The FDA, USDA and EPA each have a role when it comes to genetically modified crops. But are GMOs safe,and should they warrant additional food labels? Lindsay and Andy give their perspectives on GMO food labeling.
I want food labels to tell me something important to the nutrition about food: calories, fat content, vitamins – these nutrition facts are important to me and help me make decisions about food. Telling me that food contains a GMO doesn’t help me make decisions; see my pistachio example below (I love Pistachios BTW!).
Science indicates that GMOs are safe including the GMO ingredients used in our food. We rely on the FDA (http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodScienceResearch/Biotechnology/ucm346030.htm) and the National Academy of Sciences to affirm these safety claims. In some cases, we know more about GMOs than we do about conventionally bred crops. I am confident in the safety of GMO, but there is never-ending confusion and misinformation on the web.
To remove confusion and provide transparent information I support a nationwide labeling solution. There are more than two-dozen states that have considered additional food label requirements and Vermont became the first to pass GMO labeling laws. Each state creating their own labeling law is a messy approach. State-mandated food labels create a challenge that extends beyond just making a new and separate label for each state. Food manufacturers would need to create different inventories and/or different shipping lines so that manufacturers are in compliance for each state. Could it be done? Sure, but it is important to ask about the benefit to you and I as well as to ask about the cost involved in meeting various state-mandated label laws. The food labeling battle is not about nutrition but about how food is grown. So if there is a mandatory warning label for GMOs it should be about the health, safety or nutrition of food.
That’s why I support FDA’s ability to require labeling of genetically modified food ingredients if there is a health, safety or nutrition issue with foods made by biotechnology. If there is not a health, safety or nutrition issue with foods made by biotech, I support the FDA to establish standards for companies that want to voluntarily label their product as GMO or non-GMO.
Bill HR 4432 ‘The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2014’ has been introduced by Pompeo-R and Butterfield-D (http://pompeo.house.gov/uploadedfiles/safeandaccuratefoodlabellingactof2014.pdf). This bill would require biotech companies to go through a mandatory review process with FDA, before commercialization of a new GMO plant. This bill also creates a voluntary label guideline for the presence or absence of GMOs. Finally, this bill would require the FDA to define ‘natural’ on food products. Ultimately, this bill creates a nationwide, voluntary labeling system and standard for GMOs that will reduce confusion about food ingredients.
This is a common sense approach to food labeling, and this approach is validated in the 2014 Food Technology Survey (http://www.foodinsight.org/2014-foodtechsurvey). According to the survey, the majority of Americans (63 percent) support the current FDA policy for labeling of foods produced through biotechnology. The FDA’s role in regulating safety of GE foods is available here http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm352067.htm.
Last, I encourage you to head over to Biofortified and take a look at the post ‘What does a non-GMO label get you?’, written by Anastasia Bodnar. This is a great post with noteworthy discussion in the comments section. http://www.biofortified.org/2014/02/non-gmo-label/
I’ve been thinking much about Plato’s ideas on the cave—where reality is skewed for prisoners in a cave because they live a life in darkness, completely sheltered from the truth. Perhaps it’s a stretch, but I believe there’s an analogy to be found here between the prisoners of Plato’s allegorical cave and the players in the food wars—consumers, producers, suppliers.
It’s hard to know the truth. Are GMOs bad for us? Two decades of science tells us to relax, to praise technology for saving the world from starvation, to eat up and be merry. GMOs are safe. (Read more on my thoughts on that here.)
But can we trust the research, or like the prisoners of Plato’s cave, are our realities skewed, our understanding of truth not fully informed? And what about the research arriving on scene that advocates for organics over GMOs?
For the consumer, our ideas of reality are shaped by those within the food industry. The organics industry (Big Organic) understands that its survival depends on informing and educating its consumer on the dangers of conventionally raised food. Conversely, the conventional industry (Big Ag) understands that its survival depends upon toeing the line, making it crystal clear that there is absolutely zero nutritional difference between its product and its organic counterpart.
HOW DO WE REACH COMMON GROUND?
While Andy proposes that the FDA requires labeling where there is a nutritional or health difference, the truth is that the majority of scientific evidence relied upon by the FDA shows NO nutritional or health difference between conventionally raised and organic food. The FDA knows this. The ag industry knows this; that’s why Andy’s stance is such a safe place for those in the biotech world to be.
