Monday, April 7, 2014

Food trends - Clear thinking on Organic and GMO

[Two Articles from Project Syndicate by Henry Miller on Organic Agriculture and GMO food. One is unsustainable (and actually bad for the environment), the other unsupported hysteria.]

NOV 11, 2013

The Myth of Organic Agriculture

STANFORD – Organic products – from food to skin-care nostrums to cigarettes – are very much in vogue, with the global market for organic food alone now reportedly exceeding $60 billion annually. The views of organic devotees seem to be shared by the European Commission, whose official view of organic farming and foods is, “Good for nature, good for you.” But there is no persuasive evidence of either.

A 2012 meta-analysis of data from 240 studies concluded that organic fruits and vegetables were, on average, no more nutritious than their cheaper conventional counterparts; nor were they less likely to be contaminated by pathogenic bacteria like E. coli or salmonella – a finding that surprised even the researchers. “When we began this project,” said Dena Bravata, one of the researchers, “we thought that there would likely be some findings that would support the superiority of organics over conventional food.”

Many people purchase organic foods in order to avoid exposure to harmful levels of pesticides. But that is a poor rationale. While non-organic fruits and vegetables had more pesticide residue, the levels in more than 99% of cases did not cross the conservative safety thresholds set by regulators.

Moreover, the vast majority of the pesticidal substances found on produce occur “naturally” in people’s diets, through organic and conventional foods. The biochemist Bruce Ames and his colleagues have found that “99.99% (by weight) of the pesticides in the American diet are chemicals that plants produce to defend themselves. Only 52 natural pesticides have been tested in high-dose animal cancer tests, and about half (27) are rodent carcinogens; these 27 are shown to be present in many common foods.”

The bottom line is that natural chemicals are just as likely as synthetic versions to test positive in animal cancer studies, and “at the low doses of most human exposures, the comparative hazards of synthetic pesticide residues are insignificant.” In other words, consumers who buy expensive organic foods in order to avoid pesticide exposure are focusing their attention on 0.01% of the pesticides that they consume.

Ironically, in both Europe and North America, the designation “organic” is itself a synthetic bureaucratic construct – and it makes little sense. It prohibits the use of synthetic chemical pesticides, with some pragmatic exceptions. For example, the EU’s policy notes that “foreseen flexibility rules” can compensate for “local climatic, cultural, or structural differences.” When suitable alternatives are lacking, some (strictly enumerated) synthetic chemicals are allowed.

Similarly, in the US, there is a lengthy list of specific exceptions to the prohibitions. But most “natural” pesticides – as well as pathogen-laden animal excreta, for use as fertilizer – are permitted.

Another rationale for buying organic is that it is supposedly better for the natural environment. But the low yields of organic agriculture in real-world settings – typically 20-50% below yields from conventional agriculture – impose various stresses on farmland and increase water consumption substantially. According to a recent British meta-analysis, ammonia emissions, nitrogen leaching, and nitrous-oxide emissions per unit of output were higher in organic systems than in conventional agriculture, as were land use and the potential for eutrophication – adverse ecosystem responses to the addition of fertilizers and wastes – and acidification.

An anomaly of how “organic” is defined is that the designation does not actually focus on the food’s quality, composition, or safety. Rather, it comprises a set of acceptable practices and procedures that a farmer intends to use. For example, chemical pesticide or pollen from genetically engineered plants wafting from an adjacent field onto an organic crop does not affect the harvest’s status. EU rules are clear that food may be labeled as organic as long as “the ingredients containing [genetically modified organisms] entered the products unintentionally” and amount to less than 0.9% of their content.

Finally, many who are seduced by the romance of organic farming ignore its human consequences. American farmer Blake Hurst offers this reminder: “Weeds continue to grow, even in polycultures with holistic farming methods, and, without pesticides, hand weeding is the only way to protect a crop.” The backbreaking drudgery of hand weeding often falls to women and children.

Of course, organic products should be available for people who feel that they must have and can afford them. But the simple truth is that buying non-organic is far more cost-effective, more humane, and more environmentally responsible.


JAN 3, 2014

The GMO Stigma

STANFORD – In August, at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, a group of activists vandalized test fields of so-called “golden rice,” which has been genetically engineered to contain beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A. Some of the perpetrators were even supported by the Swedish government’s International Development Cooperation Agency via its funding of the radical Filipino group MASIPAG.

For poor people whose diet is composed largely of rice – a carbohydrate-rich but vitamin-poor source of calories – “biofortified” strains are invaluable. In developing countries, 200-300 million preschool children are at risk of vitamin A deficiency, which compromises immune systems, increasing the body’s susceptibility to illnesses like measles and diarrheal diseases. Every year, vitamin A deficiency causes blindness in about a half-million children; some 70% of them die within a year.

In September, an eminent group of scientists called upon the scientific community to “stand together in staunch opposition to the violent destruction of required tests on valuable advances, such as golden rice, that have the potential to save millions” of people from “needless suffering and death.” But this passionate appeal fails to address the fundamental problem: the unfounded notion that there is a meaningful difference between “genetically modified organisms” and their conventional counterparts.

