months, almost the only fresh fruit options at the grocery store were bananas, apples and oranges. I have a podcast about why apples were ever on that list. But if you think about it, the very fact that we can so easily enjoy fresh bananas in temperate regions is a bit remarkable.

Bananas can grow only in regions where there is never frost, and they do best in truly tropical climates. How did a tropical fruit become a mainstream, reasonably priced, healthful, kid-popular fruit for people who experience winter?
In tropical regions, there is a great deal of genetic diversity among wild bananas and considerable diversity among the banana or plantain types that humans cultivate. However, very few of these bananas could ever meet the criteria needed to be a viable export crop.

A typical wild banana with seeds (image by Mkumaresa via Wikimedia Commons)

First of all, a banana for export has to be seedless. Many wild bananas have large, very hard black seeds – not something that has much consumer appeal. The bananas that people like are seedless because they have triploid genetics – three of each chromosome vs. the two that we have. That is the same way we get seedless watermelons, grapes, etc. It's not some “GMO” thing; it happens at times in the plant kingdom, and we humans like it! Still, improving or changing the cultivar through “conventional breeding” isn’t an option if it makes no seeds.

Next, the banana needs to be productive in terms of overall yield per tree or acre. I’m sure no one in the 1920s was calculating it, but in modern “sustainability” thinking, the “land-use efficiency” of a crop is an important criterion. That, along with “water-use efficiency,” small “carbon footprint” and “energy footprint,” is all very much tied to good yield. The usable per-hectare yields of the Cavendish variety are quite high, and that is why it has been a both economically viable and environmentally sustainable choice for a long time.

But probably the most limiting requirement for a banana variety to be commercially acceptable is that it has to be shippable. In the modern era, we have lots of transport options for food products, but during the era when the banana was becoming an item of international trade, the only viable option was ocean shipping. A product being moved from the tropics to North America or Europe needed a very-low-cost transport option if it was ever going to be a mainstream consumer product. Most fresh produce products loaded onto a ship for a two-plus-week trip to a northern port would be a soup of decay by the time they arrived.

What made the Gros Michel and its successor, the Cavendish, remarkable was that they could make that trip at a temperature range of 55-58 degrees Fahrenheit, and so not even require lots of energy for refrigeration. Very few of the wonderful range of cultivated or wild banana types could ever do that, but because the Cavendish can be shipped this way, the energy and carbon footprint of its shipment is small. This crop has a very attractive "food-miles" profile.

Banana Black Sigatoka infection (Image by Scot Nelson)

In addition, it turns out that the conditions under which bananas grow can affect their shipping potential. There is a disease that infects only the leaves of banana plants called “Black Sigatoka.” If a banana tree has suffered too much of that infection, even the robust Cavendish variety won’t be able to make the trip by sea. One thing I learned on my tour was that plantations have employees whose whole job is to survey the plantation on a tree-by-tree basis in order to qualify the fruit for shipment based on how well that disease has been managed.

But it gets even more complicated than that (here's a good video summary of the process). Bananas are picked in Central and South America at a “green” stage — imagine a fruit more completely green than the greenest one you've ever seen in the clusters in your store. When they get to their destination, they are put into “ripening rooms,” where they are exposed to ethylene gas to start them on the way to the ripe yellow fruit you know. Before you freak out, know that ethylene is the fully natural plant hormone that induces ripening in most fruits and vegetables.

There is a definite art to this ripening process, and highly valued experts who can assess each shipment of bananas know just how to handle them in the “ripening rooms” to achieve the goal of delivering “just right” bananas at retail. This process has to factor in issues like ups and downs in demand and turnover rates at key retail customer outlets, in addition to the condition of the incoming fruit.

I know that at the stores where I shop, I can consistently buy bananas that are close to ripe but not fully, such that I can hope to consume them all before they turn black. We consumers might think we have a balancing act to do when it comes to timing ripening and consumption of the bananas from our counters, but imagine that on a huge scale for the banana distribution chain.

There is one more critical element of the business model: Those ships that come to our ports loaded with bananas certainly can’t go back empty. The banana shipping companies are also seriously involved in their “back-haul” business of bringing back products of interest in the source countries. Having a well-understood, predictable crop helps with running that business efficiently as well.

