The MIND Diet: Healthy Eating for a Healthy Brain

vegetables superimposed as human brain

The MIND diet

Martha Clare Morris, Ph.D., from Rush University and her colleagues conducted a Memory and Aging Project (MAP) on over 900 senior participants who kept food journals for four and a half years. The participants were then evaluated for frequency of dementia-related incidences to uncover trends.

The MIND diet resulted in a 53% decreased risk of Alzheimer’s development for those who rigorously adhered to the diet and 35% decreased risk for those who even moderately followed its parameters. Brain function of those who strictly followed the diet was similar to that of a person 7.5 years younger!

“It was surprising that even those individuals who had moderate adherence to the MIND diet had a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease…. It’s the first clinical trial designed specifically to establish whether a diet can prevent brain degeneration,” – Martha Clare Morris, Ph.D., Rush University

The initial findings were published in  The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association.  By building upon the most compelling findings in the diet-dementia field, MAP compounds extensive published studies on the Mediterranean Diet and the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet.

Results from the Mediterranean diet studies show a decrease in heart disease, reduced blood pressure and lower LDL (bad) cholesterol. The DASH diet conclusions showed increased HDL (good) cholesterol and decreased LDL while lowering risk for heart failure and stroke. By creating a hybrid of the two diet plans, the MIND diet study has had incredible brain protective results.

“What they’re doing is logical and I predict will have positive benefits for a disease for which we have few interventions,” notes Dennis Steindler, Ph.D., senior scientist, and director of Tufts’ HNRCA Neuroscience and Aging Laboratory.

Alzheimer’s is a national crisis

Alzheimer’s currently affects over 5.7 million Americans and is the 6th leading cause of death in the United States. In 2017 alone, more lives were lost to Alzheimer’s than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined, with one in three people over 65 dying with the disease. The trajectory of the disease is expected to increase to almost 14 million deaths a year by 2050.

source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

What causes Alzheimer’s disease?

Alzheimer’s is a progressive disorder that causes brain cells to degenerate and die. Scientists believe that many factors influence Alzheimer’s and its progression. These factors vary from person to person but can include genetics, lifestyle, and health factors.

What is the MIND diet?

The MIND diet highlights healthy food groups to readily consume and unhealthy foods to limit.  “Brain-healthy food groups” include green leafy vegetables, other vegetables, nuts, berries, beans, whole grains, fish, poultry, olive oil, and wine. Unhealthy groups are red meats, butter, stick margarine, cheese, pastries and sweets, and fried or fast food.

What you are eating, combined with what you are limiting, combats brain cell death, chronic inflammation in the brain, and plaque build-ups.

Food groups to limit

The commonality among the “foods groups to limit” is that they all contain saturated fats. We want to focus on healthy fats like Omega 3s and unsaturated fats. Red meats tend to have higher levels of saturated fats than poultry. Butter and margarine are higher in saturated fat than olive oil.

The MIND diet does not call for cutting these food groups out of your diet completely. It suggests that excess amounts of saturated fats and refined sugars found in these foods have been linked to diabetes, high cholesterol, heart disease, and high blood pressure — which can increase the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia. The American Heart Association recommends only 10% of your daily calories as saturated fat. For a 2,000 calorie diet, that would be 13 grams. For more information about the FDA’s recommended fat intake, see Coming Soon to Your Favorite Foods: The New Nutritional Label.

So for all you red meat lovers out there, be sure to include poultry twice a week and fish once a week. As for me, my biggest challenge will be cutting back on cheese!

Does glyphosate—the world’s most heavily-used herbicide—pose serious harm to humans?

glyphosate - roundup

This post is featured content from the Genetic Literacy Project
and was originally published on March 26th, 2019.
The author, Kayleen Schreiber, is GLP’s infographics and data visualization specialist. She researched, authored and designed the infographic which is linked to at the bottom of this post. 

Does glyphosate—the world’s most heavily-used herbicide—pose serious harm to humans? Is it carcinogenic? Those issues are of both legal and scientific debate.

In two court cases—one decided in mid-March and the other last year— juries have ruled that glyphosate, sold in non-generic form under the trade name Roundup and made by Monsanto (now a division of Bayer), caused the cancer of workers who applied the herbicide. Neither case addressed the issue of whether glyphosate might cause harm to humans exposed to parts per billion or parts per trillion traces of the pesticide found in foods.

Courts do not determine scientific fact

Of course, a jury decision, while significant, is not a substitute for scientific research. Juries have also gotten science wrong, most infamously the decision in the ‘Scopes Monkey Trial’ in which high school teacher John Scopes was found guilty of teaching evolution, which creationists contended was not scientifically supported.

Cases like these that revolve around the question of whether a particular chemical is the cause of cancer or another illness are not science. They rely on lay juries attempting to make sense of complicated and often contradictory medical studies and expert opinions. Science rarely renders absolute ‘verdicts’; it addresses probabilities. It’s been shown time and again that when juries are asked to evaluate studies that conclude ‘substance x is unlikely to cause cancer’, they almost always assume the worst, that because the study did not definitively conclude it ‘does not’ or ‘could not cause cancer’.

But no scientists writing a reputable study would ever use the kind of absolute statements that would put a jury at ease. Hence, when jurors have even slight doubts, they frequently rule against a chemical and its manufacturer, and for an aggrieved (and often fatally ill) plaintiff, even when the evidence is slim or close to nonexistent.

