Don’t Be Fooled by Food Labels

Here I am at Costco, getting far too many things for my household of four. As I try to navigate my unwieldy cart around, I see a new product – avocado oil. Apparently, this oil has a higher smoke point for cooking AND has healthy fats! But, wait…look at all these labels: organic, non-GMO, all natural, gluten free…what??? Avocados have gluten!?

It happens to all of us – we’re hit with a barrage of food labels every time we go grocery shopping. Many of us assume the more labels, the better the product…but you’d be mistaken. Food companies are in a constant battle to prove superiority of their products over the competitors—even at the expense of the truth. Take a look at our label guide to know when a label is meaningful and when you’re just throwing away money.

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What it means:

  • USDA organic products have strict production and labeling requirements. These requirements demand that approved food items are produced using no genetic engineering or ionizing radiation and with natural pesticides and fertilizers. Organic products are overseen by authorized personnel of the USDA National Organic Program.

Don’t be fooled:

  • Several USDA-certified organic labels exist, so just because you see “organic” in the label, don’t assume the entire product is organic. For food products claiming “100% Organic”, you can be assured of just that. However, food products with simply “Organic” are made with at least 95% organic products. Lastly, the label, “Made with Organic Ingredients”, indicates that at least 70% of the product is organic.

  • Organic foods have pesticides. Many consumers assume organic means zero pesticides, when in fact, organic foods can be treated with pesticides from the USDA’s approved list. Also, the USDA reports that pesticide residues are found on both organic and conventional crops alike in its Pesticide Data Program, but all crops are held to regulations governing safe consumption levels.


What it means:

  • When it comes to treating livestock humanely, the USDA requires meat, dairy and egg producers to submit applications and receive permission before using terms like “humanely raised” or “raised with care” on packages. However, in the absence of conducting regular inspections, several organizations created more stringent criteria for animal welfare.

  • Third-party humane-certifying organizations strive to improve the lives of farm animals in food production. Producers and facilities must meet precise, objective standards for farm animal treatment to be issued certification, and they undergo regular verification. The Humane Farm Animal Care is the leading non-profit certification organization issuing the “Certified Humane” label, but similar organizations exist with slightly different labels, such as Animal Welfare Certified and Animal Welfare Approved.

Don’t be fooled:

  • Producers don’t need to do anything after receiving permission from the USDA to include “humanely raised” on their packaging, as the USDA does not perform onsite inspections for this purpose. So if this is really important to you, then stick with a third-party humane verifier.


What it means:

  • “Grass-fed” is a term used on cow, sheep and goat products. It indicates that the animals’ diet is primarily comprised of grass, hay, and forage in a pasture. To claim “grassfed”, the cows must have access to a pasture during most of its life, but feedlots are allowed in the months before harvesting. This term is no longer monitored by the USDA.

  • However, products with the American Grassfed label label indicate that the cows, sheep and goats had continuous access to pasture and a diet of 100% forage. Cage confinement, hormones and all antibiotics are expressly prohibited by the organization.

Don’t be fooled:


Before we start with the GMO conversation, remember that there are only 10 GMO crops currently approved for consumption in the U.S.: alfalfa, apples, canola, corn, cotton, papaya, potatoes, soybeans, squash and sugar beets. That’s it. No GMO wheat, strawberries, tomatoes, rice, chickens, etc. And, by the way, GMO crops are completely safe for consumption: they are the most thoroughly-tested products in our food system and have the same nutritional profile as their non-GMO counterparts. And lastly, the term, “non-GMO”, is not regulated by the FDA. Ok, now that we have that down, let’s continue.

What it means:

  • When you see food products with a “non-GMO” label at the grocery store, it means one of two things:

      • The first and acceptable use of the label is that the food product is made from a crop with a GMO counterpart and the producer chose to use the non-GMO version. For instance, tortilla corn chips made from non-GMO corn.

      • The second and less acceptable use of the label is when it’s used on products with no GMO alternative: think avocados, strawberry jam, and hummus.

Don’t be fooled:

  • When companies slap a “non-GMO” label on foods with no GMO counterpart, they’re creating unnecessary fear among consumers. They’re probably ripping you off, too!

  • The Non-GMO Project, a nonprofit organization, provides companies with a non-GMO “verification” program to make their products more appealing to customers. However, the Non-GMO Project will “verify” products containing crops with no GMO alternative and deliver their stamp of approval on items like avocado oil, salt, and even water!