But proponents of food labeling for GMOs aren’t typically choosing organic (and I use that term loosely as “organic” is a word that needs some major unpacking) because of a massive difference in nutrient levels. Rather, consumers who are leery of eating GMO food aren’t comfortable with the amounts of synthetic residual and systemic pesticides found within GMO foods. They are seeking a more sustainable way of raising food, and so they choose to support the idea that buying organic stems the tide of big corporate takeover of the farm table.
But it’s important to note that those people are the same people who care enough about their food to educate themselves about the origins of their food. They are the ones who understand that a food label is packed with information intended to inform concerned consumers about the quality of ingredients, the nutritional value, and even the form of production and processing. A quick walk down the grocery store aisles will reveal that corporations have become enlightened to the needs of these consumers: They know that words like “organic” and “natural” sell. They have learned that a segment of consumers are willing to pay a premium price for products that can tout “locally raised” and “non-GMO.” By default, then, it seems that food labeling of GMOs is already happening. By marketing genius, by the rule of the capitalistic dollar, those who can market non-GMO products are already doing so, and those who are interested in buying non-GMO products are already savvy enough to identify the labels. So, to ask it bluntly: Isn’t food labeling ALREADY happening?
If the purpose of a food label is to inform the consumer, then I have to wonder: If a consumer buys a bag of artificially colored cheese puffs or a loaf of bread with 50 ingredients listed on the food label, will a GMO label be the clincher for her? My hunch is that it will not, that her convictions won’t compel her to pay a higher dollar amount for non-GMO food, mostly, perhaps, because she hasn’t been convinced that GMOs could be harmful to her health.
SO WHAT DO WE DO?
Something that cannot be done—as long as the almighty dollar rules the world. We need to cut the jargon. We need to be honest with consumers about the science, about the possible science, and about the origins of food long before it ever hits our grocery shelves. There’s so much more to the food story than a price tag and a label, and there are consumers out there who are willing to invest their dollars in food that seeks to protect worker rights and communities, but I’m not sure that we’ll ever find that type of food in our grocery aisles, for that’s the food found in our neighbor’s back yard, our farmer’s markets, our co-ops—the type of food where a true label is found in a handshake stained with soil-covered fingernails.
A food label is truly a map for the consumer, but not every consumer wants a map of the entire world—some are just looking for the basics. So let’s keep the choice on the table. Let’s allow voluntary labeling, empowering the consumer to make a choice, to seek out those products that foster transparency, that go the extra mile to meet consumer need. It’s the law of capitalism, making something available and letting it prosper on its own merit. And in the meantime, let’s empower the consumer with information and education—getting them out of the cave before it’s too late.
Wanda Patsche (twitter.com/MinnFarmer) recently published an article Let’s take the ‘factory’ out of factory farms http://www.minnpost.com/minnesota-blog-cabin/2014/06/let-s-take-factory-out-factory-farms. Lindsay and Andy share their reactions to this article.
Lindsay and I have been chatting about writing short reaction posts to current events or hot topics. When I read Wanda Patsche’s article a few days ago my immediate thought turned to getting Lindsay’s opinion on the article.
The phrase factory farm is a label and is intended to be used negatively. So I don’t use it, and like Ms. Patsche, I really don’t know what qualifies a farm to be a factory farm. I’ve visited hundreds and hundreds of farms and what I notice most is each farm is unique.
When I look around I see farms. I see farms that use amazing technology. I see farms where each farm is managed slightly different from the next. I see farms with beautiful fields of corn or soybeans or wheat or canola or rice. I see the magnificent blossoms of Almond trees in the valley. I see the dairy farm that buys my hay. I see a turkey farm, a hog farm, a cattle farm and on and on. But what I really see is a family working together to make food that you and I will eat.
It is easy to get caught up in the emotion from a scary piece of information that is linked to ‘factory farms’. It happens to me. But if I dig just a bit deeper than the headline and ask questions, I find misinformation or I realize that the facts are far less sensational than the headline. Does factory belong in front of farms? No, and I think we can advance the conversation about agriculture and food production further and faster if we checked emotionally charged labels at the door.
