Wilk on Diet Change and Nutritainment

Today’s guest blog is from Rick Wilk, a leading scholar of food, consumption, agriculture, and various other topics.  His recent books on food include Home Cooking in the Global Village and Rice and Beans. Rick is Provost Professor of Anthropology at Indiana University, where he heads the PhD in Food Studies.


Why is it so hard to get North Americans to change their diets?

I am tempted to start this post with the old Monty Python line, “and now for something completely different…” but actually there is a clear connection between my point and issues that Glenn has previously opened up in this blog.  Despite all the bad news about contamination of the food supply, melting ice in Greenland, epic drought, and the dangers of a fatty, salty diet, people in the USA seem to keep munching through mountains of burgers and fries. Generations of nutrition education has done no more than make people feel a twinge of guilt on the way back from the grocery store with bags full of frozen pizzas, 64 oz sodas, and huge sacks of chips.  Recent figures from the Center for Science in the Public Interest on food consumption in the USA show no dramatic change, despite the fashions for local, organic, and home cooking.

The more honest scholars in the field of nutrition and diet have had to admit that educating people about nutrition to change their diets for the better has not worked very well (‘miserable failure’ would be an alternative term).  Julie Guthman even suggests that a lot of diet advice and the implicit shaming of fat people as ‘weak’ is counterproductive.  There is no evidence that treating the overweight and obese as disgusting deviants motivates them to lose weight. Guthman also points to the not-so-subtle way that class and race are connected to weight and diet in the moral politics of the food movement in the USA.

The educated upper middle class has always frowned on the way poor people enjoy themselves. Victorian-era North Americans and Europeans were offended by the rough games, loud language, public drunkenness, lewd behavior and rowdy partying of the working class, particularly at festivals, fairs, and carnivals. Basically they were having way too much fun, and they had to be stopped. Eating was part of all these public and private entertainments – some archaeologists claim that feasting was the first form of human conviviality, even the first human social event. Eating went along with happiness, drinking, letting down formalities, enjoying company, and all those things almost any human can recognize as a good time.

What I find so remarkable is that the Victorians were so successful in turning eating into a dry and often grim affair, devoted to recognizing rank, bound by endless rules of etiquette, and reduced to tedious formalities rather than enjoyment of the food or the company. Under the influence of health nuts like Kellogg, Post and Fletcher, North Americans started counting how many times they chewed each bite of tasteless pap, examining each bowel movement, and worrying that any strong flavor would cause fatal attacks of “wind.”

It should not surprise us that after the privations of the depression and WWII, people in the USA were ready for a change in the way they ate.

Don’t miss James Lileks’ Gallery of Regrettable Food.

The war helped centralize the food industry, which sought out new advertising firms to help them find new ways to sell manufactured and processed foods. To put it simply they rediscovered that food could be a lot of fun.  Mom could make all kinds of funny dishes to entertain the kids! She could use mixes and canned food (and don’t forget the jello) in infinite combinations for neat themed parties!  Give weary dad something to look forward to when he comes home from work to flop down in the Lay-Z-Boy!

The idea of fun food proved an endless gold mine for food corporations and the burgeoning fields of food and flavor science. As the sixties rolled along, sports figures and cartoon characters were recruited to sell new products, and food began to resemble other consumer goods. Instead of being produced by farmers and picked by sweating migrants, it was now brought to you by happy Italian chefs and Green Giants from mythical valleys. New tastes were constantly introduced, brand loyalty was cultivated, fashions and fads were fed by publicists and celebrity connections in mass media. Kids were especially pliable, and by the 1970s the boundary between toys and food had almost disappeared; the packages looked the same.

Artisinal nutritainment: Alien “Take Me To Your Birthday” cake by Chicago cake artist Stephanie Samuels of Angel Food Bakery.

You could buy toys in food stores, food in toy stores (and drug stores, gas stations, office supply, hardware stores…), and sometimes the food comes with a toy inside  or attached. But who cares, because most of the time we are playing with our food as if it were a toy anyway. Food is no longer about nutrition, it is part of a cultural complex devoted to nutritainment.

This makes a lot more sense of the failure of nutrition education, which makes food boring and serious. Most people just tune out those ugly messages about GMOs and salmonella. “We work hard all day, and now we are just trying to relax and have a little fun!”

I find it almost as discouraging to find that most scholars who study food have completely mirrored upper middle class attitudes. We study nutrition, fair trade, environmental justice and a host of other serious and important issues – but where is the literature on food and fun? Yes, anthropologists and sociologists talk all the time about commensality and the convivial pleasures of the dining table. But how about some ethnography of kids’ food fights?  Or tailgate parties? On Super Bowl Sunday in 2012, Americans munched their way through 143 million avocados, 111 million gallons of beer and 100 million lbs. of chicken wings. Now there is a topic for a few dissertations.

Posted in Food | 3 Comments

Two Agricultural Donations

Since I do research on small farms for a living, I don’t normally find it a cause for celebration to be wrong about small farms.  But I am toasting Caromont Farm’s kickstarter success and my complete wrongness.