So for the international banana business to work in a way that provides a relatively low-cost product acceptable to consumers, it needs to be able to function in a reliable and predictable fashion. Figuring out how to do this with a new banana variety would be a huge challenge. How do you grow it efficiently? Can the crop make the trip reliably? How can its ripeness be managed in order to meet both the distribution chain requirements and the needs of consumers for decent “counter life”? Will all of this work in a way that is compatible with a viable back-haul business?

So while it is easy to think that the banana industry is crazy to depend on one cultivar, I submit to you that it is not without reason and it implies no irresponsibility.
So does that just mean that we are inevitably going to live out the unintended prophecy of “yes, we have no bananas”? I think that depends on whether we continue to live in a world where anti-biotechnology groups are able to exercise the control that they currently have over our food system.

Let me explain. Remember that my introduction to bananas was based on excitement about what biotechnology could do for the crop. One of the concepts was to develop bananas that were resistant to that leaf infection disease that can compromise shipability. Control of that disease requires something like 40 fungicide sprays a year, so as you can imagine, there would be a huge cost savings if the trees could be made resistant.

The other concept on the table was modifying the banana so that it would stay in that nice yellow, but not yet black, stage longer on the consumer’s counter. I’ll never forget that in the first meeting about that idea, a participant who worked for a UK-based banana importer said in his very British accent: “Why would you want to do that? Don’t you know that the dustbin is a major consumer of bananers?” Obviously he wasn’t attuned to current sensitivity to the need for food waste reduction. I thought it was cool that a banana company was serious about an idea that might reduce food waste, with the hope that it would make consumers more comfortable about buying even more bananas.

Well, these were just theoretical ideas at the time, and they didn’t go anywhere because it soon became evident that the anti-GMO forces were quite successful at putting brand-sensitive companies in an untenable spot if they were using “GMO crops” not just for generic ingredients but for brand-central crops. A dramatic example was how fast-food chains like McDonald's moved to avoid biotech potatoes for their signature fries.

It quickly became clear to the banana companies that their brands and their retail store access could be compromised if they pursued “GMO” options. The irony here is that this would have been the most viable strategy with which to bring genetic diversity into the logical but extreme monoculture of bananas.

So the irony is that if the “yes, we have no bananas” scenario becomes a reality, it will be because we as a global society didn’t use a safe, viable, scientifically sound strategy to rationally deal with the problem in the banana crop.

Public institution scientists in Australia and entrepreneurial scientists in the Latin America have come up with ways to modify commercially relevant bananas to resist the Fusarium disease. Ideally there would be the potential to use several approaches, either in the same banana or in different fields; that would avoid delay selection for resistance and avoid yet another dependency on a single line. It is likely that the "heritage variety" Gros Michel could be made commercially viable once again!

If the Fusarium-resistant biotech bananas were introduced, activists would almost certainly attack them as “GMO.” Would any of the big banana companies have the guts to move forward with the technology in spite of the inevitable brand attacks by NGOs? Would any big food retailers be willing to resist the inevitable pressures not to stock that fruit? That retail blockage strategy is being used today against other new biotech offerings such as non-browning apples and potatoes and fast-growing, terrestrially raised salmon.

At one level, this is a question about what will be available for us as consumers. Will we continue to have this highly consumed, reasonably priced, child-friendly, healthy food option? Maybe not. But there is another big question.

One thing I witnessed on those visits to the banana industry back in the '90s was that large communities in Central and South America flourish because of the jobs that this industry creates. We in the rich world will still have lots of other fruit choices if the stores have no bananas, but that flexibility isn’t there for the families that have been doing the work to provide us with this staple food option for so many decades. I would think that most activists are the kind of people who care about the availability of healthy, low-cost fruit options; I doubt that they would want to see the banana-producing communities impoverished. However, if the current paradigm of anti-GMO intimidation of fruit companies and retailers continues, that is where we are headed.