      • If avoiding GMOs is important to you, you can look for the logo on products with a GMO counterpart; otherwise you’re just paying more for a fancy logo.

  • Another note for these products: organic products certified by the USDA (and with the USDA logo) will always be non-GMO products. However, non-GMO products are not necessarily organic.


What it means:

  • Despite the humanitarian appeal, these labels don’t say much. With both “cage free” and “free range”, cages are prohibited. However, the hens can still be raised in an enclosed space. The added benefit of “free range” is that the animals have access to the outdoors.

Don’t be fooled:


What it means:

  • Beef and sheep producers sometimes administer hormones to help their livestock grow more quickly, thus entering the meat market earlier in their lives. Dairy cow producers can also add hormones, like rBST or rBGH, to help their cows produce more milk, but fewer producers practice this now. Labels showing “no hormones added” or “no hormones administered” are allowed if these producers can prove that no hormones were used during the animal’s life.

Don’t be fooled:


What it means:

  • Antibiotics are used when livestock are unwell or confined to close quarters, where illness can quickly spread. So the USDA approves the labels, “No antibiotics administered,” “no antibiotics added” and “raised without antibiotics”, if producers can prove that antibiotics were not administered at any point. The “antibiotic-free” label is not allowed by the USDA, as antibiotic residue testing technology can’t verify if the animal ever received antibiotics. Furthermore, the FDA has strict withdrawal guidelines that require all livestock to be clear of any antibiotic residue before it is harvested.

Don’t be fooled:


What it means:

  • This label is seemingly everywhere now! Gluten is a general name for the proteins found in cereal grains, like wheat, barley and rye, so this label informs those with a gluten allergy or celiac disease that the product is safe for their consumption.

Don’t be fooled:

  • This label is now being used on products that don’t normally include cereal grains (think sugar, rice and corn products), thus becoming another marketing gimmick.

  • Also, know that gluten-free products are not inherently healthier, as gluten-free substitutes may contain other additives and are not typically enriched with additional nutrients. In fact, many gluten-free products are higher in saturated fat and sugar.



Don’t be fooled:

Here’s a quick reference chart for your next grocery run:


Click here to download chart


Fair Oaks Farms: Taking Responsibility

Fair Oaks Farms

What happened on Fair Oaks Farm is surprising, unacceptable and horrifying. Animal Recovery Mission (ARM) videotaped five people, four of whom were employees, severely abusing calves. Fair Oaks had previously terminated three of these employees before the videos were released. The fourth, who was behind the video camera, was terminated after the videos were released. Additionally, there was a truck driver involved who worked for Midwest Veal, a company that picks up and delivers calves between farms or for delivery to processors. He is now banned from any Fair Oaks Farm.

A few years ago, I was so excited to hear about the partnership between Fair Oaks Farms in Indiana and Coca Cola. They created a new technology that gives us healthy nutrients, such as DHA and more protein, while reducing the sugar and fat compared to other milks.  They have committed to traceability and sustainable farming – which includes exceptional cow care.  I have never looked back.

CEO Takes Full Responsibility

It is not the challenges that define you as an individual or a company, it is how you handle them and prevent them from occurring again.

Mike McCloskey, CEO of Fair Oaks Farms, immediately took control and made a statement:

I am disgusted by and take full responsibility for the actions seen in the footage, as it goes against everything that we stand for in regards to responsible cow care and comfort. The employees featured in the video exercised a complete and total disregard for the documented training that all employees go through to ensure the comfort, safety and well-being of our animals.

While they already have a strong policy which adheres to each animal’s welfare, Fair Oaks Farms has now strengthened it further. It is due to their existing policy of “if you see something – say something”, they were able to fire the three criminals well before the videos came out. His additional policies not only will make Fair Oaks cows more protected, but this will most likely filter out to other large dairies, thus making animal welfare an even more significant focus on his farms.

McCloskey guarantees this will not happen again at Fair Oaks Farms, as he has already implemented the following protocols since the incident:

  • Invested in a 24-hour camera system at each point where animals and personnel interact. This will stream live into the public domain and the Fair Oaks Adventure Center.

  • Contracted with a third-party animal welfare company to perform random audits on his facility and expects that they will be on his facilities every other week. They will report directly to McCloskey.

  • Hired an animal welfare specialist to continually train all employees at all locations and be responsible for reporting on animal welfare. All employees will continue their animal welfare training upon hiring.

  • Working with an attorney to prosecute the employees in the video and any future animal abusers.

