In the News: Bill Gates gives GMOs a vote of confidence

Bill Gates

Leading scientists around the world have been saying it for some time: genetically modified technology is safe. But many consumers still have their doubts, and GMO critics are a powerful and very vocal group.

Recently, Bill Gates (yes, that Bill Gates) weighed in on the discussion on an “Ask Me Anything” thread on Reddit.

GMO foods are perfectly healthy and the technique has the possibility to reduce starvation and malnutrition when it is reviewed in the right way. I don’t stay from non-GMO foods but it is disappointing that people view them as better.”

Gates wasn’t simply throwing flame on the fire. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation takes on some of the toughest challenges facing developing countries: poverty and malnutrition. They allocate funds to innovative companies and organizations that can help provide solutions to these problems. This includes supporting new techniques and crops, such as Green Super Rice, to help farmers in developing countries successfully grow more food and earn more money.

Predictably, his comments prompted a fairly wide-spread reaction in the media. Scientists and global organizations— such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the European Commission, and the National Academy of Sciences— applauded Gates for calling attention to the important role GMOs play in helping provide affordable, safe food to feed a world that is projected to grow to almost 10 billion people by 2050. Without the productivity-enhancing advancements made possible by genetics, they point out, the task of providing food for another 2-3 billion mouths could prove extremely difficult, if not insurmountable.

Unsurprisingly, GMO critics weren’t won over, despite Bill Gates’ respected reputation for forward thinking and societal insight. In fact, some critics even chose to use his comments as a platform for continuing to argue against GMOs— despite the growing roster of studies, organizations, and individuals who echo Gates’ comments.

There are many opponents to GMOs, including the highly visible Non-GMO Project and GMO Awareness Organization. Anti-GMO propaganda has gone so far as to include Jennifer X, a Russian Bot, who has been responsible for spreading anti-GMO disinformation through social media. Since many consumers have GMO-related anxieties to begin with, these messengers have been extremely effective in perpetuating fear towards genetic engineering technology.

Non-GMO = Big Business

According to the Genetic Literacy Project, a site dedicated to promoting science literacy, there are more than 35,000 food products certified as “GMO-free,” representing sales of about $16 billion annually. We now have what can be termed as a “non-GMO food supply.” GMO-free food has now become big business— not just a passionate if sometimes ill-informed cause.

Meanwhile, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the European Commission are among the blue-chip entities that have publicly concluded that GMO foods are safe to eat. Most notably, a large 2013 study on GMOs found no “significant hazards directly connected with the use of genetically engineered crops.”

Gates’ comments may not single-handedly change the opinion of the hardcore anti-GMO constituency— but, they add a respected global name to the pro-GMO community and stir up more public attention to the importance of genetics and genomics in the modern food system of today and tomorrow.

The more people know about the science behind GMOs, rather than just the emotions surrounding GMOs, the more effective our policies and decision-making will be with regards to our global food supply.

D2D on the Farm: America’s Salad Bowl

The Dirt-to-Dinner Team in Salinas Valley

The D2D team recently took a tour of Monterey County in Salinas Valley, California. Perfectly nestled between the Gabilan and Santa Lucia mountain ranges,  the valley spans 90 miles long and 15 miles wide. The soil is some of the most fertile in the world, created after thousands of years of nutrient dense mountain erosion and the ebb and flows of the Salinas River.

The north end of the Salinas Valley opens to the Pacific Ocean. This marine influence cools the valley and makes possible the wide range of crops found here. With a total value of over $1.9 billion, Monterey County is the fourth highest agricultural producing county in California. (UCDavis)

Two very deep underground aquifers and cool air from the Pacific Ocean contribute to the ideal growing conditions, which enables farmers to plant crops twice per year. Because of its prolific crop production, the area has been nicknamed the “Salad Bowl of the World.” Its top crops are Leaf Lettuces, Strawberries, Head Lettuce, Broccoli, Nursery stock, Wine Grapes, Cauliflower, Celery, and Spinach.

One of the most important takeaways we had from this trip was the care and stewardship of the land, with little differentiation between organic and conventional farming practices. The large and smaller scale farmers in this area— regardless of whether they are conventional or organic growers— are growing sustainably, efficiently, and safely. They take care of the land by employing successful crop rotation, appropriate pesticide use, and using an advanced recycled watering system to irrigate their crops. In fact, 72% of crops utilize water-conserving drip irrigation tape as their main delivery method for irrigation.

