USDA planning to test 10% of organics ops

This just in from Mischa…

“There might finally be a bit of good news in the organic industry. Maybe…

Miles V. McEvoy, Deputy Administrator of the USDA’s National Organic Program, plans to begin testing 10 percent of the operations his agency certifies.

But, before anyone gets too excited, try to imagine if they only tested 10 percent of the athletes who competed at the Olympics. How much credibility would they have? Then imagining if they only tested American athletes at the Olympics while Chinese athletes were allowed to simply swear they were clean by signing an affidavit.

So far, only domestic organic farmers will be subjected to tests on their crops to make sure they’re not using prohibited, toxic herbicides, pesticides and fungicides. (No word yet on whether McEvoy plans to test for the big moneymaker, synthetic nitrogen fertilizer). But everyone knows that most domestic organic farmers are honest; it’s our overseas competitors that need to be scrutinized.

You can go to my website www.isitorganic.ca for a more on the USDA’s long overdue plan to test organic farms, a plan that President Bill Clinton first envisioned all the way back in 1997. Miles no doubt has good intentions, but unless he tests foreign organic farms that supply over 80 percent of the American and Canadian market for organic food, it’s too little too late.”

Mischa Popoff is a IOIA Advanced Organic Farm and Process Inspector and the author of Is it Organic? Mischa hails from Osoyoos, BC, Canada.

 

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By the way, you can get 20% off the purchase of Mischa’s book, Is it Organic? – – – check it out at: www.isitorganic.ca  

 

 

Organic and pro-GM arguments reconciled thro “organogenics”

Bridge the organic–GM divide to feed the world

Ian  Ashbridge
Monday 08 November 2010
Farmers Weekly Interactive

Supporters and opponents of transgenic biotechnology must begin a constructive dialogue at once if world food output is to keep pace with a growing population, a leading academic has urged.

Sir David Baulcombe, regius professor of botany and Royal Society research professor at Cambridge University, said he believed organic and pro-GM arguments could be reconciled, advocating a new approach he called “organogenics”.

“This combines the best principles of organic production with the most useful outcomes of biotechnology too, to create useful applications for the environment, farmers and consumers,” said Prof Baulcombe, delivering the Royal Agricultural College’s annual Bledisloe lecture last week.

more…

http://www.fwi.co.uk/Articles/2010/11/08/124288/Bridge-the-organicGM-divide-to-feed-the-world.htm

 

“This house believes…” The Economist facilitates debate on biotech & sustainability

GM and organics have, for the most part, been viewed as being at opposing ends of the farming production & practice debate. 

To that end, I was pleased to see that The Economist is hosting a debate on this very important matter.  The Economist puts forward the notion that biotechnology and sustainable agriculture are symbiotic and complementary, not at all contradictory.  Moderator, Tom Standage*, looks beyond the ‘crude stereotypes’ and observes that these opposing sides have something in common”

“Both camps are looking for new techniques to produce food sustainably: in other words, methods that minimise environmental impact, maximise farmers’ welfare, can cope with climate change and can be scaled across the developing world. The two camps agree on the ends, if not the means…the idea of a rapprochement between these two approaches is not totally out of the question.”

Professor Pamela Robert (UC Davis) defends the notion of symbiosis between GE and sustainability: “The number of people on Earth is expected to increase from the current 6.7 billion to 9 billion by 2050. How will we feed them? Genetically engineered crops will play an important role.”

Opposing the motion is Charles Benrock of the Organic Center: “Biotechnology is not a system of farming. It reflects no specific philosophy nor is it guided by a set of principles or performance criteria. It is a bag of tools than can be used for good or evil, and lots in between.”

The online forum (scheduled from November 2 to November 12) allows users to vote or provide input into the debate.  Here are a few of the viewpoints that have been put forward – some are the same ol’, same ol’ while others are thought-provoking and intriguing…

“‘…If we continue with current farming practices, [quoting P. Robert]..’, why does it have to be that we have to choose between one bad over the other? The type of farming that would be sustainable not only for the environment but also for the people would be traditional farming.”

“…when I hear about national research institutions that provide the government with information, allow me to have the benefit of the doubt regarding the truth of the scientists’ statements. When scientists are not independent and get paid from the government, (whose decision is lobbied by multinational companies,) how much trustworthy can the research institutions be?”

