Monday, January 31, 2011

Is “Grass Fed” Beef Sustainable?

By Sara Hessenflow Harper

Most people stumbling upon this blog know that there has been a move by a group of consumers towards desiring an ideal beef that comes from a cow that has foraged its whole life on a diverse diet up to the day it meets its end.

Why is this desirable? Well, the thinking is manifold. It is assumed that “grass-fed” beef is healthier, the cows were happier and healthier when they were alive, and there is less of an environmental impact when cows are munching on fibrous weeds the day before they are turned into a steak.

I am going to focus on environmental impact here, though anyone who truly cares about the environment must also take a holistic approach. I’ll do that too.

First off, there seems to be a MAJOR misconception amongst the “Small, Local, Organic” crowd about “Corn-fed” cattle. These folks, who can hardly be blamed for their cultural rearing which is totally disconnected from agriculture, believe that beef cattle mostly are born penned behind a trough of corn, and spend their whole lives force-fed grain.

This image is almost completely false.

In reality, “Grass-fed” and “Corn-fed” cattle should really be called “Grass-finished” and “Corn-finished” (or, better yet, Grain-finished, but we’ll get to that later), since, for the majority of every beef cow’s life, it grazes on pasture.

Since the days of pre-history, animals have been fed a rich diet shortly before the slaughter, as anyone who is familiar with the “killing the fatted calf” metaphor knows. It was known by small scale ranchers in ancient times that feeding pasture raised animals a richer diet during the pre-slaughter months yielded more, and tastier, meat.

So it is with modern feed-lots. Cows who have spent most of their lives grazing on pasture are brought to feed lots to increase per-cow meat yield, which is especially important during the winter months, when foraging is “slim pickings.”

So, enough background; does Grass-finished beef beat Grain-finished in either land use or energy use metrics?


In fact, I was a little surprised to learn this myself, but grain-finished beef blows grass finished out of the water by both measures. This was shown in a Washington State University life-cycle analysis that found grass-finished cattle took more than twice as much energy and three times the land to produce, per pound. Also, in terms of “cow lives” grass finished takes 4 lives for every 3 that grain finished does to produce the same amount of meat.

Also, the Program on Food Security and the Environment and Stanford university has calculated in a study published in the Protocols of the National academy of sciences that yield intensification in agriculture generally has "avoided emissions of up to 161 gigatons of carbon [greenhouse gas] into the atmosphere since 1961."

Knowing a little history, these results shouldn’t be too surprising for most of human history is filled with the reality of pasture land being one of the world’s most valuable, and fought-over resources. This has even been the case recently in places like Africa. It only stands to reason that our ancestors would have long ago set to figuring out how to most efficiently use this very limited (esp. in ancient times) resource.

Also, a good proxy for how much energy something costs is price. Look at how much grass-fed beef costs, and how much the regular corn-finished beef at your local supermarket costs. Got it? Now, try not to dismiss this as unimportant. Many people will say “I’ll pay more to save the environment.” -- well, just make sure you aren’t being ripped off.

There are of course many, many environmental groups who want things both ways. They want to be champions of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but when the folks who can best do this are large scale producers, they for some reason don’t advocate for it, choosing to focus on hormones or aesthetic considerations. But it should be clear from a reading of just the two studies above that a major move toward grass-finishing would require clearing a lot more land and energy for grazing, even if world-side beef consumption remains static.

Something worth considering is what all that demand for grass-fed beef will do to sensitive eco-systems like the rainforests of Brazil? Is creating demand for clear cutting forests in order to graze larger numbers of cattle really more desirable than feeding them corn in one of the most efficient animal agricultural systems? Or could it be that many of the folks who passionately buy grass-fed beef have a nostalgic, but completely uninformed view of this industry and believe that feeding cattle grass must be better for the environment as well as for themselves?

Okay, now, how about the product itself? If you don’t really care about the relative environmental sustainability of your beef, but do about nutrition and taste, which should you choose?

While it has been proven by Kansas State University that grass-finished beef has higher amounts of certain beneficial fats and anti-oxidant precursors, like Omega-3 and beta carotene for example, price-sensitive customers should note that even grass-finished beef is still not a very good source for anything other than what is also in the less expensive grain finished variety, namely protein. Nutritional considerations for the price-sensitive quickly become of the “penny wise, pound foolish” variety since vegetables and wild fish are far better sources for these more beneficial substances.

Regardless, there are in fact ways to improve the nutritional profile of grain finished beef. Both alfalfa and flax are more nutrient rich than is grass, and research has shown that feeding cattle a 10% flaxseed blend with grain can not only provide us with a grain finished beef that is higher in omega-3s and CLAs than grass-fed, but improves the weight, health and quality of the cow over conventional feed lot diets.

So, it is possible to get a lot of the nutritional benefits of grass-finished beef with the energy efficiency, and reduced cost, of grain-finishing. Good news for the consumer and the environment!

What about taste? Well, simply put, 80% of consumers prefer the taste of Corn-finished beef

This is likely due to the fact that grass finished beef is leaner. As anyone who has tasted venison can attest, that ultimate free-range (and for most people, least efficient) food source (Which is often, but not always, paradoxically derided by the very same anti large-farm partisans.) does not have sufficient fat in the muscle to have as desirable a taste. Buffalo is like this too, the meat tastes a bit like the less-expensive leaner cuts of grain-fed beef that are used for stewing. When I cook buffalo burgers, I am always sure to add lots of flavor inside the patty, and to use lots of vegetable oil to keep the meat from drying out, otherwise, you get a sort of cardboard effect.

Do a blind taste test for yourselves, and tell me what you find!

Just like the old saying, "Don't judge a book by its cover," we need to do a better job as a society of really thinking through issues rather than reacting to some aesthetic or emotional appeal. For those of you who still prefer grass-finished beef, that's fine -- just know the whole story behind what you are buying -- and that there are consequences to the environment and the planet for making that choice. And please, stop demonizing a very efficient system that can provide needed protein in a sustainable way to the world's growing population.

The question now becomes whether people who simply didn't know that grass-fed beef was so inefficient and of the true beneficial qualities of our corn-finished system, will now be willing to alter their opinion? That is perhaps one of the hardest thing for any person to do -- change your mind or admit you might have been wrong when confronted with new information. But if we are to truly find our way toward sustainable global systems, then we must all be willing to search for new answers -- and accept new paths toward sustainability when informed by science.

Here's wishing you a nice corn-finished steak as part of your next sustainable meal!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Danger of Half Truths

One of the great things about trying to educate the public about agricultural sustainability is the pushback I get when I try to explain the basic science that needs to be consulted when making sustainability calculations. This helps me understand where various groups are coming from when they voice opposition to my core belief that efficiency is the fundamental value in feeding a very populous planet nutrient dense food with minimal environmental impact.

There appears to be a meme (narrative) going around that one or another of Monsanto’s Genetically modified seeds produces a crop that “sterilizes the soil, and turns it into dry sand.”