I described the Caromont kickstarter project in a previous post.  I pointed out that there is much more at stake here than the fortunes of a small farmer & goat cheese maker in rural Virginia.  It’s really about adjusting notions of philanthropy and profit vs. non-profit institutions.  It’s about how we can deploy our consumer dollars to achieve more than just a mouthful of good food.

The problem is that what Caromont needs is a $35,000 vat and they were asking for the whole thing.  I told the the proprietor, Gail Hobbs-Page, that I would make a donation but that she was asking for way too much.  I mean, $35,000 in donations?  (Well, OK, these are not pure donations — you do get something tangible in return.  For my $50 I get a cheese board, and the $1000 donors get a multi-course dinner at her farm.  But for all of us, the main gratification was in supporting the farm and what it’s part of.)

So here it is: as of today, 261 backers have pledged $39,504 — and they still have 46 hours to go! I’m surprised & happy to be wrong on how much support is out there for a goat cheese maker.

Now it’s time to step back and put this into perspective.  Two perspectives actually, one heartening and one troubling.

First the heartening one.  Kickstarter reports that in 2011, when it turned 2 years old, it collected just shy of $100 million in donations.  There were 27,086 projects launched, 46% of which were successfully funded.  Of that, $2.8 million was pledged by 30,682 backers for food projects.  They don’t separate out nonindustrial or “alternative” food/farming projects, but if you peruse the project listings you quickly see that most fall into this category.  Considering how new kickstarter is, and how few people have even heard of it yet, this is really something.

So U.S. consumers are not only spending close to $5 billion a year on local food, for which they often pay a premium and go out of their way more than a trip to the supermarket, they are starting to dish up a surprising amount of philanthropy to support alternative food production.

But the dark cloud behind this silver lining is that we are increasingly buying in to a  system with two separate circuits for reckoning, creating, and paying for value in food. Local/alternative farmers are not subsidized and they don’t make a mess.  Industrial producers claim to be more “efficient,” but what they are actually efficient at is garnering subsidies and evading the consequences of the messes they create in the air, water, soil, and public health.

While consumers were paying full value for unsubsidized local food and even topping off that outlay with several million dollars in food philanthropy, an ocean of pelf was flowing every day from agribusiness into political coffers to maintain government subsidies and protections from responsibility for their messes.

Also see The Bee Keepers by Richard Robinson.

Today’s example: generous donations from German pesticide producer Bayer to both political parties, but mainly the Republicans — $261,000.  Bayer Crop Science produces the most common neonicotinoid insecticide which is increasingly looking like a key culprit in bee colony collapse disorder.  (Make profits selling sprays to farmers but don’t pick up any of the tab when your sprays help kill off the bees.  Now that’s efficient!)

I gave $50 and I get to be part of happy mob of 261 fans of artisinal cheese and small farms.  Plus I get a cheese board.  Let us watch and see what Bayer gets.

Posted in Agriculture, Food, Industrial Agriculture | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

My First Charitable Donation to a For-Profit Business

I just made a charitable donation to a for-profit business.  A cheese-maker, to be exact.  This is not something one does every day, and not something I thought I ever would do. This calls for some rethinking about “profit” and food producers.

My donation was for $50 on kickstarter, to Caromont Farm in rural Esmont, Virginia.  I happen to know quite a bit about Caromont Farm because I am doing research on “New American Farmers” and that’s what they are.  In fact they are one of the most interesting operations in what is something of a renaissance area for alternative food production.  This is just over the Blue Ridge from Polyface farm, which has gotten famous due partly to “Pollanation”, but Polyface is only one of dozens of inventive operations in central Virginia that are redefining quality in food production.

These operations vary in a lot of ways, but they share an ideological commitment to creating a sustainable alternative to our industrial food production system — and to staying afloat while doing so.  One thing that keeps them up at night is the problem of growth – not growing plants and animals, but growing their businesses. How do we grow?  How big do we grow?  Should we grow?

Caromont was started 6 years ago by Gail Hobbs-Page with 13 goats.  She developed a roster of highly inventive, world-class cheeses.  Powered by word of mouth, the operation began to grow: up to 50 goats of her own and regular purchases from other local producers (both goat and cow).   Her cheese is now sold not only at farmers markets, but at several dozen restaurants, including Richmond, Atlanta, and DC, and now in Murray’s Cheese Shop in Greenwich Village.  But although her cheese is popping up in distant places, this is a classic slow money operation, supporting two milk providers, two goat milk providers, several grass hay and alfalfa hay growers, giving free whey to local livestock farmers, and running a huge tab for feed and supplies with the locally-owned hardware store.

Gail and Caromont have now reached a point where they do need to grow, specifically with a new cheese-making vat which costs (drum roll…) $35,000.  For a small farm like this, which gets no government subsidy like big commodity producers, and which couldn’t get a bank loan if their life depended on it, it may as well be 35 million.

Hence, kickstarter.  But who would donate money to a for-profit business?

