John Block: GMOs Under Assault

By John R. Block

We can’t seem to silence or satisfy the loud scream of opposition to GE crops. The reason probably is that up until now we have ignored them. It’s time to stand up and set the record straight.

GE food is safe and even beneficial according to 88% of scientists. We have conducted more than 1,000 studies. We have been eating GE food for more than 20 years – no one has gotten sick.

The fact is that for thousands of years, farmers have been improving crops through selective breeding. That process alters genes. We have found that in the laboratory we can do it faster.

Never mind the facts, the critics are beating the drums. Three states have passed labeling laws. Vermont is in the lead as they begin to implement their law. It sounds simple. Just label the food if it has GMO products in the food.

It’s not that simple. Vermont has a long list of exemptions. Animal products are exempt – beef, pork, chicken, dairy. But keep in mind the animals were fed GMO corn and soybean meal.

Trying to get out ahead of everyone, Chipotle recently announced that it has gone GMO free. But it’s not really free. The soft drinks are made with GMO corn sweetener. The burritos have GMO corn-fed beef, pork, chicken, and GMO sour cream.

The U.S. Congress is considering as many as 30 bills to deal with the GMO debate. You may wonder where all of this noise is coming from. Yes, there are individuals that sincerely are concerned about GMO safety. However, the organic companies (some of them are huge) are helping to push the false argument about risk. If they succeed, they can sell more product and make more money.

This debate is not over. You will soon read about the next step in plant technology – gene editing. Gene editing is a more precise way to alter plant traits.

The leading critics of GMOs are totally inconsistent. First, they support the science on global warming, but ignore the science on GMOs. Next, they pretend to care about the poor, but genetic engineering helps the poor by keeping the cost of food down. The world will not produce enough food without new technology. Finally, if they want to reduce the use of chemicals and energy, GE also does that.

Stay tuned.

John Block was Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 1981-1985, where he played a key role in the development of the 1985 Farm Bill.

GM Opponents are Science Deniers

Climate change is real and GM technology is safe, but those in denial want to undermine the public understanding of science with misinformation and pseudo-debate

By Nina Fedoroff, Peter Raven and Phillip Sharp, as published in The Guardian

The authors are former presidents of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)

Barely a week goes by, it seems, without some new attack on science. For years, oil and coal lobbies have orchestrated assaults on climate scientists, while the religious right continues to oppose the teaching of evolution in US schools, questioning the basic tenets of evolutionary biology.

Denialism does its damage by driving a wedge between science and society, undermining public understanding of science with misinformation and confusing pseudo-debate. The effects can be seen not just in climate change mitigation efforts, but in peoples’ health – witness the recent US upsurge in childhood measles concentrated in areas where there is opposition to vaccines. No wonder the latest survey of scientists by the Pew Research Center found scientists increasingly pessimistic about how their work is viewed in the wider society.

In the latest organised attack on science, 14 senior US scientists are being targeted by anti-GM lobby group US Right to Know (USRTK), an offshoot of the failed California GM labelling campaign Yes on 37. USRTK is using the Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) to demand access to years of private emails and other correspondence of these scientists, undoubtedly aiming to undermine their credentials and sully their names in public.

As three former presidents of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, we know how important it is for scientists to engage meaningfully in societal debates about their work. But we also know how important it is for scientists to be able to speak freely in conducting their work, both publicly and privately. USRTK’s attack is reminiscent of ‘Climategate’, where the release of private emails did immense, unwarranted damage to the reputations of climate scientists. Now the vocal anti-GM lobby appears to be taking a page out of the Climategate playbook.

The facts are clear: the scientific consensus on the safety of foods derived from GM plants is equivalent to that on global climate change driven by human activities. The AAAS has issued statements on both subjects, underscoring that climate change is real and that GM technology is safe. Numerous other learned societies and public bodies have reached the same conclusions and continue to be attacked by science deniers on both issues.

USRTK’s statements are unambiguous – it views any scientist with the temerity to speak out in public on biotechnology as part of “the PR machine for the chemical-agro industry.” Hence its FoIA requests focus on any email exchanges with biotech companies such as Monsanto, Syngenta, and DuPont, as well as other organisations, including the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Council for Biotechnology Information. These researchers have denied receiving hidden funding from these groups, yet a good deal of damage can be done with private communications quoted out of context.

Ironically, USRTK is less eager to reveal its own agenda and funding. Its website reveals only one donor, the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), a group that seeks to turn US agriculture 100% organic and eliminate GM crops. It is clearly promoting the interests of the organic food business, now a $63bn (£42bn) dollar industry.

