Food is going high-tech — policy needs to catch up with it
BY THE BOSTON GLOBE EDITORIAL BOARD
or generations newspaper editorials have been the “eat your spinach” part of the operation. But what if that spinach can now be organic baby spinach, or hydroponically grown? What if we can eat it year round — and from just around the corner?
With a warming planet, the need for high-tech food and high-tech food policies is undeniable. Both are going to play an increasingly vital role in the planet’s future — and the way we eat. Here are a few ways to use science to steer food into a more sustainable path.
Learn to love GMOs, and resist efforts to demonize or prohibit them. Genetically modified food sets off alarm bells for purists, but crops designed to last longer or resist disease are increasingly necessary.
The good news is that new federal labeling regulations, which could become final by Dec. 1, will preclude the kind of state-by-state labeling regulations that Vermont had already indulged in and that Massachusetts has been perpetually on the cusp of enacting.
The even better news is that the science of food — of producing fruits with a longer shelf life, wheat that requires less water or fertilizer — is advancing so fast that even the foodie fearmongers can’t keep up.
First on the federal role: While moving at a glacial pace, the US Department of Agriculture has at long last brought forth a final set of regulations designed to implement a law passed by Congress in 2016 to deal with standards for disclosing bioengineered ingredients. Not surprisingly the new regs generated a huge amount of controversy — more than 14,000 comments received by the agency during the public comment period.
Assuming the regs are indeed finalized Dec. 1, they won’t go into effect until Jan. 1, 2020. What consumers are likely to notice is that GMO labeling will become “BE food,” or “bioengineered food.” And since at least two-thirds of all foods sold in the US contain some ingredients in that category — consumers are indeed likely to see it everywhere.
What it will accomplish is to prevent every state and locality from drafting its own labeling laws and, in the process, making the free movement of good products from state to state difficult if not impossible. And it will let innovation continue unhindered.
The future of seafood in the United States is aquaculture. Even the king of seafood, Roger Berkowitz, acknowledges that. “The technology has gotten so good with submersible pens,” said Berkowitz, chief executive of the Legal Sea Foods empire. “It’s a game changer.”
Berkowitz is particularly excited about the prospect of fish farms in federal open waters. Aquaculture in Massachusetts is largely confined to shallow waters; think oyster beds on Cape Cod. Of course, this country for years has talked about offshore fish farming, but the time has come, with wild fish stocks dwindling. In 2017, the US imported a record amount of seafood, more than 6 billion pounds, and exported only about 3.6 billion pounds.
While Massachusetts and some municipalities have regulated aquaculture, what’s needed now is a federal regulatory framework to support aquaculture in the ocean. It hasn’t been easy navigating the concerns of environmentalists, fishermen worried about their own livelihoods, and ships attached to particular routes. The ocean may be big, but surprisingly not big enough to accommodate everyone’s needs.
Congress can play a big role: Get a bill that everyone likes. Here’s another thought: How about supporting aquaculture as part of the farm bill, something US Representative Seth Moulton would like to see. With Democrats taking back the majority in the House, maybe this could get done next year.
Clear federal policies could enable the prospect of fish farming using the infrastructure of offshore wind turbines. Without such policies, the future of fish farming will remain murky, because these operations are expensive and investors don’t like uncertainty.
“No one would spend a dime on that,” said Peter Shelley, senior counsel at the Conservation Law Foundation, which has been closely following the development of aquaculture in the ocean. “It makes Cape Wind look like a sure bet.”
Assume change. Farm and food policies tend to deal with what we eat and grow now, but climate change should end that way of thinking. The government and industry need to anticipate disruption, and be ready to adapt, rather than pour money into trying to preserve vanishing industries that can’t be sustained any longer.
Rising temperature of oceans, for example, have forced the cod and lobsters to flee north to colder waters. We lament the loss of cod in Massachusetts, but Southern fish species are flocking to us now. In other words, we need to get used to “Cape Mahi-Mahi.”
Warmer temperatures in New England could extend the growing season for blueberries, strawberries, peaches, and corn. That could be a silver lining for consumers and farmers’ markets.
Food policy is often inherently conservative: organic food fans and proponents of farm subsidies want different versions of the same thing, which is to cling to the way food’s always been. But food is going to change whether we like it or not — and our food policies should try to direct those changes, not stop them.