Well, me, after some thought.  We might start by reworking our concepts of for-profit and non-profit.  Gail could be making more money as a chef, which is what she was doing at a high-end Charlottesville restaurant from 1994-2004.  There she earned a reputation as a local food advocate before anyone had heard the word locavore.  She could be making even more running a CSA program for Dave Matthews (whose farm is part of the local food renaissance), which is what she did before deciding to start Caromont Farm.  Yes, Caromont is “for profit,” but they don’t make much profit, and it is clearly driven more by ideals about food production than profit.   Meanwhile my employer, Washington University, is a “non-profit institution” but it’s also an enthusiastic player in the university-industrial complex and a leader in academic capitalism.  But Washington University doesn’t pay taxes, and donations to it are deductible; Caromont pays taxes and donations to it are not deductible.  Conclusion: just because the IRS divides businesses into profit and non-profit doesn’t mean I have to.

But here’s the larger issue.  Our corrupt, subsidized, cost-externalizing, environment-degrading, animal-torturing, overproducing agricultural system is never going to be fixed on capitol hill or in the statehouses.  It simply has too much money and political power.  The only way forward is a widespread, economically sustainable, alternative food system, centered on low-external input, ecological sustainablility, slow-money farms.  Surprisingly, such a system is growing rapidly, and you support it every time you buy food from one of its producers.

You can also support it by conventional charitable contributions; there are some non-profits out there doing good work to promote this sort of solution (Union of Concerned Scientists and Keep Antibiotics Working and two of my favorites).  You can give them money any time and they will take it gladly (and pester you in perpetuity with requests for more).

But this is different.  This is a key area in the food & farming renaissance, this is one of its rising stars, and it is at a crossroads.  So here I am, making a donation to a for-profit business, and feeling better about it than about most donations I have made to non-profits.


Post script: they got more than they needed.  Follow-up post here.


Posted in Food | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

New Ag Antibiotic Rules: Toothless and Oblivious

Headline in the NY Times: U.S. Tightens Rules on Antibiotics Use for Livestock.  The lede:

Farmers and ranchers will for the first time need a prescription from a veterinarian before using antibiotics in farm animals, in hopes that more judicious use of the drugs will reduce the tens of thousands of human deaths that result each year from the drugs’ overuse.

Need a prescription? Really?  Not according to the FDA press release or the FDA’s actual new policy in Guidance for Industry #209, “The Judicious Use of Medically Important Antimicrobial Drugs in Food-Producing Animals.”

Background: factory farms (or Confined Animal Feeding Operations) in the U.S. routinely dose the animals with “subtherapeutic” doses of antibiotics.  CAFO’s are intensely unhealthy places and animals are likely to succumb to a range of bacterial (and other) diseases.  But low doses of antibiotics seem to make them grow a bit faster too, for reasons not entirely understood.  Therapeutic antibiotics use — i.e., treatment of individual sick animals — is incredibly rare compared to the regular daily dosing in feed.  Over 24 million pounds a year — over 80% of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. — go to healthy animals rather than sick humans.

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria have grown to be a major problem in the U.S., killing around 100,000 people every year (around 5x as many AIDS deaths in No. America each year).

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria have now been conclusively linked to the irresponsible practices in CAFO’s.  The good thing about FDA’s Guidance #209 is that it recognizes this, with a nice little summary of scientific research on the problem.

That’s the good news.  The bad news is that after recognizing the scope of the problem, the FDA is doing practically nothing to solve it.  All it has to offer is recommendations…

Just to make sure we’re clear, they are non-binding…

that is to say, voluntary…

It states that antibiotics used for humans should be given to animals only with a prescription from a veterinarian, but makes it clear that…

Anyway the guidance goes on to water down the recommendation on prescriptions, saying just that veterinarians “should be in involved in the decision-making process regarding antimicrobial drug use.”

The Times reporter has been persuaded by someone that the meat producers, veterinarians, and antibiotic manufacturers will now happily clean up their act, based on this recommendation.  I’d love to be wrong, but I think this is ludicrous.

Meanwhile, Guidance #209 is completely oblivious to many thousand small meat producers who give animals healthy pastured lives.  These animals eat grass, not antibiotic-laced feed corn, but they occasionally get infections requiring a course of antibiotics (even organic meat standards allow therapeutic treatments).  There are less than 10,000 large animal veterinarians in the U.S., and for a small farmer to hire a vet to visit the farm when one cow has an eye infection is  impossible and unnecessary.

From the standpoint of the farmers who aren’t misusing antibiotics, it’s good that the FDA policy is toothless.

Posted in Agriculture, Industrial Agriculture | 1 Comment

Nuking Gene Patents?

The Myriad case – with its embedded nuclear bomb that would abolish most gene patents in the US – has been languishing on the Supreme Court’s desk ever since last year. The Supremes hadn’t accepted the appeal, or rejected the appeal, or said anything about the appeal, which was causing unbearable anxiety because gene patents are the bedrock on which the modern biotech industry – including medical and agri biotech – is built.

Quick background: this case is about a challenge to Myriad’s patent on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes (some variants of which predispose women to breast and ovarian cancer), and on Myriad’s use of them in diagnostic tests. The plaintiffs argued that not only was the patent on the diagnostic test invalid, but so were patents on genes themselves. Gene patents are the bread and butter for medical biotech firms like Genentech and agri-biotech firms like Monsanto. But they have been controversial ever since they appeared in the 1980s. Products of nature, after all, are not supposed to be patentable.