It is pointless to try to find out where the origin of this belief originated; what we really need to know is whether it is true or not.

In my researching yesterday, I tried to put aside the logical argument of “Why would a company sell a product that would ruin its customers, and make the company a lawyer-magnet?” After all, dangerous products have been sold before, like asbestos.

Well, I have not yet been able to “prove a negative” I have not found any authoritative, independent third party source that categorically states “we have found no GMO that is capable of turning a field to dust.”

But what I HAVE stumbled over is some incredibly irresponsible journalism.

Take for example this article that appeared on Grist and the Huffington Post websites.

The article is essentially an outrage piece decrying an ad campaign by Monsanto touting the sustainable aspects of what they do to earn a living. The gist of their criticism is that Monsanto has chosen an image that looks too much like a small- scale farmer when they should show an image of someone who looks like a large-scale farmer. I guess the anger that the “Small, Local, Organic” partisans feel is because Monsanto, Chief Devil in their battle of Good vs. Evil moral play, is stealing their iconography.

Fine so far, right? But then the writer goes on to describe the supposed evils wrought by the large-scale farmers that use Monsanto’s technology, which culminates with “Agribiz may be helping to create a 21st century Dust Bowl.”

Whoa! Paydirt! The author does not state that Monsanto is turning fields to dust, but is merely saying that “Agribiz” (which farms are not also businesses? I’ll have to research this….) may be doing so. They also have a link to back up that statement, apparently.

But when you read the Mother Jones article it links to you, find out that it is an article about the drying of California’s Central Valley -- which Mother Jones blames not on farming of any kind, but rather the diminishing Sierra Nevada snowpack. In fact, the people they profile in the article blame the federal government for not diverting a greater percentage of the water from the snowpack east to the central valley to protect the habitat of a Smelt fish. So, depending on your politics, you could blame carbon admissions, or Washington D.C.’s priorities on the plight of California’s Central valley -- but the only way you can blame the farmers is for choosing to farm there in the first place, since the area is naturally quite dry and was only made productive through aqueducts from other regions.

Call me na├»ve, but this is frankly bizarre. How could the author DARE impugn farmers with a link to an article that doesn’t even speculate that the farmers are to blame? Unfortunately, one can imagine the science illiterate, who maybe already childishly (or cleverly, depending on your viewpoint) refer to “Mon-Satano,” reading this article, not checking the sources, and -- because it is an article about Monsanto – make the intuitive leap that GMOs are drying up the landscape. So, they now have one more feather to plume their headdress, or so they think.

Nonsense like this is hardly sustainable.

The next article I found was actually helpfully provided by an anti-GMO partisan himself, to show me exactly why it spelled doom for African farmers if they were allowed to use their technology: GMOs were “drying up Indian cotton farms and driving them to suicide.” (!!!) To show me this wasn’t his opinion, he referenced that trusted source for gossip and libel lawsuits, the Daily Mail.

In the referenced article, Monsanto is indeed blamed for cotton crop failures (“The GM Genocide.”) It makes for painful reading, as does any description of farmer suicides.

This somehow didn’t ring true to me; Indian farmer suicides have been endemic for a long time in the more marginal arid regions. Meanwhile cotton production in India has soared since the year 2000 to a level that puts India above the USA in the number two biggest cotton producer spot. Read all about it by clicking here.

So, delving into this issue yields two different narratives: some Indian cotton farmers are doing great using GMO cotton, some are not.

First off, the GMO in question, Bt Cotton, has a gene in it that causes the cotton to produce a narrow spectrum anti-bore worm pesticide that is has long been used by organic growers because it is a natural pesticide, to spray their crops (yes, organic farmers use pesticides!) That is a far cry from being a soil “sterilizer” and in fact is naturally produced by soil organisms worldwide.

Errr… that’s it.

No “I’m thirsty” gene is implanted, no “Sterilize the soil” one either, just one that allows the farmer to forgo spraying pesticide on the crop by producing a natural, readily biodegradable pesticide in the plant’s stalk.

Yet, the number of Indian farmer suicides has soared recently. Why? Well, two things have happened:

1. In 1999 India agreed to freer trade under the world trade organization, opening up Indian cotton farmers to competition from Cotton from the USA (which is almost all Bt cotton), which has driven down the price farmers get for cotton -- and oh yeah, drove down the price consumers had to pay as well.

2. At the same time, an economic boom has pushed the cost of living up in India generally.

So, imagine a farmer who has only 5 acres of marginal farmland where he was barely able to subsist before he had to compete with large-scale Bt cotton producers. He is now losing his shirt growing “heritage” (non-organic – these farmers usually use deadly pesticides) cotton, so he takes a chance trying to modernize his operation (like, buy the technologies his competitors use), which means high-interest loans from shady lenders. Now, if he has a bad season, he not only loses his crop and has a very lean time for the year, he now also loses title to his land because of debt.

Sadly, suicides soar.

It would seem that because GMOs play a part in this drama (by making wetter, larger farms much more productive per acre, mostly) some cynical people are trying to blame the whole thing on GMOs, without a shred (that I can find) of evidence.

Other folks are blaming the Indian government for not providing these farmers access to non-predatory lending and subsidized insurance, or a way out of the farming life for those that do not own viably competitive farms.

For a GREAT description of the dire situation these farmers face, read this UN report on the problem, which gives great background and context focusing on the Indian farmer crisis that is ground zero for what is actually an international small farm crisis.

Anyhow, next time you hear an extraordinary claim, even if it fits an emotional narrative you already possess -- let me suggest that you do what scientists are supposed to do – demand extraordinary evidence.

The moral of this story is that there is a LOT of misinformation out there pushing people who already have a negative or ill-informed view of agriculture and the technology that makes all our lives better -- into an even more negative place. When people with no ag or science background hear that a large corporation is putting out a product that sterilizes the soil -- that is a mighty scary thing.

We simply can NOT afford to let this unbalanced, untrue drivel go unchallenged. The consequence for Monsanto might be lost profits, but the consequences of public distrust of ag technology is starvation and environmental ruin for us all. We all have something at stake and its about time we are more vocal about it.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Does Healthy Need to be Expensive?

I read a truly bizarre article today asserting that fresh fruits and vegetables should be made more expensive -- so that people will value them more. Specifically, that Wal-mart’s plan to make fresh fruits and vegetables less expensive in their stores was a sure-fire plan to paradoxically tank demand for fresh fruit and vegetables.

Now, she undoubtedly learned from a business class that there actually is a paradoxical effect where people do not want to pay too little for some things, like heart surgery, spokespeople, branding specialists, tax lawyers -- you know, high stakes services where paying too little can be a fatal mistake.