As always, I am thankful to Lindsay for the discussion as well as her collaboration on this project. Also, I am thankful those who provided Lindsay quotes to use for this article. There is common ground out there, let’s keep the conversation going and let’s find our common ground.
In all reality, I think most people involved in the factory farming argument share Ms. Patsche’s sentiment. Indeed, we ought to take the “factory” out of the farm. And most certainly, we ought to cheer for a team steeped in values, care and ethic. It’s hard to argue with Ms. Patsche’s emotional pleas:
We share the same values as our parents, grandparents and great grandparents. We care for our animals daily. It matters and affects us if our animals are sick or injured. Today’s farmers work with a team to assist them in giving the best animal care. . . . The purpose of this team? Simple really–to raise healthy animals.
Unless, of course, you look at the numbers and statistics that have been outlined on posts throughout this blog. But today, I think that the more compelling voice is the community that Ms. Patsche describes, those who live among the “neighbors, [her] friends, fellow church members, parents of [her] children’s friends and people in [her] community.”
There’s not a lot I feel free to say because I have been sued. Apparently, defending your right to life, liberty, and happiness doesn’t really apply to everyone. You know, we were doing what we thought we were supposed to do. We were working within our constitutional rights, within the framework protected by our government, and we were seeking legislative change. This is what the Ohio Department of Agriculture told us to do. “Hey,” they said. “We follow the law. If you want something done, you have to change the legislature.” So that is what we did, but we were naïve. In today’s society, there are no rights when you live next to a farm. (Joan Knight, Choked Silent)
My family has always had horses—good horses. We raised them for premier events, national races. And we raised winners. We took pride in that. By the time the farms came, we had scaled down tremendously, and I only had two horses in the stalls at my parents’ farm. One week, I cleaned the barn, and shortly after, I witnessed a scene straight out of a horror movie. I had gone over to feed my horse that wasn’t with the trainer. He was a beautiful brown horse with a star on his face. It had been five days since I had cleaned the barn, too short of a time for flies to hatch out of manure. I found him, standing in his stall, black with flies. He was covered—I couldn’t even find the star on his face. The straw, the stall, everything was moving. I couldn’t see anything besides flies . . . . I came undone at that point. (Jim C., Choked Silent)
You see, that silent partner was. . . the egg farmer that got banned from ever operating another farm in Iowa. Remember the salmonella outbreak? The one that sickened sixteen thousand people? That was [him]. He had been fined millions of dollars on charges ranging from farm mismanagement to rape to hiring illegals. And now, he was our new neighbor, the businessman parading as a family farmer and knowing well enough to stay hidden from public view. (Rosie B., Choked Silent)
So many of us have lived here forever. So many of us farm the land in this community, and here came this egg farm, this big time farmer who was forbidden from ever owning another animal in Germany, and he told us what the Ohio Department of Agriculture would later echo: If you don’t like it, move. This was agricultural land. (Jim W., Choked Silent)
I had hate mail, and I did report that. It said something like, “You should all die because I am feeding the world.” (Jane P., Choked Silent)
We can argue all day about efficiency and profit and environmental harm, but the truth, Ms. Patsche, is that these factory farms are destroying the social fabric of the rural communities where they exist. And I’ve never known neighbors or friends or small business-minded folk to do that to one another.
Excerpts taken from 2013 Master's thesis, Choked Silent: A Plea from Rural America for a New Place at the Table. Lindsay spent a year traveling throughout rural Ohio, collecting stories from the rural neighbors of CAFOs. Many stories like this exist throughout the United States. More on her thesis can be found at lindsayhotmire.com
Lindsay and Andy recently discussed agriculture transparency and big ag here: http://lindsayandytalk.com/big-ag-use-bully-pulpit/. Their conversation continues below.
Andy: What is one thing that agriculture does really well with regards to transparency and should keep doing?
Lindsay: This is a tough one for me to answer. As I told you the other night, the biggest passion I have about this entire subject is the response of the Ag industry to the community that lives beneath its shadow. I don’t think that any industry can claim corporate responsibility when it wreaks havoc on the surrounding community–environmentally, physically, and socially. When I see farmers awarded by the EPA but understand that the neighbors can no longer open their windows because the air is so heavy with manure or flies, that is a hard pill for me to swallow. Those concerns are repeatedly diminished, covered in labels of “environmental activism,” or “anti-agriculture,” but most of the time, that is not the case. Most of the time, the people raising concerns are people who have lived in the rural countryside their entire lives, who understand what farming is, who even understand the dilemmas many farmers face. But they also understand that their quality of life has diminished so that an industry can profit–they can’t breathe; they can’t play; they can’t enjoy life on their property.
