A new book: Agricultural and Food Controversies

Over at Huffington Post, I put up some thoughts on the new book by my colleague Bailey Norwood, Agricultural and Food Controversies.   Here's what I had to say there:

And so it goes, comparing the carbon footprint of local to free range, asking waiters whether there’s a GMO in our soup, all while speculating whether the Farm Bill is the cause of obesity.

Where is one to turn to adjudicate the conflicting messages we hear about food and agriculture? Large agribusinesses have a lot to say on these issues, but their predictable messages about feeding the world easy to dismiss. Journalists and non-profits with earnest, academic sounding names might appear a bit more credible, but their constant drum roll of fear and paranoia, undoubtedly appealing to a certain donor and book-buying base, also makes it hard to take their pronouncements at face value. With strong emotions and vested interests on all sides, it is no wonder food and agricultural issues have become so political. And controversial.


a multidisciplinary team of agricultural scientists, led by my friend and sometimes co-author, Bailey Norwood at Oklahoma State University has entered the fray with a new book, Agricultural and Food Controversies published by Oxford University Press in their accessible, easy to read What Everyone Needs to Know series (officially released on December 5th). Rather than striking a defensive or muckraking tone, as so often is the case in this genre of writing, Norwood and colleagues embrace the controversies, interpreting them as a sign of a healthy democracy struggling to deal with pressing challenges.

They reveal what the best science has to say on topics ranging from food pesticides and GMOs to the carbon footprint of beef production and the well-being of farm animals. They weigh in on synthetic fertilizers, local foods, and farm policy. Theirs is a respectful discussion of the positions taken up by different advocacy groups, but there is no hesitation in drawing conclusions where logic and science warrant. The book is an indispensable guide for understanding how the government regulates pesticides and GMOs and for seeing how competing interests can seem to have their own sets of seemingly conflicting “facts” on both sides of an issue.

While perhaps not coming right out and saying it, the authors show that many of our fears about modern agricultural technologies are overblown. Much of what has come to be accepted as the received wisdom about food and agriculture just ain’t so. As the authors ironically note, however, it is precisely our fears and worries that have led to improvements in food safety, quality, and affordability. They also recognize that debates about food pesticides, GMOs, and carbon footprints are often surrogates for deeper, often unacknowledged conflicts over competing values and worldviews. As such, one shouldn’t expect the controversies surrounding modern food and agriculture to quell anytime soon. But, at least we can begin to acknowledge what the debate is really about.

You can get a copy from Amazon, among others.

Is McDonald's Pro-Cancer?

Earlier this month, the USDA approved a new GMO potato produced by the Idaho-based company Simplot.

Unlike the herbicide, insect, or virus resistant varieties today on the market, this GMO offers two tangible consumer benefits: the potatoes are less susceptible to bruising (and thus are more visually appealing and are likely to cut down on food waste) and perhaps more importantly, produces 50 to 75% less acrylamide when fried (acrylamide is a chemical suspected of causing cancer).  

I've found discussion of this story interesting for at least two reasons.  First, it isn't all that clear that this product should fall under the "GMO" umbrella.  Genes from other species are not introduced into the potato, but rather my understanding is that the new traits are created by deactivating genes already present in the potato.  In any event, it just goes to show that a GMO isn't a single thing; it is many, many possible things.  And, it points to the dander of making blanket statements like "GMOs are harmful" or "GMOs are safe".  One has to look at each GMO in question and see what the science says about that particular modification, and to the extent one thinks a harm is involved, articulate how the modification in question causes the particular harm claimed.  

Second, news sources have suggested that McDonald's has no plans to adopt the potato, which many anti-GMO activists have interpreted as indicating that McDonald's has rejected the potato and won't use it.  However, as Val Giddings points out in a post at the Innovation Files, such interpretations may be misplaced.   He writes:

given that it would take Simplot at least several years to build seed stocks up to where they could even contemplate meeting an order from McDonald’s, who on earth would expect McDonald’s to say anything different?

This “story” of rejection is both completely manufactured and entirely unsurprising. Let’s see what McDonald’s says when they actually have a realistic opportunity to buy the potato. For anybody who thinks they will not avail themselves of a chance to improve their margins with less waste, and gain potential health claims as well, here’s a public service announcement – stay clear of the tables in Vegas.

