Apple of My Eye: The GM Fruit that Never Browns

 

Neal Carter, president and founder of the Okanagan Specialty Fruits Company, is a man on a mission: to bring apples back to the core of America’s snack stash.
He sees the problem. An entire apple, Carter explained to the New York Times, is “for many people too big a commitment,” yet individual apple slices turn unappealingly brown when left out to sit.
Carter’s solution: a genetically modified apple that doesn’t brown when sliced, diced, peeled, or bruised. But the rest of the apple industry sees the GM fruit, now dubbed the Arctic Apple, as a new problem in and of itself, and is crusading to keep it out of the market.
“We don’t think it’s in the best interest of the apple industry of the United States to have that product in the marketplace at this time,” said Christian Schlect, president of the Northwest Horticultural Council, an organization that represents growers accounting for about 60% of America’s apples.
And why the fierce opposition to a product that, according to Carter, could boost American apple sales by boosting the fruit’s attractiveness? Image, but in another sense. Americans have been consuming genetically modified, processed, and preserved foods for over two decades, but never something as wholesome and sweetly traditional as a fresh apple. In the words of Andrew Pollack of The New York Times, “[US apple producers] say that, while they do not believe genetic engineering is dangerous, it could undermine the fruit’s image as a healthy and natural food, the one that keeps the doctor away and is as American as, well, apple pie.
Carter argues back that the Arctic Apple would only improve the fruit’s status and the nation’s health. He cites the current popularity of pre-sliced apples, available in baggies at the supermarket and in fast food joints like McDonalds and Burger King. But those slices, he says, don’t brown because they’re preserved with a Calcium and Vitamin C coat, which sacrifices taste for appearance.
Plus, he adds, apples that don’t brown when bruised can lead to less waste, as supermarkets often throw out any unsightly apples damaged during shipping. John Rice of the Rice Fruit Company in Pennsylvania backs Carter up on that, saying, “We discard an awful lot of fruit for even minor bruising.”
Currently, the Okanagan Specialty Fruits Company is seeking approval for the Arctic Apple in Canada and the United States. Of course, it could take some time. The US Department of Agriculture just opened a 60-day public comment period on the company’s application, whereas a similar comment period recently ended in Canada.
But while apple producers and regulatory commissions duke it out, what’s the poor, forgotten consumer to do? After a year of “What’s in my food?” freak-outs—from pink slime to insect-laden pink drinks—are Americans finally ready to move towards more natural fare? Or will appearance, once again, triumph over substance?
And just as it reportedly riveted Sir Isaac Newton back in the 1600s, the apple is back to provoking more thought today.

Photo Credit: wikimediafoundation.org/wiki/File:Apples.jpg

Dairy farmer faces potential jail time over the sale of raw milk

Wisconsin dairy farmer Vernon Hershberger is facing the possibility of jail time for selling raw milk produced on his farm to consumers in his private food club. The Wisconsin Department of Agricultural Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) charged Hershberger with selling raw milk and other products from his farm to a private buying group and with running a food establishment without a license. If convicted, he could face a three-year jail sentence.

Hershberger established a food club in Baraboo, Wis. with a membership of 200 people who pay annual dues; since he sells his raw milk and farm products solely within this club, he claims that it is not a retail operation and that he does not need to have a license to sell his products. He believes that he is innocent of the charges brought forth against him.

Raw milk is unpasteurized, unlike the Grade A milk that is widely sold in U.S. supermarkets. The health benefits of raw milk are somewhat controversial. Advocates for the product insist that pasteurization, a form of food processing, kills beneficial bacteria, enzymes and nutrients in the milk, such as lipase and immunoglobulins, which they believe cannot survive the heat generated by the pasteurization process. Food scientists, however, disagree with this claim.

Opponents of raw milk believe that the amount of bacteria present in raw milk is harmful and is a health hazard, whereas raw milk supporters believe that the amount of bacteria in the milk is too small to harm humans. The government and food regulation authorities believe that raw milk is unsafe for consumption, and that the alleged health benefits of raw milk are not substantiated by scientific evidence.

The debate remains as to whether the amounts of these bacteria found in raw milk are high enough to cause these diseases. Some people believe that, when produced from an organic farm that practices the strictest sanitary procedures, ensuring that the level of contamination from bacteria is as low as possible, raw milk can be safe to drink. A group that supports Hershberger as well as raw milk production, Raw Milk Freedom Riders, says that their goal is for raw milk to be sold in retail stores with a label warning consumers that the raw product may contain health risks, similar to the warning labels on raw fish and meat.