You’ve heard, of course, about the Internet of Things plenty of times in this column. Maybe it’s time for a different IoT: the Internet of Tomatoes.
“About 88 percent of farms around the U.S. are small and medium size, and of those, nearly 100 percent have no instrumentation,” said Erick Olsen, whose title is smart agriculture manager for Analog Devices, a Massachusetts-based data conversion and signal processing giant that is targeted toward farmers. “What we’re trying to do is not break the system, but show that by proper measurement, a new way to look at a crop and judge its quality … farms can benefit.”
Analog Devices is testing wireless in-field sensors in Peterborough, one of 19 sites in New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, with the goal of growing better-tasting tomatoes and other fruits or vegetables.
Tomatoes are an obvious first target, since modern agriculture has ruined their flavor in the name of storage and transportation. Even the tomatoes I grow myself, which aren’t doing too well, beat those billiard balls they sell in supermarkets.
The system Analog Devices has installed at the Cornucopia Project is a prototype, or “minimum viable product” in R&D-speak. It includes sensors that can be placed throughout a field, inside greenhouses or under high-hoops systems, and which measure the air temperature and humidity and the ambient light – crop-independent information of value no matter what you’re growing.
This isn’t quite Internet of Things, since they’re not gathering data from individual plants, but it’s a start. Plus, they send the signal continually to a communications gateway, which transmits it to farmers’ cellphones or computer using whatever schedule is set. Down the road, they hope to develop a smart-mesh IP network to handle the signals, which is very Internet-of-Things-ish.
It’s true that farmers have long collected some environmental data, at the very least from rain gauges as part of irrigation planning. Analog Devices thinks it can convince farmers to kick this up a notch, placing between one and five monitors per acre to watch for variations in conditions that can occur even on a small property and have a big effect on crop yields.
“They can keep track of growing-degree days, heat stress, things like that at a microclimate level, where most farmers don’t have any instrumentation,” Olsen said.
To folks in manufacturing, shipping or logistics, the idea of sprinkling sensors throughout the work area to keep on eye on individual products is old hat. They know that gathering the right data and acting on it properly can cut costs and increase productivity, as well as handle ever-more-complicated systems.
So it makes sense to apply this idea to agriculture, which can be thought of as a type of organic manufacturing.
The Peterborough project is installed with Farm to Fork, an educational component of the Cornucopia Project, where high-school fellows learn the intricacies of running a farm.
Very large-scale farms in the Midwest and other areas are starting to adopt the idea, but Analog Devices is targeting the sort of farms that fill New Hampshire, covering a few hundred acres at most. These places have smaller budgets to buy fancy new equipment, but on the plus side from a market point of view they really specialize – Olsen said one customer, Verrill Farm of Concord, Mass., grows 55 different varieties of tomatoes – which means they could benefit from more fine-grained data than a place that grows soybeans from horizon to horizon.
Analog Devices is also working on turning a handheld near-infrared spectroscopy tool, licensed from a company called Consumer Physics, into a specialized tomato-quality analyst. The idea is that a farmer or field hand could place the sensor alongside a tomato or any fruit with a skin thinner than, say, watermelons or pumpkins, and shoot it with light that has a wavelength around 400 nanometers.
The device would determine which types of molecules get energized inside the fruit, which sounds like an exercise from a physics lab. What it actually can reveal is the sugar and salt content and acidity level of the fruit without breaking the skin, helping move harvesting decisions from the purely qualitative, based on look and feel, to the quantitative, based on data.
“The path we’re taking is to take all this data, which farmers are too busy to look at it, (and) simplify it a bit with base levels of parameters to guide decisions,” he said, pointing to a theoretical example: “The last three days of environmental data combined with the forecast, compare to baseline … should you get the hay in?”
With data comes questions about privacy, of course.
Olsen said the farmers, not Analog Devices, will own any data collected by the equipment, and can share it if they wish.
Analog Devices plans to collect, anonymize and pool customer data and sell them for agricultural planning or research purposes, and maybe even sell them to seed and fertilizer companies who want to know what changes are coming to New Hampshire’s environment that might alter future sales. Analog Devices is joined in plans to develop farm-data management tools by a San Francisco company called Ripe.io, which is working to use its data analytics and processing expertise to create “the blockchain of food,” a distributed trust system for all things agricultural.