For example, just last year, a Missouri jury awarded $4.69 billion to women with ovarian cancer they claimed was caused by Johnson & Johnson baby powder. In April 2018, the company was ordered to pay $117 million to a New Jersey man with mesothelioma, and $25.7 million to a Los Angeles woman with the same cancer.

As Popular Science has reported, the company is appealing those verdicts, and for good reason: They don’t appear to comport with the science.

Medical studies on the relationship between ovarian cancer and talcum powder use on the genitals are not at all definitive, with none showing a strong association and most showing no association at all. The National Cancer Institute says the evidence is not strong enough to conclude that talcum powder causes ovarian cancer, and the American Cancer Society notes that any existing risk is likely small, and that research is ongoing.

What the legal system considers enough evidence to establish that exposures causes illness is different from the standards of science—and trying to fit the two together can be hazardous. Which brings us back to the controversy over glyphosate.

What do regulators and investigatory agencies conclude?

Even though extensive research has been done on glyphosate, there remains intense debate online and in the media about whether the herbicide poses a health threat to agricultural workers or the general public as a result of residues in food.

More than a dozen regulatory and research agencies have conducted long-term studiesreviews and assessments to determine whether glyphosate when used as labeled, increases the risk of certain cancers. They are unanimous in one finding: There is no evidence that glyphosate poses any harm to consumers worried about trace residues in their food. Despite many blogs by anti-biotechnology advocacy groups touting ‘studies’ (usually not very scientific, such as here, most recently) finding glyphosate in beer or cereal at the parts per billion or parts per trillion level, or finding traces of glyphosate in blood or urine, there is no scientific study that suggests those trace residues pose any threat to humans.

The Genetic Literacy Project summarized and analyzed the findings of the world’s top regulatory and research organizations in a GMO FAQ posted here on our GMO FAQ section. To date, every regulatory agency that has evaluated glyphosate has concluded that it is safe if used according to label specifications and does not increase cancer risk, particularly if glyphosate residue is found on food, including produce.

This infographic summarizes the conclusions of the most prominent agencies. The global consensus is concisely expressed by Health Canada, the oversight agency that most recently issued a re-review of the controversial pesticide: “No pesticide regulatory authority in the world currently considers glyphosate to be a cancer risk to humans at the levels at which humans are currently exposed,” Health Canada wrote in January 2019.

In addition to the many assessments and evaluations, a large and long-term study known as the Agricultural Health Study has monitored the incidence rate of multiple cancers in 54,251 pesticide applicators, including 44,932 who had handled glyphosate since 1993. The study found no association between glyphosate and any solid tumors or lymphoid malignancies overall. The data is ambiguous in workers exposed at very high levels.

The only outlier is the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which does not look at the risk posed by a particular chemical. Rather, it examines hazard—whether a substance might cause cancer at any exposure rate or dose, even unrealistically high ones. In 2015, IARC put it in the category “probably carcinogenic to humans,” along with red meat and hot beverages. But there was less evidence of carcinogenicity than the agency found for bacon, salted fish, oral contraceptives and wine, among many examples.

Over more than 40 years, the agency has assessed approximately 1,000 substances and activities, ranging from arsenic and beer and coffee to sunbathing and hairdressing. It has found only one agent or activity that was “probably not” likely to cause cancer in humans. Under a hazard designation, almost any substance can be judged toxic, even water, if the dose is extreme and the exposure time is long enough. The hazard-risk distinction is almost totally absent from the popular and media discussion of whether glyphosate might pose any serious danger.

IARC is a sub-agency within the World Health Organization of the United Nations. Its ‘hazard’ conclusion that glyphosate should be in the category “probably carcinogenic” has been used to support proposed bans on glyphosate and was the central piece of evidence in the two recent trials. Three other WHO agencies including WHO itself performed risk assessments on glyphosate and repudiated IARC’s findings, but their far more comprehensive analyses are usually ignored in media accounts or not even considered by juries.

Click on the image below to see a summary of all the most respected research. The bolded conclusions will take you to the document issued by the regulatory or research agency.


Venezuela in Crisis: A Starving Nation

Venezuelans collecting water from street

For this post, Dirt-to-Dinner’s Garland West discusses the crisis in Venezuela with Lindsay Singleton, a former U.S. State Department official in Venezuela. We are grateful for Lindsay’s insight into the humanitarian crisis in that country.

Venezuela is in shambles. Decades of corruption and mismanagement has resulted in a collapsed government and a major humanitarian crisis.

It wasn’t long ago that Venezuela was one of the richest countries on Earth. Today, after decades of socialism and a selfish government, the oil-rich nation is bankrupt and has driven its people out of the country. Among those who have stayed, many are now in abject poverty.

Long-running media coverage of the situation, backed by a recent U.S. Senate hearing on the crisis, have laid out fact after terrible fact. U.S. politicians and diplomats call it a “cataclysmic catastrophe” that has caused rampant hunger and growing evidence of hunger-related disease.

Opposition demonstrators blocked a highway in Caracas. Credit: Yuri Cortez/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Hyper-inflation at rates of 2 million percent per year  — beyond the average person’s ability to comprehend, leaves people unable to afford even the most basic staples of life, including their food. Venezuelan farmers are unable to help because most can’t afford the seeds or fertilizers. Many have simply given up altogether.