Our tour was guided by Evan Oakes, owner of Ag Venture Tours and a former agricultural scientist for the University of California Cooperative Extension office in Salinas. He first showed us one of the few edible species of thistle: the artichoke.

Salinas Valley is the primary U.S. home for artichokes because of the cool breeze coming off the ocean, rich fertile soil, and roughly 200 days of cloud cover, which closely mimics the weather in parts of Italy, the artichoke’s indigenous home.

Artichoke ready for picking from Pezzini Farms

We visited Pezzini Farms, a 4th generation artichoke farm and saw acres and acres of “Green Globe” artichoke plants. Each of these hearty plants can reproduce for as long as 15 years, as long as it is properly pruned!  When artichokes are in season early in the spring, Pezzini Farms sells about 200 pounds per week, and is best known for the delicious menu of cooked artichokes, including French fried chokes, from the “Choke Coach.” We can vouch that deep-fried artichoke hearts are delicious!

Pezzini Farms sorting their artichokes by size. The artichokes roll down a conveyer belt which drops the different sizes in their respective bins.  image: Pezzini Farms

Artichokes are harvested at several different sizes. The jumbos work great to hold a variety of stuffing; the extra smalls are best eaten whole! (image: Pezzini Farms)

The farm utilizes integrated pest management practices, such as turning under the spent plant to nourish the soil and reduce pesticide use. The farmed acreage also utilizes drip irrigation to reduce water consumption and fertilizer usage.

For all you chefs out there, we also learned the best way to identify a ripe artichoke at the grocery store or farmers market… it QUACKS!

After the tour of Pezzini Farms, we loaded up into Evan’s Ag Venture Tours van and began to absorb the vast amount of growing acreage in this area. Fields and fields of dark loamy soil stretching to the horizon.

Currently, the Salinas Valley is early in the growing season. Because of this, our team saw crops in different growing stages. Broccoli was being harvested, while cauliflower was just showing its bud. Some strawberries were being harvested, but other fields had a few weeks to go. Most of the lettuces were being planted or were still in the baby leaf stage. Raspberries were just about to break bud, and specialty crops, such as broccoli rabe, were getting ready to be harvested.


Most of the fruits and vegetables produced in the valley is grown for large U.S. growers, such as D’Arrigo BrothersDoleDriscoll and Taylor Farms.  In many cases, small independent growers contract out to these larger firms. The larger parent company (like Driscoll) will operate the research facility which provides information and farming strategy to their contracted growers. However, we also saw large grower operations that were not contracted. Andy Boy, operated by the D’Arrigo family, is a fourth generation family farm that handles all of their packaging and shipping on site as well. In fact, when visiting the grocery store in Connecticut the day following our trip we found fresh Andy Boy broccoli rabe — and it was delicious!

Andy Boy broccoli rabe at the grocery store back home

Many thanks to Evan Oakes from Ag Venture Tours for surviving 1,000 questions a minute from the D2D team!
For more on Monterey County visit the Monterey County Farming Bureau website.

For more on the growers and producers in the area, you might be interested in the following sites:

Andy Boy Produce

Taylor Farms



Coffee: Friend or Foe?

hot coffee mug with coffee beans

Does your morning routine include coffee?

At D2D, ours definitely does! Besides its delicious flavor, consumers rely on their daily coffee fix for its caffeine. When you have 3+ cups of coffee a day you probably think you’re becoming a caffeine-aholic. But that’s not necessarily true— and you are not alone! The average American drinks 3.1 cups of coffee a day. We were curious about how your body processes coffee and whether or not there are any associated health implications from our morning cup of joe.

Quite surprisingly, the United States ranks 26th in global annual coffee consumption. Finland leads the pack at #1, with their average consumer drinking 6+ cups a day! Since the world shares a love of coffee, it has been studied globally over the years. While there is still a lot we don’t know about how your body handles coffee, the majority of research that does exist actually demonstrates the health benefits associated with drinking it. However, there are few negative claims as well…

Acrylamide in Coffee

In February 2018, it was reported that California lawmakers are lobbying for new labeling of coffee with respect to Proposition 65. Prop 65 includes a list of all synthetic and natural chemicals that are claimed to cause cancer, birth defects, or reproductive issues. This new bill is calling for coffee companies and even coffee shops to include a cancer warning on their coffee packaging due to the presence of acrylamide in coffee. Acrylamide is a natural chemical that is created during the coffee roasting process. While it is true that acrylamide is currently on the Prop 65 list of potentially cancerous chemicals, there is more to the story.