“…to increase agricultural output on the scale needed, not only must we rely on biotechnology for crop re-engineering and pest control, but we also need it for optimal fertilising…agricultural biotech therefore represents a key tool for smart feed and fertilising which by helping us to close the phosphate loop, will make an important contribution to sustainable agriculture.”

“The thing to be constantly vigilant about in this debate is stewardship. Modifying plants genetically is old hat, when level heads prevail we agree it’s something that requires a regulated environment. Creators of GM crops must act as good stewards of their products and ensure safety for people as well as the environmental.”

“What about the loss of bio-diversity in planted crops or that GM crops cross-pollinate with non GM crops then making them produce GM crops? Natural selection has worked for millions of years so why tamper with it. It is all about making corporations money not feeding the worlds hungry.”

“It is important to remember that GE seeds developed through biotechnology by itself won’t increase productivity. Its part of a technological package that includes the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides and heavy machinery and the more vital of all, water. But is an expensive and brutal system that requires education and experience to be sustainable.”

“There is one simple fact about GMO that many politicians and some irresponsible scientists do not seem to be willing to accept: “GM crops cannot coexist with conventional crops.””

“If you ask what the value of the industrial food is, you must deduct the taxpayer money supporting it. We lose something whenever we artificially prop one company up with taxpayer dollars that destroys competition.”

“If the scientific knowledge required for the manipulation of plant genetics is available, then it would be foolish for us not to seek to employ that knowledge for the betterment of mankind simply because of slippery slope concerns.”

“The question is wrong. All sustainable farming is not ecological farming.Considering the limitations of organic farming, it could even be asked if organic farming is sustainable. A wholesale shift to organic farming would lower the world’s food output dramatically, causing famine on a large scale. I am not convinced that GM can make up for pesticide and especially fertilizers. Organic farming may be sustainable for the soil, but it is not sustainable for us.”

“Back in the 70’s, when the world’s population was 2 billion, we developed GM agriculture to prevent a growing problem of starvation. We suceeded so well that now we have more than 6 billion people. Now, faced with the threat of 9 billion people, we need to again step up the technology. When does it end? The term sustainability needs to incorporate population stablity to make any sense at all.”

Economist_debate_header

Personally, I see extremism on either end of the spectrum as narcissistic and counterproductive.  In my opinion, no single process – on its own – has the capacity to resolve challenges for sustainability (see my blog entry of November 1, 2010 “Get over it…” (http://doccami.posterous.com/32102243)).  Rather, we need to explore the value, opportunities and gains that can be made through the employment of a variety of production practices including organics, GE, conventional, etc.  The more time we spend fighting at the impasse, the less time we can put towards developing viable, practicable solutions – solutions that can benefit everyone.

As of today (November 3rd) there were 60+ comments posted to The Economist’s online debate.  This is a very important dialogue – engage in it!

http://preview-debates.economist.com/debate/days/view/606

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*Tom Standage is a journalist and author from England. A graduate of Oxford University, he has worked as a science and technology writer for The Guardian, as the business editor at The Economist, has been published in WiredThe New York Times, and The Daily Telegraph, and has published five books, including The Victorian Internet.

Media hype and organic agriculture: a study published in the British Food Journal

Powell_et_al_2010_Coverage_of.pdf
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According to Kansas State University’s Doug Powell, news accounts of organic agriculture and organic food are more likely to be positive than negative, and inaccurately claim that organic food is safer. Powell co-authored the study “Coverage of organic agriculture in North American newspapers: Media – linking food safety, the environment, human health and organic agriculture” recently published in the British Food Journal, along with colleagues Stacey Cahill and Katija Morley at the University of Guelph. Analysing the content of 618 newspaper articles over six years, they found 41.4% has a neutral tone toward organic agriculture and food, 36.9% had a positive tone, 15.5% were mixed, and 6.1% were negative. “Organic agriculture was often portrayed in the media as alternative to allegedly unsafe and environmentally damaging modern agriculture practices,” says Powell. 

Is Organic Food Better for You? Article by Mattern from University of Saskatchewan’s “The Sheaf”

Is Organic Food Better for You? A Critical Look at Organic Claims

 

– Ashleigh Mattern, The Sheaf: Univ. of Saskatchewan Student Newspaper, July 13, 2010.
Full text at http://thesheaf.com/2010/07/is-organic-food-better-for-you/

 

The average North American grocery shopper has only a vague idea of how their food is grown, processed and transported to the supermarket.