You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me at

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Not Your Grandfather's Tobacco, Not Your Father's Marijuana

A zero-THC variant of Cannabis could help not only with uses where the “high” is undesirable, it would also make this kind of relief more practical by clearly separating the medical and recreational uses of this plant. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

(This post originally appeared on Forbes on 6/19/17)

A plant biotechnology company called 22ND Century (NASDAQ: XXII) is developing two very interesting new crop varieties. One is a line of tobacco that barely makes any nicotine. The idea is to use that tobacco to make cigarettes that can help people quit smoking. 22ND Century’s other new offering is a line of marijuana that doesn’t make THC. The goal in this case is to make it possible for people to realize various medical benefits of Cannabis without the physical and legal complications of the high. Both of these offerings demonstrate how the increasingly sophisticated scientific understanding of plant genetics can lead to positive contributions.
The plants we humans enjoy as cultivated crops provide us with energy, protein, vitamins and micronutrients. Plants are also pretty amazing chemists that provide us with a diverse collection of and useful compounds. These include delectable flavors and fragrances that enhance the experience of foods. Many foods also provide beneficial “bio-pharmaceuticals” such as anti-oxidants.
Some plants provide us with chemicals we use as drugs. The coffee plant makes caffeine, which many of us use as a stimulant to help start our mornings. Some excessive consumption of caffeinated products can be problematic, but in general this is a plant-based drug that society uses safely and without regulation.

Tobacco makes nicotine – a psycho-active chemical which stimulates certain receptors in the brain. Unfortunately nicotine is highly addictive and drives users to continue smoking in spite of the profoundly negative health outcomes of doing so. In spite of the extremely well documented risks to both smokers and bystanders, smoking remains a legal, if sometimes taxed or restricted, activity. According to the World Health Organization, over 1.1 billion people smoke.

How smoking varies around the world

The main product concept for the very low nicotine tobacco is for prescription cigarettes that doctors can recommend to patients who want to stop smoking. Kicking the nicotine habit is quite difficult. Independent studies have been encouraging about the potential for smoking cessation aided with cigarettes made with the very low nicotine cigarettes (VLNC). The physical and sensory ritual of smoking without the narcotic effects seems to be an easier transition.
Cannabis contains the psychoactive drug, THC, which is the basis for its recreational use. The plant also makes a number of other chemicals that can potentially relieve nausea for those in chemotherapy and prevent seizures for those with various conditions. Sorting out the medical potential has been complicated by the patchwork of differing legal status throughout the U.S. and the rest of the world.

A zero-THC product could help not only with uses where the “high” is undesirable, but it will also make this kind of relief more practical by clearly separating the medical and recreational uses of this plant.

Low THC versions of Cannabis have long been grown as “Hemp” with many valuable fiber and food applications. But under some circumstances those earlier versions of the crop can still make too much THC. That is part of why they cannot be legally grown in many places and why the farmer faces some risk of having his or her crop rejected and subject to destruction. A zero THC Hemp could be free from those issues, and also more attractive to consumers interested in something like a source of hemp oil, hemp milk etc.
It should be obvious that these new versions of tobacco and Cannabis are “genetically modified,” as are virtually all the crops we grow. In this case the developers used the tools of modern molecular genetics like RNAi to figure out what metabolic pathways in plants are critical for the ability to make nicotine or THC. Armed with that information they could then find other ways to shut down the genes for specific enzymes to achieve the desired end result.
In making their final crop lines, the scientists behind the work at 22ND Century intentionally employed methods of genetic modification that wouldn’t trigger the regulatory or marketing problems for a “GMO Crop.” What does or doesn’t get classified as “GMO” is not a science-based criterion, and in a rational world, all advanced crop modification would be regulated by the features of the final product, not by the process used to get there. But the reality is that by avoiding the “GMO” controversy, 22nd Century can more practically and speedily deliver these good options to the people who need them.

The very low nicotine products are currently going through the FDA review process in the U.S. The Zero THC Hemp is only awaiting the production of commercial quantities of seed. It does not require any regulatory approval as it contains no foreign DNA and is not classified as “GMO.”