As a result of both extraordinary inflation and food shortages, the average Venezuelan, eating only one meal a day, has lost an average of 20 pounds. It is heartbreaking to read about 80 percent of Venezuelan children under the age of five in some stage of malnutrition.

Hungry people are desperately seeking any kind of food, and turning to local wildlife, dogs, cats, and insects. And all the while, more than 525 tons of emergency food aid and medicines worth nearly $200 million sits at the country’s border, unable to enter the country because of government dictate.

In a telephone interview with Lindsay Singleton, senior vice president of ROKK Solutions in Washington, D.C., and a former U.S. State Department official in Venezuela, she stated, “Before socialism, the average Venezuelan didn’t struggle too hard for food. Food was relatively cheap and available.”

But socialist economic policies have changed the picture. The concentration of abused power within the executive branch has created an environment where political motivations override the basic needs of the people. The military, for instance, largely controls the lucrative drug and food trades, as well as gold mining.

High inflation and distorted economic policies have driven businesses to the point where they cannot continue to operate. Producers have given up trying to grow and market crops. Supplies of raw materials, especially food commodities, have dried up, and factories have shut down.

A grocery store in Guaicaipuro in March 2018. Credit: Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

This didn’t just happen yesterday. Food shortages in Venezuela have been growing for over a decade, Singleton notes. For a while, the growing unavailability of food meant more time and effort spent simply trying to find it. Where a local shop once had the staples most Venezuelans relied on, consumers increasingly had to venture further out for their daily needs.

“There might have been periodic shortages of chicken, sugar, flour or butter, but that meant you just had to go to maybe three stores to find what you needed, or maybe to a local farmers market,” Singleton adds.

But as the private sector steadily began to shrink, the government increased its role in producing and importing food – or more accurately, in not providing the food its people needed. The examples of politically-driven good intentions gone wrong are abundant.

The Venezuelan government created a subsidiary of the national oil company, PDVAL, to take charge of food distribution. “Hundreds of thousands of tons of food rotted in warehouses, hence the nickname ‘pudreval,’ which is a play on the word pudrido (Spanish for rotten) and PDVAL,” Singleton notes.

Similarly, the government took over an abandoned Kellogg’s plant and ordered production to continue, celebrating the country’s first “socialist cornflakes.” “As you can imagine, without ingredients, production didn’t last long,” Singleton notes.

Now the situation for consumers is worse – as evidenced by the hunger estimates and emigration figures.

source: Financial Times

“Venezuela in effect has no middle class,” Singleton explains.  Seven years ago, seventy percent of the population lived in poverty; that number is 90 percent today. There is an aristocracy, but the majority of the country lives hand to mouth, and supply disruptions hit them fast—and hard.”

Basic goods remain available, but only for the select few. “If you can afford it, food is still available,” she adds.

How? The black market for food seems very hard to find anywhere in Venezuela.  News reports indicate that whatever black market may exist functions to move food out of the country, to buyers willing to pay dearly for it, not to local needs. Absent a viable black market, where do consumers turn for food?

“They buy it on Amazon,” Singleton replies. “They pay an exorbitant amount for what they need, and it is flown into the country, and often delivered by truck to their doorstep by networks under military control.”

Singleton and other observers note that such efforts to secure food reflect the larger political issue behind the Venezuelan turmoil. Simply put, those who continue to support the ruling regime of President Nicolás Maduro politically find it easier to secure food than those who don’t.

What about those don’t have any money or aren’t willing to provide political support?

“There is no food on the table,” she explains.

Children suffer the most, too.

“Child malnutrition is a huge problem,” Singleton adds.  “Children are suffering. Measles, mumps, malaria… it’s a humanitarian disaster at this point.”

So what happens now? How could the situation possibly get any worse?

Politicians and other observers point to regime change as a critical step out of the morass. But few can predict when – or even if – that will occur.

“The worst-case scenario is a Syria-like situation,” Singleton observes. “If Maduro stays in power because he has the backing of the military, this could drag on for quite a while.”

But some form of economic reversal is essential to dig out of the mess. If and when that will happen is anyone’s guess. “If the economy can be stabilized,” Singleton notes, “businesses might be more confident to invest in infrastructure and play a big role in re-establishing some sort of social cohesion. Their involvement – their leadership – will be critical.”

Until then, the picture remains bleak for Venezuela.

Food Future: What will it take to nourish a nation in 2050?

sun setting over field

Contributed article by Ryan Tipps, Managing Editor, AGDAILY

This article originally appeared in AGDAILY in March 2018 and was honored with a judge’s merit at the 2018 Agricultural Communicators Network awards.

For years, discussions about the future of the agricultural industry have converged on the arbitrary yet consequential date of 2050, a point two generations from now when the global population is expected to balloon to nearly 10 billion people. If the ag industry were to stay rooted in today’s technologies and understanding of arable land, we will need to find a way to increase production by about 70 percent to feed the world.

Yet agriculture is anything but stagnant. Particularly since the back half of the 20th century, technology has reshaped nearly every aspect of a farmer’s life. The general public doesn’t often share that perception, but the reality is that cutting-edge machinery, seed and crop protection, and data analysis have put a premium on scientific study to best produce and distribute food and fiber. From today’s battery-driven machines and savvy seed genetics to crops that optimize water and the potential to drive combines using virtual-reality goggles, keeping pace with population growth means building our technological infrastructure.