The OCA has a clear game plan – to drive increased sales of higher-priced organic produce by convincing consumers that conventionally farmed foods are swimming in pesticide residues, that GM crops are dangerous, and that biotechnology companies that sell GM seeds are evil. But OCA does not restrict its anti-science activities to agriculture. Its website is also riddled with anti-vaccine misinformation, for example that “it is important to know how to protect your children and yourself with homeopathic and natural alternatives to vaccines to build your natural immunity” and other such dangerous nonsense.

Moreover, OCA’s assertion that we can feed the world organically and without modern technology is nothing short of delusional. We live on a finite planet with a human population of 7.2bn, a number that is increasing by almost 100,000 per day. Our ability to minimise the effects of famine has depended on the application of science and technology to agriculture since the time of the Industrial Revolution two centuries ago. The key innovations have been in genetics and plant breeding, synthetic fertilisers, and farm mechanisation.

A recent meta-analysis concluded that adoption of GM crops since 1996 has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22% and increased farmer profits by 68%. Moreover, the gains were larger for developing countries than developed countries. We need more science, not less, if we are to feed the coming world of 9.5bn in 2050 without further destroying fragile ecosystems and driving more species to extinction.

Hostile challenges to intellectual enterprises such as universities and the people who practice science within them are hugely detrimental to our ability to make rational, evidence-based decisions in free societies.

If we allow ideologically-motivated campaigners to harass and threaten our leading thinkers and intellectual institutions, there will be less progress than we could otherwise achieve. Our civilisation can do better than that. We want to be able to vision a healthy, sustainable and vibrant future. But we can’t get there without science.

Nina Fedoroff is an Evan Pugh Professor at Penn State University; Peter Raven is Director Emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden and Phillip Sharp is Institute Professor in the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The Ghost of Thanksgiving Future

By Nina Fedoroff, Ken Cassman and Marshall L. Matz, as published in the Des Moines Register

The Ghost of Christmas Future is the most fearsome character in “The Christmas Carol,” Charles Dickens’ beloved Christmas story, giving Scrooge a glimpse of his bleak future. Horrified, Scrooge changes his selfish lifestyle in a heartbeat.

An abundant Thanksgiving 2014 is almost upon us. But like Scrooge, we’ll need a dramatic change in our beliefs if we’re to have a plenitude of healthful food not just for us, but for all of the 9 or so billion expected at the global dinner table on Thanksgiving 2050.

The beliefs and narratives that need rethinking are those around GMOs and organic food.

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are crop plants and animals improved by modern molecular techniques, rather than older, often less precise methods. GM crops, such as insect-resistant corn and cotton, have been in commercial production for almost two decades. They are now grown in 27 countries on more than 400 million acres by 18 million farmers, more than 90 percent of whom are resource-poor, small-holder farmers.

GM crops have increased farm income, reduced pesticide use, soil erosion and carbon dioxide emission, and benefited consumers by decreasing fungal toxin contamination of corn.

It’s a fact that neither people nor animals have been harmed by consuming food or feed containing GM ingredients. Even decades ago, we thought that people would be reassured as evidence grew, as it has, that GM crops are safe. But that’s not what happened. Instead, more and more people have come to believe that they are dangerous.

America’s Thanksgiving 2014 will be a plentiful feast. Farmers have gotten very good at coaxing food from the land. Over the second half of the 20th century, the number of people on Earth doubled, yet the amount of food tripled. Mechanization, plant genetics, irrigation and synthetic fertilizers all contributed to the today’s food abundance.

But the notions that organically grown food is more healthful than food produced by conventional methods, and that organic is the only sustainable agriculture, are gaining traction, as is the idea that conventional agriculture and synthetic fertilizers are somehow bad.

So what are the facts? Organically grown food is not more healthful than conventionally grown food. Plants don’t care whether their nitrogen comes from manure or a sack of fertilizer. Organic produce is more expensive because organic farming is less productive than conventional farming. Nor is it sustainable on a global scale. Indeed, if the whole world relied on organic farming, we could feed about half of today’s 7 billion people.

What’s the forecast for Thanksgiving 2050? Although they had little effect on the world’s affluent city-dwellers, food price spikes since 2008 unleashed food riots in many poor countries and brought down governments. Indeed, the Arab spring started with food riots. This means that today’s abundance has a razor-thin margin.

It’s been estimated that to meet the challenge of global food security, the world’s farmers will have to produce more food in the next 50 years than all they’ve produced in the last 10,000 years combined. Can they? There’s deep reason for concern.

Important crops are reaching their yield plateaus in major food-producing countries. Because demand continues to rise, much of the recent increase in food production has come from putting more land under crops. Yet we’re beginning to understand that our planet’s resources are finite and that its biodiversity is precious.

We need instead to slow and stop conversion of natural ecosystems to cropland.