Changing an Industry for the Better

This fallout has caused some grocery stores to pull Fairlife from their shelves. Some people have elicited a ban on Fair Oaks dairy products, or even dairy itself, saying that the entire industry abuses their animals. This is not true. This is not the first time some twisted individual has infiltrated a company in an attempt to spread rhetoric like this.

How many of us take Tylenol or other over-the-counter anti-inflammatories? If you recall the Tylenol scare in 1982, someone replaced extra-strength Tylenol pills with deadly cyanide-laced capsules pills inside the Tylenol bottles, resealed the boxes and put them on pharmacy shelves near Chicago. Seven people died. Jim Burke, the CEO, immediately pulled all Tylenol bottles off the shelves and set the new standard for safety. Johnson & Johnson was the first company to implement triple-sealed tamper-resistant packaging. We, the consumers, didn’t reject all anti-inflammatories as a result of this disaster.

Who’s Next to Take Responsibility?

In the Fair Oaks case, there are a couple of unanswered questions:

  • If ARM has the best interest of the animals at stake, why didn’t the person behind the video camera report the abuse immediately? It is difficult enough to watch the video – how could someone film this without saying something?

  • Who was the person behind the camera? Was it one of the three employees who was fired?

  • The videos ended in October of 2018; why did it take nine months to report such abusive behavior?

We might never know the answers. What we do know is that workplace violence is a form of terrorism, in this case, on animals.

Supporting the dairy industry is more important than ever. 95% of American dairy farms are family owned. The U.S. dairy industry employs, directly and indirectly, almost 3 million people with over 40,000 farms and 1,300 facilities. Banning an entire industry because of five violent individuals just doesn’t make sense.

Temple Grandin’s Advice to Fair Oaks Farms


The original article was published on June 17, 2019 at MEAT + POULTRY as Editor’s Blog: Temple Grandin’s advice to Fair Oaks Farms in undercover video aftermath.

The recent release of undercover video footage by Animal Recovery Mission, depicting animal cruelty at a dairy production facility owned by Fair Oaks Farms called into question the Fair Oaks, Indiana-based company’s animal welfare practices and has triggered a proactive response from the company. Founder Mike McCloskey, DVM, has published a series of video messages on the Fair Oaks Farms website, expressing his disappointment in the content of the footage and the company’s plan to rectify the situation, which included terminating the four individuals responsible for the animal cruelty. As part of a series of videos on the company’s website, he also pledged to share the enhancements to the company’s animal welfare practices moving forward.

Animal welfare expert Temple Grandin, Ph.D., a professor of animal science at Colorado State Univ. and a contributing editor to MEAT+POULTRY praised the company’s response to the video and suggested some next steps for Fair Oaks to take. She also addressed some of the underlying issues related to the latest incident that should be addressed by all stakeholders in the dairy and beef industry supply chain. Below is Grandin’s response, emailed to M+P:

Mike McCloskey, the founder of Fair Oaks Farm, delivered an excellent response. Fair Oaks has been a leader in agritourism and his dairy is open for public tours. He admitted that employee training was not sufficient and that video cameras are going to be installed throughout the farm. For further transparency, visitors in his museum and visitor’s center will be able to view the cameras. Therefore, visitors will always be watching.

During its investigation, Animal Recovery Mission representatives followed a trailer full of very young calves to a veal farm that had old-style confined crates. It was a crate design that should have been phased out years ago. The most modern veal farms use a much-less restrictive system.

Meanwhile, the entire dairy industry must address the issue of bull calves. In some parts of the country, they are fed in beef feedlots to produce beef. Holstein steers produce excellent beef, but unless they are fed carefully, they may have severe liver abscesses that cause line stoppages at processing plants. Another problem is that Holstein steers can grow really tall and they drag on the floor during processing. Some fed-beef plants now have a height indicator at the unloading chute. Animals that are too tall are rejected. There is one major fed-beef plant that has stopped processing Holstein beef because they cause too many problems.

The dairy industry must stop treating beef as a byproduct

Additionally, the dairy industry must stop treating beef as a byproduct. Some dairies have already started using beef semen and sell all the calves produced with it for beef. Common choices of semen are either Angus or Angus x Simmental. Some of the animal abuse on the video was directed at weak calves that refused to walk. Beef breed calves are often more vigorous and walk more easily. The ideal beef semen would produce a small, vigorous calf that would not grow too tall. A possible factor contributing to numerous liver abscesses is feeding cattle too much grain to quickly fatten the animals before they become too tall.

