U.C. San Diego Study Sets the Stage for a New Chapter in Biotech Debate
Scientists from U.C. San Diego reported in the March 2, 2010 issue of PLoS that the Cry5Bprotein/endotoxin of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is highly effective in controlling intestinal roundworms in mice (Y. Hu et al., 2010). Over 1 billion people worldwide suffer from intestinal roundworm parasites. Pregnant women and children are the most vulnerable and can suffer from malnutrition, poor growth, and impaired cognitive development.
The Cry5B toxin brought about a 98% reduction in parasite egg production after a single dose. The authors conclude that Cry5b is as effective, and may possibly be more effective than today’s primary drug option for treating roundworms in humans, albendazole.
This finding is sure to attract the attention of the biotech industry, which is no doubt exploring ways to insert the Cry5B Bt gene into staple food crops, thus setting the stage for a new round of debate on the benefits of GE crops.
Technical challenges remain. Cry5B proteins must somehow be coated so that they survive the gastric juices in the human stomach and reach the intestines where roundworms live. In addition, the delivery of drugs via GE foods has been plagued by inability to control dose levels and frequency.
Source: Y. Hu et al., “Bacillus thuringiensis Cry5B Protein is Highly Efficacious as a Single-Dose Therapy against an Intestinal Roundworm,” PLoS, March 2, 2010.
"Go Screw Yourself" Takes on a New Meaning
Research recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that male frogs exposed during development to low levels of the corn herbicide atrazine (2.5 parts per billion) are, in effect, chemically castrated and then turned into females (T.B. Hayes et al., 2010).
In fact, about 10% of the male frogs that go through this morphological detour are capable of having babies – all males since both parents are genetically male. In a Washington Post story on the new study, lead scientist Tyronne Hayes is quoted as saying atrazine is a chemical “…that causes hormone havoc.”
The maximum amount of atrazine allowed in drinking water in Europe is 0.01 ppb. Atrazine was found by the U.S. Geological Survey in 75% of streams and about 40% of groundwater samples in recent testing.
Sources: T.B. Hayes et al., “Atrazine induces complete feminization and chemical castration in male African clawed frogs,” PNAS, Early Edition, March 1, 2010.
D.A. Fahrenthold, “Study: Weedkiller in waterways can change frogs’ sex traits,” Washington Post, March 2, 2010.
A. Ansari, “Weed killer ‘castrates’ male frogs, study says,” CNN.com, March 2, 2010.
The Paramount Importance of Soil
The February 12, 2010 issue of Science magazine includes a 40-plus page “Special Section” on global food security. The news items and scholarly papers cover the magnitude of global hunger, its causes, the role of plant breeding in increasing food production, impacts of climate change, the importance of mixed crop-livestock systems, and special challenges on the African continent.
The final piece is called “Radically Rethinking Agriculture in the 21st Century” and presents the recommendations for change from 16 individuals. Two senior Obama Administration officials are among the co-authors -- Nina Fedoroff and Roger Beachy, individuals with deep roots in the agricultural biotechnology industry.
The piece issues a plea for policy makers to unleash the power of biotechnology to jump start a new, biotech-driven green revolution. This is required, according to the authors, to adapt crops to rising temperatures, decrease water needs, overcome salinity, combat pathogens and insects, and affix nitrogen in non-leguminous crops. This list of forthcoming benefits from agricultural biotechnology has remained largely unchanged for 20 years and, for the most part, remains unfulfilled. Yet the authors argue –
“There is a critical need to get beyond popular biases against the use of agricultural biotechnology and develop forward-looking regulatory frameworks based on scientific evidence.”
The focus of this special issue of Science on biotechnology as the key to promoting food security flies in the face of history. Well documented studies trace the roots of hunger, and mountains of solid science point squarely to poverty, losses of food to pests, diseases, and spoilage, and poor and/or degraded soils as the primary drivers of food insecurity. Indeed, just a week later, the February 19th issue of Science contains a strongly worded paper on the acidification of most soils in China from excessive use of nitrogen fertilizers. Acidification of soils is now undermining crop yields and triggering a host of problems in the most intensively farmed regions in China, according to the Science research report.