But — as explained in an earlier blog — genes have been patented by the thousands, largely on the rationale that when a stretch of DNA is isolated and purified (as it always is in making GMO’s), it isn’t “natural” anymore.

The key argument against gene patents is that all a gene is really good for is providing a recipe for a protein, and even if you isolate and purify it, it’s still a recipe for the same protein.

The Myriad case was argued in Federal District court in 2010. The judge agreed with the plaintiffs in a decision that, as the NY Times pointed out, “could throw into doubt the patents covering thousands of human genes and reshape the law of intellectual property.” The patents should never have been granted in the first place, wrote the judge; claiming genes to be patentable because they have been isolated is just “a lawyer’s trick.”

The case was appealed. Patent cases aren’t appealed to the normal local court of appeals, but to a strange court in Washington called the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (CAFC) which exists mainly just for patent cases. The CAFC has 15 justices but usually appoints a random 3-judge panel to decide each patent case. From here, appeals go straight to the Supreme Court.

The unexpected twist was that when the case got to the CAFC, the US Dept of Justice weighed in with an amicus brief — supporting the challenge to gene patents. Whoa. (It’s a good read.)

But the CAFC tends to be pretty patent-happy and its decision sided with Myriad on 2 of 3 issues. It said:

  1. The challenge to DNA patents based on isolation/purification is rejected. The patented DNA products don’t exist in nature. This was huge, but not a major surprise; the CAFC is not inclined to totally nuke the biotech industry.
  2. Myriad’s method of screening cancer therapeutics is an invention, so this part of the patent stands.
  3. Myriad’s method of analyzing DNA sequences is not an invention, so this part of the patent is out.

This too was appealed. So why didn’t the Supreme Court take the appeal? Apparently because they were already deciding another case, Mayo v. Prometheus, which they thought would set the record straight. On March 20 they issued their Prometheus decision, then a few days later they vacated the CAFC’s Myriad decision and told the CAFC to try again, “in light of” the Prometheus decision.

So what was this Prometheus decision, which is supposed to guide the CAFC’s reconsideration? I’ll tell you but you still won’t know what the Supremes are hinting about gene patents.

Prometheus isn’t actually about gene patents, but it is about products of nature and the human body. Prometheus Labs is suing Mayo Labs for infringing their patent for a medical treatment. Prometheus’s patent isn’t for the medicine but for its use: the patent describes the process of giving a medicine, checking to see how the medicine is working with the use of a formula, and indicating if the dosage needs to be adjusted.

The Prometheus case was before the patent-happy CAFC last year and the CAFC found the patent claims solid. It was appealed and the SC remanded it, ordering them to try again. The CAFC issued the same decision the second time around. Then a clearly impatient SC accepted the appeal and bitchslapped the CAFC with a quick 9-0 reversal, invalidating the patents.

Their Prometheus decision says look, formulae are never patentable, and if you want a patent you have to use the formula in a real “invention.” How much invention do you have to add? Well, they said, we’ll give you an example of a case where they did add enough (the Diehr case) and one where they didn’t (the Flook case).

  • In Diehr the equation was integrated into an invention for making molded rubber objects. The invention included collecting data, feeding it into a computer which made calculations based on the equation, and then signaled when the process was complete. The invention was specific to the manufacture of molded rubber. This was patentable.
  • In Flook the equation was integrated into an invention for computing alarm limits in a process of catalytic conversion. The formula was novel but not patentable, and the invention only involved putting numbers into the formula and then using results to adjust the system. The invention was not specific to a particular application. This was unpatentable.

This is what the Supreme Court wants to guide the CAFC in reconsidering Myriad.

But 3 claims are at stake in the Myriad case. #3, Myriad’s method of analyzing DNA sequences, is already toast. #2, Myriad’s method of screening cancer therapeutics, might be re-thought in light of Prometheus, although I doubt it; after all, the CAFC ignored the SC in the Prometheus case.

But let’s face it, it’s claim #1 that is the main event: gene patents. And the Prometheus decision doesn’t guide them one way or the other. It doesn’t say anything about genes or the isolated/purified theory. The Patent Office read the decision and immediately issued guidelines – but they don’t mention genes either.

If the CAFC reaffirms Myriad’s patents, they may get on the SC’s last nerve and be treated to another 9-0 spanking. In the process, might the Supremes invalidate the basis of gene patents in the US? If so, then that yee-haw you hear is Slim Pickins riding the nuclear bomb down.

Posted in Biotechnology, Intellectual Property | 2 Comments

Decide for Yourself

The dust has not settled after India’s decision not to approve its first genetically modified food crop.  In fact it has just been kicked up again today, with the prime minister accusing foreign NGO’s of meddling and activists responding that the real meddling is by multinational corporations.

This is much more than a local dust-up.  What’s at stake is not just whether Indians will have “Bt brinjal” (genetically modified eggplant) on their plates — it’s how we even make these decisions.

The decision to deny approval of Bt brinjal (at least until further research is done) was made by Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh.  The Genetic Engineering Approvals Committee normally makes these calls, and it voted for approval, but knowing well that India’s first GM food would be a hot potato, it asked Ramesh to decide.