The question is whether what’s being done is enough to support the ag industry and to keep both our world’s developed and developing nations on a path toward future food security.

While activists work hard to inject antagonism into many food debates, there’s a growing belief among many ag corporations and industry associations that it will take everyone willing and able to contribute to our food supply to be able to reach our goals. We are an industry of many heroes — in the fields, the laboratories, and our roadways — but are we also creating too many perceived villains?

In a tweet last month, Robb Fraley, Monsanto’s Chief Technology Officer and a pioneer of genetic engineering, said, “Myth-busting organic & conventional farming: reality is both are safe & contribute to consumer choice, food security & affordability. Time to end the ‘food fights’ & celebrate ALL our farmers’ success!”

The industry has a better chance at realizing its 2050 production goals if everyone who has a stake in production talks with one another rather than at one another. Many companies are promoting forms of this inclusivity because it makes both ethical and business sense to do so.

Standing up for sustainability

“Sustainable” has become a 21st-century buzzword, but it has to be more than just that if agriculture wants to follow an arc of improving soil quality, resource conservation, and production growth. As much as the mainstream media and bloggers play up an enduring conflict between conventional and organic production, that perception doesn’t always play out at the ground level.

Syngenta, one of the world’s leading suppliers of crop protection, seeds, seed treatments, and digital ag systems, has many customers who farm using both types of production methods, a decision that is largely influenced by market demands and opportunity.

“Farmers should be able to choose what works best for their operation,” said Jill Wheeler, Syngenta’s Head of Sustainable Productivity in North America. “They look at it as, ‘I am producing. I want to put bread on my table and on someone else’s table. What is going to work best?’ We need farmers to be successful.”

Already, there have been crossovers in how and what producers learn from each other. Genetically engineered crops regularly lend themselves to no-till practices, something of a centerpiece to education provided by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Services. In recent years, more organic producers, too, have followed suit and begun applying minimal- or no-till efforts to their land. Conversely, conventional growers are adopting the lessons learned by organic farmers’ longtime use of cover crops. In Iowa, for example, the use of cover crops recently increased by 18 percent year over year, and a 2017 Syngenta survey found that cover crops were among growers’ top interests, although the challenge of managing cover crops is something that appears to keep even more people from using them.

“I think things are getting better, and I’m so hopeful,” said Dr. Tracy Misiewicz, Assistant Director of Science for The Organic Center. “The NRCS is really promoting cover crops. That’s a technique that organic farmers have been using for a long time, and I’m happy to see it coming into the mainstream of agriculture.”

Programs such as the USDA’s Sound and Sensible initiative have helped to remove barriers to organic certification, and have worked with farmers to correct small issues before they become larger ones. (Image courtesy of USDA)

Despite these positive steps — the education and crossover of on-farm production strategies — the exact definition of “sustainability” remains elusive (often, too, muddied by the waters of social media).

Sustainability “is one of those words that’s said so often that it means different things to different people,” said Darren Wallis, Vice President of North American Communications for Bayer Crop Science. “Our focus is to help that farmer and to help the land be sustainable, whether that means fewer passes over their ground, thus less fuel spent, whether that’s herbicide-tolerant crops that enable no-till or less-till agriculture, whether that’s seed treatments in much smaller doses so that it’s much more targeted and much more effective. All of that adds up to sustainability.”

At Syngenta, sustainability centers around resource efficiency, responsible leadership, and the health and safety of people, while also being driven by the economic, environmental, and social needs of agriculture.

“A huge component of sustainability for us, and for every grower, is continuous improvement,” Wheeler said.

Misiewicz said that when The Organic Center talks about sustainability, it’s typically in the context of the environment — supporting natural ecosystems while simultaneously providing people with food. She said that includes supporting biodiversity, reducing water pollution, and building soil carbon.

“Every farmer I’ve met, organic or conventional, is trying to do good,” Misiewicz said. “Farmers are growing their crops, trying to meet their bottom line and all the while they are aiming to be good stewards of the land. There is room for more than one agricultural production system in the world — but we should all have the same ultimate goal of feeding the population in an environmentally friendly and sustainable way.”

A plan for the future

So, what is the way forward for this functioning, but occasionally inefficient and contradictory, agricultural system?

It’s understood throughout agriculture that there’s no silver bullet to improve productivity, said Wallis, who grew up on a diversified crop and beef cattle farm in Missouri before landing at Bayer. In fact, many in the industry believe that, because of things like the 60 percent yield improvement seen during the shift from old-fashioned to hybrid corn, the industry has already experienced its major leaps in productivity and that, from here onward, the tactics will involve tweaking the systems already in place.

The large gains came in commodity crops thanks to use of genetic engineering in plants, the safety of which was again confirmed in a recent analysis of long-term peer-reviewed research. During the Ag Media Summit in 2016, Monsanto’s Fraley noted that all types of agriculture are needed to feed nearly 3 billion more mouths in the coming generations. He also told a standing-room-only audience that almost all of his company’s vegetables are non-GMO, and many are grown by organic farmers, further highlighting the shared interests of conventional and organic farmers.

“What’s exciting is hearing the whole industry addressing that topic with a singular voice,” said Wallis. “I don’t think it’s one company addressing it that way; it’s the whole industry. I don’t think it’s just us describing it that way because it’s popular; I think it’s us describing it because that’s what we see value in.”

