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Alexander J. Stein

Economist interested in agriculture, food, nutrition, health, technology, sustainability, economic development & poverty alleviation worldwide. This is a personal account; posts are not necessarily endorsements. More at
Sep 1 '14

Science and society: vaccines and public health - Fine (2014) - Public Health

See on - Global Nutrition

Most public health research is devoted to the measurement of disease burdens and of the costs and effectiveness of control measures. The history of immunization provides many colourful examples of various ways in which such measurements are made, of how they have influenced policies, and of the importance of public perception of the magnitudes of the various burdens, benefits and risks. Improving the public’s ability to evaluate evidence is itself an important aspect of public health… 

One might liken public health to a set of scales, weighing the magnitudes and costs of various ‘problems’ on one side, and balancing these against the effectiveness and costs of various ‘control interventions’ on the other. Everyone in public health is involved somewhere in this spectrum of relating problems to solutions, and insofar as we are doing it scientifically, this means quantifying them in various ways… it often means assumptions have to be made.

It is also important to consider the importance of public perceptions of the magnitude or cost of a problem, and of the intervention being developed, implemented or evaluated. This review looks at measuring, estimating and perceiving the magnitude of burdens and costs with reference to immunization, as illustrative of many of the issues which confront public health… 

The tensions between public perceptions and scientific evidence relating to vaccines, which began during the nineteenth-century arguments over smallpox vaccination, remain with us today. Public perceptions are influenced greatly by the media… 

Some will recall a television programme which was shown in this country in 1974 - a consultant at the Great Ormond Street Hospital showed a child with severe brain damage and attributed it to the child’s recent pertussis vaccination. As a consequence of this programme, the coverage of pertussis vaccine fell rapidly from close to 90% down to 35%, with the inevitable result that pertussis case numbers increased immensely. It took 20 years for the coverage to return to the previous level before. That television programme killed a lot of children… 

But inappropriate and negative media coverage is not restricted to vaccines, and includes many aspects of health. It is an important and constant aspect of all aspects of public health. Misinformation itself is a major public health problem. Among the issues that come up, in this context, are the several motives behind bad tabloid science… 

The most obvious solution is surely education e teaching people how to evaluate things critically, how to evaluate evidence. A headline from just a few weeks ago mentions the shortage of science and maths teachers: and this too is a public health problem, in at least two ways. A shortage of science teachers means fewer students being well trained in maths and the sciences subjects required for them to become our successors. We need there to be a lot of good teachers and students for our subject to prosper in the future. And a shortage of teachers will have broad implications on the ability of the public to evaluate scientific data…

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Sep 1 '14

Safety aspects of genetically modified crops with abiotic stress tolerance - Liang &al (2014) - Trends Food Sci Tech

See on - Ag Biotech News

Abiotic stress, such as drought, salinity, and temperature extremes, significantly reduce crop yields. Hence, development of abiotic stress-tolerant crops by modern biotechnology may contribute to global food security.

Prior to introducing genetically modified crops with abiotic stress tolerance to the market, a food and environmental safety assessment is generally required. Although worldwide harmonised comparative approach is currently provided, risk assessors still face challenges to assess genetically modified crops with abiotic stress-tolerance.

Here, we discuss current developments of abiotic stress tolerance as well as issues concerning food and environmental safety assessment of these crops, including current approaches, challenges and future directions…

Contrary to similar conventionallybred crops, GM plant varieties, including abiotic stress-tolerant plant varieties, require in most countries an extensive food and environmental safety assessment, prior to market approval. 

For the food safety assessment,all aspects of abiotic stress-tolerant GM plant varieties seem to be generally covered by current worldwide harmonized scientific safety assessment approaches. It may, however, be necessary to grow the new GM abiotic stress-tolerant plant both under the conventional environmental conditions, together with the conventional counterpart, as well as under the stressed (dry, saline) environmental conditions for this new crop variety to assess for potential effects that may only show under the abiotic stress conditions. 

This specific approach should also be applied for the environmental safety assessment… More specifically, to what extent these transgenes may impart increased fitness under actual field conditions and thus change the population ecology of wild relatives… uncertainty with predicting introgression from crops to wild relatives. Thus, there is a need to develop globally harmonized protocols on how to best assess these effects of abiotic stress-tolerant GM crop varieties… 

As abiotic stress-tolerant crop varieties developed by conventional breeding methods are actively being introduced as well, knowledge on these could be used for comparisons. We recommend that international scientific platforms take the lead in the development of harmonized protocols and procedures, at the short term, to ascertain that abiotic stress-tolerant GM crops can be introduced on the basis of an  adequate safety assessment…

Alexander J. Stein's insight:

"abiotic stress-tolerant crop varieties developed by conventional breeding methods are actively being introduced as well" 

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Aug 31 '14

Changing global diets is vital to reducing climate change - Eurekalert (2014)

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A new study… suggests that – if current trends continue – food production alone will reach, if not exceed, the global targets for total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2050… we should all think carefully about the food we choose and its environmental impact. A shift to healthier diets across the world is just one of a number of actions that need to be taken to avoid dangerous climate change and ensure there is enough food for all.