Ramesh organized an unusually open consultation process — much more open than any other decision-making process I have ever seen on GMO’s.  He solicited opinions from state governments, scientists, farmer organzations, and Indian NGO’s.  He held open forums which were well attended; a lot of them are on Youtube and are pretty interesting viewing (Ramesh often challenges anti-GMO claims).

Public consultation on Bt brinjalRamesh — who was moved to a different cabinet post soon after his decision — has provided a careful explanation of his decision.

But we live in a world where with one click of the mouse you can see Ramesh’s actual report on his decision, and it’s an interesting and important document.  Now that the whole decision is being picked apart and spun with headlines and sound bites, it’s a wonderful time to click here and read for yourself.  Ministers Report on Bt Brinjal decision

But I’ll provide a few highlights:

  • All state governments that expressed opinions urged extreme caution.  One state even asked for a 50-year moratorium;
  • There are major unanswered questions about impacts on wild eggplant species (some of which have surprising importance in economy and medicine, the subject of a previous blog);
  • The claims that the decision was “anti-science” are hard to reconcile with the report’s reliance on input from top Indian biologists like P. Bhargava and international ecologists like Ellstrand and Snow;
  • The release would probably violate the Cartagena Protocol, of which India is a signatory.

There are more points there, all clearly laid out.  Decide for yourself.

Posted in Agriculture, Biotechnology, Food, India | 1 Comment

Bt Cotton, Remarkable Success, and Four Ugly Facts

Of all the crops and countries in GMO controversies today, few are as important than Bt cotton in India. GMO debates keep going back to small farmers and developing countries, and India has by far the most small farmers planting GM seeds.  (In Brazil and Argentina, which account for most of the GM plantings in the developing world, most of the GM seeds are planted by large commercial soybean growers.)

The ISAAA has recently put out a series of publications on the “remarkable success of Bt cotton in India” (see an example).  Articles by economists routinely attribute major yield gains in Indian cotton to Bt.  In a recent interview with Down to Earth I was asked to respond to the claim by a seed industry spokesman that Bt cotton showed “how a technology can double yield of a crop in 6-7 years.”

If all this is true, it is very important.  Is it?  Well I’m a data guy and I happen to have the latest data on Indian Bt cotton (courtesy of the Indian Cotton Advisory Board).  First let me say that I have already discussed the controversy over Bt cotton causing farmer suicides: the data just don’t support it.  But if we take a similarly objective look at the data on Bt cotton’s “remarkable success,” there are some equal surprises in store, and a few inescapable ugly facts.

India approved Bt cotton in 2002; now it accounts for 92% of all Indian cotton.  Average nationwide cotton yields went from 302 kg/ha in the 2002/3 season to a projected 481 kg/ha in 2011/12 — up 59.3% overall.  This chart shows the trends in yields, which took off after Bt was introduced in 2002 (as we are constantly reminded by GMO enthusiasts).

(The depiction of Bt cotton as a coquettish boll is courtesy of the ISAAA’s Mandy and Fanny, subject of literary criticism in an earlier post.)

The problem is that while yields did take off right after Bt cotton was approved, this was well before hardly anyone was actually planting Bt cotton!  Look at this graph showing the yearly percentages of all Indian cotton land planted to Bt cotton.  Now here’s ugly fact #1: Most of the yield increase happened between 2002-5 when Bt comprised between 0.4-5.6% of India’s cotton.  Obviously Bt couldn’t have accounted for more than a tiny speck of the national rise.

The graphs also show that — and here comes ugly fact #2 — in the last 4 years, as Bt has risen from 67% to 92% of India’s cotton, yields have dropped steadily.

Could it be that there is more going on than just Bt adoption?  KR Kranthi, director of the Central Institute for Cotton Research (and as knowledgeable a person on Indian cotton as you are likely to find), writes that “While there is a general perception that Bt cotton technology was singularly responsible for the dramatic improvement of cotton fortunes in India, it is pertinent to examine other probable factors that may have contributed to the higher yields.”

One issue is the spread of poorly regulated private hybrid seeds that require pesticides; cotton farmers have been on a pesticide treadmill ever since.  The hallmark of the pesticide treadmill is short-term yield increases, and the yield increases in the early 2000’s probably had more to do with conventional pesticides than Bt.  KR Kranthi writes that the insecticide imidacloprid is

used as a seed treatment for protection against sap-sucking insects. Even a naïve student in India would know that none of the vast majority of Bt hybrids would have been able to sustain that onslaught of leaf hopper infestation without seed treated with imidacloprid. Gaucho, as it was known commercially, has been used in India since 2000 and was known to have contributed to at least 25% to 30% yield enhancement in the conventional hybrids, long before Bt cotton was introduced in the country. Since 2002, every Bt cotton seed has been treated with the highly effective insecticide, imidacloprid…

But it’s hard to generalize about a country that is as large and diverse as India, and those countrywide averages are hiding very different local patterns.  This chart shows the yield trends in the 8 states with significant cotton crops; the trends are all over the map.  Pretty messy.  So let’s zero in on the 4 biggest cotton producers (the legend in this chart gives their ranking based on cotton acres in 2011).

