The Bluecrop variety of highbush blueberries were grown on five organic and conventional farms in New Jersey. The farms shared comparable soils and weather conditions, and the berries were harvested in precisely the same way. The scientists carrying out the study are based at the USDA’s Genetic Improvement of Fruits and Vegetables Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, and at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
The team found consistent and significant differences in nutrient content. The organic blueberries contained 46 ORAC units, a measure of total antioxidant capacity, while the conventional berries contained 31 ORAC units.
Accordingly, the organic berries had over 50% more total antioxidant activity. They also contained about 50% higher levels of total anthocyanins, the natural plant phytochemicals that give blueberries their dark color.
The organic blueberries also had 67% more total phenolics. The authors’ concluding sentence reads:
Source: S.H. Wang et al., “Fruit Quality, Antioxidant Capacity, and Flavonoid Content of Organically and Conventionally Grown Blueberries,” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, published on web July 1, 2008.
Remarkable Studies Appear on the Benefits of rbST/rbGH
Two studies appeared in the last month in important journals comparing the impacts and benefits of alternative dairy cow management systems. Both will no doubt trigger spirited debate on the impacts of dairy cow management systems on the environment and milk quality, as well as the current state of American science.
A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences focuses predominantly on climate change and environmental impacts, and is entitled “The environmental impact of recombinant bovine somatotropin (rbST/rbGH) in dairy production.”
The piece in the July 2008 Journal of the American Dietetic Association (JADA) addresses the impact of farm management on milk nutritional quality and safety, and is called “Survey of Retail Milk Composition as Affected by Label Claims Regarding Farm-Management Practices.” It is co-authored by 10 scientists, six of which work for Monsanto. All the authors have been closely associated with, and strong supporters of rbST/rbGH technology.
Both articles are co-authored by Roger Cady, a Monsanto scientist. One of other co-authors of the PNAS article is Dr. Dale Bauman of Cornell, who is one of the scientists that discovered the ability of rbST/rbGH to increase milk production. He is among the patent holders in the technology, and has long been a paid consultant to Monsanto.
The PNAS study concludes that administering rbST/rbGH to cows reduces:
According to this article, cows treated with rbST/rbGH have a lessened impact on the environment than conventional cows not treated with rbST/rbGH, and organic systems have by far the greatest impact on the environment, per unit of production, largely because of the assumed 25% reduction in daily milk yield.
While the PNAS authors note in passing that pasture-based dairy systems have some environmental advantages, they argue that the energy imbalances experienced by cows on pasture (too much nitrogen, too little protein) reduces feed efficiency and increases secretions of water contaminants.
According to the authors –
“Overall, rbST/rbGH appears to represent a valuable management tool for use in dairy production to improve productive efficiency, and to have less negative effects on the environment.”
The JADA Article
The Monsanto team tested conventional, rbST/rbGH-free, and organic milk samples bought at retail outlets. Their “quality” parameters were antibiotics and bacterial counts. “Nutritional value” was measured by fat, protein, and solids-not-fat. No explanation was given why the two nutritional quality parameters known to favor organic milk – Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and omega-three levels – were excluded from the study.
The “Hormonal composition” of milk included testing for somatotropin, insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1), estradiaol, and progesterone.
The team reports only minor differences across the three types of milk in most variables studied. They state that bacterial counts were lowest in conventional milk, but the differences were not “biologically meaningful.” No antibiotics were detected, which is not surprising, given that the antibiotic tests were done with relatively insensitive quick test-strip kits.
The most interesting finding, not dwelled on by the authors, was that organic milk had by far the lowest IGF-1 level – 2.73 ng/ml compared to 3.12 ng/ml in conventional milk (a reduction of 12.5%). The authors report that because ultrapastuerization can degrade IGF-1, they did not include any organic milk that was, according to the label, ultrapasteurized. The paper does not mention that this seemingly reasonable decision by the team excluded from the samples of organic milk the products of several of the most technologically advanced organic dairy processors.
They note that some organic milk may still have been ultrapasteurized (although not labeled as such), thereby reducing the average IGF-1 level in organic milk.