As populations rise and global tastes shift towards meat-heavy Western diets, increasing agricultural yields will not meet projected food demands of what is expected to be 9.6 billion people – making it necessary to bring more land into cultivation. This will come at a high price… as the deforestation will increase carbon emissions as well as biodiversity loss, and increased livestock production will raise methane levels… current food demand trends must change through reducing waste and encouraging balanced diets.

If we maintain ‘business as usual’… then by 2050 cropland will have expanded by 42% and fertiliser use increased sharply by 45% over 2009 levels. A further tenth of the world’s pristine tropical forests would disappear over the next 35 years… increased deforestation, fertilizer use and livestock methane emissions are likely to cause GHG from food production to increase by almost 80%. This will put emissions from food production alone roughly equal to the target greenhouse gas emissions in 2050 for the entire global economy… 

Halving the amount of food waste and managing demand for particularly environmentally-damaging food products by changing global diets should be key aims that, if achieved, might mitigate some of the greenhouse gases causing climate change… 

"The average efficiency of livestock converting plant feed to meat is less than 3%, and as we eat more meat, more arable cultivation is turned over to producing feedstock for animals that provide meat for humans. The losses at each stage are large, and as humans globally eat more and more meat, conversion from plants to food becomes less and less efficient, driving agricultural expansion and land cover conversion, and releasing more greenhouse gases. Agricultural practices are not necessarily at fault here – but our choice of food is… It is imperative to find ways to achieve global food security without expanding crop or pastureland. Food production is a main driver of biodiversity loss and a large contributor to climate change and pollution, so our food choices matter" … 

Gaps between crop yields achieved in ‘best practice’ farming and the actual average yields exist all over the world, but are widest in developing countries – particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa… closing these gaps through sustainable intensification of farming should be actively pursued. But even with the yield gaps closed, projected food demand will still require additional land – so the impact on GHG emissions and biodiversity remains…

Food waste… occurs at all stages in the food chain. In developing countries, poor storage and transportation cause waste; in the west, wasteful consumption is rife. “The latter is in many ways worse because the wasted food products have already undergone various transformations that require input of other resources, especially energy”… 

Yield gap closure alone still showed a greenhouse gas increase of just over 40% by 2050. Closing yield gaps and halving food waste still showed a small increase of 2% in greenhouse gas emissions. When healthy diets were added, the model suggests that all three measures combined result in agricultural GHG levels almost halving from their 2009 level – dropping 48%.

"Western diets are increasingly characterised by excessive consumption of food, including that of emission-intensive meat and dairy products. We tested a scenario where all countries were assumed to achieve an average balanced diet – without excessive consumption of sugars, fats, and meat products. This significantly reduced the pressures on the environment even further"… 

The ‘average’ balanced diet used in the study is a relatively achievable goal for most. For example, the figures included two 85g portions of red meat and five eggs per week, as well as a portion of poultry a day.

"This is not a radical vegetarian argument; it is an argument about eating meat in sensible amounts as part of healthy, balanced diets… Managing the demand better, for example by focusing on health education, would bring double benefits – maintaining healthy populations, and greatly reducing critical pressures on the environment" … 

Unless we make some serious changes in food consumption trends, we would have to completely de-carbonise the energy and industry sectors to stay within emissions budgets that avoid dangerous climate change. That is practically impossible – so, as well as encouraging sustainable agriculture, we need to re-think what we eat… Cutting food waste and moderating meat consumption in more balanced diets, are the essential ‘no-regrets’ options…

Original article:

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Aug 31 '14

Rickets returns as poor families find healthy diets unaffordable - Guardian (2014)

See on - Food Policy

Poverty is forcing people to have dangerously poor diets and is leading to the return of rickets and gout – diseases of the Victorian age that affect bones and joints – according the UK Faculty of Public Health. The public health professionals’ body will call for a national food policy, including a sugar tax, as concerns rise over malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies in British children. It will also appeal for all political parties to back a living wage to help combat the illnesses.

Doctors and hospitals are seeing a rise in children suffering from ailments caused by poor diet and the faculty has linked the trend to people’s inability to afford quality food. Latest figures show there has been a 19% increase in people hospitalised in England and Wales for malnutrition over the past 12 months but experts say this is only the extreme end… ill-health arising from poor diets was worsening throughout Britain “through extreme poverty and the use of food banks”. 