Most major agricultural companies are finding ways to connect with a broad range of growers. For example, Bayer offers crop protection that caters to orchards and vegetable fields, as well as more well-known corn- and soybean-centric products. Elsewhere, Syngenta has been growing its AgriEdge Excelsior platform and related Land.db software, its digital data-management tools that are agnostic to a grower’s production style.

Grain elevators in Illinois. (Image courtesy of Ron Frazier, Flickr)

In 2013, Syngenta also launched its Good Growth Plan, a measurable strategy that specifically addresses the 200,000 new people that need to be fed around the world on a daily basis.

The plan looks at making crops more efficient, enhancing biodiversity on 5 million hectares, reducing soil degradation on 10 million hectares, empowering those producers in developing markets operating on fewer than 5 acres, training 20 million more workers on safe food practices, and committing to fairer labor practices. These are concepts that can apply across the spectrum of growers, both in the U.S. and globally.

Amid the divisive rhetoric and negativity that often infect social media discussions of agriculture, it’s curious how many more farmers would embrace a plan such as this if the name of a “big ag” company wasn’t attached to it. It seems likely that there’s more unifying growers than there is dividing them — it’s simply that the divisions are amplified in the online arena, as well as by some documentaries and other media. Farmers all need to address their bottom lines, but understanding how they fit into the greater system benefits all of agriculture.

“Organic farmers aren’t going to traditional ag companies, and those companies aren’t necessarily talking to organic farmers,” Misiewicz noted. “So how do we bridge this gap, and say, ‘There is this technology out there, technology that’s been developed. How do we put you in touch with the people developing these technologies so they know what you need? And how do we make you aware of what’s out there that may be really helpful to you?’”

The answer is embedded somewhere in the same digital media tools that are used to vilify many farmers.

Data to bridge the divide

Robert Saik and his son, Nick, are among agriculture’s biggest champions of biotechnology. They both have done recent pushes on social media to better highlight ways that conventional and organic can be working together for the betterment of all farmers. Nick released a YouTube video examining the GMO-versus-organic discussion in an effort to point out that conventional and organic production methods aren’t as far apart as one might think.

Not long afterward, his father put out a call on Twitter seeking organic growers who are open to seeing value in generic engineering, something not currently permitted by the USDA in the National Organic Program or in production from other grassroots organic-like organizations, such as Certified Naturally Grown.

Getting past the talk and making innovation, technology, and stewardship hallmarks of the process — every process — is vital. The industry is already up against barriers from trade policy and other politics, global infrastructure, concerns about climate change, and research limitations in some sectors (Misiewicz said that a historical lack of organic research has contributed significantly to the yield gap in organic production when compared with conventional).

The frustrating thing is this: Wheeler thinks that we are already close to the production levels we need by 2050, but the industry is largely hindered by factors that affect distribution, as well as by waste.

“All of us are talking about it in a similar fashion, and it’s not just talk. It’s the ability for companies to address those needs using the different tools and the technologies we offer,” Wallis said.

With a focus on soil nutrients, cover crops, organic matter, hydration, and land optimization, data-management technology has been showcased as universally beneficial for farmers who have a couple of hundred acres on up.

This is where efficiency comes into play. Imaging and data analysis help farmers identify, for example, areas at pivot points in their fields that are underperforming. Sometimes inputs can be adjusted. Other times, farmers have opted to convert such space to pollinator or wildlife habitat or to put it into the Conservation Reserve Program.

These data-management opportunities have ag corporations ushering in new partnerships to improve land quality. Syngenta has worked with The Nature Conservancy on multiple occasions on projects such as addressing soil compaction from a pipeline installation on an Illinois farm and in using the AgriEdge platform in Saginaw, Michigan, to provide metrics on nutrient efficiency in the land.

“It’s that kind of thinking, of how we can work together and start testing some of these processes and seeing what happens, and what can help our farmers for the future,” Wheeler said.

Despite the excitement about harnessing data, things moved slowly in the industry for a long time, even among its Millennials. Only in recent years has adoption of data management accelerated, and there’s much more automation to data uploading than there was even a few years ago.

“It might be that the learning curve is such because, even though we’ve had these tools for a while, we haven’t always had a way to get that data into a manageable form and a manageable place,” Wheeler said. “That’s one area that we have to get better at.”

The long game

Technology-focused agricultural companies are used to looking ahead. When a seed or chemical product can take anywhere from seven to 12 years to get to market, it’s imperative to anticipate the needs of the industry and plan accordingly. Easier said than done, in many instances, but the major players in the industry are succeeding.

“As an innovation company, the technologies that our R&D teams are working on right now, depending on what they are, they may be as much as 10 to 12 years out,” Wallis said of the work being done at Bayer. “Looking at the population growth as it’s going, and looking at some of those demands, we absolutely take the long view.”

Wheeler believes that that view has gotten even clearer for Syngenta. She noted that her company’s acquisition by ChemChina means Syngenta reverts to being a private company and will be less driven by quarterly financial results. Instead, it will have the opportunity to put resources into projects that will pay dividends down the road.

“Agriculture is so incredibly diverse that it has its own challenges that way,” she said. “But it also means that, from a technology perspective, we’re looking at what technologies apply to this field, what will work best here or over there, with the understanding that they’re all going to be a little different.”