The authors conclude that –
“It is important for food and nutrition professionals to know that conventional, rbST/rbGH-free, and organic milk are compositionally similar so they can serve as a key resource to consumers who are making milk purchase (and consumption) decisions in a marketplace where there are misleading milk label claims.”
Editor’s Note: See the first item in “In the News” and the “Commentary” section for more discussion of the findings reported in these two studies.
Creative Study Implicates Pesticides in Developmental Abnormalities
A Florida team of scientists led by Loius Guillette has published a series of papers over many years on the impacts of pesticides and other endocrine disruptors on amphibian development. Their work has been challenged, because, according to the authors – “…of the difficulty of directly linking endocrine disrupting effects identified in laboratories with field observations.”
In response, they have incrementally refined their research methodologies and tried to answer questions raised by scientists who have disputed their findings and/or conclusions.
In their latest study, they took a novel approach. They identified five sites along a gradient defined by percent of surrounding land in agricultural production. There was no surrounding agriculture in the site next to a parking lot for a shopping mall, and 97% agriculture in the most intensively farmed site.
They collected at least 20 giant toads from each site and found than the frequency of developmental abnormalities increased in a dose-dependent way with the intensity of agriculture.
In the heavily farmed site, the male toads were either feminized or demasculinized, and took on the skin color of females. The good news -- lady toads developed normally in all sites.
Source: ” K.A. McCoy et al., “Agriculture Alters Gonadal Form and Function in the toad Bufo marinus,”; Environmental Health Perspectives, Online July 3, 2008
High Nitrogen Levels can Feed E. coli O157 in Lettuce
Scientists working for USDA’s Agricultural research Service have found that E. coli O157 bacteria tend to grow faster on young Romaine lettuce leaves than older ones. The scientist suspect that the bacteria do better on the young leaves because they are a richer nutritional “hunting ground.” Young lettuce leaves exude about three times more nitrogen and about 1.5-times more carbon than do older, middle leaves.
The scientists further confirmed the key role of nitrogen by adding some N to the middle leaves of lettuce plants. They found the N-supplemented leaves increased E. coli O157 growth to levels comparable to that on the younger leaves.
Source: Access a summary of the research by Dr. Brandl: . Also see, “Leaf Age as a Risk Factor in Contamination of Lettuce with E. coli O157:H7 and Salmonella enteric,” M.T. Brandl and R. Amundson, Applied and Environmental Microbiology, Vol. 74:2298-2306, April 2008.
Editor’s Note: The findings in this study are significant for two reasons. First, the “fresh cut” trend toward the harvest of baby lettuce and baby spinach may have inadvertently increased the risk of bacteria proliferation, because of the higher levels of nitrogen exudates in the leaves of young, fast-growing plants.
Second, excess nitrogen in farming systems, whether conventional or organic, can feed pathogens and in this way, increase food safety risks. We introduced this topic in Brian Halweil’s report “Still No Free Lunch”; , and we try to highlight new science that helps establish why and how extra nitrogen can worsen pest and bacterial problems in each issue of “The Scoop.”
The tendency of extra nitrogen to stimulate growth of E. coli O157 and Salmonella bacteria in young leafy green crops would be especially acute in conventional leafy green fields, where farmers apply synthetic fertilizers at rates intended to nearly eliminate any chance of a shortage of nitrogen, a strategy that usually results in an excess.
Organic farmers can do the same thing by over-applying compost and other sources of nitrogen, but typically do not since sources of nitrogen acceptable under the National Organic Program rule are much more expensive per unit of nitrogen. This new science suggests that all farmers need to sharpen their pencils to see how they can reduce the chance of excess nitrogen stimulating the proliferation of bad bacteria in otherwise nutritious produce.
There is one more reason why organic systems can reduce the risk of a major bloom of a pathogen like E. coli O157. Organic systems definitely encourage much more diverse above- and below-ground microbial communities. Hundreds of studies have confirmed this generic benefit of organic farming.