Let’s start with Andhra Pradesh, where I have been doing research for the last 12 years.  Yields did go up when Bt came along, but the upward trend clearly started after the 1997/8 season; farmers didn’t adopt Bt in significant numbers until 2005/6 which is 8 years after the yields started climbing.  (More on the A.P. story is available here.)  Then the ugly fact #3: since 2007, yields in AP have dropped back to below where they were before farmers started adopting Bt cotton.

Now for Maharashtra, kind of like AP but not as pronounced: yields started rising well before Bt became popular, and now have dropped back to around where they were before.

Next is Madhya Pradesh, where yields have been going down ever since the 1997/8 season.  Bt cotton doesn’t seem to have done anything to improve the steady slump.

Finally we get to Gujarat, which is where the real action is. This state accounts for most of the national rise in yields after 2002/3.  Nobody knows for certain how much Bt cotton was being planted in 2001-3 because there were illegal Bt seeds on many farms (it’s an interesting story). Bt, illegal or not, surely played a role in the rise in Gujarat yields.  So doesn’t that surge between 2000-2005 qualify as a “remarkable success” for Bt?

Here comes ugly fact #4: In Gujarat, the state mainly responsible for India’s remarkable rise in yields, there were many factors contributing to cotton yields other than Bt.  According to KR Kranthi:

It is important to consider that maximum productivity gains were obtained from the 0.6 million to 0.7 million hectares of new area under cotton in Gujarat, which had the benefits of more than 100,000 newly constructed check dams apart from the highly fertile soils that were under groundnut cultivation for several years before cotton was taken up. New technologies such as pesticides with novel modes of action…were introduced during 2001 and 2002.

Therefore, it is probable that the new pesticides, new hybrids, new micro-irrigation systems, new areas, and Bt-cotton together may have been effectively contributing to the enhanced rate of production and productivity. The role of Bt cotton in effectively protecting the crop from bollworms… cannot be underestimated, but need not be overhyped either.

I have read that the army of activists writing on GMO’s in India try to avoid the facts of the case.  I think on some issues –like the suicide narrative — that’s a fair charge.  But the counter-narrative of Bt cotton’s “remarkable success” also needs to he held up to the facts, and when you do, it gets ugly very quickly.

Bt did not “double yields” in 5 years.  National yields did rise from 302 to 554 kg/ha (up 84%) in the first 5 years after Bt was released, but almost all of that rise occurred in 2003/4 (when only 1.2% of the cotton was Bt) and 2004/5 (when only 5.6% of the cotton was Bt).  In short, Bt couldn’t have been responsible for the rise.

A more likely explanation for a rise in national yields in the early 2000s were the short-term gains from insecticides for sap-sucking pests.

Bt adoption didn’t top 10% until 2005/6; since then, adoption has climbed to 92%.  In that same period from 2005 to the present, national yields rose from 478 to 481 kg/ha — up 1%.

In none of the top 4 cotton-producing states do the trends fit the claim that Bt cotton has boosted yields. Even in Gujarat, where yield gains were most dramatic, the adoption of Bt was only one of several key changes in cotton production.

Over the last 4 seasons, with Bt adoption topping 90%, yields have dropped 13.2%.  In AP, where I have watched the Bt saga closely, yields are lower than they were before Bt became popular.  Now that’s ugly.

Posted in Agriculture, Biotechnology, India | 60 Comments

A Biotech Page-Turner

If you’re floundering around looking for a topic for your masters thesis in literature, allow me to submit for your consideration corporate media for children on GMO’s, a fascinating and understudied emerging genre.

I was first introduced to this genre by the CBI* 2000 classic, Closer Look at Biotechnology, in which two obese nerdy tweens get a heaping helping of neo-malthusianism as bugs crawl happily on the word “biotechnology,” showing that it is safe.  Along the way they learn to pronounce “by-o-tek-nawl-a-gee,” do fun word games, and learn that farmers who grew Bt cotton “were able to reduce the amount of insecticide used by more than 2 million pounds,” which was certainly the sort of thing I wondered about as a 10-year old.

But Closer Look looks almost like a comic book beside the recently published Mandy and Fanny: The Future of Sustainable Agriculture, a towering, can’t-put-it-down achievement in the field.  Appearing in the “India” section of the ISAAA website, M&F is a much more complex and challenging work, filled with bitterness and triumph, irony and humanity, sexuality and morality.  I laughed, I cried.

The eponymous characters turn out to be:

  • a deranged, acne-scarred corncob who looks unnervingly like a cross between Henry Waxman and the Heath Ledger Joker from Batman, and
  • a tarted-up cotton boll who wears no pants and has a wild bush of green pubic hair.

Long gone is the innocence of Closer Look, where magnifying-glass-wielding children were all smiles and and there were no villains except the planet Earth (which was just too small to feed everyone without GMO’s).   Now it’s time for youngsters to stop blowing bubbles and learn the word “hypocrite” and learn that medicine should be called “biotech pills.”

M&F is already been made into a major motion picture in which the Waxman Joker Corncob seems to have been voiced by Borat (“verry nayce”).  In the rousing climactic scene, the coquettish pantless female boll enflames a group of leering peasants with the cryptic come-on “We are conspicuous by our absence,” leading instantly to a group act that would make any Bollywood fan blush.