Tomato plants are fed from water filtered through a sand media filtration tank system and along underground drip irrigation tubes 10 inches below the surface in Woodland, California. (Image courtesy of USDA)

Misiewicz at The Organic Center keeps up to date on what little research is available in the organic sector, including analyzing how things would shake out if more land was converted to organic production. She knows that the need for arable land, and its increasing scarcity in the U.S., is a limiting factor for a complete production shift to organic, but she feels that changes to growing patterns and reducing waste is important.

“That way, we’d be greatly increasing the sustainability of our food production, and we could feed 9.5 billion people by 2050, and we wouldn’t have to use more land than we do now,” the California-based Misiewicz said. “Research shows that we need to take a multifaceted approach to our food system, and if we address these other factors, organic can be a huge part of the solution.”

That connects with the solution that many entities are preaching. If “sustainability” is the industry’s major buzzword, then “diversification” can’t be far behind. That can be seen in crop selection and rotation, as well as in what particular plant genetics are chosen.

While “big ag” is seen as relying on thousands upon thousands of acres of corn crops in the Midwest, the investment being made in small growers can’t be overlooked either, not in a world in which these smaller growers account for about 70 percent of food produced globally.

“It’s amazing how many operations there are like that in the world,” Wheeler said.

And in the same way that there is a growing industry push toward acceptance of multiple types of production — whether conventional, organic or even vertical and hydroponic — there are efforts to showcase small-grower inclusivity, too. The table is big enough for all farmers to come together and find the best path forward. The challenge is making sure that there are enough labor and financial and environmental resources to have that table properly stocked three decades from now.

The Green New Deal: Where’s the Beef?

cow walking down road

As you’ve probably heard in the news, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) presented a proposal to Congress called the Green New Deal that addresses how the U.S. can achieve net-zero greenhouse emissions in ten years, in addition to tackling inequality and wage reform. This deal, brashly named after Roosevelt’s New Deal to help the U.S. economy recover from the Great Depression, puts forth a lot of idealistic proposals but without much specificity, strategic planning and research. Since we’re a blog about food and agriculture, let’s focus on the initiatives affecting farmers and our food supply.

Ag Initiatives

The bulk of this resolution concentrates on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, a concept not new to the ag industry. And while ag contributes the smallest amount of total U.S. emissions among the EPA’s designated sectors, the resolution focuses on three initiatives for agriculture to become more environmentally friendly:

  1. Supporting family farming
  2. Investing in sustainable farming and land use practices that increase soil health
  3. Building a more sustainable food system that ensures universal access to healthy food

source: EPA

Though these initiatives may sound original, those in ag have been implementing these goals for years now and without government intervention! Farmers regularly collaborate with cross sections of both corporations and organizations to formalize efforts on sustainability and productivity. Not one successful farmer or rancher acts independently – they know the best way to take care of their land while feeding a hungry nation is to work interdependently across sectors to achieve these goals.

Farmers collaborate to better their land and products. PepsiCo’s Sustainable Farming Program teaches farmers practices they otherwise wouldn’t have access to. The Global Salmon Initiative helps salmon farmers all over the world create the standard for sustainably farmed salmon.

Supporting Family Farming

The USDA states that 96% of the 2.2 million U.S. farms are family-owned, and this number is on the rise. Furthermore, these family-operated farms account for 78% of total farm production in the U.S. We are already a nation of family farms!

Additionally, consumers are shifting towards a preference for locally-grown produce and meat. While being a small farmer today brings little financial security, those who are innovative and creative continue to add value to our food system, as well as make profits to stay in business.

Investing in sustainable farming and land use practices that increase soil health

Contrary to how they are depicted in most media outlets, farmers and ranchers are the most vested stewards of the land.

Take, for example, the now-viral response to The Green New Deal from Kansas rancher, Brandi Buzzard Frobose:

“As a rancher, I can tell you that we take the quality of the great outdoors very seriously – air, soil and water quality are all of utmost importance to us here because, well we are the ones living here in the sticks. Which is why our segment of agriculture actively works to reduce our impact on the environment every. single. day.”

To help food producers and the millions of other concerned American citizens make more informed decisions on issues like climate change, The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) released a Cost/Benefit Principles for Climate-Change Policy.

Colin Woodall, NCBA Senior Vice-President, Government Affairs told Northern Ag Network:

“These are very straightforward questions that any concerned citizen or reporter should be asking anyone who proposes new climate-change policy. What specifically are you proposing, how much will it cost, how much will it affect global temperatures down the road, and how did you arrive at those numbers? Seems like anyone who is proposing billions or trillions of dollars’ worth of policy changes should be happy to answer those questions. Yet for some reason, few currently are.”

According to Woodall, U.S. beef producers have already made a great deal of progress on environmental issues like climate change, such as producing the same amount of beef with 33% fewer cattle, compared to 1977.

Woodall also pointed out that beef producers in the U.S. now have one of the lowest carbon footprints compared to many of their worldwide counterparts, now producing only 2% of all carbon emissions in the U.S.

As for the quality of soil, many farmers employ best practices to increase soil health, as they know first-hand how essential healthy soil is for producing the best fruits, vegetables, and livestock. These farmers, much like the McMenamins at Versailles Farms, utilize precision technologies like soil moisture sensors, irrigation sensors, and, when necessary, synthetic inputs based on detailed soil analyses. Farmers and ranchers consider all these factors to operate the most productive farms possible while being stewards of the land.