You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me at

Friday, March 31, 2017

Two Convincingly Green Products Coming To Store Shelves

Two surprisingly Green consumer product options (charcoal image petr kratochvilbacon image cyclonebill)

In this age of highly politicized climate change denial, those of us who respect scientific consensus can still make individual choices that make sense.  Even though individual action has a small impact, sometimes even the symbolism can be a motivator.  One has to be a bit skeptical because there certainly is some "greenwashing" in the consumer marketing space.  That is why I want to talk about a couple of consumer products options with legitimately "green" back stories and a connection to agriculture.  They also happen to connect with two things lots of consumers like me really enjoy - outdoor grilling and bacon!

Greener Grilling
Last summer I wrote a post titled “An Example of Innovation 2.0” which described a company that is doing a modern version of a bio-based chemical production process that was originally developed as part of the Allied war effort in World War I. A Russian immigrant named Chaim Weizman came up with a bacterial means of making acetone that was needed to make smokeless gun powder (That was very important in trench warfare). Weizman later became the first president of Israel.
Modern innovators updated that microbial system with the tools of biotechnology so that the bio-based production of the chemicals butanol and acetone are now competitive with petroleum-based versions of those chemicals. Green Biologics is a UK-based company that has been active in this area and they now have a plant up and running in Minnesota using corn as a feedstock. Butanol and acetone go into a wide range of products like plastics, paints and finishes etc and these can now be “bio-based,” helping to reduce our dependency on fossil fuel.

Green Biologics decided that they would also like to offer a direct consumer product. They found that they could make a very effective charcoal lighter fluid from their bio-butanol.  That product is being rolled out at Kroger nationwide under the Green FlameTM brand with additional retail commitments in the works. Neither I or Green Biologics are claiming that bio-based charcoal lighter fluid will save the planet, but it is a small step that a lot of people could take without some big investment and while doing something a lot of Americans enjoy – grilling.
There is another upside as well. Traditional lighter fluid is made from “petroleum distillates” and within that mix are some compounds that don’t smell very nice and which generate a lot of black smoke. You have to wait for that to dissipate before wanting to start cooking your meat, vegetables or marshmallows. This video is a dramatic comparison of how much smoke comes off the normal fluid vs the bio-based butanol fluid. The GreenFlameTM fluid also doesn’t have that smell problem. Apparently, you can buy a more expensive “odor-free” lighter fluid that uses a more refined fraction of the distillates, but I like the idea of this bio-based, better smelling starter.

Two white cards that were held above two burning lighter fluids to compare smoke output.  See the video here.

Recently, the company took the product on the road to the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Expo in Atlanta, Georgia. They told me they conducted well over 1,000 taste tests and received overwhelmingly positive results, with the large majority of testers claiming the burger samples made using GreenFlameTM tasted noticeably better than those grilled with traditional lighter fluid.


Bacon is something else that is pretty popular with consumers and certainly something I enjoy. That is why I was hopeful but a little skeptical when I first heard about a carbon footprint reduction pledge made by the nations largest producer of pork, Smithfield Foods. Apparently Smithfield has been working with scientists at the NGO, Environmental Defense Fund to come up with strategies pig farmers can use to reduce the carbon footprint of their production system. One way is that they are providing some tools for optimizing the nitrogen fertilizer use and other agronomic aspects of crops they grow to feed the pigs. Overall this will help reduce the carbon footprint of the entire pork production process.

A graphic from Smithfield summarizing their plan

Smithfield is also helping their producers buy “manure lagoon covers.” As the pigs grow they generate a lot of manure. That can be taken back out to help fertilize another crop, but for a while it has to be stored. During storage there is an issue of smell, and also emissions of ammonia that can be a health issue for the surrounding community. Also the lagoon emits methane from the microbial processes that are going on. Methane is a greenhouse gas 24 times as potent as carbon dioxide. But with the cover, the methane can be trapped and then burned as a renewable fuel to generate electricity or heat (the CO2 from that process is "carbon neutral" since it originally came from carbon fixed by a plant). This is a win-win for air quality and for carbon emissions. You can read more about this overall approach at a website about pork production and energy called Whole Hog.