In developing countries, particularly in Africa, farmers can still grow much, much more. Organic farming is what most African farmers do now, and most of them are devastatingly poor. They need good seeds, fertilizer, agri-chemicals, training and information to triple their yields, not organic ideology that seeks to prevent access to modern farming inputs. They also need the entire infrastructure that supports modern food systems and the training to run it.

That’s what will put them on the road out of poverty.

Our belief systems and narratives matter, perhaps more than ever in the age of electronic social media. The organic food industry supplies a mere 4 percent of our food, but amplifies its message by promulgating the myth that organic food is more healthful and environmentally sound.

As well, GMO story-telling and fear-mongering have intensified in recent years, driven by individuals and organizations that profit from persuading people they are dangerous. This is influencing politicians worldwide and impeding the development and introduction of more nutritious, hardy and environmentally friendly GM crops and animals.

Belief systems are notoriously resistant to facts, even mountains of them. And real people don’t change their minds and hearts as fast as characters in stories.

But we urgently need to change our beliefs about food to realize the benefits of investing in advanced, science-based food production systems that can address the difficult challenges of making our agriculture both more sustainable and productive even as our numbers continue to grow.

About the authors: Nina Fedoroff, Ph.D., is a plant biologist and served as science and technology adviser to the Secretary of State from 2007-10. Ken Cassman, Ph.D., is an international agronomist at the University of Nebraska. Marshall Matz was counsel to the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee specializing in nutrition and food security.

Climate Smart, Sustainable Agriculture

By Marshall L. Matz and Peter B. Matz, as published in Agri-Pulse

On September 29, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Director-General José Graziano da Silva issued a call for climate smart agriculture and a “paradigm shift towards sustainable agriculture and family farming.”  It is a theme we have seen in a number of recent reports by leading organizations, including:

As Secretary of State John Kerry noted on World Food Day, “The nexus between climate change and food security is undeniable.”  A growing world population requires substantial productivity increases while climate change poses real threats to production output.  By 2050, the global population is expected to increase by another 2 billion people.  According to the FAO, that means agricultural production will need to increase by sixty percent if there’s any hope of meeting the increased demand for food and feed.

These are just a few of the many studies urging greater sensitivity to the environment and “sustainable” agricultural practices.  Gone are the days of planting crops from fence-row to fence-row while using the maximum amount of inputs.  But what is meant by the term sustainable agriculture production?

“Sustainability” in agriculture is not clearly defined, and tends to be interpreted differently by different people.  So, what are the experts behind these reports trying to say?  Is sustainability a synonym for organic agriculture? Does it exclude biotechnology and genetically modified (GM) food as the public is often led to believe?   Looking more closely into the various studies, the answers become clear: No.  The reports are urging a reduction in the environmental impact of natural resources by embracing sound science and the full use of technology, including modern agricultural biotechnology.

All too often, words such as “sustainable,” “agroecology,” and “biodiversity” (among others) are interpreted by the public as a rejection of high technology in agriculture.  The implications of this misconception are extremely dangerous in the context of global food security, as we need all the techniques available to feed a growing population in the face of climate change.

The FAO Director-General captured this theme during his remarks when he said that we should be making agriculture more sustainable by any means that works, including methods such as agroecology, climate-smart farming, biotechnology and the use of genetically modified organisms.  “We need to explore these alternatives using an inclusive approach based on science and evidences, not on ideologies,” he stated.

This point was strongly reinforced by the Montpellier Panel, a group of African and European experts from the fields of agriculture, trade, ecology and global development chaired by Sir Gordon Conway of Imperial College London.  According to the Panel’s 2013 report, “Organic agriculture is a highly sustainable form of crop and livestock production” with benefits including increased soil quality and lower energy requirements.  However, the report casts doubt on “whether the yields produced through organic agriculture can ensure food security for the population at large.”  In short, organic agriculture may afford certain benefits, but we will need all of the tools in the toolbox to feed the planet.

The next chapter in the Montpellier Panel report focuses on genetics.  “For thousands of years, humans have been harnessing the power of genetic inheritance to improve food security, increasing both yields as well as the nutritive qualities of crop varieties and livestock breeds…Since the cellular and molecular revolution of the last century, conventional breeding has been augmented by forms of biotechnology – cell and tissue culture, marker-assisted selection and genetic engineering.”

Biotechnology and GM crops are climate-smart, sustainable, ecofriendly and can lead to greater biodiversity.  They can reduce the impact of farming on the environment caused by the effects of tilling, exhaustion of soils and loss of biodiversity. With the increase in food production to feed the growing population, the environment comes under more severe threat. Biotechnology allows farmers to produce more food on existing farmland. It allows farmers to use less water (drought-resistant crops), to use less pesticide (insect-resistant crops), and to plough less (herbicide-resistant crops) thereby reducing soil erosion, water pollution caused by run-off, and the use of fossil fuels, therefore reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Cassava Growing in Kenya

Cassava Growing in Kenya

GM crops can lead to greater farmland biodiversity and reduce pressure on fragile wildlife habitats.  Geneticists at Cornell and Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis are developing GM cassava varieties, which could be very important for Sub-Saharan Africa. Looking down the road a bit, biotechnology will also be used to improve the nutritional content of foods, as is now being done with rice.