Building a more sustainable food system that ensures universal access to healthy food

Not much argument here about a right to food – we completely agree. However, this system has been in place for quite some time now. In fact, it is because of the U.S. food supply system and the SNAP (food stamp) program that everyone currently has access to clean, healthy, affordable food.

We also understand that there’s always room for improvement, but creating efficiencies in this intricate web of food producers, suppliers and distributors will take a very detailed plan – something far more specific than the gross generalities outlined in The Green New Deal.

A strategic plan for something of this magnitude requires government, corporate and organizational compliance and oversight.

Technological Feasibility and Consumer Acceptance

We as consumers are eating more than ever, now clocking in over 3,600 calories per day. Farmers and ranchers are being asked to produce more food on less land using less water, fewer pesticide, and less energy.

Farmers are adopting precision farming technologies to help them reduce their water usage, reduce emissions, use less energy, increase crop yield, reduce pesticides, and reduce fertilizers. Genetic engineering, like GMOs and CRISPR, can also help create a more sustainable food system, but consumers and red tape often stall technological innovations.

The resolution calls on achieving net-zero emissions in ten years in whatever means is technologically feasible.  Roadblocks and propaganda create a sentiment that has such advances either stuck in a prolonged approval process or generally distrusted among consumers.

Take the “Non-GMO Project Verified” label, which not only vilifies GMOs, but also encourages companies with food products that don’t even have a GMO counterpart (like wheat, avocadoes, berries, even water!) to buy the rights to use its label, stoking fears among consumers to only purchase non-GMO products.

Counterproductive organizations and lack of government oversight in their practices make technological advances like genetic engineering a very formidable challenge in consumer perception and adoption.

What Does This Mean for Farmers?

Because of the Green New Deal’s lack of clarity, many in the sector have become fearful that further plans will place a cap on livestock, dairy production, and other industry-shaking restrictions.

Others think it may just be a matter of perspective. Popular Science sheds a positive light on the proposal, writing that perhaps it has less to do with reducing fossil fuels (and the farting cow fiasco – which, if we really want to be specific, should be corrected to cow burps) and more to do with the “net-zero carbon” aspect of carbon farming, planting more trees, and revitalizing our soils.

What’s probably the most disheartening about the Green New Deal is that these green initiatives are not considering developments already taking place in our food supply using fewer resources.  We are improving nutrition by advancing supply chains while reducing food waste. We’re also reducing environmental impacts by breeding more productive plants and animals and investing in biotechnology. We hope that as this proposal develops, those behind the Deal take the time to learn more about current initiatives.


Preparing for Pests: A Gardener’s Guide


Spring is coming! So here we are, strategizing about the flowers, veggies, and fruits to fill our gardens. Whether or not we realize it, this practice is something that closely aligns us with our fellow farmers, as we all want the same thing: an abundance of healthy produce grown in an environmentally sustainable way.

This planning reminds us of all the news surrounding pesticides, leaving us with a lot of questions: when should we use pesticides? Which ones are best for our needs – should it be conventional or organic? And what do they actually do to the plants and our surrounding area?

First, consider your garden’s needs to determine which pesticides should be used, if any. We can take a lesson from farmers here by practicing integrated pest management, which some farmers use to reduce pesticide applications. This means closely examining your environmental factors that affect the pest’s ability to thrive, and then creating conditions that they find uninhabitable.

One way to try this is by making sure your soil is full of organic matter; this will reduce pesticide use by keeping plants naturally healthy and strong. You can also regularly check your plants for signs of disease and pests to stay ahead of an infestation.

Should you then decide to apply a pesticide to your garden, consider if you want to go with a conventional or organic product. What’s the difference between them, anyway?

Just like us home gardeners, farmers also carefully consider which pest management products will work best for their crops while keeping their farmland, livestock and local ecosystem safe and healthy.

What Makes a Pesticide Conventional or Organic?

For all pesticides, both conventional and organic, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) oversees its regulation and approval for use in the United States. Organic pesticides require additional approval by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And for those inquiring, yesorganic pesticides do exist and are commonly used on home gardens and organic commercial crops alike.

As defined by the EPA, conventional pesticides have active ingredients that generally include synthetic chemicals used to prevent, mitigate, destroy, or repel any pest. Most organic pesticides are derived from naturally-occurring substances, although there are several approved synthetic substances for use in organic crop and livestock production. (To view a list of approved organic pesticides, please view this page.)

No matter what type of pesticide you buy, the EPA evaluates all pesticides for potential harm to unintended organisms, including humans, wildlife, plants, and waterways. They also assess the hazards of varying levels of pesticide exposure among humans and domestic animals, from short-term to long-term contact. The EPA uses this information to determine the acceptable amount and frequency of pesticide application that allows the product to effectively work while keeping us safe from overexposure. But if proper precautions are not taken with these products, they can be very harmful to us and our surrounding environment, no matter if it’s conventional or organic. Always follow the directions on the bottle!