Four days later on February 23rd, a striking article ran on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, “Green Revolution in India Wilts as Subsidies (for Nitrogen Fertilizers) Backfire.” The story documents the important role of government subsidies for nitrogen (N) fertilizer in bringing about the Green Revolution, and then explains how the continuation of subsidies has led to excessive N applications and serious degradation of soil quality. Too much N stimulates microbial activity in the soil that prematurely breaks down and uses up organic matter, eroding soil quality, reducing crop yields, and unleashing greenhouse gases. According to the WSJ, this problem is widespread in India.
Problems with the soils in China and India threaten to decrease yields in some of the world’s most populated regions. Soil quality degradation is, moreover, widespread, impacting the most intensively farmed land. The consequences of continued soil degradation are far greater than the yield gains that might possibly follow the genetic engineering of crops, yet the agricultural elite in America is now transfixed on the promotion of biotechnology and remains largely silent on the critical need to change farming systems to begin restoring soil organic matter and inherent soil productivity.
To their credit, the authors of the “Radically Rethinking” Science piece state that –
“The heart of the new agricultural paradigms for a hotter and more populous world must be systems that close the loop of nutrient flows from microorganisms and plants to animals and back, powered and irrigated as much as possible by sunlight and seawater.”
The authors would have delivered on their pledge to “radically rethink” agriculture if they had followed the above point by acknowledging that sustainable and organic systems show the greatest promise in doing just that.
The Center is pleased to share the full text of a commentary on the paramount importance of soil quality by three leading scientists at the University of Illinois – R.L. Mulvaney, S.A. Kahn, and T.R. Ellsworth. It is entitled ”The Browning of the Green Revolution”. This important piece summarizes the take home message in two seminal papers by the team in the Journal of Environmental Quality. It has taken courage and a thick skin for these scientists to highlight the adverse impacts of excessive nitrogen fertilizer use in the midst of the global PR campaign supporting the “sustainable intensification” of agriculture through more fertilizer, pesticides, and GE crops.
Sources: N.V. Fedoroff et al., “Radically Rethinking Agriculture for the 21st Century,” Science, Vol. 237, Feb. 12, 2010.
G. Anand, “Green Revolution in India Wilts as Subsidies Backfire,” Wall Street Journal, Feb. 24, 2010.
In response to the February 23, 2010 piece in the WSJ, Chuck Benbrook submitted the following “Letter to the Editor”(as yet, unpublished):
Your story “Green Revolution in India Wilts as Subsidies Backfire” (Feb. 23) appropriately highlights the critical role played by nitrogen fertilizer subsidies in first increasing crop yields during the early years of the Green Revolution, but now these same subsidies are tragically reducing crop yields. In agriculture, as in most things rooted in biological and ecological interactions, too much of a good thing almost always ends up being a bad thing.
Excessive use of nitrogen-containing urea fertilizers in India have burnt up the soil’s organic matter and contributed to a steady reduction in soil quality, just as too much nitrogen fertilizer is undermining soil quality in the American Midwest.
Your article does a good job tracing the crop yield problem in India to its roots, but it falls short in presenting real solutions. The core problem is not an imbalance of applied fertilizers, as the various experts quoted in the story assert. Farmers in India need to change their farming systems to restore lost soil organic matter. As they do this, crop yields will start rising again, agriculture will need less water and contribute less to water quality problems, and farmers in India will help reduce the country’s net greenhouse gas emissions.
More “Radical Rethink?”
The authors of the “Radically Rethinking Agriculture” piece in Science also call for regulators to lighten up on GE crops. They recommend a “serious reevaluation of the existing regulatory framework” and assert that substantial evidence now shows that GE technologies pose little or no risk.
They also state, incorrectly, that today’s GE crops have decreased herbicide use. The Center’s November 2009 report ”Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops on Pesticide Use in the United States: The First Thirteen Years” shows that herbicide-tolerant corn, soybeans, and cotton have increased herbicide use over 380 million pounds since 1996.