But in a market where a carrot is, mostly, a carrot, someone is not very likely to “value” the carrot more if it is $5 a pound than if it is $2 a pound. This is the exact reason why you don’t find things like fresh Chilean Sea Bass, Persian Caviar, Saffron or expensive exotic fruits in your local Wal-Mart: High price makes their customers buy less, just like you’d think. They may buy relatively expensive beer there, but they are unlikely to guzzle the stuff, more have it to offer to guests or celebrate a good meal; during the football game, the case of the cheap stuff comes out.

Do Wal-Mart customers typically head straight to the rib eye when they need meat? I don’t know, but I’d be willing to guess that they are a little more price sensitive than that, and that that behavior would be more common at Whole Foods.

Think of it another way, for people who already value a carrot, will they value it more if the price goes up? Will they switch to parsnips? Does someone who needs a screwdriver value it more if it more expensive? Does he buy a hammer instead if the screwdriver is too affordable?

If Perrier or Gerolsteiner raise the price of their water, it may indeed increase units sold of those brands at Whole Foods for a certain highly manipulable segment of the middle class, but the average Wal-Mart customer would likely think those people are stupid. And, consider this; would one brand raising the price of water cause people in general to drink more water? I don’t think so. Water is certainly valuable, but people don’t pipe it into their homes because it is expensive.

Keri Kennedy, manager of the West Virginia’s health department's Office of Healthy Lifestyles was interviewed after Huntington, West Virginia was ranked Least Healthy in the whole USA. Her insight as to why people don’t eat well in West Virginia’s largest city: People don’t think they can afford to eat well; people who are watching prices are not only sensitive to price, but to convenience as well, so they really go for the various “value meals” that are offered at the take-out windows of the chain fast food restaurants because they see the compare the price of fresh broccoli, meat, etc, and compare it to the price and convenience of the value meal and they find the fresh ingredient route lacking, so, the I think the author’s theory is utter nonsense. Getting that yet?

I’m sorry if I am coming across as the Queen of Obvious here. But these people are out there, and they apparently have M.B.A.s.

But perhaps the writer is not as crazy as she seems, we learn at the end of her article that she would like to be the conduit of healthy food to markets, especially in New York City, and the idea of Wal-Mart not only moving into "her" territory but also making their food more affordable and healthy probably deeply depresses her, since Wal-Mart is, shall we say, notorious for giving their customers what they want, and being very good at what they do. Not something against which someone who practices business in a “how can we make products more unaffordable to the middle class?” sort of way would enjoy competing, no doubt.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Small Scale Food & Big Germ Concerns

By Sara Hessenflow Harper

I continue to ponder the “sustainability” of locavorism, and the articulate criticisms of the thesis that the Local Foods movement is math illiterate regarding energy use (If you haven’t read “Math Lessons For Locavores” yet, please read it first by clicking here.)

Some proponents of the local food movement will say that even if it is not the most energy efficient means of producing food, it has multiple other benefits that make it more "sustainable" or worthwhile.

Take for example the thoughts of Western Region Director at Food & Water Watch, Elanor Starmer writing on the environmentalist website Grist that Budiansky's (Math Lessons for Locavores author) piece is essentially off-base because the REAL issue is public health (of the microbiological variety), and not energy use.

Specifically she says this:

“… when I buy local food, energy use is not the driving rationale (no pun intended). I buy from a variety of local farms when at all possible because if I don't, I will probably be eating from a stream of food that has passed through the hands of a tiny number of massive companies. And if those companies' hands have salmonella all over them, well -- look out, world [….]

What does it mean when so few companies control so much of our food? It means that unless we happen to live in a place with a lot of local farmers and the infrastructure to process and distribute their products, we have virtually no control over what we're eating or feeding to our kids. If these companies choose to raise meat using hormones and antibiotics (and they do), or grow corn from genetically-modified seed (and they do), then that's what we'll have access to. And if one thing goes wrong at one of those companies, we all risk being affected.

So here's my message to Mr. Budiansky: The local foods movement is not so much about choosing between what's grown here and what's grown elsewhere. It's about having any sort of choice at all.”

You can read Starmer's full piece by clicking here.

Now, as someone whose thinking leans conservative/libertarian, I am sympathetic to the idea of “choice,” especially if you can self-finance your options (as the middle class in San Francisco can like very few others.)

But I think she conflates a few issues, and makes some incorrect assumptions. Namely, that “all small farms are clean” and that “big farms can get away with anything.”

My husband asserts that even though he was raised on factory farm food that was admittedly processed into unhealthy meals, he NEVER got food poisoning until he visited France for the first time (which has a famous “small is better” ethic), and he even was greatly embarrassed when a French family brought him to a beautiful four star restaurant in the French country side, with a rainbow of different colored cows and sheep and goats on the foothills making a picture perfect backdrop to the patio meal. He ordered a four-cheese dish that was heartily approved of by his hosts, as the cheeses were all local. When he saw that one of the cheeses was crawling with maggots, he desperately wanted to hide the fact from his hosts, not wanting them to be angry with him, for unintentionally wounding their pride. He swears he has never so much as seen a maggot in another restaurant, anywhere.

Colorful, but mere anecdote, to be sure. My point is: small farms have an esthetic appeal even if rusting antiquated implements and flaking lead-based paint is part of the tableau, but this is NO indication of the level of quality control over what is essentially a cottage industry. Indeed, the latest food safety laws have exempted small producers from the standards demanded of the large producers, (see related WSJ story by clicking here) and this is (besides the lobbying done by various “SmallAg” lobbyists) essentially structural; the big guys can AFFORD to comply in ways the little guy can’t, just like a huge multi-national car company can afford to make cars with airbags, etc, in a way a cottage industry that makes only 100 cars a year could never match.

She also seems to miss the fact that fewer farms are easier to inspect than many small ones. Not only does more acres per farm mean that you can have more in-house health specialists, it also means that you can have less inspectors.

There do exist die-hard locavores that are willing to actually visit some of the farms that they patronize, but I would bet that the vast majority of (mostly urban) locavores are willing to give the small farmers the benefit of the doubt as long as their operations are not found to be lacking in “smallness” – and even the die-hard ones aren’t asking that “Flannel Frank” allow them to take samples of what is in their tanks, and soil.

Before I get into the specifics of the recent food health problems, I’d like people to give me the benefit of the doubt and understand that I am not only a person, but a mother too, and care as much about food safety as just about anyone. In fact, I’d like to see the food safety regulations enforced more, and more universally.

But, and here’s the meat of my rebuttal, even when things go wrong with US large scale farming, they are not nearly so bad as things have been throughout human history, which has been mostly small-scale. People focus on the bad, missing what incredible safety the U. S. farming industry has achieved.

I have chosen to focus on the Salmonella part of the anti-large scale argument, because it is the most prevalent danger.