He said that obesity remained the biggest problem of food poverty as families are forced into choosing cheap, processed high fat foods just to survive. “It’s getting worse because people can’t afford good quality food… Malnutrition, rickets and other manifestations of extreme poor diet are becoming apparent. GPs are reporting rickets anecdotally in Manchester, the East End of London, Birmingham and the West Midlands. It is a condition we believed should have died out… 

"Malnutrition being seen in hospital admission statistics are extreme manifestations of specific dietary deficiencies or excesses, but they are markers of a national diet which is poor. Food prices up 12%, fuel prices up double-figure percentages and wages down is a toxic combination, forcing more people to eat unhealthily."

He said many policy makers forgot the impact of rising energy prices on diet. “That is the bit people don’t really appreciate - a processed meal from a supermarket will need less feeding the meter, as of course will a fast food take out. Poor people are having to pay out more of their income on food compared to the better off. There are difficult choices for people on low income” … 

Teachers in the schools she worked in expected to see a dramatic decline in the health of their pupils as they return after the holidays: “Teachers tell us they know even with free school meals it will take two to three weeks to get their kids back up to the weight they were at the end of the last school term because their families cannot afford the food during the holidays” … 

The UK has 3.8 million children in extreme poverty. Charities… report growing need for food banks but say that some of the items donated can be of poor quality… “If the nutritional diseases are markers of a poor diet, the food banks are markers of extreme poverty - the evidence… suggests the biggest group of users are hard working poor families who have lost benefits, live on low and declining wages and or they have fallen foul of draconian benefits sanctions which propel them into acute poverty and hunger. This is a disastrous and damning indictment on current welfare policy and a shame on the nation” …

Alexander J. Stein's insight:

While this is extremely sad, it shows the (political) challenges even a rich country can be facing when trying to ensure food security for all its citizens. Of course this is “only” a problem of distribution as there is no lack of adequate food, and rich countries should also be able to respond to such developments by improving their social safety systems accordingly, but quite obviously that’s still (politically) difficult to do. So what can be expected in and from much poorer countries? There it is a much more difficult and protracted process to finance and improve social safety nets and to alleviate poverty…

Probably few people would suggest that the parents of those kids should be given allotment gardens so they can simply grow anything they need for a balanced diet (and perhaps even sell excess produce to earn a bit money). The time spent in the garden they cannot work elsewhere, or look for work, or check their children’s homework or… And while lack of nutrition knowledge and an understanding of the implications of eating poorly might also play a role, poor people also have other needs that compete for their scarce purchasing power (as described very well in the piece by George Orwell that I’ll copy below). 

Therefore, as long as an ideal solution has unfortunately not yet materialised — not even in rich countries, even though it should nevertheless be pursued there as everywhere else — it would be immoral to discard other solutions: Efforts and technologies to increase the quantity and quality of the available food should be welcomed by all who care about hungry people wherever they are — not as an excuse for not working towards addressing the underlying social and economic problems, but as intermediate solutions that can already help some while these deeper problems are being addressed. 

But here the excerpt from George Orwell’s “Road to Wigan Pier”, which characterised the nutrition situation in poor British families in the 1930s: 

 ”Now compare this list with the unemployed miner’s budget that I gave earlier. The miner’s family spend only tenpence a week on green vegetables and tenpence half-penny on milk… and nothing on fruit; but they spend one and nine on sugar… and a shilling on tea. The half-crown spent on meat _might_ represent a small joint and the materials for a stew; probably as often as not it would represent four or five tins of bully beef. The basis of their diet, therefore, is white bread and margarine, corned beef, sugared tea, and potatoes — an appalling diet. Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread or if they even, like the writer of the letter to the _New Statesman_, saved on fuel and ate their carrots raw? Yes, it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. 
A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn’t. Here the tendency of which I spoke at the end of the last chapter comes into play. When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty’. There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you. Let’s have three pennorth of chips! Run out and buy us a twopenny ice-cream! Put the kettle on and we’ll all have a nice cup of tea! _That_ is how your mind works when you are at the P.A.C. level. White bread-and-marg and sugared tea don’t nourish you to any extent, but they are _nicer_ (at least most people think so) than brown bread-and-dripping and cold water. Unemployment is an endless misery that has got to be constantly palliated, and especially with tea, the English-man’s opium. A cup of tea or even an aspirin is much better as a temporary stimulant than a crust of brown bread. The results of all this are visible in a physical degeneracy which you can study directly, by using your eyes, or inferentially, by having a look at the vital statistics.” 