Even Monsanto scientists now openly acknowledge that the spread of weeds resistant to glyphosate is undermining the future of herbicide-tolerant crops. According to a key December 2009 research report co-authored by two Monsanto scientists in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences –
“Evolution of resistance to the widely used, nonselective herbicide glyphosate in weedy species endangers the continued success of transgenic glyphosate-resistant crops and the sustainability of glyphosate as the world’s most important herbicide.”
Source: T.A. Gaines et al., “Gene amplification confers glyphosate resistance in Amaranthus palmeri,” PNAS, Early Edition, December, 2009.
Ban on Nicotinyl Insecticides to Protect Bees a "Spectacular Success"
In an attempt to stop honey bee death and slow Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), Italy banned the use of nicotinyl seed treatments in 2008. Heavy bee mortality and rampant CCD occurred in areas of Italy where substantial acreage had been planted to corn treated with nicotinyl seed coatings.
Beekeepers and scientists monitored bee health throughout the 2009 corn season and have reported “…a resounding, spectacular success.” Throughout the country where corn previously was associated with heavy bee mortality and/or CCD, bee losses have been either minimal or nonexistent.
Source: “Bees ‘restored to health’ in Italy after this spring’s neonicotinoid-free maize sowing,” June 29, 2009.
Roundup Ready Gene Flow Already Tainting Alfalfa Seed Supply
In a timely announcement, Cal/West Seeds reported that 12% of over 200 lots of conventional alfalfa seed tested positive for the Roundup Ready (RR) gene in 2009 testing – up from 3% in 2008.
The rapid increase in the spread of the RR gene in non-GE alfalfa seed reinforces the concern that the RR gene will quickly spread throughout the nation’s alfalfa seed stock if the USDA and Courts allow the commercial planting of RR alfalfa to resume this season.
Source: J. Reich and D. Johnson, “Roundup Ready Alfalfa Status,” Cal/West News, Winter Issue 2010.
Pesticide Tainted Cowpeas in China Raise Alarm for Two Reasons
Over 11 tons of cowpeas grown in the Chinese province of Hainan have been destroyed because of dangerous levels of the banned pesticide isocarbophos. This extremely toxic insecticide was banned in China for all food uses in 2004, yet apparently supplies have remained available.
This organophosphate insecticide is a developmental neurotoxin that can trigger a host of adverse health outcomes even when present on food at very low levels. In addition to the risks imposed on the Chinese public, this episode triggered a rare public “sniping” between officials.
Apparently, it is traditional for Chinese authorities that discover this sort of contamination in food to quietly deal with the problem without attracting any public attention. But in this episode, officials with the agriculture bureau in another province announced that they had destroyed 3.5 tons of toxic cowpeas from Hainan. This announcement (as opposed to the dangerous residues in food) has led to what is now referred to in China as a “food scandal.”
Source: E. Wong, “Officials in China at Odds Over Food Scandal,” New York Times, March 2, 2010.
Interesting factoids about food, farming and the environment
More antibiotics are fed to livestock in North Carolina than are given to humans in the entire United States.
Human infections caused by certain strains of Acinetobacter and Klebsiella are resistant to all antibiotics and are now essentially untreatable.
Source: N.D. Kristof, “The Spread of Superbugs,” New York Times, March 7, 2010
Facts from the Center’s March 2009 report -- That First Step – Organic Food and a Healthier Future
- Two-thirds of U.S. teenagers have at least one of the five conditions that constitute metabolic syndrome.
- Exposure to pesticides during pregnancy increases the risk of premature birth, low-birth weight, neurological problems, and diabetes.
- French fries are the most common vegetable consumed by children who are at least 18 months old.
- Lactating cows on a majority of conventional dairy farms are given six or more hormone injections annually to synchronize their heat cycles in an effort to improve the success rate of artificial insemination. Some are given 12 or more injections in a single year.
- People that closely follow a traditional Mediterranean diet reduce their risk of diabetes by 83%.
- Organically managed Muscadine grapes can produce five-fold higher concentrations of the phytochemical resveratrol, compared to nearby conventionally managed Muscadine grapes sprayed nine times with fungicides. Moreover, the heightened production of resveratrol can result in roughly comparable suppression of plant disease.