If the reader doesn’t already know, there are two fundamental things to understand about Salmonella. 1. It is a zoonosis, meaning it is not something that develops on a farm, but rather something that comes from the wilderness, like “beaver fever.” If you were to eat a wild turtle, or duck, you could get salmonella; it has nothing to do with the size of the food producer, which leads us to 2. Microorganisms do not care if they are in Farmer’s Market, a Supermarket, a small farm or a big one, but Salmonella sure do love non-mechanically refrigerated food items at farmer’s markets.

In fact, prevalence tends to be higher in poor countries (that have a lot of small scale agriculture) and lower in ones with high degrees of standardization and scale, such as Sweden:

Also, think of it this way: Who do you think has a greater incentive to cut corners, a small farmer who is trying to support his family on an operation that makes him $25,000 a year, or a larger farmer making $250,000 a year? The small farmer often has a higher input to yield ratio (he makes less profit per unit) and his net profit is less. Cutting a corner on safety would be more appealing to someone who needs the money more – the inefficient, small-scale operation. Meanwhile, a problem arising from large-scale farming can not only ruin a huge, valuable operation, but also seriously hurt an entire industry. There is comparatively little incentive for large operations to cut corners. That is not to say it doesn’t happen.

That’s why we need inspectors.

The point of this post is not to say that buying local is a bad thing - but rather, to encourage those who feel convinced of small and local's superiority to really think through the issues involved. There are small operations that do a great job of providing a healthy product, no doubt - but it is not BECAUSE they are small or large that leads to this result. To give a blanket pass on food safety to a certain type of small production process merely because it meets a nostalgic emotional need is not sustainable and it is no more healthy in the long run.

Buying local, in-season foods to supplement conventional food purchases can be a great way of adding fresh and local flavor to your diet and getting to know some of the producers in your area. Why can't that be enough? Why turn local and conventional agriculture into either/or choices -- when the most sustainable path is likely a blend. And why expect less from local than we rightfully expect from conventional?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Healthier Food: Who is Responsible?

By Sara Hessenflow Harper

Today, Wal-Mart launched a policy they will employ on their private label foods to cut the amount of salt, sugar and trans fats by various amounts over the next 5 years. Below are a few snippets from today's New York Times story:
January 20, 2011

Wal-Mart Shifts Strategy to Promote Healthy Foods

WASHINGTON — Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest retailer, will announce a five-year plan on Thursday to make thousands of its packaged foods lower in unhealthy salts, fats and sugars, and to drop prices on fruits and vegetables . . .

In addition, Wal-Mart will work to eliminate any extra cost to customers for healthy foods made with whole grains, said Leslie Dach, Wal-Mart’s executive vice president for corporate affairs. By lowering prices on fresh fruits and vegetables, Wal-Mart says it will cut into its own profits but hopes to make up for it in sales volume. “This is not about asking the farmers to accept less for their crops,” he said . . .

Wal-Mart is hardly the first company to take such steps; ConAgra Foods, for example, has promised to reduce sodium content in its foods by 20 percent by 2015.

But because Wal-Mart sells more groceries than any other company in the country, and because it is such a large purchaser of foods produced by national suppliers, nutrition experts say the changes could have a big impact on the affordability of healthy food and the health of American families and children.

You can read the full article by clicking here.

There are SO many things we could talk about regarding this announcement: the market power of Wal-Mart and their continuing push toward sustainability, the health impacts of eating more processed foods vs fresh food or "homemade" food -- and the sustainability impacts of that trend, or the whole divisive political angle: just who does any company think they are deciding what is healthy for me?

What has been sticking in my mind as I thought about this issue is something I heard Dr. Robert Paarlberg (author of Food Politics - refer to my previous post for background) say at a recent talk. Paarlberg said that he thought it would be wise for the agricultural industry to create some distance in the minds of the public, between producers who grow the raw ingredients that often get combined into our food -- and food companies or the food industry that makes the decisions about how much salt, fat, sugar, etc to put into processed foods. His point was not to demonize the food industry - but to say that there are some real health issues that our country is facing, that increasingly more consumers are becoming aware and concerned about these issues. All too often, growers are lumped in with food processors as all part of the same sector.

While growers and processors are certainly linked, it is worth pointing out that often the healthiest parts of processed foods are grown by agricultural producers -- who took great care to create nutritious products. However, those ingredients are often overwhelmed or over-processed by things like salt, sugar, fat and a whole array of other preservatives and texture-adding substances. What's more, the producers who grew the raw ingredients had no say as to how their product is ultimately processed -- something that often escapes the public's notice. So when we talk about "unhealthy" foods and the marketing of them, this is not an issue that agricultural producers should take the blame for - if there is blame to be taken (I know, that is a controversial issue in and of itself).

Part of what I have seen happening with my urban friends is a growing trust gap that they feel exists between them and the people who make their food. This has spurred many of their decisions to buy organic or "all natural" or "sustainably grown" food. They feel that these labels provide a trusted filter that bring to them the kind of food they can feel good and healthy about eating. Ask yourself why they feel they need a filter? Yes, there is the growing urban-rural divide . . . and yes, some of it connects to differing political identities - but not all of it. Assigning blame for who lost the public's trust (or part of it) on food is not the point. Rather, it is important to find ways to re-connect and re-assure the public about the safety and healthfulness of conventional agriculture -- through completely truthful means. One way of doing this, Paarlberg suggests, is for the growers who do in fact grow healthy products, to stop being so defensive against pro-health food initiatives. It is often this defensiveness -- which shows up as anger against specific foods being described as unhealthy rather than focusing solely on personal responsibility, that reinforces negative perceptions urbanites have about agriculture.

Case in point, look at one of the comments on the NYT story:

"This is fantastic news. I just moved back to the US after 7 years in England. The store brands in British grocery stores have the least added junk. You can get bread, peanut butter, soy milk, and tomato sauce that's not loaded with sugar. You can get fresh food without preservatives, cheese without orange dye, organic jams that are store brand -- and it's all the cheapest stuff and the best tasting. It's a wonder any brand names succeed there at all, but I guess there are suckers for advertising anywhere.

It has been painful to come home to find out that I have to pay twice as much for a third of the ingredients. You have to go to a fancy shop to find peanut butter with just peanuts in it, but in Britain everyone has access to food that's only made out of food. Walmart has the ability to help so many by reducing the junk in their cheapest goods. Cheers to them."

Increasingly, consumers want more of what you (producers) grow and less of the "bad" or filler stuff. I think it would be a mistake and a lost opportunity for agriculture, for consumers like this to view organic as the only way they can get away from preservatives or over-processed foods. Just think how much could be done to increase the understanding of truly sustainable conventional agriculture if consumers looking for healthy choices had healthier conventional as well as organic options to choose from. I know this is already happening with individual products, but something to consider before reacting negatively to what Wal-Mart is doing might be the effect of making conventional processed food -- all of it, healthier.