To be proactive, Fair Oaks and many other dairies should follow bull calves throughout the supply chain. Loading bull calves on a trailer and pretending they disappear is no longer acceptable. The entire dairy industry needs to change. The silver lining in this is that developing a really good beef business would help offset low milk prices.

Four next steps for Fair Oaks Farms

  • Start using beef semen to produce high-quality beef calves;

  • Create relationships with calf producers and feedlot operators who feed the dairy beef animals. Also, choose feedlots that are well-designed for drainage so steers will stay clean and provide shade for the steers;

  • Use pain relief medication for castration; and

  • Develop an auditing and inspection system for the dairy beef cattle.

The dairy industry can no longer ignore the bull calf problem. They need to take steps to get control of what happens to bull calves. Really progressive managers may have the vision to develop a new specialty beef market, which will enable them to make money when milk prices are low.

Electromagnetic Fields: Protecting Yourself through Nutrition

phone food emfs

All day long, I am surrounded by electromagnetic fields. I wake up to the alarm on my phone. When I get to work, I fire up my laptop and connect to the internet. For lunch, I reheat leftovers in the microwave from the night before. As I drive home from work, I turn on the radio or chat on the phone with loved ones. After dinner, I use the remote to turn on my Apple TV and watch my favorite shows. And there are probably dozens of additional points of contact with electromagnetic fields that I’m completely unaware of.

All devices with radio waves or a Wi-Fi connection emit electric and magnetic fields, often referred to as EMFs. Recent research on rats have shown a correlation, depending on levels and frequencies of exposure, of low-frequency electromagnetic fields and the growth of cancer cells.

These EMFs can cause cellular damage similar to other health hazards, like pollution, smoking and a poor diet. But there’s no need to throw away all your wireless electronics – you can combat any possible negative effects with specific foods and nutrition.

This chart illustrates the low-level, or non-ionizing radiation fields on the left, opposed to ionizing radiation on the right (to which we have significantly less exposure). Adverse health effects from long-term exposure to these low-level fields is currently a matter of debate.

What do EMFs do to our bodies?

All living creatures generate electric and magnetic currents within our bodies.  These waves help to stimulate nerves, muscle movements and other biological functions.  Likewise, we also experience a natural magnetic force from the Earth, which is why a compass points its way north and birds know to fly south in the wintertime. The forces of these fields are charged particles of matter comprised of electrons and protons.

As a helpful visual, have you ever seen a rusty old car deteriorating in a farm field?  Or tossed out an apple or banana too brown and overripe to eat? This is a chemical process called oxidation. EMFs can have a similar effect on your cells. When radiation penetrates the cells in our bodies, it activates a negative cellular stress response. In the human body, when some of our atoms lose electrons, they produce free radicals, which can trigger oxidative stress in your cells.

This deteriorates our cells similar to the rusty old car due to an overabundance of free radicals that destroy the cell membranes. Ultimately, the cells weaken and die. In addition, these free radicals damage DNA, fatty tissue, proteins, and the mitochondria, which can lead to serious health problems. But we can combat these stresses. Antioxidants are the white knights that destroy those radical-floating electrons.

When EMFs penetrate a cell’s nucleus, it bypasses the cell’s defense mechanisms completely by generating what are called reactive oxygen species (ROS). EMFs can cause an overproduction of ROS. And while ROS are not always bad, they can become toxic when unregulated due to excess amounts of free radical production that occurs. This causes oxidative stress, which can lead to a myriad of chronic illnesses.

“Research has shown that EMF exposure does elicit change at a cellular level. New technological stressors, like advancements to 5G technology, are increasing exponentially. We cannot change that. What we can do is make sure our bodies are fully fortified with all the vitamins and minerals it needs to fights the effects of EMFs.”  

– Jeffery Palmer, Director, Brain Health & Energy Medicine at Third Space

Even with all this information, it is important to note that the literature and studies are limited when detailing health problems associated with EMF exposures. Most of the evidence is derived from animal studies at a cellular level. The World Health Organization has done some research via monographs as to varying electromagnetic levels and have found there’s no need for concern at this time. However, they continue to assess the effects of EMFs using other methodologies, as isolating variables as it relates to human health is very hard to capture.

Foods that fight!

Diet can play a key role in strengthening your antioxidant capacity by increasing our intake of foods that have protectant capabilities against EMFs. For example, cruciferous vegetables, like broccoli, brussels sprouts, kale and cabbage, contain nutrients that inhibit certain types of cancers, are high in antioxidant compounds and have anti-radiation properties.