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Aug 30 '14

Recommendations from a Meeting on Health Implications of Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) - Amofah (2014) - Ghana Med J

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The Ghana Public Health Association organized a scientific seminar to examine the introduction of genetically modified organisms into public use and the health consequences. The seminar was driven by current public debate on the subject. The seminar identified some of the advantages of GMOs and also the health concerns.

lt is clear that there is the need to enhance local capacity to research the introduction and use of GMOs; to put in place appropriate regulatory mechanisms including particularly the labeling of GMO products and post-marketing surveillance for possible negative health consequences in the long term. Furthermore the appropriate state agency should put in place advocacy strategies to keep the public informed about GMOs…


Alexander J. Stein's insight:

"Notwithstanding the advantages and major potential public health benefits, a number of concerns and potential negative health impact were identified: (1) Current efforts are focused primarily on a few crop/trait combinations that have high commercial value and occupy large international markets, hence are primarily profit driven. (2) Public Institutions are resource limited and lack infrastructure and capacity to compete; there is poor access to advanced technology and weak regulatory capacity in country. (3) Potential for unpredictable, unintended mutations in the organism with consequential medico-legal events…" 

» Companies that are operating in a market economy obviously seek to make profits. How can that in itself be an argument against the whole class of products that their products belong to? Also pharmaceutical companies are profit driven (and most do not do research into rare diseases and orphan drugs for poor developing countries’ markets). This does not invalidate the usefulness of pharmaceuticals. It’s simple: Where the market fails government intervention is necessary — and there ARE publicly or philanthropically funded R&D projects on GM crops… And if there is less public R&D than would be ideal, is that a reason to be concerned about products that “only” cater to the demand that can be expressed on markets? Or rather about the research and regulatory context that inhibits public R&D? 

As to the risk of “unintended mutations”, that’s what happens in — conventional — mutation breeding… 

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Aug 30 '14

Product Differentiation Choices and Biotechnology Adoption: The U.S. Corn Seed Market - Zhang (2014) - Univ Wisconsin

See on - Ag Biotech News

The advances in agricultural biotechnology have brought opportunities and challenges to the agricultural input industries including the seed sector over the last few decades. The U.S. seed market has experienced major structural adjustments during this period. Since 1996 the rapid adoption of biotechnology in U.S. agriculture has been associated with mergers and acquisitions, leading to a more concentrated seed/biotech industry. It raises questions about the possible exercise of market power in the U.S. biotech seed industry.

Will an integrated biotech seed company differ from an independent one in choosing the line of seed products? How do U.S. farmers evaluate different types of corn seeds? And how are the welfare gains from technological improvement distributed among market participants? This dissertation tried to answer these questions by investigating the product line choices of seed companies under imperfect competition and farmers’ adoption of conventional and genetically modified (GM) seeds in the U.S. corn seed market during 2000-2007…

I examine seed firms’ product choices by considering concentration in the upstream biotech market, geographical competition, firm and market characteristics, and technological advancement… market competition has discrepant impacts on the product choices of biotech firms and independent companies. Firms’ willingness to carry more varieties also differs by their market shares… farmers’ preferences are shifted away from conventional and single traited seeds to newly-introduced multiple traited ones… 

I investigate the welfare distribution of biotechnology advances among market participants and the welfare changes when biotech firms specialize in GM seeds and independent firms specialize in conventional seeds. I find that the benefits of biotechnology advances are received mostly by medium-to-large farms and a few biotech companies. Biotech firms also benefit from market segmentation.

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Aug 30 '14

Farmers’ Interest in Growing GM Crops in the UK, in the Context of a Range of On-farm Coexistence Issues - Jones & Tranter (2014)

See on - Ag Biotech News

Although no GM crops currently are licensed for commercial production in the UK, as opposition to GM crops by consumers softens, this could change quickly. Although past studies have examined attitudes of UK farmers toward GM technologies in general, there has been little work on the impact of possible coexistence measures on their attitudes toward GM crop production. This could be because the UK Government has not engaged in any public dialogue on the coexistence measures that might be applied on farms.

Based on a farm survey, this article examines farmers’ attitudes toward GM technologies and planting intentions for three crops (maize, oilseed rape, and sugar beet) based on a GM availability scenario. The article then nuances this analysis with a review of farmer perceptions of the level of constraint associated with a suite of notional farm-level coexistence measures and issues, based on current European Commission guidelines and practice in other EU Member States… 

When those surveyed were asked whether they might consider growing GM oilseed rape/maize/sugar beet if it was licensed by the Government for the 2015 planting year, around half those currently growing maize said they would consider it, as did 62% of those growing oilseed rape and 63% of those growing sugar beet… 

The potential adopters… had [statistically] significantly fewer years in farming, tended to be younger, had a higher annual farm income, larger farms, more staff numbers, and were more likely to be a member of a Farmers’ Union or Certification Body and to have a university degree than those who said they would not grow GM crops. This finding is consistent with past studies of adoption of other innovations… 

Those survey farmers who did not envision adopting GM crops had several reasons for this decision, including that they were worried about whether the GM crop would be ‘difficult to sell,’ that it would be ‘associated with complicated management,’ and that the ‘seed would be too expensive and difficult to buy’ … 

If… stated areas were ‘raised’ to the national level, up to 247,000 ha of GM oilseed rape (38% of all plantings in 2010) might be grown, plus 83,000 ha of GM maize (57% of plantings in 2010) and 45,000 ha of GM sugar beet (38% of plantings in 2010).