Another angle of interest to me on this came from an email exchange with one of the producers I talk often with and whom I highly respect. He noted that indeed the quality and combination of ingredients is important -- but that unless consumers make the choice to prioritize these things, they will not magically appear or be sustained in the marketplace. We have the food we have now because it is popular -- it is cheap, tastes good and is convenient -- all things we have had greater and greater desire for over time. If consumers begin to ask for and seek out these products, the food industry will (and is beginning) to respond.

I thought these were excellent points and get to the heart of the issue about just whose responsibility is it to make healthier food choices. Of course, where you come down on this has a lot to do with how you view the world and, I would argue, your political lens. For example, as a conservative, I believe that ultimately, it is each individual's responsibility to educate him/herself and make choices -- and live with the consequences. So, I understand some of the defensiveness or potential anger that the ag sector may feel about efforts such as this. I can hear the accusations of "nanny state" and "what about personal responsibility?" being tossed around. And while I generally agree with those concerns, a key difference here is that this step is being taken by a private company -- likely based on some pretty good consumer research, and it will only succeed if the bet they are making about consumers wanting healthier food, is right.

It is not the government telling Wal-Mart to do this, even though they have talked with the first lady about it. This gets directly to the question about markets that my producer friend raised. Isn't it interesting that the private marketplace is navigating these waters far more successfully and quickly than waiting for some political/legislative agreement. Another added benefit of this issue playing out in the marketplace, is that it preserves consumer choice. As this experiment unfolds, if people are determined to stay hooked on salt, sugar and fat, for example -- we will clearly see that in the purchasing choices/changes they make -- away from Wal-Mart's brand, or towards it. Unlike a legislative edict or government regulation handed down from on high, this initiative will involve interaction with the public -- and will ultimately fail or succeed based on how consumers respond.

The health challenges our country faces right now - specifically the obesity and diabetes epidemics, present us all with an opportunity to re-evaluate our lifestyle, educate ourselves about proper nutrition and make more healthful choices. Wal-Mart's move today provides a new array of choices to aid in this process. It also provides conventional ag with an opportunity to demonstrate that its product's healthful properties are every bit as good as organic when processed with that priority in mind.

Conventional agriculture has nothing to fear from this endeavor since they were never really part of the problem -- and are a huge part of the solution. In fact, if the ag sector sees this as an opportunity to educate consumers, it can also be a positive step forward in closing the trust gap.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Local Is Not Necessarily Sustainable

By Sara Hessenflow Harper

Awhile ago I read a terrific op-ed in the New York Times (see below) about how the emerging fashion of preferring all things local was not a good deal for the environment in many cases. This story really gave voice to what I had been struggling to explain to many of my friends outside of agriculture -- that efficiency, scale and growing things in the most optimal soil, weather, etc provides both economic and environmental benefits.

The local farmer's market is a fine thing. But for some in the environmental community, "local food" has become the new "organic" in terms of its trendiness and believed superiority to our conventional food system. Yet, when you really examine the issue, you find that in fact, if we tried to make all or most of our food purchases strictly from local vendors, then we would be significantly increasing the environmental footprint of our food along with its cost -- and oh yeah, reducing our food choice options significantly in some areas of the country.

One of the great points made by this piece is that what may "seem" or "feel" green at first blush, isn't necessarily the best option for the environment or the people living in that environment. If you treat environmental policy as a religion or a political ideology rather than a scientific pursuit, it becomes all too easy to make the wrong policy choices or even individual choices. When I say "wrong choices" I mean wrong for the environment as well as wrong for people or the economy.

More often than activists want to admit, the welfare of people, the planet, animals and the economy are all wrapped together in complex ways. Out of some desire to be anti-corporate, a person can actually support inefficient practices or growers who cause greater environmental impact. That's not always what happens - but it can happen when a person allows themselves to be blinded by bias, opinion and culture.

Read the story below and then check out some of the responses and alternative thinking about this issue on the Grist website by clicking here. It is important to stay informed about how many environmentalists and celebrities think about these issues as they often have outsized influence on the vast "middle-of-the-road" consumer. In future posts, I will address some of these arguments as well.

New York Times
August 19, 2010

Math Lessons for Locavores

Leesburg, Va.

IT’S 42 steps from my back door to the garden that keeps my family supplied nine months of the year with a modest cornucopia of lettuce, beets, spinach, beans, tomatoes, basil, corn, squash, brussels sprouts, the occasional celeriac and, once when I was feeling particularly energetic, a couple of small but undeniable artichokes. You’ll get no argument from me about the pleasures and advantages to the palate and the spirit of eating what’s local, fresh and in season.

But the local food movement now threatens to devolve into another one of those self-indulgent — and self-defeating — do-gooder dogmas. Arbitrary rules, without any real scientific basis, are repeated as gospel by “locavores,” celebrity chefs and mainstream environmental organizations. Words like “sustainability” and “food-miles” are thrown around without any clear understanding of the larger picture of energy and land use.

The result has been all kinds of absurdities. For instance, it is sinful in New York City to buy a tomato grown in a California field because of the energy spent to truck it across the country; it is virtuous to buy one grown in a lavishly heated greenhouse in, say, the Hudson Valley.

The statistics brandished by local-food advocates to support such doctrinaire assertions are always selective, usually misleading and often bogus. This is particularly the case with respect to the energy costs of transporting food. One popular and oft-repeated statistic is that it takes 36 (sometimes it’s 97) calories of fossil fuel energy to bring one calorie of iceberg lettuce from California to the East Coast. That’s an apples and oranges (or maybe apples and rocks) comparison to begin with, because you can’t eat petroleum or burn iceberg lettuce.

It is also an almost complete misrepresentation of reality, as those numbers reflect the entire energy cost of producing lettuce from seed to dinner table, not just transportation. Studies have shown that whether it’s grown in California or Maine, or whether it’s organic or conventional, about 5,000 calories of energy go into one pound of lettuce. Given how efficient trains and tractor-trailers are, shipping a head of lettuce across the country actually adds next to nothing to the total energy bill.

It takes about a tablespoon of diesel fuel to move one pound of freight 3,000 miles by rail; that works out to about 100 calories of energy. If it goes by truck, it’s about 300 calories, still a negligible amount in the overall picture. (For those checking the calculations at home, these are “large calories,” or kilocalories, the units used for food value.) Overall, transportation accounts for about 14 percent of the total energy consumed by the American food system.

Other favorite targets of sustainability advocates include the fertilizers and chemicals used in modern farming. But their share of the food system’s energy use is even lower, about 8 percent.

The real energy hog, it turns out, is not industrial agriculture at all, but you and me. Home preparation and storage account for 32 percent of all energy use in our food system, the largest component by far.

A single 10-mile round trip by car to the grocery store or the farmers’ market will easily eat up about 14,000 calories of fossil fuel energy. Just running your refrigerator for a week consumes 9,000 calories of energy. That assumes it’s one of the latest high-efficiency models; otherwise, you can double that figure. Cooking and running dishwashers, freezers and second or third refrigerators (more than 25 percent of American households have more than one) all add major hits. Indeed, households make up for 22 percent of all the energy expenditures in the United States.