Furthermore, focusing on fermented foods like yogurt, buttermilk and unprocessed cheeses can promote friendly bacteria that help to evict byproducts of radiation exposure. Foods containing omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin C, zinc, vitamin E, selenium, melatonin, cysteine and other phytonutrient-rich foods all help to protect the body from cancer-causing cell growth from exposure to EMFs. Think spinach, almonds, eggs, oranges, salmon, walnuts and cherries.  The chart below is helpful for identifying foods rich in EMF-protectant nutrients.

What else can we do to protect ourselves?

To combat the growing challenge of EMF exposure, the doctors we spoke with recommend a holistic approach to whole body health.  To rid cells of free radicals and battle oxidative stress, our bodies needs to be in peak performance shape. This means you are getting enough sleep, feel emotionally fulfilled, and debatably the most important component—fortifying your body with the right nutrients.  This will not only help protect your body from EMFs, but other external stressors.

By strengthening your cells, you allow your body to remove oxidative stress, toxins, and free radicals. It gives your cells a fighting chance—the ability to sustain its defenses against outside interferences.  On the flip side, if our cells are not fully fortified, it takes away from the body’s ability to thrive. It weakens your immune system and increases your likelihood of chronic illness because more energy is being used to fight off free radicals and disease, rather than function at its highest capabilities.

Pet Food for Thought

pet food

Important Update: As of June 27, 2019, the FDA updated their investigation into dog foods linked to canine heart disease, particularly among limited ingredient diet formulations. As addressed in our post, please be mindful when feeding your pet “grain free” or other specialty products. When in doubt, contact your veterinarian.

Exciting news – we have a new puppy at D2D! When Poppy first arrived on the scene, we were inundated with advice: we should feed her only raw food; we should cook her only chicken and rice; we should feed her only organic foods.  While we love Poppy, don’t dogs have good digestive systems?  The size of the U.S. pet food market is projected to climb to $30 billion in 2022 from $25 billion.  That’s almost four times what we spent on pets in the 1990s! In fact, total spending on our pets has increased every year over the past three decades, even through economic downturns.

We’ve seen a dramatic expansion of all the ways we can spend money on our pets — nowhere more so than in what we feed them.  Today, we have more pet food options than ever before.  A customer-centric pet food system delivers a range of product choices and delivery channels that make it a complex and confusing marketplace.

So what’s the consumer to do?  How do we make the right choice about what we feed Poppy?

Pets Are People

The statistics tell the story clearly.  The number of pets in America has increased significantly in the past few decades – and so has the amount of money we spend on them. Pets aren’t just family members, they’ve become a big business, too.

When it comes to food, consumers favor outward appearance over general health benefits. According to Packaged Facts and Petfood Industry, the number one priority is clean breath, perhaps to make sure we get better-smelling puppy kisses! Dog and cat owners then look for skin and coat health, with the third as joint health.  Very surprisingly, digestive health and probiotics falls to the bottom of the list.

In addition, the lines between human food and pet food sectors are blurring.  Many of the same ingredient claims made for human food are finding their way into the pet food sector – foods that are organic, grain-free, or touting unique health benefits. GMOs are even seen as a hazard by 28% of pet owners. As a result, a number of innovative and entrepreneurial players are entering the pet food market. 

An Exploding Market

The array of pet food offerings seems to have exploded.  And to add to the potential confusion, so have the number of ways pet food can be bought.  We no longer rely primarily on the pet store, or our local grocer, or even our local veterinarian.  At the top of the charts in selling pet food, according to the Pet Industry Forum: Amazon, followed by Walmart, and  In an age in which convenience is king in the purchasing process, on-line sales and revamped delivery channels have opened the door to an almost infinite range of product offerings.  Where we are gaining in convenience, we are also increasing the potential for confusion.

So what is the average consumer to do in the face of all this change?  How do I know which pet foods offer what I want most for Poppy? Which company should I trust?

The big issue on making such a determination: the risk of marketing outrunning science in shaping both the pet food industry and what it offers to consumers.  Industry observers privately say we’re still in the early stages of developing solid, science-based data about some of the emerging claims being made by several players in the pet food sector.  To make informed decisions about what to feed our pets, consumers need to become more educated – and to look for providers who can back up the claims made about the value of what they offer.

What’s The Consumer To Do?

Pet food industry professionals offer a number of helpful suggestions:

Dr. Maryanne Murphy is Clinical Assistant Professor of Nutrition at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine, DVM and PhD, DACVN, Board Certified Veterinary NutritionistTM. She also cites advice from her colleague, Lisa Freeman, from Tufts University.