The possible coexistence measure that was seen as least burdensome to the potential adopters was keeping records of seed purchases and product sales for five years. The most burdensome measure was seen as planning crop sowing in such a way that would not coincide with a neighbor’s planting… Summed together, the costs of the five coexistence measures would increase national production costs for the three crops by £44M…

Few studies have investigated farmers’ attitudes towards adoption of GM crops. However, those that have investigated this topic have found that net income gains were important and that non-pecuniary benefits such as flexibility in crop management were also felt important by farmers… 

Two recent high-level reports have concluded that the expansion of GM crop growing in Europe would be beneficial to all concerned across the food chain (European Academies Science Advisory Council, 2013). The UK Council for Science and Technology (2014) agreed with this, especially for the UK’s particular position.

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Aug 30 '14

Modeling the effect of a heat wave on maize production in the USA and its implications on food security in the developing world - Chung &al (2014) - Weather Climate Extremes

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This study uses geo-spatial crop modeling to quantify the biophysical impact of weather extremes. More specifically, the study analyzes the weather extreme which affected maize production in the USA in 2012; it also estimates the effect of a similar weather extreme in 2050, using future climate scenarios. The secondary impact of the weather extreme on food security in the developing world is also assessed using trend analysis.

Many studies have reported on the significant reduction in maize production in the USA due to the extreme weather event (combined heat wave and drought) that occurred in 2012. However, most of these studies focused on yield and did not assess the potential effect of weather extremes on food prices and security. The overall goal of this study was to use geo-spatial crop modeling and trend analysis to quantify the impact of weather extremes on both yield and, followed food security in the developing world.

We used historical weather data for severe extreme events that have occurred in the USA. The data were obtained from the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In addition we used five climate scenarios: the baseline climate which is typical of the late 20th century (2000s) and four future climate scenarios which involve a combination of two emission scenarios (A1B and B1) and two global circulation models (CSIRO-Mk3.0 and MIROC 3.2). DSSAT 4.5 was combined with GRASS GIS for geo-spatial crop modeling. Simulated maize grain yield across all affected regions in the USA indicates that average grain yield across the USA Corn Belt would decrease by 29% when the weather extremes occur using the baseline climate. If the weather extreme were to occur under the A1B emission scenario in the 2050s, average grain yields would decrease by 38% and 57%, under the CSIRO-Mk3.0 and MIROC 3.2 global climate models respectively.

The weather extremes that occurred in the USA in 2012 resulted in a sharp increase in the world maize price. In addition, it likely played a role in the reduction in world maize consumption and trade in 2012/13, compared to 2011/12. The most vulnerable countries to the weather extremes are poor countries with high maize import dependency ratios including those countries in the Caribbean, northern Africa and western Asia. Other vulnerable countries include low-income countries with low import dependency ratios but which cannot afford highly-priced maize. The study also highlighted the pathways through which a weather extreme would affect food security, were it to occur in 2050 under climate change.

Some of the policies which could help vulnerable countries counter the negative effects of weather extremes consist of social protection and safety net programs. Medium- to long-term adaptation strategies include increasing world food reserves to a level where they can be used to cover the production losses brought by weather extremes.

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Aug 29 '14

How to prevent organic food fraud - ACS (2014)

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A growing number of consumers are willing to pay a premium for fruits, vegetables and other foods labelled “organic”, but whether they’re getting what the label claims is another matter. Now scientists studying conventional and organic tomatoes are devising a new way to make sure farms are labelling their produce appropriately. Their report… could help prevent organic food fraud. 

Researchers… note that the demand for organic food is growing at a rapid clip. Its global market value nearly tripled between 2002 and 2011, when it reached $62.8 billion. But because organic food can fetch prices often twice as high as conventionally produced food, the risk for fraudulent labelling has grown just as fast. However, figuring out whether a fruit or vegetable was grown under organic conditions is fraught with complications. Currently, the most reliable authentication technique analyzes the stable isotope composition of nitrogen, but it is not fool-proof. Monika Hohmann and her colleagues decided to take a stab at developing a new method. 