In cases where organic farmers do over-supply nitrogen, the extra N will tend to stimulate the growth of multiple microorganisms, which, through competition for other limiting resources or other mechanisms, tends to keep the population of any single organism from ballooning to possibly dangerous levels.
Lycopene Works as Well as Statins in Promoting Artery Health
Scientists in China compared the impact of lycopene in the diet of rabbits to the impacts of statin drugs in the prevention of the plaque in arteries that lead to atherosclerosis. The rabbits were fed enough lycopene to sustain blood levels roughly comparable to levels in humans who consume a diet high in lycopene.
The lycopene was as effective as statins in the rabbits fed a high-fat diet, and was superior to statins in one measure (reduction in LDL levels). The authors conclude that –
“These findings provide a theoretical rationale for the use of lycopene as a preventive in atherosclerosis.”
Source: ” Min-Yu Hu et al., “Comparison of lycopene and fluvastatin effects on atherosclerosis induced by a high-fat diet in rabbits,” Nutrition, published online June 30, 2008.
Editor’s Note: Multiple studies have shown that organic farming can increase the levels of lycopene in a number of fruits and vegetables, although some studies have shown no difference. It is almost certain that high-lycopene tomatoes, and tomato-based processed products, can be grown and offered to consumers through a combination of organic production systems and crop genetics. If the findings of this research are corroborated in other studies, the multi-billion dollar market for statin drugs may get some competition from the humble red tomato.
Back to top
Only July 2, 2008, Scientific American ran a story entitled “Can Bovine Growth Hormone Help Slow Global Warming?" by David Biello.
The piece begins –
Biello reports what the authors of the PNAS study found – that giving cows rbST/rbGH increases production and feed efficiency and is therefore better for the environment. They conclude that 843,000 rbST/rbGH treated cows can produce the same amount of milk as 1,000,000 untreated cows, and that these extra animals will consume 2.3 metric tons of additional feed, requiring 219,00 additional acres. The claim is made that the reduction in greenhouse gases from rbST/rbGH treated animals is equivalent to taking 400,000 cars off the road.
The Scientific American article then describes some of the analytical and technical problems with the study, while also pointing out the possible bias that could have been interjected into the project by virtue of its co-authors. The current controversy over labeling milk as rbST/rbGH-free is also mentioned.
Dr. Michael Hansen, a biologist working for Consumers Union, explains in the piece that the findings all hinge on one assumption – that rbST/rbGH increases feed efficiency per pound of milk produced. According to Hansen,” If this basic assumption is wrong, then everything that flows from it is of questionable status.”
Biello goes on to report that Monsanto tried 15 years ago to get the FDA to accept an “increases feed efficiency” claim on the label of Posilac (rbST/rbGH injections), but the agency denied the claim because insufficient data had been reported to substantiate the increase.
The article reports that the U.S. dairy industry has reduced GHG emissions per unit of production by 70% since the 1940s, through better feeding and genetics. Scientists in Australia also report that they can cut methane emissions another 50% by increasing the percentage of digestible grasses in cow rations.
Editor’s Note: As we have said before in “The Scoop,” sorting out the differences in the environmental impacts of a well-managed, high-production conventional dairy farm that uses rbST/rbGH, compared to a well-managed, grass-based organic dairy farm is a complicated and important challenge. This PNAS article, and the study it covers, provides absolutely nothing of value in meeting this need.
Students of science journalism would have to look long and hard to find a more cleverly and consciously biased article. The co-authors overstate the benefits of rbST/rbGH treated cows, claim benefits that do not exist, and fail to cover aspects of environmental impacts known to favor organic and/or grass-based production systems.
A “fair” comparison of conventional, rbST/rbGH treated dairy production systems to organic production (same level of management skill) will unequivocally show benefits for each system –
Organic Food and Beverage Sales Reach $19 billion in 2007
The Natural Marketing Institute reported July 3, 2008 that organic food and beverage sales rose 25% from 2006 to 2007. The category offered consumers 2,107 new products in just one year.
Source: NMI press release, July 3, 2008.