Common Pesticides by Type

Large food producers and small home gardeners use both organic and conventional pesticides. Here are some popular pesticides for home use that share active ingredients with commercial ag products. Conventional pesticides include RoundUp Grass & Weed Killer, Daconil Fungicide for plant diseases, and Spectracide for insects. If you’re organically inclined, you may consider pesticides like Natria Grass & Weed Killer, Bonide Copper Fungicide for plant diseases, or Garden Safe Insecticide. These are only a few examples of pesticides, but we’re going to look at these, in particular, to show you what to consider when choosing the right one to manage weeds, plant diseases, and pests on your property. So let’s take a closer look by comparing several of these popular products side-by-side…

Weed Killers: Eradicates targeted grasses and weeds via the direct application of the product.

Conventional – Glyphosate: RoundUp Grass & Weed Killer has glyphosate and pelargonic acid as the active ingredients. In addition to using it in our own gardens, these products are commonly used in agriculture, golf course management, forestry, and aquatic environments. Glyphosate prevents the plant from manufacturing certain amino acids essential for plant growth and life, thereby destroying the weed.

As we’ve mentioned in our previous post on Roundup, glyphosate is used in over 130 countries on over 100 different types of crops. This is due to its effectiveness in weed control, as well as its low toxicity to us and the surrounding ecosystem, as determined by the U.S. EPA.

As for pelargonic acid, this has also been shown to be low in toxicity. In fact, it’s naturally present in many foods we eat! Though some studies have shown this acid may not make glyphosate products any more effective, at least we know it doesn’t pose a risk to us.

Organic – Herbicidal Soaps: Common organic weed killers, like Natria Grass & Weed Killer, contain herbicidal soaps that eliminate unwanted vegetation. The active ingredient in this product is an ammoniated, or potassium, soap of fatty acids that strip the surface coating on leaf surfaces, causing dehydration to the plants. The fatty acids are commonly extracted from palm, coconut, olive, castor, and cottonseed plants.

Though irritating to the skin and eyes, these herbicidal soaps are very low in toxicity. However, some of these soaps can be toxic to pollinators, so the best time to apply these treatments is at night when pollinators are not active.

Fungicides: Treat plants infected with black spot, rust, blight, powdery mildew, and other diseases.

Conventional – Chlorothalonil: Products like Garden Tech Daconil’s Plant Fungicide contains chlorothalonil, a synthetic chemical that disrupts fungal molecules, thereby killing the fungus. This pesticide has been reviewed to be of very low toxicity, though an irritant to the eyes and throat if inhaled.

Chlorothalonil has been shown to be low in toxicity to pets, birds, and pollinators. However, this chemical is highly toxic to fish and amphibians, so consider this if you live close to the water or a sewer drain.

Organic – Copper Sulfate: Copper sulfate is a commonly used fungicide. The active ingredient in products like Bonide Liquid Copper Fungicide works by denaturing enzymes and other critical proteins in fungal organisms.

Though this pesticide is considered organic, it’s not without controversy.  Not only can this chemical cause severe eye irritation, but more importantly it is quite toxic and can lead to gastrointestinal problems, organ damage, and even shock and death with extreme exposure. Though the EPA hasn’t determined any link between cancer and copper sulfate exposure, several studies from the National Pesticide Information Center show a link in both humans and animals alike. Additionally, this chemical is toxic to birds and aquatic life, so there are many considerations here as it relates to its use, the environment, and run-off. Given its toxicity, it’s vital to follow the product’s directions for use and seriously consider any effects to your surrounding environment.

Insect Killers: Eradicates insects that can damage lawns and plants

Conventional – Gamma-Cyhalothrin: Insecticide products, like Spectracide Triazicide Insect Killer, contain an active compound called Gamma-Cyhalothrin, a broad-spectrum insecticide that acts as a nerve toxin to pests. This chemical is part of the pyrethroid family, the synthetic counterpart of pyrethrin, an organic insecticide. What makes pyrethroids more attractive than their organic counterpart is that the chemical is more stable in sunlight.

Though not shown to be toxic to us when used as directed, both pyrethroids and pyrethrins can be toxic to honeybees, a crucial consideration for our pollinators. This family of chemicals is also toxic to aquatic life. This is another pesticide that you should only spray at night or evening when pollinators are asleep.

Organic – Pyrethrum: In the same chemical family as triazicide is an organic compound derived from a flower that is highly toxic to most insects, but proven non-toxic to humans. A popular product with this compound is Garden Safe Multi-Purpose Garden Insect Killer. When choosing a product like this, it’s important to realize that although it’s effective against pests, it’s also harmful to our pollinators, just like pyrethroids. Also like its conventional counterpart, pyrethrins are toxic to fish and amphibians, so be sure to keep it away from waterways and drains, and be sure to use in the evening and at night.

Another thing to note with this organic compound is to be careful of other active ingredients commonly found in pyrethrin-based products. Some pyrethrin products are combined with piperonyl butoxide (PBO) to make it more potent. However, PBO is not considered “organic”, so be sure that your product of choice doesn’t include this chemical if an organic treatment is important to you.

Toxicity of Common Organic-Approved Pesticides to All Pollinators

Just because it’s organic doesn’t mean it’s safe for the birds and bees. Here’s a chart showing the toxicity of organic pesticides on pollinators. Source for chart:

So, just like farmers do every day, us home gardeners must utilize all the tools in our toolbox to manage pest problems. No matter how you keep pests at bay, be sure to consider not only your plants’ health, but also any animals, waterways, and other environmental sensitivities.