People with weak immune systems, including children and elderly people, are the most susceptible to potential pathogens in raw milk. These bacteria, including E. coli, salmonella and tuberculosis, can cause a variety of diseases, such as miscarriage and fetal damage in pregnant women and kidney failure.

Commonly consumed by farming families, raw milk has experienced an increase in demand and interest in recent years, likely due to a growing population of Americans who have shifted their diets to include more natural and organic foods. Ten states prohibit the sale of raw milk in retail stores, while ten other states allow it. The remainder of the states have varying rules on raw milk sale and production, with some allowing it to be sold as pet food and other permitting its sale on farms only (a map of states that allow raw milk production can be found here).

Hershberger’s case is among recent farm raids conducted across the United States by the FBI, which have forced farms to close and have left customers without access to products. The community of Baraboo, Wis. is rallying in support of Hershberger and his values of freedom of choice and freedom to produce food. Supporters of Hershberger and raw milk production are invited to attend a food rights workshop on March 1, as well as a rally on March 2 outside of the Sauk County Circuit Court in Baraboo, hosted by Raw Milk Freedom Riders and the Farm Food Freedom Coalition.

Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/kthread/4052975818

Worldwide Alternatives to Pesticides and Fertilizers

selva-negra-pesticides-fertilizers-alternatives-globallyThere is a common myth that genetically modified crops are more effective at feeding large populations. Yet there is just no evidence that GM crops are more effective than organic crops at yielding large harvests. GM crops are certainly not more sustainable or safer, so why is there an undercurrent of support for using these crops in developing countries?

One of the main justifications behind genetically modifying organisms is their potential to supposedly end world hunger. The appeal behind such a claim is obvious; GMOs will end world hunger.  Not only has this claim been proven untrue, there is no evidence that organic farming can’t do the same.  Since GMO technology first came to be in the 1970s the world has not seen an end to its hunger problems. In fact, the World Health Organization states that today hunger is the single gravest threat to the world’s public health.

While GM crops may have a role in a more sustainable future, the corporations behind their development are not partaking in sustainable practices. Presently, Monsanto is trying to make farmers in the developing world dependant on their seeds, herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers. Monsanto’s products are dangerous to the environment and the Union of Concerned Scientists will vouch for how they fail at environmental responsibility. Check out these eight reasons Monsanto is unsustainable.

Increasingly, insects are becoming genetically resistant to pesticides. Resistance dulls the overall effectiveness of pesticides while the dangers of pesticides remain in food and in water run-off.  Instead of inundating GM crops with the artificial fertilizers that they are entirely dependant upon, many have found alternative solutions to pest problems. There is no reason to continue using fertilizers that are toxic to the environment and pesticides that insects are becoming resistant to, all at the cost of our health and the health of the environment. There are sustainable, organic alternatives to pesticides and fertilizers that are healthier and safer for both humans and the environment. 

For example, a major pest in most parts of Africa is the stem borer. Stem borers are moth larvae that feed on corn and dramatically reduce crop yields. During the 1990s a collaborative effort by Kenyan and British scientists generated a solution to these insects: the push-pull system. Push-pull is an integrated pest management (IPM) approach that uses permaculture to prevent stem borer damage. By planting corn alongside two other crops stem borer damage was greatly reduced. A wild perennial called Napier grass acts as the “pull,” because it attracts the stem borer moths to lay eggs and then produces a sticky gum that traps the larvae. The silverleaf desmodium acts as the “push,” because it repels the moths and attracts their natural predators.  Silverleaf desmodium also kills striga, which is a parasitic witchweed that reduces corn yields. More so, silverleaf desmodium is leguminous, meaning it converts nitrogen from the air into the kind of nitrogen required for functioning plants. Leguminous plants also improve soil fertility, so the push-pull is a win-win.

In India, there has been a resurgence of a traditional technique called Panchakavya. Panchakavya consists of a mixture of five cow products: cow dung, urine, milk, curd, and ghee. The mixture depends on a proper ratio of each as well as yeast (to provoke fermentation) bananas, groundnut cake, and the water of tender coconut. Panchakavya acts as a natural pesticide and growth promoter, eliminating the need for artificial fertilizers and pesticides. Another non-pesticidal management strategy (NPM) used in India is neem. Neem is tree and its seeds are ground into powder, soaked overnight in water, and then sprayed on a crop. Neem’s effectiveness can easily wane, so spraying must happen at least every ten days. Neem does not kill insects, but acts as anti-feedant, repellant, and egg-laying deterrent.