Knowing this, it’s hard for me to say that the Ag industry is truly transparent, because as long as rural communities continue to drown in the muddy waters of corporate advancement, it seems that profit is the driving force that shrouds ethics or transparency.
Andy: What is one thing that agriculture is doing poorly with regards to transparency and should stop doing?
Lindsay: I think that I answered this above, but let me reiterate: Is it possible the the rural neighbors are the canary in the coal mine? Is it possible that those who have been speaking out for decades–asking for enforced regulations (read: enforced, not more), asking for protection against industrial encroachment, asking for clean air and clean water–have valid concerns? Since the 40s, we’ve known that industrialized agriculture can be detrimental to the health and welfare of rural communities. Walter Goldschmidt–commissioned by a U.S. Special Committee–studied the influence of industrialized ag, and the results of his study were so damning, so profound, that the USDA closed his sponsoring agency, rendering his findings mute until the 1970s.
We see the influence of industrialized ag throughout the Gulf of Mexico, Lake Erie, Grand Lake St. Mary’s. With Grand Lake St. Mary’s, a phosphorous-overloaded lake severely compromised the area’s $160 million industry. The main culprit? Undeniably agriculture. The response? Encourage agriculture to do better. It’s time we stop relying on the good faith of farmers to protect the environment and the rural communities; it’s time we abandon the ancient stereotype rooted in the days of hunting and gathering where communities worked together for self-preservation, for in upholding such false perceptions, we elevate farmer above neighbor and preserve ideologies rooted in aristocracy.
Andy: What is one thing that agriculture isn’t currently doing but should start doing to become more transparent?
Lindsay: I suppose I’ve made that clear in my last two answers.
Andy: You mentioned ‘Big Ag’ in one of our recent posts; what does the label ‘Big Ag’ mean to you?
Lindsay: Well, let’s first look at some of the other industries that have gained the adjective “Big” as part of their title.
Big Tobacco: According to quick research, in 2010, the tobacco industry spent $16.6 million to influence legislative policy. In marketing costs, they spent $8.8 billion.
Big Pharma: In the last 15 years, the pharmaceutical industry has spent nearly $2.7 billion in lobbying expenses. Since 1990, Big Pharma has handed out $150 million in campaign contributions.
Big Ag: In 2013, Big Ag spent nearly $152 million in lobbying efforts. I’m not even going to go into the millions spent by biotech giants on marketing campaigns to defeat initiatives.
Maybe I should stop at the numbers. But let me clarify the definition of “Big Ag” a bit more.
The term “Big Ag” is rooted in agribusiness–corporatized agriculture that exploits the meaning of family farm. Big Ag wants to say that nearly all farms throughout the nation are “family farmed,” but it conveniently leaves out that just 2 percent of our nation’s workforce are farmers–and most of those farmers fall under the umbrella of food giants like Tyson who have painted a clear vision of what it means to raise animals in today’s society: millions of chickens packed into a barn, thousands of hogs and cattle. Most Americans have an idealized image of what a “family farm” is, and it is a far cry from the stark metal barns that raise most of our nation’s meat supply. While Big Ag has proliferated into our farm fields long ago, one of the most visual examples exists in our current way of mass-produced livestock.
Andy: Do you think it will possible to get away from using labels to describe people, businesses or industry?
Lindsay: There’s a clear distinction that needs to be made here between labels for societies/ people groups versus labels for business/industry. Labels within our food industry exist to inform.While history has long proven that labels can be damaging, sociologists also know that societies and cultures develop through and around language (Enter: a long theoretical discussion that we don’t have time for). Knowing this, however, I am always intrigued with how the Big Ag industry finds the “Big Ag” label so vile. The irony for rural communities is that the agribusiness industry wants to tout that it’s farming, wants to demand the archaic “right-to-farm” laws, but at the same time, it wants to proliferate across the rural countryside; it wants to farm right over any rural neighbor that gets in its way. It wants to have the power of a corporation (and everything about Big Ag is a corporation, an industry), but it doesn’t want to be recognized as such.