Coffee? Cancer? What?

The research on acrylamide is extremely limited and only tested in rat subjects. A 2014 review of the existing scientific research on acrylamide, entitled Dietary Acrylamide and Human Cancer: A Systematic Review of Literature,  determined “a majority of the studies reported no statistically significant association between dietary acrylamide intake and various cancers.”  Furthermore, as we learned in our discussion of toxicants, our bodies are equipped to process and expel any compounds such as acrylamide that aren’t beneficial to our health.

Your genetics play a role in how the liver metabolizes caffeine

Your genetics, specifically a gene called CYP1A2, determines how quickly your liver metabolizes the caffeine in coffee. So, when you are enjoying a cup of coffee, your CYP1A2 gene will instruct your liver to either metabolize and get rid of the caffeine present in your bloodstream as quickly as possible— or not! If your CYP1A2 is slow, the caffeine present in the coffee will remain in your bloodstream for much longer.

Your genetics play a role in how caffeine is metabolized in your body. 

The speed at which your body metabolizes caffeine affects how your coffee consumption will influence your health. If you metabolize caffeine quickly, you may have a decreased risk of heart disease with moderate consumption of coffee. Alternatively, if you metabolize caffeine slowly, this may actually cause an increased risk of heart disease— hence all the confusion! But, don’t feel you need to test the metabolizing potential of your CYP1A2 gene. Researchers are only beginning to understand how our genes and coffee habits interact.

Coffee contains beneficial compounds

Although the nutrition label is rather lacking for a cup of coffee— 8oz contains 1 calorie and 95 mg of caffeine— there is more to a coffee bean than meets the eye! There are over 1,000 natural compounds in a coffee bean.

There are over 1,000 natural compounds in a coffee bean. Image: Pixabay

Additionally, according to the National Coffee Association, the roasting process creates another 300 beneficial natural compounds which can be beneficial to your health and assist in cell metabolism. They include vitamins B3, B5, and B12 as well as amino acids and citricacetic, and malic acids. The European Food Research and Technology Journal has also reported that the volatile organic compounds (VOC) created during the roasting process have shown a maximum concentration at a medium roast level.

The various healthy compounds present in coffee include diterpenes and antioxidants. Research has indicated that diterpene can demonstrate the qualities of a therapeutic agent for cardiovascular disease. Diterpenes contain anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial and antispasmodic properties. Antioxidants have been known for their anti-inflammatory properties and have demonstrated the ability to fight free radicals. (For the full rundown on antioxidants click here.)

How does coffee affect your brain?

While there is still a lot to learn about your brain and its relationship to caffeine, there is some preliminary research that shows your brain can work more efficiently with a caffeine jolt. To put it simply, your brain naturally produces a compound called adenosinewhich helps regulate blood flow to different organs. Caffeine can disrupt the relationship between adenosine and your brain, effectively blocking adenosine from your brain receptors. The effect of this is that your brain is not being “told” to relax. This is why you may feel wired after your cup of coffee.

One study also believes caffeine consumption may help with your memory consolidation.

Where does the science come out on coffee?

In 2015, the U.S. Dietary Guidelines decided to include coffee in its recommendations. The organization concluded that moderate consumption of coffee, 3-5 cups a day or up to 400 milligrams of caffeine, could be incorporated into a healthy lifestyle. The benefits of the abundant, naturally occurring compounds in coffee include a lower incidence of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and muscle spasms.

In November 2017, the British Medical Journal published a comprehensive meta-analysis on coffee, which concluded that coffee appears safe within an intake of 3-4 cups a day, but that more research is needed.