The fact is that GMOs and their derivatives do not amount to a “category” of food products. They are neither less safe nor less “natural” than other common foods. Labeling foods derived from GMOs, as some have proposed, thus implies a meaningful difference where none exists – an issue that even regulators have acknowledged.

Humans have been engaging in “genetic modification” through selection and hybridization for millennia. Breeders routinely use radiation or chemical mutagens on seeds to scramble a plant’s DNA and generate new traits.

A half-century of “wide cross” hybridizations, which involve the movement of genes from one species or genus to another, has given rise to plants – including everyday varieties of corn, oats, pumpkin, wheat, black currants, tomatoes, and potatoes – that do not and could not exist in nature. Indeed, with the exception of wild berries, wild game, wild mushrooms, and fish and shellfish, virtually everything in North American and European diets has been genetically improved in some way.

Despite the lack of scientific justification for skepticism about genetically engineered crops – indeed, no cases of harm to humans or disruption to ecosystems have been documented – they have been the most scrutinized foods in human history. The assumption that “genetically engineered” or “genetically modified” is a meaningful – and dangerous – classification has led not only to vandalism of field trials, but also to destruction of laboratories and assaults on researchers.

Moreover, the GMO classification has encouraged unscientific regulatory approaches that are not commensurate with the level of risk, and that, by discriminating against modern molecular genetic-engineering techniques, inhibit agricultural innovation that could reduce strain on the natural environment and enhance global food security. Even as study after study – both formal risk assessments and “real-world” observations – has confirmed the technology’s safety, the regulatory burden placed on GMOs has continued to grow.

This trend is making the testing and development of many crops with commercial and humanitarian potential economically unfeasible. Despite robust laboratory research on plants since the invention of modern genetic-engineering techniques in the early 1970’s, the commercialization of products has lagged.

Unprovoked attention from regulators inevitably stigmatizes any product or technology. Endless discussion of the “coexistence” of genetically engineered and “conventional” organisms has reinforced the stigma, leading activists to pursue frivolous yet damaging litigation. For example, in at least four lawsuits brought against regulators in the United States, judges initially ruled that regulators had failed to comply with the procedural requirements of the US National Environmental Policy Act. And marketing as “natural” products that contain genetically engineered ingredients has led to lawsuits for false labeling.

The discriminatory treatment of GMOs creates widespread mischief. In many places, the location of field trials now must be identified, even including GPS coordinates – a practice that facilitates vandalism. (And activists frequently destroy conventional plants inadvertently, because they are difficult to distinguish from genetically engineered varieties.)

In 1936, the Nobel laureate Max Planck observed that scientific innovations rarely spread as a result of their opponents’ conversion; instead, opponents of innovation “gradually die out,” and the next generation accepts the breakthrough. This was the case with vaccinations and the recognition that DNA is the stuff of heredity – and it will happen eventually with genetic engineering.

Unfortunately, many will suffer needlessly in the interim. As University of California agricultural economist David Zilberman and his colleagues have written, the lost benefits are “irreversible, both in the sense that past harvests have been lower than they would have been if the technology had been introduced and in the sense that yield growth is a cumulative process of which the onset has been delayed.”

As long as today’s activists and regulators remain convinced that GMOs represent a distinct and dangerous category of research and products, genetic engineering will fall short of its potential. That is bad news for the millions of poor people for whom genetic engineering in agriculture, medicine, and environmental science could offer a healthier, more secure future.

[These two articles on organic food and GMO food covers two of my pet peeves about stupid people and what they believe.

On organic food, yes, if there were 7 million people in the whole world (as opposed to 7 BILLION people) and we all live as farmers, then yes, organic farming would not only be a GREAT idea, it would be the ONLY idea for agriculture.

As for GMO food, the point is we are going to EAT the food. Not MATE with it. So really, why should we care how it was genetically modified? If your son brings back a genetically modified woman and wants to marry her... or just breed with her, you should be concerned... maybe. If her genetic modification simply gives her HUGE breasts, it might not be an issue. Might even be an advantage for your grand-daughters... if they are not very smart. And if you believe GMO food are a problem, and if intelligence (or gullibility) is genetic, then there's a very good chance they may be dumb. And would need those huge breasts.

(Of course, if the side-effect of huge breasts is that her intelligence is rather low, then you might want to stop your son from marrying her.)

The article makes the point very scientifically, and that is the scientific approach. Clear, dispassionate, statement of facts. 

Meanwhile on the other side of the fence, instead of proper arguments, they can just throw together emotive words (not even arguments) like: FRANKEN-FOOD!

And you want to tell them that first of all, "GMO foods" are not genetic monsters, gene-splicing is not even close to crudely sewing/attaching body parts together, and "Frankenstein" is the name of the doctor, not his creation, who was nameless.But of course by the time you make all this counter arguments, the pitchfork-and-torches mob has already moved on.