- When the first list of pesticides known to be endocrine disruptors was published in 1993, it included 35 pesticides representing about 20% of the commercially important pesticides at that time. Today, there are 180 pesticides on that list, accounting for over half of the pounds of pesticides applied in the U.S. and globally.
- Nine of the top ten pesticide dietary risk drivers are endocrine disruptors.
By: Chuck Benbrook
Part of my job is tracking what is being said about organic food and farming, and indeed all of agriculture. Public commentary on these topics is a reflection of what is on the public’s mind, the issues and notions PR specialists are trying to put in people’s minds, and the cross-currents in society shaping our health, the economy, and the policy agenda. From where I sit, fact abuse is the distinguishing characteristic of a growing share of this public commentary.
Back in the 1980s in the policy arena and media, the same players worked with equal passion to promote and defend their ideas and policy recommendations, but back then we all lived with and were disciplined by a functional laugh test. People who said outrageous things soon lost credibility, and in time, access to the microphone and ink.
Today the opposite dynamic seems to have taken hold – the more outrageous the factual assertions, the more strained the logic tying together an argument, the greater the odds that someone will pay attention and turn on the tape recorder, and if you are lucky, you might gain a spot on the Huffington Post.
In a March 6th piece in the Richmond, Indiana blog www.pal-item.com, a farmer takes issue with some of Michael Pollan’s comments at an Earlham College lecture. He agrees with Pollan about the importance of “eating right” but not about Pollan’s critique of “modern agriculture.” He argues that the reason we cannot pursue smaller, more diversified farms is labor, pointing out that “…2 percent of the population feeds the other 98 percent.” And then the first kicker –
“If we turn the clock back and return to an organic polyculture…it would require as many as 50 to 60 percent of the population to generate our food supply.” (Well, maybe 5%-6%, but what’s a few zeroes among friends).
After a paragraph about feeding 1.02 billion hungry people, he throws in a second kicker –
“…study after study shows that there is no nutritional difference between conventionally grown and organically grown food…” (Despite the fact that about 80 out of 130 published studies show organic food is more nutrient dense, and very few studies show the opposite).
In the extensive coverage of Tyonne Hayes’s new study showing the demasculinization and feminization of frogs, Syngenta spokespeople are quoted as saying, in multiple ways, that atrazine poses no risks to developing frogs...period.
Then then there is the claim, by 16 prestigious scientists in the “Radically Rethinking” agriculture piece in Science discussed above, that herbicide-tolerant crops reduce herbicide use. Or the claim, by the animal drug and CAFO industries, that farm use of antibiotics does not contribute to antibiotic resistance.
It gets worse. More than one prominent scientific leader has been quoted in major publications saying something to the effect –
“Without GM wheat (or rice or some other crop), people will die from hunger and malnutrition.”
What does this statement really mean? Well, a literal reading suggests logically that if GM wheat were approved and grown, people will not die from hunger and malnutrition. Now that is an Olympic Gold medal leap of faith.
At some point the abuse of facts and logic about of food system will drag us all down into a murky swamp where there is little room for insight and true innovation becomes a lost art. If we cannot stop this downward spiral, we could inadvertently dismantle one of the greatest assets, and gifts, we Americans now enjoy. For a preview of how such a morass is likely to play out, stay tuned as the final chapters unfold in the health care debate.
Mark Your Calendar for The Organic Center’s 7th Annual VIP Dinner, to Benefit The Organic Center
Friday March 12, 2010
6:30-7:30 PM, Cocktails and appetizers
7:30-9:30 PM, Dinner
Tickets: $175 ($150 for OTA members)
Join more than 500 organic industry leaders who will gather at Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim, CA, to celebrate the Organic Center’s accomplishments at the Center’s 7th Annual VIP Benefit Dinner. The event will include a cocktail reception, a delectable organic dinner, special guests to share recent updates on the Center’s research and results, music, and entertainment. As always, it will be the perfect time to connect with friends and the industry’s top organic business leaders.
Become a Table Host!
Reserve your own Table for 10, with preferred placement at the front of house. Invite your key staff, customers, suppliers and other VIP contacts. Your reserved table will feature your organization's logo on prominent table signage. Contact Steve Hoffman @ tel 303-499-1840.