Agriculture, on the other hand, accounts for just 2 percent of our nation’s energy usage; that energy is mainly devoted to running farm machinery and manufacturing fertilizer. In return for that quite modest energy investment, we have fed hundreds of millions of people, liberated tens of millions from backbreaking manual labor and spared hundreds of millions of acres for nature preserves, forests and parks that otherwise would have come under the plow.

Don’t forget the astonishing fact that the total land area of American farms remains almost unchanged from a century ago, at a little under a billion acres, even though those farms now feed three times as many Americans and export more than 10 times as much as they did in 1910.

The best way to make the most of these truly precious resources of land, favorable climates and human labor is to grow lettuce, oranges, wheat, peppers, bananas, whatever, in the places where they grow best and with the most efficient technologies — and then pay the relatively tiny energy cost to get them to market, as we do with every other commodity in the economy. Sometimes that means growing vegetables in your backyard. Sometimes that means buying vegetables grown in California or Costa Rica.

Eating locally grown produce is a fine thing in many ways. But it is not an end in itself, nor is it a virtue in itself. The relative pittance of our energy budget that we spend on modern farming is one of the wisest energy investments we can make, when we honestly look at what it returns to our land, our economy, our environment and our well-being.

Stephen Budiansky is the author of the blog

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Importance of Explaining Science

By Sara Hessenflow Harper

I am still getting angry responses on my Linked-In discussion on GMOs as potentially being a part of a sustainability strategy for Africa (click here to see my earlier post). Some of the "arguments" are that comparing genetic engineering to the cross breeding of plants that humans have been doing for years is an inaccurate description of the science.

This brought to mind countless discussions I've had with environmentalists and foes of climate change science alike about science and the role it plays (or should) in helping to inform policymaking. Everyone says they are for "sound science" -- until there is some scientific study that tells them or their industry what they don't want to hear. Maybe this is human nature, but science is supposed to help us get past our personal biases -- to help us find objective truth.

The trouble, it seems, is that so often the truth is very complex and varied depending upon which elements you are testing, which assumptions you are making, etc. What is very worrisome to me about environmental policy these days is that so often, people on both sides will throw out opinion or even just something they heard somewhere -- but treat it as if it had the weight of a National Academy of Sciences review.

Take the case of GMOs and the argument that plant breeding is so different from genetic modification or engineering. Well, if you don't know much about the science of plant breeding, that might be an easy thing to just rattle off -- but that doesn't make you right, and it certainly doesn't make your opinion into "science." There is a dangerous level of scientific illiteracy out in the world today -- made worse by the pseudo-science that is often merely a step away from political science that people wrap themselves up in as part of being able to be right vs being open to exploration.

Leaving aside the fact that agrarians have been “Genetically modifying” organisms for thousands of year through selective cross-breeding, there is nothing in itself alarming about inserting DNA from one species into another when the goal is to produce something positive.

The first thing to understand is simply this: As far as the components go, DNA is DNA; all DNA, from whatever source, resembles DNA, which resembles all other DNA.

DNA is a marvelously simple molecule, given that it can contain infinitely varied information. To illustrate, imagine that you have an alphabet, but this alphabet is merely four gumdrops, one yellow, one blue, one red and one green. That’s it! Think of any characteristic of ANY organism from a bacterium to a orca --- you can code for it using only these four “letters” which are known as the “Base Pairs” of DNA.

So, when we are talking genetic material, we are very much talking “software” as opposed to hardware. When your operating system wants you to update it by downloading new software, or you want to add some, say Microsoft Word of Mac, it is not at all like adding a component from a different computer, just more or different software that then allows your computer to act slightly differently, sometimes.

The entire reason splicing a gene from one species into another works in the first place is because the two species’ DNA is identical, apart from the ordering of the “gumdrops.”

In the case of DNA removed from one organism and put into another, that DNA is merely coding for a protein, not an ear, or anything recognizable from the host organism. Provided that the protein is not poisonous, it won’t be detrimental if it is in the newly modified organism, or the original one. On the contrary, it will often be beneficial to end-user. Even if the gene is taken from a species that is in some way poisonous to humans, like a toxic mushroom, as long as that gene does not code for the proteins that make the mushroom toxic, it can be put into an edible organism without worrying about the mushroom’s dangerous characteristics.

Could GMO have negative effects? Certainly, if the intension is to have negative effects, just like any other technology!

Perhaps if more people with concerns about GMOs could hear the basic science underpinning it in a way that they can easily understand, there could be more understanding on the topic?

Overall, the point that has stuck with me about these discussions is how important it is to engage in explaining science as clearly and concisely as possible. This is particularly true of agricultural sciences because such a small percentage of the population is exposed to this type of academic pursuit in high school or college these days.

When you are in a heated argument with someone about technology, organics, GMOs or some other ag-sustainable related issue, a good tactic to consider might be to take a step back from the anger and bring out your basic biology book.

People fear what they don’t understand. Grounding our thoughts about agriculture and sustainability in the science we know is not enough, we also have to communicate what that science is in a way that does not condescend, but tries to live up to the best definition of education.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Efficient & Science-Based: The Other Sustainable Ag

By Sara Hessenflow Harper

I am reading a terrific book that I highly recommend to you: Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know by Robert Paarlberg. This book tackles almost every issue related to food you can imagine from sustainability to obesity, from ag subsidies to hunger issues and everything in between. The author is a professor of political science at Wellsley College and also teaches a seminar class at Harvard. You can read his full biography by clicking here.

One of the key issues that has jumped out at me while reading this book is Paarlberg's description of what kind of agriculture is considered environmentally sustainable. He notes,

"Environmental activists and agricultural scientists answer this question in dramatically different ways. Environmentalists prefer small-scale diversified farming systems that rely on fewer inputs purchased off the farm, systems that imitate nature rather than seeking to dominate nature. Agricultural scientists often believe there will be less harm done to nature overall by highly capitalized and specialized high-yield farming systems employing the latest technology. Increasing the yield on lands already farmed allows more of the remaining land to be saved for nature.

Environmentalists invoke the damage done by modern farming, whereas agricultural scientists invoke the greater damage that would be done if the same production volume had to come from less productive low-yield farming systems."
When I read this, it struck me that part of the divide between environmentalists and ag folks comes seems to come from a core difference in how each side thinks about science and technology. Many environmentalists point to science when they want to prove the existence of a problem or quantify the damage done by human action or industry, but as a group, they often are not willing to embrace the positive effects that can come from human invention and technology brought about by science - at least, not when it comes to food, fiber and fuel. It's as if there are two very different world philosophies at play.

Environmentalists, and I would argue, urban culture world-view seems to be distrustful of people -- seeing their impact as inherently negative on the surrounding environment. For these people, nature seems to be some pristine, perfect place that you visit on the weekends and that can never be wrong - so using science to tame or manipulate nature is an anathema. However, for the farmers, ag scientists, and I would argue rural culture that has grown up in nature and seen first-hand how hard it is to make a living off the land, there is a welcoming of any help that science and technology brings to this task.