“Secret” World Bank Study Concludes that Biofuels have Caused 75% of Global Food Price Increases
A confidential World Bank study finds that biofuel production has triggered 75% or more of the increases in global food prices. According to a news report on the study in the UK paper “The Guardian” –
“The figure [75%] emphatically contradicts the US government’s claims that plant-derived fuels contribute less than 3% to food-price rises.”
Recall in the June “The Scoop,” we reported that the USDA’s 3% claim did not pass the laugh test at the global food summit. Perhaps the World Bank’s analysis was not so secret after all.
Source: “Secret report: biofuel caused food crisis,” The Guardian, July 4, 2008
Organic Acreage Booming in Washington State…
Certified organic acres jumped 27% between 2006 and 2007, according to a July 2, 2008 Press Release from Washington State University’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources. Acreage farmed organically has grown 86% since 2004.
The WSU Center projects 2007 acreage at 81,472, with two-thirds of this land devoted to livestock forage crops, vegetables, and tree fruit.
Washington State now leads the nation in production of organic apples, pears, and cherries.
…and Stemilt Growers Inc. is Working to Build Washington’s Lead
Already one of the largest grower-shippers of organic fruit in the country, Stemilt Growers announced on July 1, 2008 that it will almost double its organic cherry crop in 2009 to keep up with demand growth.
To sustain its growers during the three-year transition to certified organic production, Stemilt introduced its “Artisan Organics” line of products in 2007.
Source: “Fruit grower Stemilt to double size of organic cherry crop,” Sustainable Food News, July 1, 2008
Organic Center Board Member Elected Chair of IFOAM World Board
Katherine DiMatteo was elected President of the World Board of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) at the IFOAM General Assembly held June 22-24, 2008 in Vignola, Italy. Rumor has it that a majority of the voters were concerned that Katherine was lacking constructive ways to keep busy.
In addition to her IFOAM activities, Katherine is a senior associate at Wolf, DiMatteo + Associates, former executive director of the Organic Trade Association (OTA) and a board member of The Organic Center.
“I am pleased and honored to have been elected to the IFOAM Board and to serve as President,” says Katherine DiMatteo. “I will do my best to promote our mission of leading, uniting and assisting the organic movement in its full diversity… My top priorities are for IFOAM to become a strong advocate for organic agriculture at all levels, to foster harmonization, equivalence and equitable trade and to help solve critical global environmental problems and deliver better, healthier food and fiber systems.”
DiMatteo will head the ten-member IFOAM World Board for the next three years. Other members are from Australia, India, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Peru, the Philippines, Switzerland, and Uganda, spanning five continents. Roberto Ugas of Peru and Urs Niggli of Switzerland were named Vice-Presidents and with DiMatteo will comprise the IFOAM executive committee.
EU Directive Likely to Ban 15% of Registered Pesticides…
The European Commission has proposed a directive that could lead to the banning of all pesticides found to cause cancer or trigger birth defects. Experts project that about 15% of the pesticide products currently on the market in the EU would be impacted.
Pesticide manufacturers and some farm organizations are warning of crop shortages and dramatic price increases if the EC plan moves forward, but they are also dealing with other problems…
Source: “Plans to ban dozens of pesticides will lead to food shortages and send prices rising further’”, www.dailymail.com, July 2, 2008
…Fake Pesticides Surprisingly Common in the EU
The Financial Times reported in early July that 5% to 7% of the pesticides sold in Europe are counterfeits, containing either fake or lower cost active ingredients, often of dangerous, banned pesticides. A pesticide industry representative projects that 90% of the fake pesticides are imported from China.
The European Crop Protection Association has set up a task force to study the problem. The problem surfaced when illegal pesticides were found on vegetables grown in greenhouses in Spain. Fifteen people have been arrested and 4,000 kilograms of illegal pesticides were seized.
Endosulfan Found in New Zealand Beef
South Korean authorities found the insecticide endosulfan (Thiodan) in a shipment of beef from New Zealand. In 2005, New Zealand beef was recalled from South Korea and Taiwan because of endosulfan residues. A rancher had applied endosulfan to cattle to kill ticks.