To quote the National Geographic‘s series on The Future of Food, “Modern supercrops will be a big help.  But agriculture can’t be fixed by biotech alone.”  Rather, it is but one of many technologies and practices that can help address food insecurity in the face of climate change.  I- Phones are being used as the modern extension service.  More efficient irrigation systems are critical to conserving water resources.  Better storage facilities could reduce post-harvest loss.  The list goes on.

There must also be much more attention on how to bring these modern technologies to smallholder farmers.  Dr. Norman Borlaug’s final words were “take it to the farmer.” None of these new technologies will reach their potential unless they are put into the hands of smallholder, women farmers.  In Africa, hybrid seeds are being developed for African soils and climate under the leadership of Dr. Joe DeVries at the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. The new seeds and fertilizers can only boost production if they reach smallholder farmers and the farmers are taught how to use these tools.

In the U.S., when thinking about agricultural technology, most think of GPS in an air-conditioned tractor connected to the Chicago Board of Trade.  In Africa, smallholder farmers are using a string to space out rows and seeds. The world is on the cusp of an evergreen revolution, but it requires a full-court press.

Time is of the essence.  According to Dr. Kenneth Cassman from the University of Nebraska and Dr. Kendall Lamkey at Iowa State, we are NOT on course to feed the planet but we can certainly get back on track – so long as we embrace sound science and use all of the agricultural tools and techniques at our disposal.

Consumers are Misled About Organic Safety

By John R. Block, as published in the Des Moines Register

Every day millions of shoppers are paying out as much as 50 or 100 percent more to buy organic foods for themselves and their families. I have friends who make these choices because they have no reason to question claims on labels, in advertising and on social media that organic foods are safer, healthier and more nutritious.

One thing they will not read on any label is a new finding from Academics Review, a group of scientists dedicated to testing popular claims against peer-reviewed science.

The scientists’ conclusion based on U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reported recall information: Organic foods are four to eight times more likely to be recalled than conventional foods for safety issues like bacterial contamination. Nor will consumers see anywhere a reference to the body of peer-reviewed research finding that organic foods are no more nutritious than foods produced by conventional agriculture.

Why are consumers so misinformed? This is not an unimportant problem. It’s dangerous. The very people most likely to seek out organic food for its purported safety — the elderly, pregnant women, parents of young children and people with compromised immune systems — are most at risk from organic’s higher risk of contaminants, including deadly e-coli.

As Academics Review founder Bruce Chassy, a professor of food microbiology at the University of Illinois, recently reported to a professional trade association, not only is the federal government failing to require that the organic food industry state these risks to consumers. It also allows organic companies to make unfounded safety claims that, if they were made by any other industry, would attract the ire of federal regulators.

Lacking such scrutiny, the organic industry appears to have adopted “black marketing” against conventionally grown foods as its core strategy. The Natural Marketing Institute admitted as much when it reported that “the safety message is a clear driver” of organic sales. A marketing executive for a major organic company was little blunter: “You can, and perhaps should, lead with fear as an industry.”

The industry does, in fact, lead with fear. The websites, social media, product packaging, marketing materials and annual reports of organic food companies are full of fear-based advertising against conventional farming. Even more hysterical claims about conventional foods are pushed in food scare campaigns run by NGOs funded by the organic foods industry, as well as by allied natural food and health companies.

In the midst of such claims, where do consumers turn for reliable information? They trust federal regulators to give them the straight scoop based on science. Yet even here, the federal government is passively complicit in allowing unscientific claims to mislead consumers. Exhibit A in federal complicity is the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) certified Organic label.

USDA’s research shows that more than 70 percent of consumers are likely to believe a food is safer, more nutritious or of higher quality if it bears the organic label. In fact, all the label signifies is that a given food has been grown, handled and processed without many of the modern techniques of conventional agriculture.

The label does not even mean that a certain food was grown without pesticides. Organic foods are routinely produced with certain kinds of “organic” pesticides. Meanwhile, organic recalls due to bacterial contamination are ballooning along with the expanding market for organic food.

In short, the federal government is strict about science, labeling and claims for all industries except one. The marketers of organic food are allowed to make scientifically false and misleading claims about the safety and wholesomeness of conventional food, while their products are increasingly likely to be recalled for safety reasons.

Federal agencies have a statutory responsibility to crack down on untruthful and misleading claims in food marketing. They also have a responsibility to warn consumers about real dangers.