Both professionals noted caution when dealing with “BEGs”:

  • “Boutiques”: Providers without the depth of resources or expertise you would want for your own food.

  • “Exotics”: Providers who tout some kind of unusual key ingredient or ingredients.

  • “Grain free”: Products that lack at least some of the protein-rich grains and oil meal that have been the foundation of animal feed rations for generations. Both the industry and government (the Food and Drug Administration, for example) are in the process of gathering the information needed to assess how a “grain-free” diet relates to animal health.  Such a diet may in time prove to be an acceptable dietary option, but until the science advances, consumers must make up their own mind about the potential risks associated with grain-free products.

Dr. Murphy has another key suggestion for becoming an informed consumer:

“If in doubt, call and ask,” Dr. Murphy advises. “Pick up the phone and ask to speak to someone who can tell you what’s behind their claims.  Ask if they have a nutritionist — veterinary or PhD in animal science — on staff.  Ask what they specifically do for quality control. Ask what kind of clinical trial data they have. How they respond to such questions will tell you a lot about how much you can trust them and their products.”

Dr. Thomas A. Wallrichs is a doctor of veterinary medicine, who for nearly three decades has practiced at the front lines of veterinary care for companion animals.  He echoes Dr. Murphy’s advice: “I tell my clients to stick with the suppliers who have proven they know what they are doing,” he says.  “That means known brand names.”

Dr. Wallrichs also points out that animal nutrition is an evolving science.  “We all have to work to stay current, and on top of things,” he observes.  “I look for proof, not claims.  I see an animal that is thriving, has a great coat and is active.  I ask the client what they feed them.  And I listen to what they say.”

The Industry Is Listening, Too

Ed Yuhas is Managing Partner, Kincannon and Reed Executive Search, and a respected pet industry observer and advisor to pet food industry executives.

“Five years ago, the pet food industry was generally regarded as three to five years behind the human food industry.  That’s just not true anymore,” he observes. “We recruit executive leaders across the food system.  The pet industry has become a great career channel.  Any stigma or idea it is some kind of second-class career path are totally gone,” he notes.

Yuhas also notes that “it’s no coincidence” that most of the largest pet food providers are owned by or part of major food companies – Nestle (Purina), Mars (Pedigree, Iams, Eukanuba, Whiskas, Sheba, Cesar), General Mills (Blue Buffalo), Cargill (Loyall), Colgate Palmolive (Hills Science Diet).

“They see and understand the parallels between the two, in all aspects of the business and especially in the responsible way to approach to the market,” he observes. Yuhas also believes it is important to note that the industry is working hard to provide exactly the kind of science the market wants.  Clinical research is a high priority, he notes.

“The big names in the business have the resources, the experience, and they are constantly building on that.  The newer players know they have to demonstrate the same commitment.  The business is too lucrative to do otherwise.  They want any bad actors out of the industry, just as much as the consumer does.” – Ed Yuhas, Kincannon and Reed Executive Search

Looking Ahead

What’s ahead for the pet food industry?  Most observers point to more growth, and even more sophistication in what is offered to consumers.

And perhaps most important, these same experts offer a common piece of critical advice when it comes to the nutrition and health of every pet: if in doubt, consult with your veterinarian.  Your vet knows your pets and their specific health situation and dietary needs.

To make the smart choices on pet food, be an informed consumer.  After all, just like Poppy, it’s your family. 

Organic Farming & Gene Editing: Oxymoron or Tool for Sustainable Ag?

organic, veggies, vegetables

This post is written by Rebecca Mackelprang and is posted on Cornell Alliance for Science, an initiative based at Cornell University, a non-profit institution. Their mission is to promote access to scientific innovation as a means of enhancing food security, improving environmental sustainability, and raising the quality of life globally.

The original article was published at The Conversation as Organic farming with gene editing: An oxymoron or a tool for sustainable agriculture? and has been republished here with permission from Cornell Alliance for Science.

A University of California, Berkeley professor stands at the front of the room, delivering her invited talk about the potential of genetic engineering. Her audience, full of organic farming advocates, listens uneasily. She notices a man get up from his seat and move toward the front of the room. Confused, the speaker pauses mid-sentence as she watches him bend over, reach for the power cord, and unplug the projector. The room darkens and silence falls. So much for listening to the ideas of others.