It is not known if the current contamination episode is from use directly on cattle to kill insects, or from residues on crops fed to cattle.
Source: “Insecticide found in beef sent to S Korea,” The Dominion Post, stuff.co.nz, July 4, 2008
Whole Foods Tops List of Supermarkets Selling Humanely Raised Food
The World Society for the Protection of Animals carried out a survey of major supermarket chains to assess the percent of humanely raised animal products offered in stores.
The survey encompassed about 200 stores in 34 states, and covered dairy, eggs, unprocessed meat and poultry, and processed meat and poultry.
Whole Foods topped the list of 23 retail chains, with Wegman’s, Ruddick Corp., H.E. Butt, and Kroger Co., rounding out the top five.
Source: Sustainable Food News, July 3, 2008
Biotech Canola Under Development to Increase Omega-3 Intakes
Dow AgroSciences and Martek Biosciences are working to develop a canola variety that produces the omega-3 fatty acid DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). DHA improves brain, eye, and cardiovascular health, and is not supplied in sufficient quantities in the American diet. Currently, algae and fish oil are the primary sources of DHA through dietary supplements.
The companies plan to move the genes from algae into canola varieties, and are hoping consumers will be more receptive to this application of gene transfer technology because of the direct human health benefits of increased DHA intakes.
In addition, the companies point out that the DHA extracted from GM-canola will be the same as the DHA from algae or fish oil. The proteins and enzymes transferred into the canola necessary to produce DHA will be left after the oil is crushed from the seed, according to company scientists.
Source: Andrea Johnson, Biotech canola could offer healthier oil,” FarmRanch Guide, June 19, 2008
Democratic National Conventional Goes Green…and Organic
In response to Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper’s challenge “to make this the greenest convention in the history of the planet,” the host committee of the Democratic National Convention has committed to a path of sustainability…including offering organic food at the event.
The goal, says Andrea Robinson, the convention’s first-ever Director of Greening, is to reduce, recycle or compost at least 85% of all waste generated during the event. Planners also are requiring that at least 70% of ingredients for meals served at the convention should be organic, or locally grown to help reduce fuel costs.
According to the Wall Street Journal, 15,000 volunteers at the convention will receive fanny packs made of organic cotton (and made in the USA). Organizers say that greenhouse gases generated by the event will be carefully measured and offset with investments in renewable energy projects.
Republicans are doing their part, too, reports the Wall Street Journal, as they plan their convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul in early September. Organizers for the Republican event say they are utilizing email communications to reduce printing, using recycled office furniture and urging employees to walk or take public transportation to work.
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) projects that land degradation is eroding the food security of 1.5 billion people, about one-quarter of humanity.
Source: “Some 1.5 billion people may starve due to land erosion,” Reuters, July 2, 2008
The acreage producing organic potatoes in Idaho grew 137% from 2007 to 2008.
Source: “Idaho evaluates spud varieties for organic systems,” AgLine News, July 3, 2008
The Ukraine has emerged as a critical trans-shipment point in the flow of counterfeit goods from China into Europe. Criminal gangs active in multiple countries manage the flow of goods.
Source: “EU alarmed at flood of bogus pesticides,” The Financial Times, July 2008
Chipotle Mexican Grill has committed to purchasing 25% of at least one of its produce items for each of its 730 stores from small and mid-size local farmers.
A large slice of watermelon delivers enough arginine to produce a Viagra-like response in men. It does so by relaxing blood vessels.
Source: “Watermelon yields Viagra like effects – scientists,” Associated Press, July 8, 2009
Dealing with Our Food Safety Challenges
By: Dr. Charles Benbrook
Over 950 people have now gotten sick from Salmonella-tainted tomatoes, or peppers, or salsa, or who knows what. The media have been so focused, and maybe weary of the tomato story, that a huge outbreak of E. coli O157 in processed beef products has gone largely unnoticed.