In South America pheromone-baiting traps have effectively targeted the boll weevil. The boll weevil feeds strictly on the cotton plant and four or five generations may breed each season. After years of treating the boll weevil with government instituted pesticide spray programs, nonchemical solutions have been found to be effective. Alongside pheromone-baiting traps, the practice of clean culture has also proven successful. Clean culture is a process that carefully removes old cotton stalks so boll weevils have nowhere to hibernate during the winter.

Another technique used in Mexico and Africa is a process by which male insects become sterile. The process involves the introduction of factory-sterilized insects into the natural population. The insects are exposed to a small amount of gamma radiation to make them sterile, but not enough to damage their physical abilities. This process was carried out on the screwworm fly in Mexico during the late 1980s and was also used in Africa on the tsetse fly.

Growing food organically prevents the toxic run-off fertilizers produce. Fertilizers are also made by an energy-intensive process, which produces emissions that contribute to ozone depletion. To support organic farming in the developing world you can get involved with groups like the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM). To learn more, check out their website.

Photo credit: earthdata.nasa.gov/featured-stories/featured-research/scorecard-environment

Protect Organic Farming Measures in the 2012 Farm Bill

When the current 2008 United States Farm Bill expires in September 2012, the 2012 Farm Bill will replace it, and there is some speculation of how to best revise the bill to suit the country’s current agricultural needs. Many Americans support provisions related to domestic organic farming in the bill, including the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF), an organization based in Santa Cruz, Calif., that aims to promote organic farming practices across the country. The Farm Bill is the primary source of federal agricultural laws, and must be passed by Congress, but lobbyists and consumers who voice their demands often have an impact on the bill’s policies. Though the current farm bill contains initiatives designed to support organic farmers, it is critical that these initiatives receive continued and increased funding and investment in order to sustain and expand the organic farming industry.

While some American farms have adopted organic practices, most have not, and there is a growing need for organic farming as consumer demand for pesticide-free products rises. Organic growing methods are not widespread and organic farmers are still in the minority in America. Most organic farms are small farms as opposed to large corporations.

Organic farming is rapidly expanding and is now a $29 billion industry with over 14,500 organic farms. Despite the current economic crisis, domestic organic farming has continued to thrive. The OFRF estimates that, if consumer demand for U.S.-grown organic products continues to increase at the current rate, the organic farming industry will need to serve 42,000 farmers by 2015. The OFRF states in their Change.org petition letter, “With a modest investment in USDA research, marketing, and farmer assistance programs to support the U.S. organic sector, we can close the gap and expand this critical job base here at home” and says that additional investment into programs supporting organic farming is needed to meet consumer demand and expand organic farms, suggesting several ways to do so through existing federal initiatives.

Among the programs the OFRF supports expanding are the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI), which funds research projects related to organic production methods, and the National Organic Program (NOP), which enforces national organic standards and protects the integrity of food labeled as organic. The National Organic Certification Cost-Share Program (NOCCSP) allocates funds to aid small and mid-size businesses in becoming certified as organic, a process that can be costly to small businesses in their early stages.

The OFRF also suggests implementing new policies into the 2012 Farm Bill. One proposed initiative would enable organic farmers to take advantage of risk management tools provided by the USDA, who currently does not pay organic farmers a cost reflective of organic produce when their crops are damaged due to disaster. The USDA also requires organic farmers to pay a surcharge to participate in the federal crop insurance program. Another initiative would distribute funds to farmers to ensure that they have access to seeds that are suitable for their growing region.

Other reforms suggested for the 2012 Farm Bill include distributing federal government subsidies for agriculture evenly between organic farmers and large corporations. Currently, corporations that grow large-scale crops like corn and produce products such as corn syrup from their crops receive notably higher subsidies than small, sustainable, organic farms. In a New York Times article earlier this year, blogger Mark Bittman said, “What subsidies need is not the ax, but reform that moves them forward. Imagine support designed to encourage a resurgence of small- and medium-size farms producing not corn syrup and animal-feed but food we can touch, see, buy and eat – like apples and carrots – while diminishing handouts to agribusiness and its political cronies.” 

Reinforcing organic farming provisions in the 2012 Farm Bill would provide needed support to a growing sector of the American economy, and would ensure that supply will meet the demands of the increasing number of consumers who buy organic food. Add your name to the OFRF’s Change.org petition to support organic farming initiatives in the 2012 Farm Bill.

Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/suzettesuzette/4697521076