It that seems pretty geekish for down-in-the-dirt farmers – you can’t get much geekier than blockchain, the bitcoin backbone that shows signs of upending business processes in a host of industries – but Olsen thinks the benefits will outweigh any doubts.
“I gave a presentation at a conference … and at the start the audience was laid back, their arms crossed, legs crossed, a scowl on their faces: ‘What do you mean you’re going to instrument my farm?’ ” he recalled. “Before I was done they were leaning forward, asking questions, interrupting me.”
(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or email@example.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)
In GMO Labeling
On 30, Oct 2017 | In GMO Labeling | By Admin
By Quartz Media
We’re surrounded by information about the health and nutritional benefits of different food, but a lot of it conflicts—and it’s leaving people more confused than ever about how to make healthy food choices. Should we eat all organic? Does our food need to be natural, and fresh? One recent fad is to avoid genetically modified food.
GM food has negative connotations for many consumers because of general mistrust of the food production industry, but also because anti-biotech activists have been so effective at stoking concerns. It’s led to an sharp increase in non-GMO labels, even on products like salt, which can’t be genetically modified because sodium chloride is an inorganic compound that doesn’t contain genes.
But non-GMO labels do more than placate people concerned about scientists secretly tinkering with their food. They might persuade people to make a poor food choice. That’s because genetically modifying food can actually make it safer, by limiting the need for, say, pesticides. According to Pam Ronald, who studies genetics at the University of California, Davis and whose husband is an organic farmer, farms going non-GMO to meet consumer demand are causing major damage.
“These non-GMO labels have proliferated, and they’re really a problem,” Ronald told Quartz. “Because there’s no regulation, they can just spray anything they want. So what’s happening is… they’re going back to using [far] more toxic compounds. And I think that’s really a disservice to the consumer to market it as somehow being more healthy—when of course, it’s not, and it’s also more harmful to the environment.”
(A representative from the non-GMO Project was not available for an interview.)
Click here to learn more on how misleading labels confuse consumers, and some expert advice on how to actually make healthier choices. (Hint: it’s not choosing non-GMO.)
On July 29, 2016, President Obama signed into law an Act amending the Agricultural Marketing at of 1946 which provides for a national bioengineered food di
Click on the link below to see the letter.
By Joanna Lidback
The worst thing we can do for people who struggle to feed their families is to make food more expensive. We can all agree on this, right?
Here in Vermont, nearly one in every five children lives in a home that suffers from “food insecurity,” according to the Kids Count Data Center, a project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The figure is even higher where I live, on a dairy farm close to the border with Canada in Orleans County.
If food prices go up, these stressed families will hurt the most. That’s why I’m so puzzled by proposals to require cautionary labels on food with genetically modified ingredients—but also hopeful that Congress will provide the leadership we need to keep grocery store prices in check.
The problem erupted in my state two years ago, when our governor signed legislation that mandates GMO (genetically modified organism) warning labels. The law takes effect in July.
On first glance, GMO labeling doesn’t sound like a big deal. Yet it involves a lot more than slapping statements in fine print on packages of food. It will force food companies to reformulate their products, driving up the cost of production all the way back to the farm gate. Prices will jump and consumers will pay the difference.
Some estimates have suggested that mandatory GMO labels will push the ordinary American grocery bill over $400 to $500 per year in additional food costs. A new report from the Corn Refiners Association says the amount may even exceed $1,000 per year.
A burden for families
Whatever the precise costs—I’ll let the number crunchers debate amongst themselves—this is a big burden for everyone, and especially for the thousands of people who live in Vermont’s food-insecure homes. Some of them are my neighbors. Their kids go to school with my kids. They’re already having trouble putting food on the table. Let’s not make it harder.
The elitists who insist on mandatory labels either fail to understand the economic consequences of their proposals—or they don’t care, perhaps because they’re wealthy enough to absorb the new costs.
This campaign to stigmatize GMOs makes no sense. Over the last two decades, GMOs have become a part of conventional agriculture, allowing us to grow more food on less land in a more sustainable way. They are perfectly compatible with human health, as every scientific and regulatory agency that has studied them has proclaimed, from the American Medical Association to the World Health Organization.