 

The agriculture-to-grocery-store process is a complex machine that seems almost like magic: row upon row of shiny fruits and vegetables appear in the store every day in seemingly unending amounts. But it’s not magic, and many consumers are aware of this, and becoming wary of the great agriculture machine.

 

For some, organic foods seem to be the answer. Producers tout organics as the answer to the toxic, mutant fruits and vegetables that crowd the grocery store. They encourage consumers to pay a little more for peace of mind, painting organics as the safer alternative.

 

Organic producers say their food tastes better, is more nutritious, and is better for the environment. But in an effort to be wary of salespeople’s pitches, I decided to get to the roots of claims about organic foods.

 

Price
Initially, one of the biggest barriers for me when considering buying organic foods was the price. To compare what I might spend on an average grocery trip, I took my regular grocery list to an organic market.

 

The biggest surprise for me was the price of milk. My boyfriend and I drink a lot of milk, and so I buy four litres a week. A four-litre jug of organic milk cost a whopping $12.19, compared to the Co-op brand four-litre I usually buy at $3.99.

 

I would have spent about $60 on organics, compared to about $30 on conventional foods. That’s a pretty big price difference, and no small difference for a student, but most people don’t buy all their food organic. Organic fruits and vegetables have the most competitive prices, and the organic lemons were actually 10 cents cheaper.

 

As more organic producers get into the market, the prices will continue to drop, as well. For a fairly well-off family, paying an extra dollar for organic ground beef may seem worth the perceived added benefits. Unfortunately, I had only started my journey into the world of organic food. Soon enough, price was the least of my worries.

 

Nutritious and delicious?
Proponents of organic food say it has more vitamins and nutrients and it tastes better. The taste factor may never be scientifically settled as it is completely subjective, but at least one study has determined the nutritious value of organic foods: they’re no more nutritious than non-organics.

 

A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition surveyed over 50,000 published articles about organic food, focusing on 55 studies that met their scientific standards.

 

They found more nitrogen in conventional crops and more phosphorus in organic crops, but concluded that “there is no evidence of a difference in nutrient quality between organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs.” There were fewer published studies on livestock, but of the studies they did have, they found no nutritional difference between organics and non-organics.

 

Pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, oh my!
There are strict regulations on what foods can be labelled organic. When talking to the owner of an organic market recently, he said “no pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers” can be used, but this simply isn’t true. Organic farmers can’t use synthetic products on their crops, only “natural” products. The seemingly logical conclusion is that any natural pesticide or fertilizers is safer than a synthetic one, but again, this isn’t true.

 

One fertilizer some organic farmers use is manure. What the person selling you organic food won’t tell you is that food grown in a manure-based fertilizer has a higher chance of containing E. coli because the virus thrives in the bellies of cows.

 

The bottom line is that nearly all pesticides are bad for humans, whether they’re natural or synthetic. Luckily, the amount of harm they can do has a direct relation to the amount of pesticide you’re exposed to. The Extension Toxicology Network explains that pesticides decline over time. Residues left on the food after washing and processing break down eventually, and the levels of pesticides and herbicides on the food is “well below legal limits” by the time the food reaches the grocery store. Organic food proponents say there have been no studies showing low levels of pesticides and herbicides do no harm, but this is also not entirely true.

 

Pesticides are anything used to defend against fungi, insects and predators. A little known fact is that most fruits and vegetables produce their own pesticides. A paper written by Bruce Ames, who invented the Ames test to determine whether a compound is carcinogenic, says the average American ingests 1,500 mg of natural pesticides per day, compared to 0.09 mg of synthetic pesticide residues.

 

“The amounts of synthetic pesticide residues in plant foods are insignificant compared to the amount of natural pesticides produced by plants themselves,” the paper says.

 

Touting the claim that the effects of exposure to low levels of pesticides has not been studied, one organic-supporting website suggests that “In the absence of this information, the safest course is not to expose yourself to chemicals designed and proven to kill other forms of life.” Sticking with this strain of logic, should we stop eating all fruits and vegetables? Natural pesticides may not be synthetically designed, but they certainly have been proven to kill other forms of life.