So the question for Big Ag is this: What’s so EVIL about corporate power? Nothing, it seems, for the farmer–until that corporate power starts attracting rules and regulations that he doesn’t want to abide by. Big Ag is hovering between two worlds: an ancient world that disappeared with the Industrial Revolution, and a present world that sustains profit and livelihood.
We cannot get away from labels that serve to inform the consumer, nor should we, for once we stop letting people be informed, once we stop categorizing methods and philosophies, we become an unthinking, uncritical generation. And in that gap, a thinking, critical power will always step in. Perhaps this is why Big Ag is so eager to drop the label, for it gets the consumer to mindlessly buy and eat?
Andy’s comments: I appreciate Lindsay’s candid responses. In fairness, I should take a stab at responding to those same questions as well. How would you respond?
‘Sustainable crop intensification/agriculture intensification’ are phrases used in the context of agriculture to convey the idea of producing more food with less resources. Lindsay and Andy challenge each other with their opposing viewpoints on the impact of agricultural intensification.
I recently had a chance to meet Emily Heaton (www.linkedin.com/pub/emily-heaton/10/63/62) at an agriculture conference. Before we met, I listened to her presentation on sustainable agricultural intensification. She identified three categories of agricultural intensification: conventional, temporal, and spatial. Sustainable agriculture intensification (sustainable crop production intensification) is a phrase sometimes used when people discuss the future of farming and food security.
According to the FAO (http://www.fao.org/agriculture/crops/core-themes/theme/spi/en/), “Sustainable crop production intensification provides opportunities for optimizing crop production per unit area, taking into consideration the range of sustainability aspects including potential and/or real social, political, economic and environmental impacts.” Sustainable agriculture intensification means getting more output (food, feed, fuel, etc.) out of the same acre of soil without depleting natural resources.
I believe sustainable crop production intensification is one tool that can be used to meet the food, feed, and fuel needs of our growing planet. The UN predicts global population to increase by 1 billion over the next 12 years (http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=45165#.UqkxB_RDuSo). The world population is growing, lifestyle expectations are changing and food choices are expanding. We should continue to work towards meeting the food need as well as providing food security.
So how do we do it? And how do we do it in a sustainable way? First, I’ll reference the conversation Lindsay and I shared on sustainable agriculture (http://lindsayandytalk.com/conversation/sustainable-agriculture/) where I mention that sustainable agriculture does not mean a one-size-fits all farming practice. Likewise with sustainable intensification there are many farming systems that can be considered. Here are a few examples:
Conventional Agricultural Intensification
Bringing advanced genetics and biotechnology to the market so that the crops can protect themselves from insects, utilize water and nitrogen more efficiently, and produce more yield with the same inputs. One example is corn hybrids that are resilient to water-limiting conditions.
Temporal Agricultural Intensification
Instead of growing one crop on an acre, temporal agricultural intensification adds an additional crop. One example is use of a cover crop that is planted following a corn or soybean crop. Capturing and recycling of soil nutrients is an important benefit of cover crops.
Spatial Agricultural Intensification
Selecting the best crop, or best practice, for the landscape position on a specific piece of land. One example is limiting the amount of dried corn stalks (commonly referred to as stover) that can be removed and used as energy so that soil remains adequately protected.
All three categories of agricultural intensification, as well as the specific examples I have provided, are in practice today. We are using these tools to work against the challenge of a growing population, and doing so in a sustainable manner.
Lindsay mentions the many conversations she and I have had about advancements in biotechnology. I fully believe that advancements in biotechnology should not occur at the expense of individual rights. Take GM products as an example, I am fully in support of voluntary labeling so that people can choose whether they want food with GM ingredients. My concern, and disagreement with Lindsay, centers around the misinformation about biotechnology that could stifle further advancements or worse yet, be a setback for biotechnology.
Lindsay and I, in my opinion, have much more in common and likely agree on more fundamental issues than issues that we disagree. Here’s an example of what I mean… Lindsay mentions how we need discussion on changing the way the world eats — I absolutely, 100% agree with her and stand by her and her statement. One example where we can do better is food waste (a bit off topic for this article, but still relevant to the idea of sustainability). We waste food while people go hungry — and we don’t need to travel to a different country to see hunger.