Just last month, the American Society of Plant Biologists issued a resounding endorsement of GMOs, hailing them as “an effective tool for advancing food security, and reducing the negative environmental impacts of agriculture.”
Flying in face of science
Yet the professional protestors still demand labels, without regard to how it flies in the face of scientific consensus—or what it means for the budgets of ordinary people. They tout a “right-to-know” via a label when the reality is you already have the right to know: a label does not give a right nor does the lack of one take a right away. Besides, given the level of attention that biotech crops have received over the past few years, there are more and more resources available for those who want to execute their right to know.
The shame of this dispute is that it’s unnecessary. People who want to avoid food with GMO ingredients, for whatever reason, already have that power. They can purchase organic food, which may not contain GMOs. They also can look for non-organic products that market themselves as non-GMO.
Patchwork of regulations
With Vermont’s labeling law on the horizon, however, we face the vexing possibility of a patchwork of regulations in which 50 states come up with 50 different standards for labeling food. Instead of an efficient system that promotes public health, food safety, environmental protection and commerce of our most basic need, we’ll confront a confusing and costly mess.
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has called for federal legislation “so that we avoid any potential chaos that occurs when one state decides to go one way, different states do a different thing, and then companies decide for themselves. We just can’t have that.”
A bipartisan majority in the House of Representatives already has passed the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, which promises to stop this worst-case scenario from becoming a reality. But last week the Senate failed to move forward a similar bill that would establish national standards for food made with genetically modified ingredients.
As the senators continue to deliberate, let’s hope they remember the neediest among us by rejecting pointless labels and needlessly adding costs to a safe, diverse food supply.
Lidback is a Vermont Farm Bureau member.
She and her husband operate a diversified dairy farm in Vermont.
This article was reprinted from Global Farmer Network website at http://globalfarmernetwork.org
The US House of Representatives has passed the industry-backed voluntary GMO labeling bill – The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act 2015 – by 275 votes to 150, and rejected all four amendments it was asked to consider.
H.R. 1599 – which anti-GMO activists have dubbed the DARK Act (‘Denying Americans the Right-to-Know’) – would pre-empt state laws that mandate GMO labeling (such as Act 120 in Vermont) and set up a federal voluntary ‘non-GMO’ labeling system run by the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service.
Under the proposed federal legislation, which was introduced by Mike Pompeo (R-KS), firms would also be allowed to make ‘natural’ claims on foods made with ingredients from genetically engineered (GE) crops – which supporters hope will stop civil litigation over this issue from clogging up the court system.
Labeling of a food made with GE ingredients would only be required if two conditions are met:
1. There is “a meaningful difference in the functional, nutritional, or compositional characteristics, allergenicity, or other attributes between the food so produced and its comparable food”;
2. The labeling is “necessary to protect public health and safety or to prevent the label or labeling of the food so produced from being false or misleading”.
Meanwhile, food manufacturers will be permitted to claim that a food is non-GMO if the ingredients are subject to certain supply chain process controls, and cannot state or imply that non-GMO foods are safer than GMO foods.
Click Here for read more
A Pew Research Center study on science literacy, undertaken in cooperation with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and released on January 29, contains a blockbuster: In sharp contrast to public skepticism about GMOs, 89% of scientists believe genetically modified foods are safe.
That overwhelming consensus exceeds the percentage of scientists, 88%, who believe global warming is the result of human activity. However, the public appears far more suspicious of scientific claims about GMO safety than they do about the consensus on climate change.
Some 57 percent of Americans say GM foods are unsafe and a startling 67% do not trust scientists, believing they don’t understand the science behind GMOs. Scientists blame poor reporting by mainstream scientists for the trust and literacy gaps.
The survey also contrasts sharply with a statement published earlier this week in a marginal pay-for-play European journal by a group of anti-GMO scientists and activists, including Michael Hansen of the Center for Food Safety, and philosopher Vandana Shiva, claiming, “no scientific consensus on GMO safety.”
A huge literacy gap between scientists and the public on biotechnology is one of the many disturbing nuggets that emerged from the Pew Research Center survey, which was conducted in cooperation with the AAAS, the world’s largest independent general scientific society. The full study, released on January 29, is available here.