Understanding that each side is drawing off of their own personal experience to then project how policy should be, it seems that a whole lot of good could be accomplished by spending more time in educational exchanges and urban-rural cultural exchanges. Only then can some of the urban folks come to see that farmers and ag scientists care as deeply about nature as environmentalists -- they simply approach the issue from a different perspective, one that may make more sense to the Harvard student who has never seen a farm after making a real-life personal connection with an actual farmer.

When I hear the arguments so many environmentalists throw at the ag sector about moving away from high productivity, high efficiency and high technology, it really stuns me. I try to make the point to them that they would never think of giving up their smart phones and going back to the land-line with the curly cord because that is a slower, more sane lifestyle. I don't think too many of them would give up the cancer fighting drug for their family member that resulted from the entirely UN-natural process of creating or using high-tech BIO-tech medicines.

Cancer is natural. Death is natural -- but it seems to be ok to fight that kind of nature, but not ok to introduce technology into a field that does what nature has done for billions of years but only significantly faster.

I think part of the problem is that there is still this hyper-romanticized view that surrounds the idea of growing food. When urban folks or those not familiar with agriculture push the idea of getting rid of science-based technology (because that is what modern day tractors, pesticides, seeds and fertilizers are), farmers feel the agenda is simply to put them out of business. The more I talk with people who think like this, the more I believe that they simply don't understand what it takes to feed billions of people -- and that you can't do it without technology -- just as you couldn't run a modern-day business today without the internet. (Another piece of technology I don't see my urban friends giving up anytime soon).

But here again - food, these folks feel, should be exempt from all that. We should still have mom and pop out on the farm - technology-free and loving it. It just doesn't work that way and for those who care about sustainability, it is the least sustainable model for food that I can imagine for a planet that is projected to have 3 billion more people on it by 2050.

One way for some to get a better understanding of just how vital technology and science are to the agricultural sector is to look at the green revolution. Many of today's most vocal critics about agriculture also opposed (or still oppose) the original green revolution. Again, Paarlberg's book provides some wonderful thoughts on this:
"The original green revolution was an introduction of newly developed wheat and rice seeds into Latin America and into irrigated farming lands of South and SE Asia in the 1960s and 1970s.

The plant breeders, by crossing different varieties, managed to incorporate dwarfing genes into plants, producing short stiff-strawed varieties that devoted more energy to producing grain and less to straw or leaf material.

Wheat farmers in India began planting these new varieties in 1964, and by 1970, production had nearly doubled. The new rice seeds gave an equally spectacular performance. In India, rice production doubled between 1971 and 1976 in the states of Punjab and Haryana.

Overall, more than 8,000 new seed varieties were introduced for at least 11 different crops. Robert Evenson, an economist at Yale University concluded in 2003 that if these modern varieties had not been introduced after 1965, annual crop production in the developing world would have been 16-19% lower in the year 2000."
Here is proof positive, for anyone interested in really exploring the matter, that agricultural technology has helped humanity tremendously in the past. Another exemplar worth looking at is a part of the world that has largely not taken part in the green revolution or advanced agricultural technology: Africa.

If environmentalists who believe agriculture should be free of technology are right -- that it is truly sustainable to rely only on all things natural, then Africa should be an abundant place of harmony with nature and man. Unfortunately, Africa is not such a place -- and if we were to give up on agricultural technology, much of the rest of the world would face some of the same devastating problems we see there. As Paarlberg puts it,
"Most smallholder farmers in Africa today practice something that seems suspiciously close to pure agroecology: They use traditional seeds, plant their crops in polycultures, harvest rainfall, purchase almost no inputs such as nitrogen fertilizers or pesticides from off the farm and work from dawn to dusk. The result is that their cereal crop yields are only 10-20% as high as in North America, they earn only $1 a day on average and 1/3 are undernourished."
What so many who propose "natural agriculture" don't understand is that this equates to poverty -- poverty for the farmer, poverty for the consumer and ultimately, poverty for the environment - since the society does not have the resources to properly care for it.

I'm not trying to say that modern conventional agriculture is a perfect model. Very few things in life are perfect. I'm trying to say that the worldview that thinks agriculture should be exempt from taking advantage of all that science-based technology has to offer is not sustainable!

If we can get consumers, retailers and yes, environmentalists to understand this point, we get much closer to being able to work together on today's real environmental challenges.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Is blocking GMO from Africa really adding to global sustainability?

By Sara Hessenflow Harper

I have found myself drawn into a discussion in one of my Linked-In networks about the value (or lack thereof) of genetic engineering (or genetic modified organisms, GMO) with regard to Africa and sustainability in general. Below this post is a story that prompted the discussion - and details an effort by a number of environmental groups to put pressure on the Gates Foundation to drop their support of genetically engineering for Africa.

I thought it would be valuable to share some of the charges against GMOs and my responses on this forum as well as a means of both addressing the topic, but also - illustrating the kind of thinking that is going on in "sustainability circles" about this technology. So below is the back and forth between me and a few well-intentioned, but I contend, wrong-headed folks. I have not included names - since the point is what they said, not who they are.

Person 1 commenting on the article (below):
This is great news, as the era of reliance on manufactured and mined fertilizers is going the way of the buggy whip. Genetically engineered crops are merely a way of increasing yeilds--for Monsanto. Make no mistake about it.

My response:
This is TERRIBLE news. African agriculture is ALREADY slow, organic and local and the result has been starvation and poverty for decades. If Monsanto is all about making money, why on EARTH are they GIVING AWAY the seeds to a continent that will likely not be able to afford their technology for decades to come?

Get real! As Stewart Brand, noted environmentalist has pointed out in his recent book Whole Earth Discipline, "I daresay the environmental movement has done more harm with its opposition to genetic engineering than with any other thing we've been wrong about. We've starved people, hindered science, hurt the natural environment, and denied our own practitioners a crucial tool."

Person 2:
I find this confusing. I've read reports that seem reasonably well constructed that demonstrate that we can use--globally, not just in the U.S.--organic methods without GE crops to feed the human population quite comfortably if we employ appropriate techniques for each local and introduce reproducible and sustainable approaches for the given culture and site. Why the backlash against this idea?

I've also seen great success stories of small communities in China that abandoned their GE crops and Monsanto fertilizers/pesticides, because the costs were bankrupting the community. They moved back to more traditional methods of inter-planting different crops and/or different species and were able to significantly increase their yields, reduce pest and disease problems, dramatically lower costs, and--bonus--reduce their carbon footprint.