They looked to a technique called nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, which has been used to authenticate foods, including honey and olive oil. They analyzed tomatoes grown in greenhouses and outdoors, with conventional or organic fertilizers. Their data showed a trend toward differentiation of organic and conventional produce. The researchers conclude that the test is a good starting point for the authentication of organically produced tomatoes, and its further refinement could help root out fraudulently labelled foods…


This study describes the approach of 1H NMR profiling for the authentication of organically produced tomatoes… The results of principal component analysis showed a significant trend for the separation between organically and conventionally produced tomatoes… Linear discriminant analysis demonstrated good discrimination between the growing regimens… Further validation studies, however, also disclosed unexpected differences between individual producers, which interfere with the aim of predicting the cultivation method…

Original article:

Alexander J. Stein's insight:

Perhaps it’s a bit ironic that expensive high-tech is used to try protecting the multi-billion dollar market of an industry that lives off its low-tech image. (According to Wikipedia “NMR spectrometers are relatively expensive; universities usually have them, but they are less common in private companies.”) Obviously any lesser technologies (let alone people) fail to notice these tiniest of differences within differences between conventional and organic crops… Question is, though, if such expensive university equipment and public researchers’ time couldn’t be put to better use. 

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Aug 29 '14

New study charts the global invasion of crop pests - Univ Exeter (2014)

See on - Food Policy

Many of the world’s most important crop-producing countries will be fully saturated with pests by the middle of the century if current trends continue… More than one-in-ten pest types can already be found in around half the countries that grow their host crops. If this spread advances at its current rate, scientists fear that a significant proportion of global crop-producing countries will be overwhelmed by pests within the next 30 years.

Crop pests include fungi, bacteria, viruses, insects, nematodes, viroids and oomycetes. The research… describes the patterns and trends in their spread, using global databases to investigate the factors that influence the number of countries reached by pests and the number of pests in each country… “If crop pests continue to spread at current rates, many of the world’s biggest crop producing nations will be inundated by the middle of the Century, posing a grave threat to global food security.”

The study identifies the pests likely to be the most invasive in coming years, including: three species of tropical root knot nematode whose larvae infect the roots of thousands of different plant species; Blumeria graminis, a fungus that causes powdery mildew on wheat and other cereals; and the Citrus tristeza virus (given its name meaning ‘sadness’ in Portuguese and Spanish by farmers in the 1930s) which had reached 105 of 145 countries growing citrus by 2000.

Fungi lead the worldwide invasion of crops and are the most widely dispersed group, despite having the narrowest range of hosts.

The study looked at the current distributions of 1,901 crop pests and pathogens and historical observations of a further 424 species… 

“By unlocking the potential to understand the distribution of crop pests and diseases, we’re moving one step closer to protecting our ability to feed a growing global population. The hope is to turn data into positive action.” It supports the view of previous studies that climate change is likely to significantly affect pest pressure on agriculture, with the warming Earth having a clear influence on the distribution of crop pests…

Original article:

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Aug 28 '14

What You Need To Know About Genetically Modified Organisms - I Fucking Love Science (2014)

See on - Ag Biotech News

Genetically modified crops are a topic of intense debate that have sparked a lot of controversy over the years, fuelled largely through a lack of understanding and vast amounts of misinformation. Do we need GM crops? Are they dangerous? This article is going to give a brief overview of this huge topic and also discuss some of the myths and facts of GMOs.

What Are GMOs?

Humans have been modifying the genomes of plants and animals for our benefit for thousands of years using a process known as artificial selection, or selective breeding. This involves selecting organisms with desirable traits and breeding them so that certain characteristics are perpetuated. This could be a teacup dog, a cow with improved milk production or a fruit without seeds. However, this is limited to naturally occurring variations, which is where genetic engineering has found a place.

Genetic engineering allows us to introduce genes into an organism from a totally unrelated species which is commonly carried out on crops, agricultural animals and bacteria. These genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are designed for many reasons, including: pesticide and disease resistance, drought/frost resistance, increased yields, enhanced nutritional content… When most people consider GMOs they think of agriculture, but the medical implications are wide ranging… 

Why Do We Need GMOs?

While it is true that a major problem with feeding an over burgeoning global population relates to the distribution of the food that we do produce, if population growth does not slow down then we are going to need to find new ways to meet food demands…. 

There are several ways that this could be achieved. We could destroy valuable rainforests to make way for agricultural land… We could stop eating as much meat, given that the crop calories we feed to animals could meet the calorie needs of 4 billion people… Or we could create GM crops.

Many things threaten food security, such as crop or animal diseases, pests and climate change. Weather is becoming more unpredictable and extreme weather is becoming commonplace which is taking its toll on farmers worldwide. The idea behind many GMOs is to address these problems.

Examples of GM Crops

An excellent example is golden rice. Around 250 million children are vitamin A-deficient in the world, which kills and blinds millions each year. While supplement distribution programs exist, they’re expensive and difficult to sustain. The solution? Golden rice.

Researchers added two genes to white rice… which synthesize a precursor of vitamin A called beta-carotene. This pigment makes various foods orange and hence makes the rice appear golden… One bowl of golden rice meets 60% of a child’s daily vitamin A needs… it’s a viable solution to a real world problem. It was also developed by foundation-funded academic researchers and a nonprofit organization, not a big private corporation.