Many organic advocates claim that genetically engineered crops are harmful to human health, the environment, and the farmers who work with them. Biotechnology advocates fire back that genetically engineered crops are safe, reduce insecticide use, and allow farmers in developing countries to produce enough food to feed themselves and their families.

Now, sides are being chosen about whether the new gene editing technology, CRISPR, is really just “GMO 2.0” or a helpful new tool to speed up the plant breeding process. In July, the European Union’s Court of Justice ruled that crops made with CRISPR will be classified as genetically engineered. In the United States, meanwhile, the regulatory system is drawing distinctions between genetic engineering and specific uses of genome editing.

I am a plant molecular biologist and appreciate the awesome potential of both CRISPR and genetic engineering technologies. But I don’t believe that pits me against the goals of organic agriculture. In fact, biotechnology can help meet these goals. And while rehashing the arguments about genetic engineering seems counterproductive, genome editing may draw both sides to the table for a healthy conversation. To understand why, it’s worth digging into the differences between genome editing with CRISPR and genetic engineering.

What’s the difference between genetic engineering, CRISPR and mutation breeding?

Opponents argue that CRISPR is a sneaky way to trick the public into eating genetically engineered foods. It is tempting to toss CRISPR and genetic engineering into the same bucket. But even “genetic engineering” and “CRISPR” are too broad to convey what is happening on the genetic level, so let’s look closer.

In one type of genetic engineering, a gene from an unrelated organism can be introduced into a plant’s genome. For example, much of the eggplant grown in Bangladesh incorporates a gene from a common bacterium. This gene makes a protein called Bt that is harmful to insects. By putting that gene inside the eggplant’s DNA, the plant itself becomes lethal to eggplant-eating insects and decreases the need for insecticides. Bt is safe for humans. It’s like how chocolate makes dogs sick, but doesn’t affect us.

Another type of genetic engineering can move a gene from one variety of a plant species into another variety of that same species. For example, researchers identified a gene in wild apple trees that makes them resistant to fire blight. They moved that gene into the “Gala Galaxy” apple to make it resistant to disease. However, this new apple variety has not been commercialized.

Scientists are unable to direct where in the genome a gene is inserted with traditional genetic engineering, although they use DNA sequencing to identify the location after the fact.

In contrast, CRISPR is a tool of precision.

Just like using the “find” function in a word processor to quickly jump to a word or phrase, the CRISPR molecular machinery finds a specific spot in the genome. It cuts both strands of DNA at that location. Because cut DNA is problematic for the cell, it quickly deploys a repair team to mend the break. There are two pathways for repairing the DNA. In one, which I call “CRISPR for modification,” a new gene can be inserted to link the cut ends together, like pasting a new sentence into a word processor.

In “CRISPR for mutation,” the cell’s repair team tries to glue the cut DNA strands back together again. Scientists can direct this repair team to change a few DNA units, or base pairs (A’s, T’s, C’s and G’s), at the site that was cut, creating a small DNA change called a mutation. This technique can be used to tweak the gene’s behavior inside the plant. It can also be used to silence genes inside the plant that, for example, are detrimental to plant survival, like a gene that increases susceptibility to fungal infections.

In genetic engineering, a new gene is added to a random location in a plant’s genome. CRISPR for modification also allows a new gene to be added to a plant, but targets the new gene to a specific location. CRISPR for mutation does not add new DNA. Rather, it makes a small DNA change at a precise location. Mutation breeding uses chemicals or radiation (lightning bolts) to induce several small mutations in the genomes of seeds. Resulting plants are screened for beneficial mutations resulting in desirable traits. Rebecca Mackelprang, CC BY-SA

Mutation breeding, which in my opinion is also a type of biotechnology, is already used in organic food production. In mutation breeding, radiation or chemicals are used to randomly make mutations in the DNA of hundreds or thousands of seeds which are then grown in the field. Breeders scan fields for plants with a desired trait such as disease resistance or increased yield. Thousands of new crop varieties have been created and commercialized through this process, including everything from varieties of quinoa to varieties of grapefruit. Mutation breeding is considered a traditional breeding technique, and thus is not an “excluded method” for organic farming in the United States.

CRISPR for mutation is more similar to mutation breeding than it is to genetic engineering. It creates similar end products as mutation breeding, but removes the randomness. It does not introduce new DNA. It is a controlled and predictable technique for generating helpful new plant varieties capable of resisting disease or weathering adverse environmental conditions.