The findings by Academics Review raise a number of questions federal regulators should have to answer.

— Will the USDA, FDA and Federal Trade Commission enforce existing rules against misleading advertising when marketers misuse the organic label to vilify competitors?

— Will regulators regard the sponsored attacks on conventional agriculture as advertising, subject to standards of truth?

— Will the Centers for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration investigate what is behind the frighteningly high recall record of organic food?

— And will the government perform more research on the safety of organic foods?

This is no longer a matter of who wins at the checkout counter. For many vulnerable people, it is a matter of safety. They just don’t know it yet.

JOHN R. BLOCK was U.S. secretary of agriculture from 1981 to 1986. The lifelong farmer now is senior policy adviser to the law firm of Olsson Frank Weeda Terman Matz PC in Washington, D.C. Contact: jblock@ofwlaw.com.

Organic Confusion

By Marshall L. Matz, as published in Agri-Pulse

Organic foods are “in.”  Analysts estimate that U.S. organic food sales have reached $35 billion, or over 4% of all the foods consumed at home.  While that means 96% of the foods we consume are not “USDA Organic,” 4% is statistically significant.   Produce and dairy are the top two organic food categories.  Many supermarkets have an organic produce section.  The Fire Lake Restaurant in Bloomington, Minnesota has “organic eggs” on the breakfast menu.

So, what is USDA certified organic food and why is the market growing?

The Organic Foods Production Act enacted in the 1990 Farm Bill served to establish uniform national standards for the production and handling of foods labeled as “organic.” The Act authorized a new USDA National Organic Program (NOP) to set national standards for the production, handling, and processing of organically grown agricultural products.

The Agriculture Marketing Service (AMS) oversees mandatory certification of organic production. Producers who meet standards set by AMS may label their products as “USDA Organic.”

According to the USDA National Organic Standards Board definition, “Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony.”

Organic foods are not to be confused with “locally grown.” No single definition of “local” or “local food systems” exists.  The demand for locally grown foods is also increasing dramatically; some of the farms are organic and some are not.  For example, driven by the strong demand for locally grown foods the number of farms in Connecticut grew by 22 percent and the amount of land being farmed in Connecticut grew by 8 percent over the last five years.

Mr. Gary Hirschberg, the Chairman of Stonyfield, a producer of organic yogurt, says on the label: “It’s a complicated world.  But this yogurt is simple.  We make it without the use of toxic persistent pesticides, artificial hormones, antibiotics and GMOs.”

Mr. Hirschberg is sure correct that it is a complicated world, but the criteria for determining USDA organic foods, and the organic concept, are anything but simple.

For instance, according to USDA, for milk to be labeled as “organic” the cows must be out to pasture for not less than 120 days per year and receive at least 30% of their feed from pastures.

While the current USDA definition of “organic” was the result of an elaborate public comment process at the recent meeting of the USDA National Organic Standards Board in Texas, the Organic Consumers Association and other organizations protested the current USDA organic standard.  They want to see changes in both allowed and prohibited ingredients in foods certified as organic by USDA.  According to Mark Bittman writing in the New York Times, “organic often generates unreasonable expectations.”

While concern for human health and safety seems to drive the organic market, organic foods are, in fact, no more nutritious than conventional foods.  According to the Mayo Clinic, “[a] recent study examined the past 50 years’ worth of scientific articles about the nutrient content of organic and conventional foods. The researchers concluded that organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs are comparable in their nutrient content.”

Commercial agriculture, by comparison, places a high priority on maintaining nutritional value while increasing the supply of food to meet the world’s growing demand.  It uses modern technology and innovation to produce foods certified as safe by USDA and FDA at the best possible price for the consumer.  The agriculture community, across the board, is working to conserve resources and improve sustainability in the face of climate change.

The world’s population is expected to grow by 2.5 billion people, reaching 9.6 billion people by 2050.  We must meet the demand for food for economic, social and ethical reasons. The #1 recommendation of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs is to “Make global food security one of the highest priorities of US economic and foreign development policy.”  It is also why “President Obama has made food security a top priority in our global development efforts” according to Susan Rice, the National Security Advisor.

The Vatican has declared that hunger “shows fundamental disrespect for human dignity” and there are “no limits” on modifying the genome. According to Pope John Paul II, “The findings of science must be put to use in order to endure a high productivity of the land.”

Consider these facts about dairy productivity:

  • The size of the US dairy herd has decreased from 25.6 million cows to 9.2 million cows. During that same time, annual milk production has increased 72%. This gain in production can be attributed to improved genetics and modern technologies including hormones and antibiotics.
  • By decreasing herd size and improving efficiency, our modern dairy system is much more environmentally-friendly than in the past. For every billion gallons of milk produced today, America’s dairy farms emit 24% less manure, 43% less methane, and 56% less nitrous oxide.