You may also be surprised to find out that around 85% of corn grown in the U.S. is genetically modified. Soy is also heavily genetically modified; one particular soybean was engineered to produce high levels of oleic acid because it is thought that this may lower LDL cholesterol, or “bad cholesterol.”


There are many controversies surrounding this topic. Some are complete myths, while others raise valid issues.


Some have suggested that labeling would be like putting a skull and crossbones on packaging… Mandatory label laws have come into place in certain countries, but they have not resulted in the anticipated reaction. Instead, they have led to an increased pressure for retailers to stop stocking GM products which has reduced consumer choice and at times raised prices.

It should be stressed that despite decades of testing, there is no evidence that genetically modified foods are intrinsically more dangerous or worse for you than unmodified food. This fear-mongering then, can come across as anti-science. Transparency is a hallmark of good science, but when the public does not fully understand the topic it can fuel fear… 

"GMO" is a fairly meaningless term when applied alone. Genetic modification is just a technique, it is not inherently dangerous. As with all techniques, it’s how it’s used that matters. Labeling food as "GMO" wouldn’t tell you how it was modified, just that it was. A food label with "GMO" written on it really doesn’t tell you anything more than "there’s science in this food".

Risks To Health

While the genes inserted into organisms occur naturally in other species, there are concerns that altering the natural genome… may change the organism’s metabolism or growth rate. There are also concerns that GM foods may expose new allergens to humans or transfer antibiotic-resistant genes to the bacteria naturally found in our gut.

A lot of fear was sparked about the safety of GM foods after a scientist named Gilles-Eric Séralini published a study… However, numerous problems with the study came to light which led to its retraction from the journal. First off, Séralini is an outspoken anti-GMO activist. At the time of initial publication he had conflicting interests… For the experiments, Séralini used Sprague-Dawley rats that are prone to developing spontaneous tumors… There is a high probability that the results were due to chance. Furthermore, there have been mounds of better designed studies that have found no health issues… 

Terminator Seeds

Research on genetic use restriction techniques (GURT), or more commonly “terminator seeds”… aims to produce sterile seeds/offspring so that if modified plants escape, they cannot propagate in the environment. The idea that companies use these to force farmers into continually buying seeds is a myth. This technology would be useful in the development of “bioreactor” plants, for example those used in the production of pharmaceutical products such as antibodies or drugs to stop unintended gene release.

People don’t realize that sterile plants are already widely used - take a look at seedless bananas or grapes, but have they enslaved farmers? … 

Separating Corporation from Technology

Everyone has heard of Monsanto, and this company is frequently cited as a reason to oppose GMOs. While Monsanto’s business practices may be ethically questionable, Monsanto are not the only company involved in GMO research. Many non-profit organizations and academic institutions are involved in this field. The technology is necessary and disagreeing with Monsanto and having anti-corporation values should not muddy your views on GMOs. If you have a problem with Monsanto, have a problem with Monsanto. Don’t extend that to every application of GMOs.

GM Crops Result In Superweeds

… it has been argued that these GM crops encourage the evolution of herbicide resistance through liberal use, the fact is: it happens whether we use GM crops or not… Herbicide resistant crops do have their merits, though, and have caused a significant reduction in herbicide usage and an improvement on environmental impact.

Unintended Spread Of Genes

There has been concern that genes used in the development of GM crops may unintentionally spread to other organisms… studies have found that the risks are negligible and that transfer rates are exceedingly low… recommendations have been made to avoid using antibiotic resistance genes in creating GMOs.


A final concern with GM crops is that genes may spread from these plants into conventional crops or related species found in nearby areas… This could have ecological consequences, such as an increase in fitness or a decrease in genetic diversity. These risks are recognized and measures have been adopted to minimize them… 

Genetic modification is simply a tool. Like all tools, the application is what matters. All new technologies require review and testing, but fears should be based on science and evidence, not a lack of understanding when it comes to new science.

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Aug 28 '14

A global strategy for road building - Laurance &al (2014) - Nature

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The number and extent of roads will expand dramatically this century. Globally, at least 25 million kilometres of new roads are anticipated by 2050; a 60% increase in the total length of roads over that in 2010. Nine-tenths of all road construction is expected to occur in developing nations, including many regions that sustain exceptional biodiversity and vital ecosystem services.

Roads penetrating into wilderness or frontier areas are a major proximate driver of habitat loss and fragmentation, wildfires, overhunting and other environmental degradation, often with irreversible impacts on ecosystems. Unfortunately, much road proliferation is chaotic or poorly planned, and the rate of expansion is so great that it often overwhelms the capacity of environmental planners and managers.

Here we present a global scheme for prioritizing road building. This large-scale zoning plan seeks to limit the environmental costs of road expansion while maximizing its benefits for human development, by helping to increase agricultural production, which is an urgent priority given that global food demand could double by mid-century.