The eye opening take-away: The American population in general borders on scientific illiteracy. The gap between what scientists believe, grounded on empirical evidence, often sharply differs from what the general public thinks is true. The differences are sharpest over biomedical research, including GMOs.
- 88% of AAAS scientists think eating GM food is safe, while only 37% of the public believes that’s true—a 51-percentage point gap
- 68% of scientists say it is safe to eat food grown with pesticides, compared with 28% of citizens—a 40% gap.
- A 42-percentage point gap over the issue of using animals in research—89% of scientists favor it, while only 47% of the public backs the idea.
The recent signing of the food-labeling bill by Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin is unfortunate on many levels. Gov. Shumlin had a chance to show real leadership before making the decision to sign the bill into law, mandating labels for foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). He chose to act rashly, failing to seriously consider the consequences and impact on all Vermonters and visitors. By signing the law he has jeopardized the livelihood of Vermont’s small businesses, dairy farmers, food manufacturers, retailers and most importantly consumers.
The law is scheduled to go into effect in 2016. Ironically the governor could have wisely decided to sign the bill after a one-year moratorium, and then let the national debate play out in Washington, allowing the issue to be researched and better understood. Instead the governor, lawmakers and consumers were swayed by scare-mongering tactics rather than good scientific fact-based arguments.
If lawmakers had taken the time to do due diligence in their research, they would know GMOs are not ingredients in foods. They are part of the food manufacturing process. That’s true for corn grown for cows to eat, or corn syrup or canola oil used for producing and cooking foods we all have been consuming for many years now.
The United States doesn’t mandate different nutrition information labeling or ingredients for each state. The standards and requirements are uniform for all states, set by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA establishes rules and regulations only after thorough research and scientific study. The same standard should be used when it comes to GMOs in our foods. Any regulation should be set on a national level, not a patchwork of states. Proposed laws to regulate GMO labeling are being debated in Washington.
The Council of Agricultural Science and Technology, a non-profit organization of scientific societies, non-profit trade organizations and others — just published a comprehensive report on potential impacts of mandatory food labeling of genetically modified foods in the U.S. The report substantiates: There is no science-based reason to single out GMO foods and feeds for mandatory process-based labeling; consumers already have non-GMO choices in organic-labeled products. Mandated labeling will increase consumer costs at the checkout line. GMO foods have been found to be as safe as conventional foods.
The authors conclude, “Independent objective information on the scientific issues and the possible legal and economic consequences of mandatory GE food labels need to be provided to legislators and consumers, especially in states with labeling initiatives on the ballot, to help move the national discussion from contentious claims to a more fact-based and informed dialog.”
Additionally, seemingly lost in the debate were the socio-economic and environmental impacts that GM crops have had, not just in Vermont, but also globally. In a new report released by PG Economics Ltd., a leading voice on agricultural production systems and plant biotechnology policy, the authors, who have studied GM technology since its first implantation, conclude:
GM technology has had a significant positive impact on farm income. In 2012, the direct global farm income benefit from GM crops was $18.8 billion. This is equivalent to having added 5.6% to the value of global production of the four main crops of soybeans, maize, canola and cotton. Since 1996, farm incomes have increased by $116.6 billion.
GM traits have contributed to significant reduction in the environmental impact associated with insecticide and herbicide use on the areas devoted to GM crops. Since 1996, use of pesticides on the GM crop area was reduced by 503 million kg of active ingredient (8.8% reduction), and the environmental impact associated with herbicide and insecticide use on these crops, as measured by the EIQ (Environmental Impact Quotient) indicator, fell by18.7%.
GM technology has positively impacted our carbon footprint. In total, in 2012, the combined GM crop-related carbon dioxide emission savings from reduced fuel use and additional soil carbon sequestration were equal to the removal from the roads of 11.88 million cars.
In the quest to take the lead, and pass and sign the mandatory labeling law that has no safety triggers or rational compromise, Vermont lawmakers showed a lack of leadership that may have very costly legal and food cost repercussions in the future.
Editor’s note: This commentary is by Bruce Krupke, executive vice president of the Northeast Dairy Foods Association Inc., a regional group representing dairy product processors, manufacturers and distributors since 1928.