A covered manure lagoon at a hog barn (Image from Whole Hog website, Univ. N. Carolina)

And as a consumer I can feel better about enjoying the products. No matter how the political winds are blowing, I can add these choices to others to do my small part in combating climate change. So, time to grill some of this lower footprint pork over charcoal lit with a bio-based product!

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

New GM Technology Allows Crops To Just Say No To Dangerous Toxins

Contaminated maize in Africa - Image from International Institute of Tropical Agriculture

(This article originally appeared on Forbes on 3/21/17)

There has been a breakthrough on a way to reduce the risk of a major form of cancer in the developing world. It involves corn genetically modified to "just say no" to the production of a carcinogenic toxin in its grain.

Have you heard of Aflatoxin? It is a major risk factor for cancer in the developing world.  Aflatoxin is a natural chemical produced by a fungus. It is a highly toxic and is a very potent carcinogen in animal studies. Those of us in the developed world are fortunate in that a number of safeguards keep aflatoxin out of our animal feed and human food supplies. Unfortunately, in the developing world, people are not so well protected. In those regions aflatoxin contaminated foods are responsible for many poisonings, and high cancer rates. Researchers in Arizona have recently published a paper about a biotech crop breakthrough that could dramatically improve that situation.

Aflatoxins are chemicals produced by certain fungi that infect food crops (Aspergillus flavus, Aspergillus parasiticus). The biggest developing world risks are with maize (corn), and groundnuts (peanuts) - staple, subsistence crops in parts of Africa and Asia. When insect feeding damages crops and/or through drought stress, they are most susceptible to infection by these fungi. The infections can continue to develop after harvest, particularly under less than ideal storage conditions.

Maize (corn) in Africa (Image by Kate Holt/AusAID)

In an article published in the prestigious journal, Science Advances, five scientists from public institutions in Arizona described how they genetically engineered corn to prevent its contamination by aflatoxin. For this article I spoke with Dr. Monica Schmidt of the University of Arizona. Schmidt’s team engineered the corn to make three small RNA molecules designed to specifically bind to parts of a particular RNA produced by the fungus. These small RNAs made in the kernel cells are able to move from the corn into the invading fungus. Once there, they trigger a mechanism in the fungus cells that blocks the production of a key enzyme required by Aspergillus to make aflatoxins. Because this approach involves three separate bits of targeting RNA, it is extremely unlikely that the fungus could mutate in a way to get around this blockage. The corn plants modified this way are effectively protected from contamination with aflatoxin. This kind of corn could give developing world consumers a much safer food supply.

This work was funded by the Gates Foundation, which also funds work to develop corn that is resistant to insect damage and drought. In combination with the aflatoxin protection this constitutes an ideal integrated solution for that critical crop. This is also a proof of concept for taking a similar approach with peanuts. The intention is to make this technology freely available for breeding into the local crop varieties that are best adapted to the regions in question.

What about the developed world? It would actually make a lot of sense to add this technology to the diverse toolset that we already use to keep aflatoxin out of our corn and peanuts. There are also other crops that could benefit from another protection strategy from aflatoxin – notably tree nuts like almonds, pistachios, walnuts and pecans. Aflatoxin can also be an issue in cottonseed that is used as an animal feed. The same biotech strategy may well work with other fungal toxins that can be an issue in other crops.
The world’s consumers can derive great health benefits from the further development of this technology.  This is definitely one to track and to encourage.

You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me at

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Conventional Produce Is Not Dirty, But The Marketing Tactics Of Big Organic Are

Spinach - a crop that is getting a bum rap (picture by Victor M. Vicente Selvas)

(This post originally appeared on Forbes on 3/13/17)

For each of the last twenty years, an organization called the Environmental Working Group has issued what it calls a “Dirty Dozen List.” It names crops it claims to have high pesticide residues and recommends that consumers purchase organic versions of these crops. They base their list on a seriously distorted interpretation of a taxpayer-funded testing program called the PDP (Pesticide Data Program, USDA). What the PDP actually documents is that our food supply is extremely safe. EWG has repeatedly been called out for promoting this science-free list and for the counter-productive effect it is having on produce consumption by Americans. Yet, EWG persists in employing this strategy as a means of fund raising. Presumably it also serves the interests of their corporate funders in the organic food industry (see list below).  Note that these are very large, processed food players with only one produce company in the list.