Our analysis identifies areas with high environmental values where future road building should be avoided if possible, areas where strategic road improvements could promote agricultural development with relatively modest environmental costs… Our plan provides a template for proactively zoning and prioritizing roads during the most explosive era of road expansion in human history.

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Aug 28 '14

Water ‘Thermostat’ Could Help Engineer Drought-Resistant Crops - Duke Univ (2014)

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Researchers have identified a gene that could help scientists engineer drought-resistant crops. The gene, called OSCA1, encodes a protein in the cell membrane of plants that senses changes in water availability and adjusts the plant’s water conservation machinery accordingly. “It’s similar to a thermostat,” said Zhen-Ming Pei… The findings… could make it easier to feed the world’s growing population in the face of climate change.

Drought is the major cause of crop losses worldwide. A dry spell at a crucial stage of the growing season can cut some crop yields in half. Water shortages are expected to become more frequent and severe if climate change makes rainfall patterns increasingly unreliable and farmland in some regions continues to dry up. Coupled with a world population that is expected to increase by two billion to three billion by 2050, researchers worldwide are looking for ways to produce more food with less water.

Some researchers hope that genetic engineering – in addition to improved farming practices and traditional plant breeding – will add to the arsenal of techniques to help crops withstand summer’s swelter. But engineering plants to withstand drought has proven difficult to do, largely because plants use so many strategies to deal with dehydration and hundreds of genes are involved. The problem is confounded by the fact that drought is often accompanied by heat waves and other stresses that require different coping strategies on the part of the plant… 

The findings could lead to new ways to help plants thrive when water is scarce. The team’s next step is to manipulate the activity of the OSCA1 gene and related genes and see how those plants respond to drought –- information that could lead to crops that respond more quickly and efficiently to dehydration. “Plants that enter drought-fighting mode quickly and then switch back to normal growth mode quickly when drought stress is gone should be able to allocate energy more efficiently toward growth” …

Original article:

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Aug 28 '14

Measuring the extent of GMO asynchronous approval using regularity dissimilarity indices: The case of maize and soybean - de Faria & Wieck (2014) - EAAE

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The purpose of this paper is to assess the extent of asynchronicity in the authorisations of new genetically modified organism (GMO) events between importing and exporting countries. Based on the literature, we systemise the GMO regulatory framework and use dissimilarity and stringency indices to assess the regulatory differences.

The results show an increase in the asynchronous approval across the majority of country pairs. However, focusing only on commercialised events and considering only regulatory differences in which the importers are more stringent than the exporters, the asynchronous approval is considerably lower, and the result indicates that the major trade leaders have synchronised their approval status for GMOs over time… 

Despite the observed synchronicity… As there is a diversified GMO events portfolio currently in the “waiting line” and there is no guarantee that the synchronicity between the leading countries will persist in the near future, it is likely that problems of asynchronous approval will become more urgent.

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Aug 27 '14

India’s free school lunch program - NPR (2014)

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India’s free school lunch program is the largest in the world. The program was started in the mid-1990s with two goals: to fight chronic hunger and child malnutrition and to increase school enrollment and attendance.  

As many studies have shown, the program has reached these goals. The “Mid-Day Meal Program” currently feeds about 120 million of India’s poorest children. “Food is cooked in 12 lakh [1.2 million] schools,” says Dipa Sinha, an economist at the Center for Equity Studies in New Delhi.

It is also a program that has made headlines for its missteps, one of which was tragic. In 2013, 23 students at a school in the Chapra district of Bihar died after eating food contaminated with pesticides. Many more fell ill. A government investigation later found that, like most schools in the state, this school had no separate kitchen or storage place for the food items. As a result, ingredients were stored in the principal’s house, right next to pesticides stored for her farm.

Since then, there’s been no tragedy of similar scope… 

The rice and wheat supplied to schools come from government warehouses… The government sends grains to schools every two or three months. And many schools around the country don’t have a separate kitchen or larder to store the grains… Since the 2013 poisoning in Bihar, the government has been building separate kitchens in schools… But thousands more are yet to be built. There’s also a need to better train cooks about best practices in the kitchen… Cooks at schools are often illiterate or poorly educated and aren’t aware of health standards… 

Currently, a teacher is assigned to monitor the program and make sure everything runs smoothly, says Kumar. Teachers do this on top of regular duties and are not paid extra. “One person is overseeing everything… This is the main problem.” The problems can be fixed… the states of Tamil Nadu and Gujarat have created a separate position for a “noon meal organizer.” As a result… their school lunch programs have fewer problems than do other areas… 

Meanwhile, despite all these cases of contaminated food, kids haven’t stopped eating the free lunches — a sign of how much they depend on the Mid-Day Meal Program.

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