Scientific knowledge and ethical perspectives we bring to the sustainable crop intensification discussion are important. I can think of no better example of the ethical imperative than the Green Revolution from the great Norman Borlaug. The Green Revolution research saved 40-50 million acres from being used for farmland (http://www.pnas.org/content/110/21/8363.full). Are we producing more food in an ethical, sustainable manner? The answer from me is an emphatic ‘yes!’.
This discussion Lindsay and I are having is exactly what is needed to take place and I appreciate Lindsay’s passion and opinions. Let’s keep the conversation going.
Have We Lost Our Ethics?
First, I think it’s important that we begin this discussion with a unified understanding of sustainable agricultural intensification.
The idea of agricultural intensification is nothing new. We’ve been looking at ways to get the most out of our land since, well, as long as we’ve been living off of the land. It’s the law of survival, and as we look ahead to our future, everyone is asking the same question: How are we going to feed an expanding population?
It’s an important question–a necessary one, in fact. And so, when we talk about sustainable agricultural intensification, we’re attempting to answer this question of food supply and security within the context of the existing farmland.
The U.S. EPA reports that in the United States alone, 3,000 acres of farmland is lost (read: sold) to development every single day. And while I’m not here to discuss the financial gains farmers receive when they sell to development or the debates associated with our dwindling farmland, the single fact remains: We’re running out of arable land and water, and while the anti-Save the Earth campaigners want to argue round and round about climate change, this is a fact that we cannot dispute (if we’re going to claim to have a brain in our heads).
As we attempt to answer difficult questions on feeding the world, it makes sense to consider how we can raise the most food on the smallest amount of land.
Andy and I have had many conversations about this that always end with me arguing that advancements in biotechnology should never occur at the expense of individual rights. He’s never fully agreed with me, and at the heart of it, I think our inability to agree on this boils down to a discussion on ethics. T. Garnett et al. argue in their July 2013 Science article, “Sustainable Intensification in Agriculture: Premises and Policies,” that a broad understanding of sustainable intensification is necessary if we are going to adequately address world food demands. To put it simply, they argue that a singular focus on food security will wreak havoc with the global world, bringing more harm than good. Through their research, however, they’ve identified five areas that can unite ideologies under a common framework.
Relevant data: If we’re going to understand how to best develop increased yields without bringing harm to the environmental and human structures surrounding agriculture, more data is needed to deliver an understanding of best practices. We cannot simply advance with our Western eyes, forgetting that much of the starving world exists beyond our borders and abides by constructs that our technology-driven mindsets fail to comprehend. The cost of that ignorance often results in displacement and urbanization that fail to improve either economies or hunger.
Expansion of Ethics. As the demands for meat-rich diets grow across the globe, the solution clearly seems to be intensification within the livestock industry. In the industrialized process, though, we’ve stripped the animal of its spirit—highly selective breeding that causes harm to the animal, poor living conditions, horrific health issues. So the question resounds: How can we meet demand and protect animal welfare? The probability is that we cannot; therefore, we need to begin discussions on how to reduce consumption and demand. We need to change the way the world eats, and this part of the discussion is barely on the radar.
Filling hungry bellies: We all know that when we’re hungry, although we might be craving the bag of potato chips on the pantry shelf, the best choice lies in the apple in our fridge or the banana on our counter. Throughout the developing world, however, those options don’t exist, and we’re seeing severe deficiencies in micronutrients. How can we produce more food and yet maintain a diverse diet? As the focus becomes on utilizing the land in a way that promises efficiency, how can we promise diversity within diets? A diversion from monocropping is a good start, but is it enough? And can it be done in a way that preserves cultural heritage and provides fair and efficient markets for farmers across the globe?
Rural communities: How do we develop a corporate model and preserve the rural communities and undeveloped countries? We cannot simply target increased yields and farmer incomes without considering the dynamics of the social culture beyond the fields. History tells depressing tales of development that oppresses, pushing the poor further to the margins and allowing just a few to get rich. If we are truly interested in the problem of world hunger, sustainable intensification will consider the social aspect of agricultural advancement. Advancement always comes at a cost, and any sustainable system seeks to mitigate those costs as much as possible.