When it comes to crop production:

  • Biotechnology has led to increased crop yields and a reduction in the environmental impact of insecticides and herbicides.  Biotechnology facilitates “no-till” and reduced tillage farming practices. This reduces soil erosion, water pollution, and fuel consumption while promoting carbon sequestration.
  • President Obama said last month, “investment in enhanced biotechnology is an essential component of the solution to some of our planet’s most pressing agricultural problems.”

USDA’s organic standards, in short, describe how farmers are to grow crops and raise livestock, including which materials they may use to be certified at “organic”.  The USDA criteria for organic foods do not take into consideration human nutrition, global food security or water conservation.

Organic is a complicated concept that it is anything but “simple.” Organic food, in the final analysis, is a marketing term, regulated by the USDA, Agriculture Marketing Service. It is a philosophy and personal preference like being a vegetarian or a vegan, buying locally grown or preferring “free range.”

So, are organic foods worth the extra money and the “right thing” for your family?  Like beauty, it is largely in the eye of the beholder.  You must decide for yourself.

Marshall Matz, former Counsel to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, specializes in agriculture and global food security at OFW Law in Washington, D.C. mmatz@ofwlaw.com

USDA Offers Guidance on “Made with Organic ___” Label Claims

By Robert A. Hahn

The National Organic Program (NOP) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) has issued a final guidance document on “made with organic ___” labeling.  The guidance became effective on May 2, 2014.

The guidance document explains that the claim “made with organic ___” may be made if the following conditions are met:

  1. The product contains at least 70 percent organic ingredients (excluding water and salt) (see 7 C.F.R. § 205.301(c));
  1. The remaining ingredients (up to 30 percent, excluding water and salt) may be non-organic, but any non-agricultural ingredient must be allowed on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances (the National List found at 7 C.F.R. § 205.605); and
  1. None of the ingredients may be produced using excluded methods, i.e., genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, or sewage sludge (see 7 § C.F.R. 205.105).

In addition, operations that grow, handle, or process “made with organic ___” products must be certified as organic by an accredited certifying agent, unless subject to an exemption or exclusion from that requirement.

The guidance document also clarifies the permissible wording of the claim, as well as accompanying label statements:

  • The claim must identify up to three organic ingredients or food groups present in the product (e.g., “made with organic vegetables, rice and beans”).  If a food group is identified, only the following food groups may be listed: beans, fish, fruits, grains, herbs, meats, nuts, oils, poultry, seeds, spices, sweeteners, vegetables and processed milk products.
  • If an ingredient or food group is identified as organic, then all raw and processed forms of ingredients from that ingredient or food group must be certified organic.  For example, if the claim states “made with organic corn,” then all corn-based ingredients (e.g., corn oil, cornstarch, corn syrup) must be organic.  (There is an exemption in the case of poultry in pet food.)
  • If the claim “made with organic [up to 3 ingredients, food groups, or combination of ingredients and food groups]” is made, the label may also declare the percentage of organic ingredients in the finished product (e.g., “75% organic,” “contains 90% certified organic ingredients”).  However, a percentage organic statement (e.g., “made with 70 percent organic ingredients,” “made with organic ingredients”) may not appear by itself; it must be accompanied by the claim “made with organic [up to 3 ingredients, food groups, or combination of ingredients and food groups].”
  • All words used in the claim and the percentage organic statement must appear in the same format (i.e., the same type size, style, and color) without highlighting, and must be no more than half the size of the largest text on that label panel.
  • The ingredients declaration must identify all certified organic ingredients as “organic.”  If the product contains both organic and non-organic forms of the same ingredient, they must be listed separately in the ingredients declaration.
  • The statement “Certified organic by [name of certifying agent]” must appear below the signature line.  The certifier’s seal or logo may also be presented.
  • The USDA organic seal may not appear on the label.

The NOP has also issued two related documents: examples of permissible and impermissible “made with organic ___” claims and responses to comments received regarding its 2011 draft guidance.

Food Security from the Tractor Seat

By Charles W. Stenholm

Last week’s headlines announced the arrival of higher food prices with more increases to come because of widespread drought in California and Texas.  Talk of climate change and its effect on food production in some circles has taken on a new sense of urgency.  But among all the handwringers, one common characteristic stands out.  They are all against technology.

But just as Malthus has been proven wrong time and time again because of technology and its applications by our farmers and ranchers, continued research and extension will meet the future needs of the world IF it is allowed to be developed and used.  Biotechnology and GMO’s have been, and will continue to be, vital to the world as it attempts to feed a growing population.