“Coffee consumption seems generally safe within usual levels of intake, with summary estimates indicating largest risk reduction for various health outcomes at three to four cups a day, and more likely to benefit health than harm. Robust randomized controlled trials are needed to understand whether the observed associations are causal. Importantly, outside of pregnancy, existing evidence suggests that coffee could be tested as an intervention without a significant risk of causing harm. Women at increased risk of fracture should possibly be excluded.” – British Medical Journal

D2D on the Farm: GMOs

Green Cay farm talking with Dirt-to-Dinner

D2D recently visited Green Cay Farm, also known as Farming Systems Research, in Boynton Beach, FL. Green Cay is a Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, that has operated between 10 and 15 acres of farmland for 17 years. CSA means they are a direct-to-consumer farm that delivers fresh veggies weekly or bi-monthly to their subscriber list. The farm grows over 30 different vegetable crops, including tomatoes, beans, broccoli, peppers, kale, squashes, watermelon, and lettuces, as well as different varieties within those crops.

Farm manager Nancy Roe gave us an expansive tour of the farm fields and we discussed the successes of the farm as well as the various challenges they face from season to season. One of the most interesting conversations we had was about a heavily debated topic in Ag. You guessed it…GMOs.

Nancy’s farm does not grow genetically modified crops, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t a fan of the technology!  Because of consumer misconception, Nancy cannot integrate GM seeds into her farm without the fear of losing customers. But, every year Nancy estimates they lose roughly 30% of the crops they plant. And last year they were required to spend more money on pesticides in order to keep up with the disease and pests that threatened their crops.

These leafy greens are still a viable crop but have been the snack of different insects. If you look closely you can see how they have damaged the leaves.

“We cannot grow genetically modified crops because our consumers won’t buy them, but it would help with crop loss. What consumers often don’t realize is that traditional crops farmers plant today have also been modified! The seeds they plant are not the seeds that were originally found in the wild. Using plant breeding technology, scientists have created better crops. Genetically Modified technology does the same thing— just a lot faster. ” Nancy Roe, Ph.D.

The hot, humid climate in South Florida offers its fair share of challenges. Ultimately, GMO technology would allow Nancy to experience less loss on the farm and require fewer pesticide treatments. Corn, for example, is a profitable crop for the farm, but because of pest threat, Nancy must treat the crop 2-3x a week in order to fight off insects and disease. This does not mean she is haphazardly spraying her crop in excess pesticide! She noted, “Farmers don’t put pesticides on their crops because they’re bad people! My grandchildren run through my fields and pick the salad we eat for dinner. Conventional farming is safe. And pesticides are so expensive— we wouldn’t spray our crops if we didn’t have to.”

If she were able to grow and sell genetically modified corn to consumers, she estimates she would not need to treat the crop with any pesticides or herbicides until the very end of the growing season, when the corn silk fly becomes an issue for the crop. In Florida, this pesky little bug will lay its eggs on the corn, which will then bury as maggots under the protection of the corn husk. This is a pest that is specific to the humid temperatures of Florida, so corn growers in a cooler climate might never need to spray any pesticides on their crop! In Florida, if she was able to grow genetically engineered sweet corn seeds she would be able to spray 1/3 less than she does now. Nancy also noted that many organic farmers in the climate are forced to spray more frequently in order to keep up with the pest and bacterial diseases of the south Florida climate. (Yes, organic farmers use sprays too.)

Additionally, this season, the farm’s broccoli and cauliflower crops were knocked out due to bacterial disease and damage inflicted by the Diamondback moth, which eats the leaves and flower buds of crucifer plants. On average their crops are threatened by 8-10 different types of disease and 12 different types of insects.

Diamondback moth leaf damage.

Three years ago, Nancy saw the benefit of growing GE crops first hand. After losing her entire squash and zucchini crop to an unforeseen virus, Nancy was visiting a neighboring farm to discuss the issues and successes the farm was experiencing. When walking those fields, she noticed gorgeous squash and zucchini plants. Because the seeds were genetically engineered to not get the bacterial virus, the neighboring farmer had a great growing season and successfully sold his crop. Since genetically modified crops have been proven safe by 275 organizations, including the FDA, USDA, WHO, EFSA, and NIH, and they help our farmers, shouldn’t we support it, as well?

Farmers are constantly trying to heed the needs of their consumers, but at the same time, they need the flexibility to create a more sustainable farm that not only benefits its customers but also the land and its workers. 

This beautiful purple Brussel sprout crop is actually a loss for Green Cay farm. Due to the hot, humid climate, the sprouts themselves never grew.