I appreciate Ms. Heaton’s discussion on sustainable intensification, but until we include ethics as part of that framework, we cannot claim to be moving towards the common good; rather, we are simply advancing singular and powerful interests in the name of security.
Resources and Further Research:
T. Garnett et. al. “Sustainable Intensification in Agriculture: Premises and Policies.” Science 5 July 2013: 341 (6141), 33-34. DOI:10.1126/science.1234485.
The Ethics of Intensification: Agricultural Development and Cultural Change, Paul B. Thompson, 2008. http://www.amazon.com/The-Ethics-Intensification-International-Environmental/dp/1402087217/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1390333252&sr=8-1&keywords=the+ethics+of+intensification#reader_1402087217
Sir Gordon Conway. “Sustainable Agricultural Intensification: A Practical Solution for the Global Development Agenda.”http://globalfoodforthought.typepad.com/global-food-for-thought/2013/04/sustainable-agricultural-intensification-a-practical-solution-for-the-global-development-agenda.html
What do you think of when you hear the word ‘pesticide’? It is a word that is tossed around and usually in the direction of agriculture. This week Lindsay and Andy focus their discussion on pesticides and share their view of pesticides and this polarizing topic. This isn’t just another pesticide article. This is a conversation.
The topic of pesticides has been written about here and here and here and here. Instead of writing another pesticide article, Lindsay and I had a conversation, some back-and-forth, and discussed our different viewpoints below.
Lindsay tells her story below about her dad making a living thanks to pesticides and I immediately think back to my agriculture beginnings working for a pesticide manufacturer. I too made a living because of pesticides — it’s where I started. As a 23 year-old kid fresh out of graduate school trying to sell Prowl/Pursuit (those were very popular herbicides for soybeans in the 1990’s) I thought I knew what a pesticide was… but I didn’t really know until much later.
A few years ago at a family gathering one of my family members made a comment about the food she had brought to the event. I have forgotten the exact quote, but it was something along the lines of “the food I brought is all-natural with none of those toxic pesticides.” I wasn’t really sure what she meant, since all-natural doesn’t necessarily mean pesticide-free.
In the years between my job selling Prowl/Pursuit and my family member making a comment about ‘toxic pesticides’ I had learned an important fact about pesticides… pesticides are a legal construct. The EPA has a really good ELI5 (Explain Like I’m Five) explanation of pesticide which also helps explain what I mean when I say ‘legal construct’: “Pesticide is any substance or mixture of substances intended for: preventing, destroying, repelling, or mitigating any pest” (source: http://www.epa.gov/pesticides/about/index.htm#what_pesticide). The key word in the explanation isn’t substance or mixture; the key word is intended. Pesticides are defined by intended use of the product. The determining factor in whether or not a product is a pesticide has nothing to do with the makeup of particular substances.
Here’s a real example. Several weed scientists a few years ago studied whether or not household vinegar can control weeds. Household vinegar, aka white vinegar, contains about 5% acetic acid. Researchers had some success on small weeds and on certain types of weeds. But household vinegar manufacturers do not intend their product to be used as a pesticide. Therefore, household vinegar is not considered a pesticide even though it can kill certain weeds. (Source: http://www.wssajournals.org/doi/full/10.1614/WT-08-185.1)
I am very interested in having the conversation about pesticide use, understanding the concerns and reassuring Lindsay and others that food on your plate is not toxic. Also, I want to have the conversation about organic food production and discuss that organic does not necessarily mean pesticide-free. Organic food production does allow for naturally-derived pesticides (current resources maintained here). As Lindsay and I chat about Bt, I’ll discuss that Bt is naturally occurring soil bacterium and it could even be used in organic food production as a pesticide.
I get it that just because pesticides are a legal construct does not make the issue of pesticide use unimportant. And I am very sensitive to the fact there is great interest in understanding how food is grown and how it moves from the field to our plate. But if you take nothing else away from this discussion between Lindsay and I, please walk away with the knowledge that intent of a product –not a certain level of toxicity — determines whether or not a product is considered a pesticide.
I thank Lindsay for sharing her viewpoint and concerns. Let’s keep talking.