For example, a recent study of the poultry industry commissioned by the American Egg Board concluded that it took 32 percent less water to produce a dozen eggs today compared to 1960.  Using egg production technology of the 1960’s, it would require 78 million more hens, 1.3 million more acres of corn, and 1.8 million more acres of soybeans.  These and many other examples consistently show how technology helps conserve water, lower food costs, and improve the overall environment.

Now, I pose a simple question to those of us who are concerned about global food security: How is the world going to feed itself over the next 50 years on less land and with more expensive water?  That in and of itself poses a significant obstacle, but without continuing to challenge our best and brightest minds and allowing them to find and develop the technological solutions, I submit it will be impossible.

For all of the controversy over the nutrition title of the Farm Bill regarding spending, did any side ever stop to consider that the higher cost of food will most assuredly have a very adverse effect on those of us least able to afford what we are eating today, and that SNAP and school lunch dollars will not go as far in the future as a result?

If we deny the rest of the world the use of current and future biotechnology, they will not be able to feed themselves.   I hope we can provoke a discussion between the hunger community and the environmental community that is so opposed to GMO’s to answer a simple question:  If not with technology, how will the world feed itself?  The answer cannot be organic, albeit completely acknowledging that it is a growing and profitable market that might eventually provide for 10 percent of the world food needs of those who prefer and can afford the higher prices!

The hunger community must begin to give more sincere attention to how the world can feed itself now and in the future; step one is embracing sound science and biotechnology.

Former Congressman Charlie Stenholm represented the 17th District of Texas in the U.S. House of Representatives for 26 years. He was a member of the House Agriculture Committee throughout his career, serving as the Committee’s ranking Democrat for his last eight years in office.

USDA is Right on Carrageenan

By Marshall L. Matz

Kudos to Secretary Vilsack and USDA for basing their regulatory decisions on sound science.  Another recent example is the Proposed Rule published on May 3rd that would re-list carrageenan as appropriate for use in organic food products.  The USDA decision is consistent with a recent decision by FDA affirming the safety of carrageenan for all food products.   Moreover, the World Health Organization (WHO) and many other regulatory authorities around the world have approved carrageenan for use as a food ingredient.

Carrageenan is a natural fiber isolated from red seaweed that has been used in cooking for hundreds of years, and, today, is safely consumed on a daily basis by many millions of people worldwide.  That includes infants growing up on formula products, both organic and conventional, containing the ingredient. Thousands of processed dairy, meat, and other food products in markets around the world have better texture and are more nutritious thanks to carrageenan. Furthermore, carrageenan provides vegetarians and vegans alternatives to gelatin.

Regulatory and policy decisions must follow science if we are going to feed a hungry planet.  While the carrageenan decision might be viewed by some as a minor regulatory decision, it reinforces an important principle: Sound science must trump personal philosophy. USDA is right, and should finalize the rule as proposed.

For those interested in commenting, here is a link to the proposed rule docket.  Public submissions are due by June 3.

Talking Agriculture to Democrats

By Marshall L. Matz, as published in Agri-Pulse

Look at a map of the 2012 election results by county and you quickly see the urban-rural divide in America. The vast swath of the heartland, much of the West and most of the South are red, while the urban areas, the East and West Coasts are blue.

The rural population is shrinking. Ironically, one reason for the urban migration is agriculture’s efficiency. It takes fewer and fewer farmers and ranchers to feed the nation. That means less people with a connection to, and knowledge of, agriculture. It also means fewer Members of Congress who represent agriculture districts.

Secretary Tom Vilsack put it bluntly at a December 19th Forum on Agricultural Innovation hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce: “Rural America can no longer elect the President.” Similarly, The Economist asks, “Is Rural America still politically relevant?”

Democrats must learn how to connect with rural Americans but the converse is also true. Farmers, farm organizations and production agriculture must learn how to talk to Democrats.

I would suggest a three-part strategy:

·        Expand the message;

·        Broaden the target audience; and

·        Debunk the myths about production agriculture.

Messaging

President Obama’s number one domestic priority is jobs and the economy, including the rural economy. He told the American Farm Bureau that “We need an economy built to last; an economy built on things we make and produce.” Most importantly, the President then included agriculture in that category.

We frequently cite net farm income and export numbers but let’s take it a step further and connect the dots. While only a few hundred thousand farmers can feed the country, it is net farm income that drives the rural economy. It is important to rural banks, implement dealers and the coffee shops on Main Street.

Secretary Vilsack is on a mission to demonstrate the importance of agriculture and rural development pointing out that agriculture supports 1 in 12 jobs. Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow notes that “One out of every four jobs in Michigan depends on agriculture.” Senator Stabenow and Ranking Member Collin Peterson know that developing and expanding rural economies is critical to a successful national economy but most urban Democrats do not understand this relationship.