The real "dirty dozen"

In its latest campaign, EWG is singling out a few crops for added demonization – notably spinach. They highlight certain specific chemicals that were detected in spinach samples by the USDA in 2015. I have looked in detail at this same, publicly available data. It turns out that 7% of the 2015 spinach samples were organic. The very same chemicals that EWG choses to talk about were found on those organic samples. As with virtually all of the residues found on all crops, the quantities that the USDA analytical chemists found were at very low levels - well below any possible level for health concern. Still, it is ironic that the same flawed logic that EWG uses to scare consumers away from perfectly safe conventional spinach says that they should also avoid the organic alternative.

Bagged Baby Spinach (CCO Public Domain)

Experts agree that one of the best things we can do for our health is to consume a lot of fruits and vegetables (here is one example of why that makes sense). Sadly, all too few Americans do that. Spinach is one of the more popular vegetables that can help move consumers in the right direction, particularly since it has become available as a convenient fresh, pre-washed option. Discouraging consumption of any kind of spinach is a notably irresponsible thing to do, particularly through disinformation. An industry group that represents both conventional and organic produce companies (and many are both) offers an on-line calculator using the USDA’s data and legitimate toxicological information. With this tool consumers can visualize just how safe products like spinach actually are. For instance, a child could safely eat up to 310 servings of spinach a day without negative effects from the trace chemicals on that crop.

Aphids on spinach (Image by demintedmint)
As I wrote last week, organic and conventional produce are actually quite similar when it comes to the presence of low levels of pesticide residues. Because EWG singled out spinach in its recent fund raising email campaign I thought it would be worthwhile to get into the details for that crop.

For instance, EWG focuses on the synthetic pyrethroid insecticide, permethrin, which it calls a “Neurotoxic bug killer.” That sounds scary, but pyrethroids all have the same mode of action as the natural product called pyrethrin derived from Chrysanthemums (pyrethrin is used on organic crops).  As a class the pyrethroids are only slightly toxic to mammals and are considered safe enough to be in many household, garden and pet products sold to consumers.  One of the synthetic versions, Permethrin, is among the most used crop protection agents on spinach to prevent damage from caterpillar pests and infestations with aphids. These are not things we would like to find in our salads!

The USDA detected an average of 0.8 parts per million of permethrin on the 2015 conventional spinach samples. That is only 4.2% of the conservative tolerance set by the EPA, meaning it isn’t even close to something to worry about. On the organic samples from the same season, the USDA detected an average of 0.9 parts per million permethrin– essentially the same level as with conventional.

EWG also calls out the fact that traces of DDT and its metabolites were found in some spinach samples. These are unfortunate, long-term soil contaminants still slowly decomposing decades after that old product was banned. Their presence is certainly not related to whether the current spinach crop is grown conventionally or under the organic rules. Fortunately, the levels are tiny – seven parts per billion for the conventional and 11 parts per billion for the organic. These are only 1-2% of the level that the EPA considers to be of concern.

Permethrin and DDT are the products detected on spinach that the EWG chose to talk about. There were residues of 30 other synthetic pesticides on the organic spinach in 2015. The USDA does not test for at least two dozen other organic-approved pesticides that are used on spinach (biocontrol agents, mineral compounds, natural product chemicals). None of this means that organic spinach is “dirty.” Conventional spinach isn’t “dirty” either. What is “dirty” is the tactic is telling consumers they need to buy organic because of residue concerns without acknowledging that the organic products have similar, low-level residues.
In my opinion the "Dirty Dozen" should refer to the eleven big-organic companies that support the EWG and the EWG itself.