What started out in early June as a modest recall of 531,707 pounds of beef processed by Nebraska Beef Ltd., has become a 5.3 million pound recall. Over 40 confirmed cases of illness in Michigan and Ohio have been reported to the Centers for Disease Control. Twenty-two people have been hospitalized, and one person has contracted the sometimes deadly complication hemolytic-uremic syndrome (HUS).
The number of sick people associated with the Nebraska Beef contamination episode is sure to grow much larger because of the extraordinarily high current ratio of people hospitalized to total number of cases – 22 out of 41, or nearly 50%.
Despite intense scientific focus on understanding the genesis of E. coli O157 and Salmonella, the many amazing steps and major investments by companies to keep these pathogens out of meat and produce, and the near constant red-alert status from FDA and CDC, the problem seems to be getting worse. The tomatoes-or-whatever-Salmonella outbreak may prove to be the worst such outbreak in history by virtually every measure.
Perhaps changes are afoot in the food system that have fundamentally tilted the playing field in favor of these bacterial pathogens, and we had better look under some forbidden rocks if we want to reduce the frequency of illness, and human suffering associated with these major contamination episodes.
Mixing fresh produce from multiple locations in repacking sheds makes disease outbreak epidemiology extremely difficult. Maybe it also makes disease outbreak prevention more difficult? Is it time to rethink how produce moves from the farm to consumers, with the interests of public health driving the outcome, instead of shaving a few cents off of the way we move a case of tomatoes from Mexico, through Florida, to Boston?
Without a livestock market for the byproducts of ethanol production, the economics of corn-based ethanol goes up in smoke, and the net energy contribution goes from maybe barely positive to unspeakably disastrous, given how much taxpayers have invested in this “solution.” But what about emerging evidence that E. coli O157 and mycotoxins are finding ways into the distillers grain byproducts of ethanol production that are fed to livestock? Has anyone factored those costs into the net “benefit” assessment of corn-based ethanol?
The next time you see one of those sickening videos of a spent dairy cow being lifted with a front end loader, or shocked with electricity, or worse, so she can stagger onto the kill floor, think about what put her there.
This can be, and sometimes is, one of the costs of pushing a dairy herd to produce 28,000 pounds of milk per year or more by feeding a ration so high in grain and energy, and lacking in forages and fiber, that the acid in her digestive system eats through her gut wall, creating an inside passage for bacteria that will then, in turn, challenge the best food safety systems.
That cow gets into such run-down condition in part because of the effectiveness of the drugs that keep her producing, and bacterial counts down in her milk, despite the stresses she is under and the gradual breakdown of her body and organ systems.
And last, think E. coli O157. The increase in risk of E. coli O157 shedding by stressed out, sick dairy animals is well proven and may explain much of the recent increase in human cases. The more E.coli O157 shed by stressed cattle, the more pressure on all our preventive systems and food safety technologies, from the spinach and tomato and pepper fields of the Salinas Valley and Florida, to the slaughterhouses of Nebraska.
One of the unrecognized benefits of a growing organic farming and food industry in America is that there is now close to a critical mass of people working to prevent the conditions that give rise to food safety problems. The conventional food system and conventional farmers have accomplished much in increasing production and lowering food costs, but they have sometimes not paid enough attention to the food safety costs of doing business.
Organic farmers and food companies do not have all the answers, and face some unique food safety problems of their own, but at least they are consciously pursuing a fundamentally different path where plant and animal health comes first, and higher production second.
I am not alone among scientists who are convinced this is inherently the right approach to produce safe, nutritious food. My gut sense is the big breakthroughs in advancing food safety are going to come from prevention, not better detection or more powerful chemical washes, or radiation.
Benbrook to Give 2004 Rachel Carson Lecture in London
The Center’s Chief Scientist, Chuck Benbrook, has accepted an invitation to give the Rachel Carson Memorial Lecture sponsored by the Pesticide Action Network-U.K. The event occurs December 4, 2008 in London at the School of Oriental and African Studies.
Chuck is working on scheduling other events during his trip to the U.K. He has been invited by scientists at the University of Newcastle to do two seminars, one on the Center’s organic food quality research, and a second on the impacts and future direction of biotechnology in U.S. agriculture.
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