There are some great resources where you can read more and ask questions:
1. US Farmers and Ranchers Alliance: http://www.fooddialogues.com/foodsource/usfras-view-on-pesticides-fertilizers-herbicides
2. eExtension https://ask.extension.org/search/all?utf8=%E2%9C%93&q=pesticides ask a question here: https://ask.extension.org/ask
As a little girl growing up with a father who made his living thanks to pesticides, I can remember often being confronted with the accusation that although my father sought to earn a living in order to put bread and milk on our table, he was also responsible for killing birds en masse.
Being a child, this enraged me—mostly because I wasn’t equipped with the knowledge to defend myself against these authoritarian accusations. I never looked at pesticides as dangerous. I believed they had a noble purpose, defending against destructive pests and invasive species. Nature isn’t always true to Monet or Audobon or Adams. Sometimes fight and might are required against the forces of nature if we are going to survive.
And this is where the dichotomy enters.
While Andy tried to broaden the conversation on pesticides, I fear that he’s missing the central point of concern by those vociferous consumers who are in the same camp as his pesticide-free/natural loving family member. Case in point: While vinegar might technically be considered a herbicide due to its amazing ability to eradicate pesky weeds, its level of toxicity to the human body (when ingested) is not comparable to regularly used agricultural pesticides such as modified Bt toxins or nicotynils. In fact, vinegar is often used to cleanse a living body of toxins while modified Bt toxins and nicotynils are used to completely obliterate living bodies.
To me, that’s a huge difference.
In 2008, Dr. Charles Benbrook, Chief Scientist at The Organic Center in Oregon, argued that with proper prevention, the use of pesticides could be drastically lowered. In his article, Prevention, not Profit ,Should Drive Pest Management, Benbrook talks about the dangers of systemic pesticides—the types that cannot be washed away regardless of how hard consumers may try. This is because systemic pesticides have been designed to grow with the plant, so every bite becomes laced with trace amounts of pesticide residual. The agricultural community wants us to believe that those trace amounts are harmless, but as Benbrook has pointed out (along with many others), research just isn’t on the side of that claim.
When talking about genetically engineered Bt toxins, Benbrook says that
We are entering uncharted waters in the assessment of farm animal, human, and ecological impacts associated with the trend toward systemic solutions to corn insect management challenges. Millions of acres of corn silage are grown and harvested at a stage when there remain relatively high levels of Bt toxins, and perhaps even nicotinyls, through plant tissues. I know of no research exploring the impacts on animal health and reproduction of the toxin cocktail now in corn silage.”[i]
That word, “toxin cocktail” is the silver bullet when understanding the fears of the consumer. The educated consumer is savvy enough to understand that while one particular pesticide residue may not be toxic on its own accord, repeated and prolonged exposure to low-level pesticide cocktail residues and systemic pesticides can prove deadly. And when the consumer begins to understand that the EPA has never denied an application for a new pesticide or even revoked an old one in spite of evidence of harm to the non-human population ( except for chlorfenapyr on cotton)[ii], trust begins to wane. (For let us not forget that animal species began to show evidence of DDT’s harmful influence long before we understood its effect on the human population.)
What exactly is in the food we are eating?
This is the question that the consumer is asking. Is it possible that in the name of advancement, farmers are poisoning (albeit sometimes unwittingly) our food system, our eco-system, and our bodies? Is it possible that complicated catastrophes, such as Colony Collapse Disorder amongst our honey bees, are sending out a distress signal to mankind?
And most importantly, is it possible to raise food without the application of toxins?
The consumer is demanding that the answer is yes. Research is indicating that the answer is yes. But the scientist, the agricultural world? They don’t seem interested in even having the conversation, wanting instead to impress us with their figures of low toxicity, their estimates on just exactly how much chemical poison a toddler can consumer before experiencing neurological responses. It is a peculiar consideration—raising food without man made toxins, and as research continues to support the idea of organic farming, promoting fewer and fewer pesticides, I believe the farming community will be the catalyst for class warfare (as it has been many times throughout history), creating a system of the haves and have nots where those who can afford clean food will buy it, and those who cannot? Well, they’ll be left with a toxic plate.
[i] Benbrook, Charles. “Prevention, not Profit, Should Drive Pest Management.” Pesticide News 82 (2008). 12-17.