You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me at

Thursday, March 9, 2017

The EPA Deserves Some Respect

Do you remember how comedian Rodney Dangerfield always used to say: “I can’t get no respect!” Lately that is how it seems for environmental regulatory agencies like the EPA.  I feel as though we need to defend the very idea of sound regulation against three intensifying challenges:
·      threats of defunding or arbitrary rollbacks coming from some on the populist-right
·      a denial of the progress that has been made by some on the eco-left, and
·      a severe under-appreciation of our legacy of environmental protection by American society as a whole

I certainly can’t defend or critique all regulation, but as an agricultural scientist I have observed four decades of a reasonably function federal and state level regulation of pesticides and other crop protection agents.  I’m not saying that system is perfect, but I have witnessed how it has greatly advanced the health and environmental profile of this sector.  I’ve watched the sifting out of problematic practices in response to increasingly sophisticated scientific understanding.  I’ve also watched how this system has provided a framework that that encouraged the private investment and innovation needed to bring farmers better and safer tools with which to protect their crops and thus our food supply.

I speak here strictly as an individual not trying to speak for any company or organization. I have had a long career in this sector.  I’ve never had a regulatory compliance role as such, but I’ve been involved in the process of finding and seeking regulatory guidance and/or approval for products based on synthetic chemicals, natural product-based chemicals, and live biological control agents. I’ve interacted with dozens of employees of the EPA, the California Department of Pesticide Regulation and other state-level regulators. Yes, my industry connections and experience gives me a certain bias, but it also gives me some practical and historical perspective from which to share.

I believe that our goal should be to refine our regulatory processes, not to dismantle, dismiss or fail to appreciate them. To pursue that refinement goal I believe that there are four principles of sound regulation that can be learned from this example.  Good things can happen when we have:

1.     A system that is consistently guided by science and adjusted as scientific understanding evolves
2.     A system where regulatory decision making is reasonably free from political pressures and agendas
3.     A system which focuses on managing the risk of harm, rather than on based on hazard out of the context of real-world exposure
4.     A system which maintains perspective on benefit/cost trade-offs
5.     A system which is sufficiently predictable and timely so that it remains rational to make a substantial and continuing private-sector investment in the development of innovative new solutions

A few years ago I gathered historical information about the pesticide use on what is still one of my favorite crops – California wine grapes. The chart below shows the trend for one measure of toxicity for this crop, but it is indicative of trends in other crops and with other measures of impact.  Pesticides have clearly changed for the better, both in terms of what they provide for the farmers and in terms of their safety profile. 

Category IV "practically non-toxic", III "slightly toxic", II "moderately toxic", I "highly toxic".  This is for acute oral toxicity.

This progress was possible because of massive and sustained private investment. That, in turn, was possible because the industry could count on a fairly rational regulatory process.  This was in no way a cozy relationship, but it was functional. The nature of the EPA regulations has definitely evolved over the decades as guided by developments in environmental science and toxicology, but the process is sufficiently rational to encourage further investment to find the newer, better tools.  This is an excellent example of successful innovation under an intense, but highly functional regulatory regime. 

I wish I was fully optimistic about this process moving forward, but I have some deep concerns regarding the public perception of the EPA. First of all, very few consumers, voters, reporters or food thought leaders seem to have any appreciation for the progress made over nearly five decades of EPA pesticide regulation. Instead, I see assumptions or expressed views about crop pesticides that are a distorted caricature that does not even fit with “the bad old days” prior to regulation. The positive historical impact of the EPA case has been inadequately articulated. This leaves the agency vulnerable to the populist urge to discard or severely restrict its role. The under-appreciation of marked progress made with EPA oversight provides fertile ground for unethical marketers who exploit fear of pesticides for economic gain. Similarly, an under-appreciated EPA helps to empower activists such as those in Hawaii who are exploiting fear to drive a politicized over-ride of agricultural regulation. 

I am also concerned about the role of science in EPA pesticide regulation going forward. Primarily in Europe, but increasingly in the US, we see junk science and activist manipulation diminishing the scientific integrity of the regulatory process.  Problematic examples include questions about pollinator health or the IARC cancer hazard statements. In these and other situations we need a trusted, robust, independent EPA that confers with a robust, independent academic science community, as it has historically. We need an EPA that appropriately considers the risk/reward profile of its actions and which appreciates the eco-modernist perspective. What we don’t need is an EPA distracted by endless activist lawsuits or facing political uncertainty about its future. We need an EPA that gets a little respect.