The President has made energy policy, including biofuels a very high priority. Biofuels are very important to the rural economy and to the President’s goal of energy independence. Here, again, we need to connect the dots and link it to production agriculture.

Global food security is important to the President, urban Members of Congress and editorial writers. The Administration, from President Obama to the State Department, the White House National Security Council, USAID and USDA, has put global food security front and center. In addressing the Symposium on Global Food Security on May 18th, the President said, “As the wealthiest nation on Earth, I believe the United States has a moral obligation to lead the fight against hunger and malnutrition and partner with others…Food security is a moral imperative but it is also an economic imperative…We have a self interest in this.”

The Camp David Declaration, written by the National Security Staff and adopted by the Group of Eight (G8), followed suit: “Today we commit…to take to scale new technologies and other innovations that can increase sustainable agriculture production.” In order to effectively scale up new technologies there has to be greater cooperation between the G8 countries and China on synchronizing the regulatory systems.

Africa contains a majority of the world’s under-utilized agriculture land.  Helping Africans bring the green revolution to Africa is important to the economic growth of Africa but it is also the key to global food security. The Department of Agriculture has entered into an agreement with the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) to transfer technology and training. In short, global food security brings another political constituency to the table for production agriculture.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently gave a speech on “Transformational Trends.” The Secretary said, “The United States is moving economics to the center of foreign policy.” She noted, “We rightly call America the indispensable nation when it comes to climate change, poverty, hunger and disease.” Agriculture has a role to play on all of these issues, including preventing disease.

The Target Audience

After expanding the message, we should strive to carry the message to a wider audience.

Berkeley author Michael Pollan may support higher food prices as a way of fighting obesity but keeping down the cost of food is important to the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) and anti-hunger advocates.

Rep. Marcia Fudge will Chair the CBC in the 113th Congress.

The Food Research Action Center (FRAC) and Feeding America are leading advocates for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly the food stamp program. The SNAP program currently costs $80 billion. If the price of food increases from 10 percent of Americans’ disposable income to 15 percent, the cost of SNAP will exceed $100 billion and low income people will face a terrible challenge. Higher food prices could lead to more demands for cutting benefits, which would hurt food sales. The CBC, FRAC, other anti-hunger groups, as well as the National Consumers League, should be briefed and brought into the discussion on the relationship between production agriculture and the price of food.

On June 1, 2013, some forty organizations wrote to the President commending the Administration’s National Bioeconomy Blueprint. The list of organizations included many scientific organizations. The Vatican’s scientific advisors have also expressed their support for science as a moral duty. In a statement condemning opposition to genetically modified (GM) crops in rich countries, a group of scientists, including leading members of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, demanded a relaxation of “excessive, unscientific regulations” for approving GM crops, saying that these prevent the development of crops for the “public good.”

There should be a sustained effort to reach out to leading scientists who can provide third party validation for what the agriculture sector is saying on technology.

Alleviating poverty in rural America is also a priority for the Administration.  Expanding production agriculture, especially on Indian Reservations where unemployment is as high as 70-80 percent, is an effective way to attack rural poverty.  The National Congress of American Indians and the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association are interested in an Indian Agriculture Act. These organizations would make excellent allies when approaching the Administration and Democrats in Congress.

I think you get the idea: we must connect production agriculture to larger issues and educate more stakeholders. Lastly, we must address the concerns and myths about production agriculture.

Myths

When it comes to commercial food production, more than any other issue, consumers are concerned that production agriculture might be hurting the environment and contributing to climate change.  You can’t be silent on this issue and expect it to go away. The science is on our side but we need to address this issue directly. Americans do not understand that modern agriculture is sustainable and that farmers rely on healthy soil and clean water.

Earlier this year, the United Nations released the Secretary-General’s report on global sustainability entitled Resilient Planet, Resilient People.  It says: “New ‘green’ biotechnology can play a valuable role in enabling farmers to adapt to climate change, improve resistance to pests, restore soil fertility and contribute to the diversification of the rural economy.”

A UN report may not score many points with the American public but it is a very good source of information to rely upon at the Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy at the White House and with Congressional Democrats.

Another popular myth is that production agriculture is at war with organic agriculture. There is a demand for organic foods and locally produced foods (not the same thing) which is respected by production agriculture. While pointing out the importance of the organic industry, however, it is fair to note that is only 5 percent of the U.S. food supply. It is production agriculture, using modern technology and biotechnology that accounts for 95 percent the f the food supply and energy crops too. In the wake of the close vote on Prop 37 and the FDA decision on salmon, we must debunk the myths associated with production agriculture and make it more transparent.

It is production agriculture that drives down the cost of food, stimulates rural development, produces our renewable energy and holds the promise of global food security. That is an effective, pragmatic, message to bring to Democrats and all American consumers.