*CBI = Council for Biotechnology Information.  Want to read more about what they say and why?  See Science of the Gray or Both Sides Now.
Posted in Biotechnology, India | Leave a comment

New GM Grass: Unregulated and Unstudiable

The NY Times recently published “Engineering Food for All,” a gushing op-ed by professional GMO proponent Nina Fedoroff that bemoaned the increasingly burdensome regulatory oversight of GM crops.  She went so far as to link world hunger to regulation of GMO’s.

I thought of her piece as I read 2 short pieces in the latest Nature Biotechnology.  Actually both of them concern news from last month, but the journal happened to print them side by side, and together they tell us something troubling about the regulation of GMO’s.  I find it troubling anyway, and I’m usually pretty unimpressed with chicken-little warnings from both sides of the GMO wars.

First let us remember how revolutionary it is to be able to move genes among organisms.  This technology is in its infancy but even its first baby steps include bacteria that produce medicines and food ingredients, and crops that resist herbicides and make insecticides.  Scientists are working on crops to improve nutrition and detoxify soil and animals to grow transplantable organs, to mention just a few feats.  It’s hard to even guess what may genetic engineers might do in the future.  (Someone on my campus recently suggested that we could even engineer animals so they didn’t mind being tortured in factory farms.  Hey, could we could engineer poor people so they didn’t mind being poor?)

But obviously genetic engineering’s potential to harm is equal to its power to help.  If you can make a crop that will kill bugs you can make a crop that will kill people.  If you make a crop that will detoxify the soil you can make a crop that will toxify the soil.  If you can make crops resist herbicides you can make bad weeds resist herbicides. If you can make a crop that will improve people’s health you can make one that will make people sick.  Fedoroff tells us that GM crops are “no more dangerous” than conventional crops but how is that even possible — how could a technology only do unprecedented good but no unprecedented harm?

How to manage the risks inherent in genetic engineering is one of the most pressing and difficult issues the world faces today.

The US and the European Union have approached the problem differently.  While the EU drafted new laws to deal with GMO’s, the US jerry-rigged a regulatory system using old  agencies and laws.  Regulators really only ask 2 questions about any GMO: how risky is it to public health and to the environment?  But depending on which gene has been inserted and what the plant is for, the responsibility for oversight may belong to the USDA (Dept of Agriculture), FDA (Food & Drug Admin) or EPA (Env Protection Agency).  This is called the Coordinated Framework.  It’s coordinated alright, but it’s also Byzantine, inefficient, and slow to adjust.  Almost everyone involved with biotech agrees that the US regulatory system sucks.

But does that mean that we just need “less regulation” as Fedoroff and some others claim?  Well, consider this: in the US you can create and release a GM plant into nature with no regulatory approval at all, and then prevent anyone else from studying its effects on health or the environment.  That’s what these 2 articles are about, so here’s a short explanation of both.

1. GM grass eludes outmoded USDA oversight.  People realized long ago that a GM plant could be made to fall right between the cracks in the Coordinated Framework.  The FDA checks plants if they are food.  The EPA checks plants if they contain a pesticide like a Bt gene.  The USDA checks plants made with plant pests — like Agrobacterium (a bacterium that causes a plant disease, used to insert the genes into the target) or the 35S promoter (from a plant virus).

But if you don’t use Agrobacterium (you use the gene gun instead), and you don’t use a pesticidal or disease gene (you use an herbicide-tolerance gene instead), and you don’t use a promoter from a plant virus… bingo, you slip right through the cracks.

Which is exactly what Scotts Miracle-Gro did this summer with herbicide-tolerant GM bluegrass, and the USDA confirmed that it is outside their regulatory authority.  Since there is no basis for the EPA or FDA to evaluate it, it is the first example of a zero-regulation GM plant.  But is it just a fluke?  Hardly: Scotts is “blaz[ing] a regulatory trail” that will be followed by other companies, who are “salivating over this” notes a prominent biotechnologist.

No other country has allowed, or even considered allowing, completely unregulated GMO’s to be released into nature.  In fact, no court or legislative body in this country decided to do this either.  It’s just the result of a deeply flawed regulatory system.  Sure, it’s overly slow in approving some well-known technologies, but it’s overly fast for others, and sometimes even non-existent.

But won’t science tell us if this GM bluegrass poses health or environmental problems?   That’s the chilling part.  Consider the article on patents.

2. Myriad patents upheld. An appellate court has overturned a ruling invalidating Myriad’s breast cancer gene patents — and  essentially all gene patents.  It’s a fascinating argument covered in an earlier blog.  The issue turns on whether or not judges think that isolated DNA is truly different from natural DNA.  If it’s judged to be the same (using criteria that are not really spelled out in law) then it is a “product of nature” and no one can make claims on it.  But if it’s different, then it is eligible for intellectual property protection.  But what kind?  Answer: a utility patent, the 600 pound gorilla of IP protections.  Intended for actual inventions, a utility patent lets the owner stop anyone from making, using or selling the invention for a 20 year period.  Even for research. 