That brings me to the title of this post: Is McDonald's pro-cancer?.  These sorts of consumer oriented biotechnology innovations are a potential game changer because they shift the terms of the debate.  What possible reason could McDonald's give for continuing to use a potato known to have higher cancer risk?  Some vague, scientifically unsupported concerns voiced by a small (but vocal) set of activists against GMOs?  My hunch is that this is a PR battle that biotech may finally win.      

Gestation crates hit The Dailyshow with John Stewart

A couple days ago John Stewart did a segment on the impending decision by New Jersey's governor Chris Christy to veto (or not) a bill that would outlaw the use of gestation crates in the state.  

While I wish Stewart would have given looked a bit more critically at the supposed statistic that 93% of New Jersey citizens want the ban, and no doubt hog farmers will be a frustrated that Stewart didn't give any serious discussion of why such crates are used (to prevent fighting, harm to human workers, etc.).  Nonetheless, it is funny.  And it does show how uphill is the battle many hog farmers face in trying to defend the practice.  

Should you only eat food your great grandmother would recognize?

I've been reading the book White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf by Aaron Bobrow-Strain.  I'm only about a quarter of the way in, but so far it has been an informative take on some of the modern food debates seen through the history of white bread.  At times it falls into the big-is-bad or anything-for-profit-is-bad trap and often fails to fully appreciate the benefits of lower prices to the poor, but otherwise its an interesting read.  

I particularly liked the following passage:

At the start of the twenty-first century, a wave of neo-traditional food writers urged Americans to eschew anything “your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” If your great-grandmother wouldn’t have eaten it, they argued, it wasn’t real food. This rule of thumb raised a few complications: I’m pretty sure my great-grandmother wouldn’t have recognized Ethiopian doro wat or Oaxacan huitlacochtle as anything a human would eat, and yet they’re two of my favorite foods. Neo-traditionalist’s dreams of “real” food have racial and nationalistic undertones, it seems. More importantly, they ignore the complexities and ambiguities of early twentieth-century American’s relation to food: which version of my great-grandmother’s bread am I supposed to reassure/ the laborious homemade one her husband demanded, or the factor-baked one she eventually came to love? Food writers selling a particular dream of “great-grandmother’s kitchen” rarely concern themselves with real people. What I want to know is how and why my great-grandmother’s generation came to desire the store-bought staff of life.

Which biotech foods are most acceptable to the public?

That's the title of a paper I just published in the Biotechnology Journal with Brandon McFadden and Brad Rickard.  

Based on a survey of over 1,000 US consumers, we sought to determine which types of foods or biotechnology applications might be most acceptable.  

Respondents were asked, on a 7-point scale, to indicate how desirable (i.e., 1 = very undesirable to 7 = very desirable) it would be to eat six foods strategically selected to vary by product type (i.e., apple, corn, and beef) and degree of processing (i.e., fresh and processed): apples, apple juice, corn on the cob, corn chips, beef steak, and beef hotdog. The question was then repeated except each food was identified as being GE: genetically engineered apple, apple juice made from genetically engineered apples, etc. Of interest is the change in the desirability of each food product as it moves from a GE to a non-GE form, and whether the change in desirability systematically relates to product type and degree or processing. 

Here's what we found.

We write:

when foods were not GE, fresh was preferred over processed and beef products were preferred over corn and apple products. . . . [W]hen products were GE, respondents continued to prefer fresh to processed (although not nearly as much as when non-GE), but now respondents prefer corn and apples to beef, indicating a preference reversal. . . . The results indicate that adding “GE” causes a larger drop in desirability for fresh than processed food and also caused a larger drop in the desirability of meat relative to corn and apples. Thus, not only does GE change the overall desirability . . . , it changes the relative ranking of products, with larger penalties associated with being GE assigned to fresh food and meat.

We also asked consumers how desirable or undesirable different reasons for genetic modification were.  All the reasons had a mean score above 4 (on a scale of 1 to 7), meaning they were more desirable than not.  Here the results for each issue.