 

Genetically modified foods
As with irradiation, the rejection of genetically modified foods seems to stem from fear and misunderstanding. “People have to understand that all the foods we have right now—have all undergone genetic modification; that’s where you take one cultivar and cross it with another cultivar,” said Dr. Nicholas Low, a professor with the U of S’s College of Agriculture and Bioresources. “We want them to grow fast; we want the tomatoes to grow big- When people talk to me about GM, I don’t think they understand that everything we eat has been modified.”

 

He says the difference between the old fashioned way of crossing cultivars and genetically modifying it by moving genes from one plant to another is that a very specific modification is made. In fact, Low says “These genetically modified foods are safer because we know the genome of these plants.” Basically, no changes happen by accident.

 

Since GM foods can gain genetic materials from other plant species, some consumers and anti-GM groups worry this means allergens might end up in non-allergenic foods, for example, genes from a nut used in grains. In fact, this has been tried: in 1996, the seed company Pioneer Hi-Bred International attempted to use genes from the Brazil nut to make their soybeans hardier.

 

Pioneer dropped the project when the testers pointed out the folly of using a known allergen to enhance other foods.

 

GM foods aren’t developed over night. They go through years of trials and testing guided by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. If it’s not fit to be consumed, it won’t be approved.

 

That’s not to say there aren’t risks involved in the use of GM foods. Critics have legitimate concerns about the possibility of GM foods having an impact on biodiversity or the potential effects of horizontal gene transfer, where genes from the modified crops would transfer into wild crops. So far, GM foods aren’t in wide enough use to know if horizontal gene transfer can happen or to say if they have an effect on biodiversity (in fact, at least one scientist believes GM crops might promote biodiversity). But we have to ask ourselves if the potential risks outweigh the known benefits.

 

A complete rejection of genetically modified foods might be a mistake. “GM foods have the potential to solve world hunger and maltnutrition problems and protect the environment,” said Low. “We could use our foods to help to prevent disease rather than having medicine as a the middle man.”

 

Flat-out rejecting GM foods might mean rejecting better nutrition and feeding the world’s growing population. Perhaps the better path is to continue investigating this relatively new science, but tread carefully.
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Fresher is better
The Dieticians of Canada and Canada’s Food Guide have no official stance on organics, simply suggesting to eat a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables.

 

But organic foods are also not all the proponents make them out to be. It’s not healthier or safer, and if used improperly, natural pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers are just as dangerous for the environment and humans as synthetic products.

 

The process of bringing organic food to your table is every bit as complicated as it is for conventional foods. The best way to feel better about your food choices is to learn about agriculture and how the food gets from the farm to your local grocery store, not by simply assuming organic food as the better choice.

 

“If you say, ‘I choose to eat organic foods,’ that’s fine,” said Dr. Nicholas Low, “but if you say, ‘I eat organic foods because it’s better for me,’ I have a problem with that.”

 

Next time you’re trying to decide between an organic or conventional food item, you might want to consider your reasons behind the choice a little more carefully.

Pamela Ronald on Genetic Engineering

Integrating genetic engineering with organic practice… the agricultural compromise? The Council for Biotechnology Information interviews Pamela Ronald, a Professor of Plant Pathology and Chair of the Plant Genomics Program at the University of California, Davis. She studies the role that genes play in a plant’s response to its environment. Her research focuses on the genetics of rice. With her husband, she co-wrote Tomorrow’s Table, a book about including genetic engineering into organic agricultural systems.

 

http://www.youtube.com/user/CBIWashingtonDC#p/u/3/9UmUKwRyIF4

 

Tomorrow’s Table

 

Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food
Pamela C. Ronald and R. W. Adamchak

Order this book on Amazon!

 

Tomorrow_table

we need to de-romanticize our view of preindustrial food and farming…

An article by Rob Paarlberg:

Attention Whole Foods Shoppers:┬áStop obsessing about arugula. Your “sustainable” mantra — organic, local, and slow — is no recipe for saving the world’s hungry millions.

By Rob Paarlberg
Foreign Policy
May / June 2010

“If we are going to get serious about solving global hunger, we need to de-romanticize our view of preindustrial food and farming. And that means learning to appreciate the modern, science-intensive, and highly capitalized agricultural system … Wherever the rural poor have gained access to improved roads, modern seeds, less expensive fertilizer, electrical power, and better schools and clinics, their productivity and their income have increased. But recent efforts to deliver such essentials have been undercut by deeply misguided (if sometimes well-meaning) advocacy against agricultural modernization and foreign aid.”

http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2010/04/26/attention_whole_foods_shoppers