I don't think all GE solutions are bad, but we need to be very careful with them and test them rigorously (which is often not as well done as it could or should be). And, before we go running to a GE solution--which might then lock a community into a specific vendor relationship and fertilizer/pesticide process--we should look at the process in place and see if it actually makes sense for the culture and locale . . . (continues on a bit)

Person 3:
Poor communities can not afford to be tied to GMO and the necessary fertilizers and pesticides they depend on. GMO crops perform poorly in long term yield results and tie farmers to seed purchasing. The truth is poor communities can not afford GMO - it's not sustainable.

My response:
Do you really believe that what is happening in Africa today (without GMOs) is sustainable? With some 60% of the population involved in subsistence-level farming and poverty rates soaring? I'm not saying GMO is the only answer, but clearly, keeping this technology out of the continent -- as it has been, largely because of Euro-centric and environmentalist imposed viewpoints has not solved their problems!

Explain to me how a product that creates greater yield, uses less pesticide, has greater drought resistance and can be made to create greater nutritional value is such a bad thing for a continent that is starving and set to add billions more people??

I urge you to read Stewart Brand's chapter on genetic engineering where he interviews numerous biologists who make the point that genetic engineering is not very different from the old fashioned breeding programs humans have been engaged in for centuries.

Person 3's response:
Sara - how will these poor farmers pay for GE seeds year after year?

Subsistence-level farmers have no money to purchase seeds and traditionally depend on seed saving for next years crops. Making them dependent on external sources for seeds is no way forward. Money would be much better spent on giving them training in permaculture.

The old parable - “Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime” - rings true here.

Person 4:
Sara, I have been looking for examples where GMO had a positive impact in the long run for local communities, and couldn't find a single one. They not only make farmers dependant, they also ruin the soil and distroy bio-diversity. Places where GMO's are massively used (US, Argentian, Brasil...) have become "deserts" where only the selected crops are growing and nothing else. Is this a good solution? Can this be healthy? Most local farmers are against it, but most of them have been either "bought over" by big farming companies or forced to leave. There are so many reports about, it. Look at the number of indian small farmers who suicided. I think that putting "patents" on seeds is already a wrong approach of long term view.
Permaculture on the contrary offers a solution in respect with human, nature and bio diversity. and it is perfectly applicalbe naywhere on earth.

My responses:
If you can't find a single example of how GMO has had a positive impact, you must be looking in a very limited pool of research. If GMOs are so destructive, farmers would stop buying them. I work directly with a number of farmers that use GMO seeds and have reported significant increase in yield, reduction in fertilizer use, greater ability to withstand drought and on and on with the positive impacts. These are folks that have been farming for generations, have done their research and have seen direct benefits on their farms.

Lest you think I have some financial stake in GMOs, I do not. I have no biotech clients, I have simply been immersed in ag policy and ag technology for several years and have had exposure to farmers who have chosen to use this technology because it pays off for them in the long run.

So, this idea that GMOs are this universally bad thing, but farmers are just too stupid to recognize what is in their (and their lands) best interest holds no water. I simply know too many high tech, well-educated, science-based farmers to believe that these people would pay money for technology that in the end, does not allow them to increase their overall profitability and their land's sustainability -- since at the end of the day, it is the land they must protect to continue their business.

A few quotations from Stewart Brand's book, Whole Earth Discipline on genetic engineering . . .

"From my biology background, I knew that genes have always been intensely fungible, especially in microbes. We weren't creating a new technology so much as joining an old one, using the very techniques that microbes have employed for 3.5 billion years."

"Asking around over the years, I've found that professional biologiests are universally unalarmed about genetic engineering. Most are adopting it in their own work because it is transforming every one of the biological disciplines."

Brand also provides a copy of the protest letter that green activist and scientist, Paul Ehrlich wrote to Friends of the Earth in 1977. These same concerns apply today . . . [below quotes are from Ehrlich's letter to FOE]

"One must always remember that any labratory creations would have to compete in nature with the highly specialized products of billions of years of evolution -- and one would expect the products of evolution to have a considerable advantage.

In addition, there is evidence that bacterial species have been swapping DNA among themselves for a very long time and perhaps even exchanging with eucaryotic (higher) organisms.

If recombinant DNA research is ended because it could be used for evil instead of good, then all of science will stand similarly indicted and basic research may have to cease. If it makes that decision, humanity will have to be prepared to forego the benefits of science, a cost that would be high indeed in an overpopulated world utterly dependent on sophisticated technology for any real hope of transitioning to a 'sustainable society'"

From Stewart Brand's book - quoting a 2007 article in Britain's Prospect magazine:

"The fact is that there is not a shred of any evidence of risk to human health from GM crops. Every academy of science, representing the views of the world's leading experts -- the Indian, Chinese, Mexican, Brazilian, French and American academies as well as the Royal Society, which has published four separate reports on the issue -- has confirmed this.

In 2001 the research directorate of the EU commission released a summary of 81 scientific studies financed by the EU itself -- not by private industry--conducted over a 15-year period, to determine whether GM products were unsafe or insufficiently tested: none found evidence of harm to humans or the environment."

Environmentalists are FOREVER accusing opponents of climate change of being anti-science - but when the science of genetic modification comes in, they choose to ignore it and still act as if they are doing so on behalf of the planet.

Yes, GM technology costs money that poor African farmers don't have right now. You could make that claim about most of the other problems facing their cultures too. What I know is that seed companies right now are donating seed working with the Gates foundation to see if this technology can assist in turning around the poverty and starvation of an entire continent. How is that a bad thing?

If African farmers were so much better off being advised on conventional "permaculture," why hasn't it worked? There have been many attempts no doubt. Nothing is holding back such outreach -- go ahead, do it!

Ultimately, farmers in Africa, just like farmers in America will make choices based on what brings them the most return on investment. If permaculture is such a superior alternative, it will have no problem competing against GMOs. That is, if its supporters are willing to submit to a real contest.

Just don't pretend that preventing biotechnology from taking hold in Africa is helping the Africans . . . or any of the rest of us for that matter.

Gates Foundation Urged to Back Away From Pushing GE Crops, Industrialized Agriculture for Africa

December 14, 2010

EINNEWS, December 14--- A coalition of 100 groups has written to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, urging the foundation to refocus its activities in Africa away from genetically engineered crops and industrial agriculture.

The groups signing the letter included environmentalists, academics and groups opposed to genetic engineering of food crops. They said they are concerned the foundation's grants are "heavily distorted in favor of supporting inappropriate high-tech agricultural activities, ignoring scientific studies that confirm the value of small-scale agro-ecological approaches."

Led by the Seattle-based Community Alliance for Global Justice (CAGJ), the coalition said the foundation and its private sector partners are pushing industrialized agriculture and genetically engineered crops at the expense of small farmers and the environment.

The Gates Foundation has made agricultural development one of its priorities in recent years, launching the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) with the Rockefeller Foundation in 2006. It spent about $316 million in 2009 on agricultural development.

The letter, signed by 100 organizations and individuals from 30 countries, was released to coincide with protests at the UN climate talks in Cancun.