The main purpose of the attack on GMO food, I believe, is to prevent science and technology from solving the problem of feeding 7 billion people or more, so that the  "World is Overpopulated" camp can be right. I could be wrong, but they seem to be the main "ideological" beneficiary of this inane attack on food.

So take this with you: GMO food? We're eating it, not mating with it. We don't care about their genetics (we do only so far as their genotype expresses itself as a beneficial phenotype.)

Bonus Rant on "The Dangers of Microwave Ovens":]

Anything new on the dangers of microwave ovens?
February 28, 2014
Dear Cecil:
I work at the deli counter at a natural-foods store and recently one of my customers chided me for suggesting she warm up her food by microwaving it. She said microwaving changes the molecular structure of food and makes it dangerous. Being skeptical, I researched this online, mainly by searching through your old answers. Your May 2005 column said the jury was still out on this question. Any new information?
Cecil replies:
The jury was still out, although if my eyes don’t deceive me they just filed back into the courtroom. More on that in a moment, but first a word. Next time you get some fragile eggshell mind telling you that “microwaving changes the molecular structure of food” (these exact words are always used), look them in the eye and reply as follows:
“You’re 100 percent correct — it’s been scientifically proven that microwaving changes the molecular structure of food. THIS IS CALLED COOKING, YOU NITWIT.”

Sorry, needed to vent. Back to the jury. Their verdict comes in the form of an article published last year entitled: “Microwave Effects in Organic Synthesis: Myth or Reality?

The answer, not to kill the suspense, is: myth.

To recap, people freak out about microwaves because they use (horrors!) radiation, failing to grasp that there are two kinds of radiation: (1) ionizing, the high-energy kind produced by nuclear bombs, radioactive elements, and such, and (2) non-ionizing, the relatively low-energy type we encounter every day in the form of light, heat, and radio waves. Microwaves are located between radio and heat (infrared) on the non-ionizing end of things. When, therefore, we speak of “nuking” something in the microwave, that’s not what we’re actually doing; it’s COMICAL EXAGGERATION FOR EFFECT, YOU FRICKING IMBE —

Excuse me — trying day. Microwave heating is different from conventional heating because, whereas infrared energy warms up pretty much any molecule it plows into, microwaves only affect molecules having polarity — that is, positive and negative ends, which rotate rapidly back and forth as the microwaves go by. A common type of polar molecule is water, which, happily for us, is distributed fairly evenly throughout many foods.

So while ordinary heat gets absorbed by the outer layer of a food and only slowly penetrates to the interior, microwave energy passes through most of the food as though it were transparent and heats up mainly the water, and to a degree the sorta polar fats and sugars, which in turn heat up everything else. The food thus cooks uniformly (more or less) and in much less time.

But let’s be clear: heating is heating. The mainstream view is that microwaves basically do what conventional heating does, only faster. A few scientists, however, think there may be what are known as nonthermal microwave effects of possibly ominous significance. Since precision microwave ovens have become widely available in  labs, an opportunity to settle this longstanding controversy is now at hand — or so it seemed in 2005.

Which brings us to the article cited above, published last year by three Austrian chemists, C. Oliver Kappe, Bartholom√§us Pieber, and Doris Dallinger, in the journal Angewandte Chemie (“Applied Chemistry”). Having reviewed the literature and done some experiments, they report as follows:
  • Everyone agrees microwaves are far too low-energy to break molecular bonds and cause chemical reactions. (Cooking, whether done conventionally or with microwaves, unbends or “denatures” proteins, changing their shape much as one might unbend a paper clip, so in that sense it changes molecular structure. But it doesn’t turn the molecules into something else.)
  • That said, laboratory microwave ovens do things that are difficult or impossible to replicate with conventional heating. A reaction that might take five hours to complete if the starting mixture were simply boiled can be accomplished in one second using a microwave to superheat the stuff in a sealed vessel. The fact remains: these are still thermal effects.
  • Claims of nonthermal microwave effects continue to show up in the scientific journals, but in the opinion of Oliver, Bart, and Doris, these are mostly due to (a) chemists not really getting how microwaves work and (b) experimental error. A common problem is inaccurate temperature monitoring.
  • For instance, a scientific team led by one Dudley reported it had heated a chemical mixture to 100 degrees Celsius using both conventional and microwave heating. However, after 30 minutes, the reaction in the conventionally heated mixture was only 25 percent complete, whereas in the microwaved mixture it was 90 percent. Since the temperature of the two mixtures was the same, Dudley and friends contended, this was evidence of a nonthermal microwave effect.
  • Kuhscheisse, riposted our three skeptics. Team Dudley had used sensors that measured the surface temperature, not the internal temperature of the mix. The Austrians reran the experiment using an internal probe and found the reactions in the microwaved and conventionally heated mixtures occurred at exactly the same rate.
One article won’t end the argument. But I’m inclined to agree with Oliver, Bart, and Doris: mysterious microwave effects (and presumably their attendant dangers) are a myth.

[And you may have read on the internet about this schoolgirl who did an experiment which prove that microwaved water kills plants. Not correct.

It was a single sample "experiment" and proves nothing.]

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