Opportunity lost – learning from genetic engineering

Most commercialized genetically engineered traits confer herbicide tolerance or insect resistance in corn, soybean or cotton. Yet many other engineered crops exist. While a few are grown in the field, most sit all but forgotten in dark corners of research labs because of the prohibitive expense of passing regulatory hurdles. If the regulatory climate and public perception allow it, crops with valuable traits like these could be produced by CRISPR and become common in our soils and on our tables.

For example, my adviser at UC Berkeley developed, with colleagues, a hypoallergenic variety of wheat. Seeds for this wheat are held captive in envelopes in the basement of our building, untouched for years. A tomato that uses a sweet pepper gene to defend against a bacterial disease, eliminating the need for copper-based pesticide application, has struggled to secure funding to move forward. Carrotcassavalettucepotato and more have been engineered for increased nutritional value. These varieties demonstrate the creativity and expertise of researchers in bringing beneficial new traits to life. Why, then, can’t I buy bread made with hypoallergenic wheat at the grocery store?

Loosening the grip of big agriculture

Research and development of a new genetically engineered crop costs around US$100 million at large seed companies. Clearing the regulatory hurdles laid out by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, EPA and/or FDA (depending on the engineered trait) takes between five and seven years and an additional $35 million. Regulation is important and genetically engineered products should be carefully evaluated. But, the expense allows only large corporations with extensive capital to compete in this arena. The price shuts small companies, academic researchers and NGOs out of the equation. To recoup their $135 million investment in crop commercialization, companies develop products to satisfy the biggest markets of seed buyers – growers of corn, soybean, sugar beet and cotton.

The costs of research and development are far lower with CRISPR due to its precision and predictability. And early indications suggest that using CRISPR for mutation will not be subject to the same regulatory hurdles and costs in the U.S. A press release on March 28, 2018 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture says that “under its biotechnology regulations, USDA does not regulate or have any plans to regulate plants that could otherwise have been developed through traditional breeding techniques” if they are developed with approved laboratory procedures.

If the EPA and FDA follow suit with reasonable, less costly regulations, CRISPR may escape the dominant financial grasp of large seed companies. Academics, small companies and NGO researchers may see hard work and intellectual capital yield beneficial genome-edited products that are not forever relegated to the basements of research buildings.

Common ground: CRISPR for sustainability

In the six years since the genome editing capabilities of CRISPR were unlocked, academics, startups and established corporations have announced new agricultural products in the pipeline that use this technology. Some of these focus on traits for consumer health, such as low-gluten or gluten-free wheat for people with celiac disease. Others, such as non-browning mushrooms, can decrease food waste.

The lingering California drought demonstrated the importance of crop varieties that use water efficiently. Corn with greater yield under drought stress has already been made using CRISPR, and it is only a matter of time before CRISPR is used to increase drought tolerance in other crops. Powdery mildew-resistant tomatoes could save billions of dollars and eliminate spraying of fungicides. A tomato plant that flowers and makes fruit early could be used in northern latitudes with long days and shorter growing seasons, which will become more important as climate changes.

The rules are made, but is the decision final?

In 2016 and 2017, the U.S. National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) voted to exclude all genome-edited crops from organic certification.

But in my view, they should reconsider.

Some organic growers I interviewed agree. “I see circumstances under which it could be useful for short-cutting a process that for traditional breeding might take many plant generations,” says Tom Willey, an organic farmer emeritus from California. The disruption of natural ecosystems is a major challenge to agriculture, Willey told me, and while the problem cannot be wholly addressed by genome editing, it could lend an opportunity to “reach back into genomes of the wild ancestors of crop species to recapture genetic material” that has been lost through millennia of breeding for high yields.

Breeders have successfully used traditional breeding to reintroduce such diversity, but “in the light of the urgency posed by climate change, we might wisely employ CRISPR to accelerate such work,” Willey concludes.

Bill Tracy, an organic corn breeder and professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, says, “Many CRISPR-induced changes that could happen in nature could have benefits to all kinds of farmers.” But, the NOSB has already voted on the issue and the rules are unlikely to change without significant pressure. “It’s a question of what social activity could move the needle on that,” Tracy concludes.

People on all sides of biotechnology debates want to maximize human and environmental outcomes. Collaborative problem-solving by organic (and conventional) growers, specialists in sustainable agriculture, biotechnologists and policymakers will yield greater progress than individual groups acting alone and dismissing each other. The barriers to this may seem large, but they are of our own making. Hopefully, more people will gain the courage to plug the projector back in and let the conversation continue.

Rebecca Mackelprang is a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, Berkeley. This article originally appeared on The Conversation.