Visit www.organic-center.org for more information and tickets
Organic Center Events at ExpoWest
The Center is sponsoring a press briefing at 6:00 pm on Friday, March 12th in Platinum Ballroom in the Marriott Hotel as part of our ExpoWest activities. Dr. Chuck Benbrook will focus on key opportunities to address contemporary food quality, safety, and production problems.
The press briefing will immediately precede the Center’s 7th Annual V.I.P. reception and dinner. Doors open for the reception at 6:25 in the Marriott, and dinner starts at 7:15 pm. The Mattson Two will provide musical entertainment and Dr. Andrew Weil, a TOC Board member, will deliver remarks.
“Organic Matters” Session at ExpoWest to Focus on The Organic Manifesto
On Friday March 12th at ExpoWest in Room 204AB at 1:00, Chuck Benbrook will take part in a discussion of Maria Rodale’s new book The Organic Manifesto. Speakers include Maria, Dag Falck, Ashley Koff, and Theresa Marquez. Please join us – a lively exchange is virtually guaranteed.
An Encouraging Sign
The Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) meeting occurs each winter in La Crosse, Wisconsin and is the largest annual meeting of organic farmers in North America.
Four years ago Chuck Benbrook attended the 17th Annual MOSES Conference and conducted a workshop on new science focused on the benefits of organic food and farming. About 50 people attended and a lively Q+A session covered a wide range of issues.
At the just-concluded 21st MOSES Conference, Chuck was asked to do a similar workshop entitled “The Science Behind the Research on Organic Food Health.” Attendance at this year’s workshop was close to 500 people and the Q+A could have gone on all day.
Thanks to Faye Jones and the wonderful staff and crew of volunteers at MOSES for an inspiring meeting.
Core Truths on the Major Benefits of Organic Food and Farming
Core Truths is a ground breaking compilation of the most current research on organic agriculture. This highly readable and graphically stunning 108-page coffee table book documents the verifiable health and environmental benefits of organic products.
For more information
The Organic Center Features Jerry Garcia Artwork
Do you or someone you know love The Grateful Dead? Do you enjoy beautiful original works of art? If so, select a giclee of Jerry Garcia original artwork and benefit The Organic Center. This unique fundraising initiative to benefit The Organic Center is made possible through the generosity of filmmaker Deborah Koons Garcia and features the series, "In the Garden," by the late Jerry Garcia. Individual prints are $250, or get the full series for $1,000. To order your Jerry Garcia art, click here.
Our Research –
Individuals can support the scientific work of The Organic Center by:
Companies, foundations, or individuals can support work by The Organic Center on a critical issue, or in a specific area through our donor directed research program. Contact Dr. Benbrook for details.
Our Outreach and Communication Program –
Informed consumers drive the organic marketplace. Help The Organic Center reach consumers with the latest science on the organic benefit by:
For companies, The Organic Center's Mission Organic Affinity Marketing Partnership Program provides resources and tools to help educate your customers about the personal benefits of organic food and farming. Become part of an effort to grow the U.S. market for organic from 3 percent to 10 percent by 2010.
"The Scoop," is an electronic newsletter published monthly by The Organic Center. For a free subscription, visit www.organic-center.org.
Backed by the world's leading scientists, physicians and scholars, The Organic Center is committed to two goals.
1) RESEARCH: providing free, peer-reviewed, credible science that explores the health and environmental benefits of organic agriculture.
2) EDUCATION: helping people and organizations access and better understand science that sheds light on the organic benefit.
To access free downloads of the latest in organic science, or to Join the Mission, go to: www.organic-center.org.
Joan Boykin - Executive Director
Steven Hoffman - Development and Communications
Charles "Chuck" Benbrook, Ph.D. - Chief Scientist
TOC Board Chair: Mark Retzloff, Chairman of the Board, Aurora Organic Dairy
Treasurer: Timothy Escamilla, VP Procurement/Supply Chain, Ready Pac Produce
Secretary: James White, CEO, Jamba Juice
The Organic Center
P.O. Box 20513
Boulder, CO USA 80308
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