The “research exemption” issue has been duked out in the courts (dumb pun intended) especially in the Embrex case and in Madey v. Duke.  The only uses exempted from patent rights are narrow and slightly silly: if a company owns a patent on a gene or plant, they can stop any use except for “acts of amusement, idle curiosity, or strictly philosophical inquiry.”  A patent holder can absolutely keep you from doing any research with their gene or plant.

superweedAnd they do. Sometimes patent holders stop research right in the middle of a study.  Ecologist Allison Snow was forced to stop her research on ecological impacts of Bt sunflowers; entomologist Ken Ostlie was forced to stop his research on rootworms because one company decided the study was “not in its best interest.”  But more commonly, patent holders don’t even let the research start. In 2009, 26 leading scientists submitted an anonymous statement to the government saying that they were being blocked from doing necessary research by patent-holding companies.  (They remained anonymous for fear of patent holders spanking them by preventing more of their research in the future.)

Fedoroff writes that regulation of GM crops “has become so costly and burdensome that it is choking off innovation.” This misleading claim surely has many people thinking that regulation is getting tighter and tighter.  But in the US today you can create and release a genetically modified crop that has not been evaluated for health and environmental safety, and then you can block anyone from studying its safety.

So when Fedoroff concludes that “above all, the government needs to stop regulating genetic modifications for which there is no scientifically credible evidence of harm,” I can only wonder: how would anyone be able to get any evidence of harm for this genetically modified grass?

Posted in Agriculture, Biotechnology, Intellectual Property | 16 Comments

Putting the Germ into Germany

A truly frightening outbreak of E. coli food poisoning appeared in Germany in May.  Within a month it had infected more than 2,400 people in 13 countries across Europe, killing 23.

The toxic strain of E. coli is being called O104:H4 and no one is really sure what is behind it.  German authorities first claimed it was probably from contaminated cucumbers imported from Spain… but the evidence was slim, the Spaniards got mad, and the claim was retracted.   (The Spaniards then had to give away 40,000 kilos of legumbres to restore confidence in their products.)

Authorities then pointed the finger at beansprouts, delighting food scrooges because everyone knows that beansprouts are hippie food.  And in fact — ooh this is too good to be true — they were “locally grownorganic sprouts from a farm in Lower Saxony.  There was much gloating from the food right wing (e.g., Washington Times: “Dead Bodies Demand Organic Food Moratorium“).

Then ugly reality set in: tests on the sprouts were actually inconclusive, and the beans used in the sprouts weren’t even “local” — they were from southern Europe and Asia and were likely shipped via Hamburg and Rotterdam.  They decided it wasn’t the sprouts, and the hippies and locavores were off the hook (and the Washington Times printed a retraction…not). 

So the trail has grown cold.

Or has it?  There was a fascinating piece called “Phage on the Rampage” in Nature News, the journalistic arm of the journal Nature. It first points out that the real question is how the infectious bacteria get into the food chain in the first place. No final specific answer on that yet but we do know some important general things.

1. What’s killing people is the result of natural genetic modification.  The toxin in O104:H4 isn’t an E. coli toxin; it’s a shiga toxin, produced by a shiga gene inserted into the E. coli by a bacteriophage virus.  The modified E. coli has its own acronym: STEC for Stiga Toxin producing E Coli (to be mentally filed with MRSA for Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus).

Ugly little E. coli. But the ugly effects of strain O104:H4 aren't really its fault; it has been naturally genetically modified.

Actually, Shiga starts out in a bacterium.  I remember reading about shigellosis — bacterial dysentery — when we were getting ready to do ethnography in rural Nigeria.  (We never got it, but we got just about everything else.)  It seems the bacteriophage picked up the Shiga toxin genes from Shigella bacteria, and now is putting them into E. coli and other bacteria (here’s more on this, for the technically inclined).

Isn’t that something.  Bacteriophage viruses are doing what genetic engineers do: cut genes out of various species, stick them into E. coli, which then pumps out the compound the genes encode.  Numerous commercial products are produced this way (like recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone, and the chymosin in much of our cheese).

2. Circumstantial evidence now points to factory farms, not hippie farmers.  The most likely source of the STEC, says Nature News, is ruminant animals, whose guts have high levels of bacteriophages.  And this particular STEC has the unusual characteristic of resistance to multiple classes of antibiotics, so the bacteria are probably coming from where there is plenty of selective pressure to resist multiple antibiotics.   

Hmm, now where might we find lots of ruminants being exposed to subtherapeutic doses of antibiotics…

No word yet on how this STEC made its way from CAFO’s (factory farms) into the food chain, but that’s probably where the germ originated.

So this STEC is the result of “natural” genetic modification only in the sense that the genes are being inserted by bacteriophages, not by Monsanto whitecoats.  But the evidence suggests that these particular killer genes were moved into this bacterium because of conditions we set up in CAFO’s.

This is serious stuff.  “Not only are more E. coli strains being infected with Shiga toxin, but it seems to be moving into different classes of bacteria,” writes Nature News.  “This increased movement of Shiga-toxin-producing phage means that even more unusual and dangerous strains could be on the horizon.”

And it’s not the hippies you need to need to worry about, it’s probably the CAFO’s.

Posted in Agriculture, Biotechnology, Food, Industrial Agriculture | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment