What Are Dead Zones…and is Ag to Blame?

You may have heard of “dead zones”, a term used for areas in large bodies of water where marine life cannot be sustained because of rampant algae growth. To some ardent critics of animal agriculture, these dead zones can be traced to overdependence on animals as a cornerstone component of the modern global food system.

Agriculture and, in particular, production of beef and dairy cattle, as well as the corn and soybeans grown to feed the animals, are the primary targets under attack. Essentially, almost all U.S. crops feed into the Mississippi River Basin. But there is little, if any, attention called to the other sources of the troublesome run-off that causes massive algae growth.

So how do these dead zones occur? And is agriculture really to blame for these problem areas? And, most importantly, what is being done to bring life back to these dead zones?

How are Dead Zones created?

Dead zones occur from too much nitrogen and phosphorus in the water, most in the form of run-off from use and misuse of fertilizers, inadequate wastewater control, improperly managed animal wastes, and plain old natural phenomena, such as the heavy rains and flooding that plagued major parts of the United States earlier this year.

Hypoxia is the scientific term for having too little oxygen to support life. In a hypoxic zone, animal life simply suffocates and dies. Hypoxia occurs when excess nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus stimulate the growth of algae, which sinks and decomposes in water. The decomposition process consumes the oxygen needed by other marine life – impairing gestation, compromising egg production, or simply suffocating much of the life in the water.

Dead zones emerge from a complex web of sources:

Where do Dead Zones exist?

Currently, there are approximately 405 dead zones around the world and in different bodies of water, but mostly along coastlines. The Arabian Sea is currently the largest one with a continual lack of oxygen preventing marine life from growing.

The Baltic Sea dead zone is also massive, at more than 23,000 square miles and stretching from Poland to Finland. Smaller hypoxic areas have emerged in Lake Erie and oceanic conditions off the shores of California and Oregon are currently being monitored for a possible return of a Pacific dead zone.

NOAA scientists are forecasting this summer’s Gulf of Mexico hypoxic zone or ‘dead zone’ to be approximately 7,829 square miles or roughly the size of the land mass of Massachusetts.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s June 10, 2019 Media Release

The second largest dead zone is the northern Gulf of Mexico. Some industry experts estimate that the Gulf of Mexico supplies 72 percent of U.S. harvested shrimp, 66 percent of harvested oysters and 16 percent of commercial fish. So a dead zone here not only leads to a meaningful loss of shrimp, crabs, oysters, fish, and other marine life, but also disrupts a large commercial industry that provides products in high demand by food consumers. The same situation is also happening in the Chesapeake Bay, where 500 million pounds of seafood are harvested each year, primarily oysters, blue crabs, and striped bass.

Source: World Resources Institute

Waterways feeding the Dead Zones

The challenge in addressing the dead zone problem isn’t just the multiplicity of sources behind the problem.  It’s also the sheer physical size of the area involved.

Waterways such as the Gulf of Mexico, the Chesapeake Bay, and U.S. Great Lakes draw water from an enormous network of sources.  Potential pollutants can come not just from areas immediately adjacent to the dead zone, but also from potentially huge areas where run-off may occur.

For example, the Gulf of Mexico is fed by the Mississippi River basin – an area that encompasses 33 major river systems, more than 200 estuaries, and drains 41% of the contiguous United States. About four out of five acres used to produce corn and soybeans in this country are within it, as is more than half of all U.S. agricultural land, with an estimated annual production value of close to $100 billion.  Such a vast drainage area shows just how important extensive flooding – like that seen across huge swatches of the Midwest this spring — can be in the creation of a dead zone.

Source: mississippiriverdelta.org

Farming solutions to curb Dead Zone formation

Broad communities of scientists, environmentalists, farmers, ranchers, and others are joining together to tackle the problem – with the encouraging results that merit a continued mutual effort to protect one of the natural resources critical to a sustainable global food system.

In the world of agriculture, there are aggressive educational efforts to commit to responsible crop and herd management. Many farmers are employing technology to help reduce run-off through chemical and nutrient over-application, such as:

  • Precision agriculture combined with “micro nutrient” technology that fosters the application of the precisely correct type and amount of nutrients, herbicides, and pesticides

  • Genetic engineered crops also help reduce the amount of agricultural chemicals

  • Sound conservation practices such as no-tilling, proper crop rotation, and use of cover crops

Ranchers and dairy farmers are also proactively managing animal waste to help reduce run-off and revitalize these dead zones.

In fact, nearly nine out of every 10 farmers and ranchers recently surveyed by the industry’s National Cattleman’s Beef Association say they manage manure and waste in a proper manner that safeguards air and water.

Innovative programs developed by producers have helped find environmentally responsible uses for surplus manure, such as:

  • Expanded use of sanitized and pelletized manure for use in organic farming

  • Distribution arrangements with gardening and landscaping enterprises interested in expanded use of non-chemical fertilizers

  • “Spread the wealth” by finding available surplus storage and composting opportunities for “black gold,” as ranchers often call manure

  • The Environmental Protection Agency is facing lawsuits from environmental groups to speed their updating of wastewater guidelines for animal processing facilities, and public pressure on these companies is growing

Working together for real results

Despite what ag critics may say, there are multiple sources contributing to the problem. Many of the golf courses, housing developments, and other urban development areas that were previously undeveloped are now inadvertently contributing to the rising risks of run-off, and ultimately the growth of the occurrence and size of dead zones.

On the municipal wastewater front, state and federal agencies report an expansion in the number of municipal water management authorities monitoring nitrogen and phosphorus levels in their facilities, and perhaps more important, in establishing limits for each element in discharge levels.

On an even-broader scale, several task forces have been created to find long-term solutions to the management of U.S. dead zones. For example, the Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Task Force includes representatives of agencies from almost all states along the Mississippi, from Louisiana to Minnesota, as well as federal agencies such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce and Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Tribal Water Council.

Their goal is to reduce the size of the Gulf dead zone to 5,000 square kilometers (roughly 1,900 square miles) by 2035, with an interim goal of a 20 percent reduction in nitrogen and phosphorus loading by 2025. We have already seen significant progress in achieving its goals.

What Does the Market Hold for Alternative Proteins?

alternative protein burger

Burger King recently ran into a surprising problem: it ran out of burgers.

Well, not exactly. The restaurant still had plenty of ground beef and other traditional ingredients on hand, but at the end of June, the burger chain was running low on the new, meatless burgers from Beyond Meat that had been added to its menu last year, according to The Wall Street Journal.

What’s changing? Consumers.

And Burger King wasn’t alone. Burger chain White Castle, which added Impossible Foods’ meatless burgers last year, reported similar shortages, as did restaurants including TGI Fridays, Del Taco, CKE Restaurant Holdings’ Carl’s Jr., Red Robin, and others.

That’s right, consumer demand for alternative meat products has officially arrived.

In fact, White Castle leadership credited the 4 percentage point increase in same-store sales to its Impossible Sliders. As of this spring, a full 15% of U.S. restaurants offered meatless products, according to market research firm Technomic, accounting for nearly 20,000 locations nationwide, a figure that was up 3% year-over-year.

Younger shoppers, in particular, are looking for healthier, more sustainable alternatives to the usual meat-and-potatoes menus of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. According to Technomic, 71% of consumers now eat seafood at least once a month and 50% eat vegetarian or vegan dishes at least once a month. Meatless burgers and other alternative proteins are one way for restaurants to reach these diners.

“This desire for flexibility highlights the fact that dietary lifestyle choices are often not all-or-nothing decisions for consumers…Semi-vegetarian and flexitarian diets appeal to those who aspire to eat healthier while still providing leeway to splurge on meat or seafood occasionally. To cater to shifting behaviors, operators can offer protein substitutes for certain dishes or create a handful of build-your-own options that give consumers an even greater level of control.”

– Bret Yonke, Manager of Consumer Insights at Technomic

These findings line up with what Chris Kerr, Chief Investment Officer with New Crop Capital, a venture capital fund focused on investing in plant-based alternative protein technologies, has been seeing on an anecdotal basis in the market for the last year-plus. In Kerr’s view, it all comes down to awareness, price, taste and convenience, and we’ve reached the tipping point on all four.

R&D advancements in recent years have led to massive improvements in alternative protein taste and texture. That’s attracted new investment capital to support marketing and product design efforts. And that has brought about new consumer awareness and interest.

“It’s just a self-feeding loop that is basically allowing all this to happen,” Kerr says. “What it’s demonstrating is that there’s all this pent up demand, and now that all of these dollars are finding their way into the market it’s bringing in more attention and the large food companies are playing a role in [alternative proteins] in a way that they haven’t for the last 50 years.”

And that fact matters a lot, because the leading global food providers are large, diversified corporations that can make or break new markets like these.

Consumers demand taste and variety

Buyers today are more concerned about their health, more socially conscious and aware of where their food comes from. Because of this, they are more accepting of alternatives to meat, dairy, eggs and other proteins than previous generations as a result. However, taste is still king, and without it, these products won’t succeed.

Explains Kerr, “If taste doesn’t drive this, everything else fails. I think what’s really happened is that companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have convinced people that they don’t have to settle for plain old quinoa burgers anymore.

It’s not that there’s a huge new population becoming vegan. According to Gallup, less than 10% of Americans adhere to either a vegetarian or vegan diet and those numbers have been steady for years. But what has changed is a new acceptance of alternative proteins in the marketplace.

“Many people today are embracing this idea that we don’t have to eat meat as our sole source of protein,” says Kerr, ”and I think that’s the real driver behind what’s going on right now. From gay rights to cannabis, a lot of social stigmas have changed, and I see plant-based eating right in there as well. That wasn’t the case even five years ago. That’s the tipping point.”

A growing market

Of course, there’s far more to the alternative protein space than just well-known names like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods. A fast growing segment, the plant protein market value is expected to grow 55% in just six years, according to Persistence Market Research.

Source: Statista.com.

For one thing, established industry players like Tyson and Cargill have gotten into the game, as well. Tyson Foods recently announced their plans to start selling pea protein nuggets this year, in addition to a blended pea and beef burger, potentially bringing alternative proteins to a huge new market. Cargill has invested in lab-grown meat startup Memphis Meats, pea protein producer PURIS, and Calysta, which is developing methane-based proteins. Even Ikea, the Swedish purveyor of flat-packet furniture, is getting into the game with a new plant-based version of their iconic Swedish meatballs.

The science behind alternative protein technology is far from a new development, considering that companies like Kraft and Kellogg have been selling for years. But it is only now finding broad consumer reach and appeal thanks to a range of new developments and innovations.

Atlantic Natural Foods, the manufacturer of Loma Linda®, Neat® and Kaffree Roma™ brand products, produces alternatives for seafood, beef and pork products. The company aims to create affordable, sustainable and healthy sources of plant-based protein, with a focus not only on what today’s shoppers are looking for, but also what is driving future trends.

Laura Lapp, innovation brand manager explains:

“Plants are remarkable in the way the texture, size and shape can be made to mimic traditionally animal-based foods. We’ve gotten really creative with soy and have now produced what looks just like conventional tuna. We’re using real seaweed too, which has the flavor of the ocean, but doesn’t harm the ocean.”

Equinom, an Israeli seed-breeding company, is working a step up the alternative proteins supply chain, breeding various grain crops with an eye toward bringing better protein to the world.  While it used to focus on crops for feed and biodiesel, it has turned its eye toward human health. Currently, it is working to create 50% more protein from already high protein crops, such as soybeans, pea, sesame and chickpeas. Others that have potential are cowpeas, green peas, mung beans, and quinoa.

“We believe we could reduce the cost of plant-protein also as a viable cost-effective alternative to meat protein with better taste and functionality,” Dana says. “We want to make it clear to the market that plant protein are here to stay and this is not a trend.”

Looking ahead

In such a fast-moving industry, we’ll continue to see many players challenging the alternative protein space. For instance, did you know you can create protein out of thin air? It sounds impossible, but clean tech experts from Finland, Solar Foods can build edible proteins with just CO2, electricity, and water!

At the end of the day, the market for alternative proteins is facing a perfect storm event – product quality has reached a point where even meat eaters are looking at plant-based proteins as tasty options, interest in health and wellness have moved front and center for many buyers, and demand for protein in all forms continues to rise worldwide along with rising standards of living. The challenge is aligning the resources, along with the manufacturing and distribution capabilities, to make it all a reality.

On the Farm & In the Books: FFA Spotlight on Katherine Smith

ffa katherine smith

The Future Farmers of America (FFA) is the premier youth organization preparing members for leadership and careers in the science, business and technology of agriculture. In an effort to spread the word about the inspiring efforts of leading FFA members, Dirt to Dinner will be highlighting some participant stories.

Our first featured story is about Katherine Smith. Through her extensive work on the farm and in the books, Katherine sees the biggest challenge in modern agriculture is helping smallholder farmers achieve profitability through financial stability and process improvement, and her mission is to make that happen.

Here is Katherine’s story told from her unique point of view. She details how she found her special niche in ag and what she is doing to further her career in the industry.

I grew up in Lynden, Washington, an agricultural community known for our dairies and berries. 90% of North America’s red raspberries are grown within a 50-mile radius of Lynden. My grandparents live on the south coast of Oregon and are organic cranberry farmers. Growing up, I always got to skip at least a week of school during October so that my family could go down to help with the harvest. Perhaps one of my fondest memories was my grandma teaching me how to do long division on a cardboard box so that I could calculate something for the farm. From a young age, I knew I wanted to work in agriculture. I loved how there was always a new challenge to solve, whether that was machinery breaking or trying to figure out a better way to complete our work.

I first joined FFA during my freshman year of high school because I wanted to show pigs at the local fair. I’d been involved in poultry 4-H, but my mom thought FFA was a better fit. I joined the Livestock Judging team because I figured that would be a good way to make me a better and more knowledgeable showman. However, I wasn’t that committed to FFA until after my judging team went to state and ended up placing second. This meant that I was now going to the state convention the following week for the awards on stage.

At the first State dinner, one of the advisors asked me if I was good at math. I said sure, and he asked if I wanted to join the Farm Business Management team since they had an extra spot. The Farm Business Management competition is a three-hour agricultural economics, accounting, and finance test.

That was a pivotal moment for me; from then on, FFA became my passion. I ended up raising hogs, competing in Livestock Judging, Horse Judging, Farm Business Management, Parliamentary Procedures, and Extemporaneous Public Speaking. I served as a chapter and district officer and ran for state office.

The summer following my senior year of high school, I began working as a Quality Control Lab tech at Enfield Farms, Inc. in Lynden, WA. Enfields grows, processes, and packages individually quick-frozen raspberries and blueberries, in addition to puree and juice stock products. Having grown up working on my grandparent’s organic fresh fruit cranberry farm, I had experience with processing fruit and thoroughly enjoyed my work at Enfield’s.

The following summer I was offered an internship with the Quality Control department. Through that internship, I continued my work in the lab, but also performed a study on storage temperatures and the formation of ice crystals. I then assisted in the development of a process to allocate pallets of finished product to different product codes based on quality.

My third summer at Enfield’s, my internship changed a bit to focus on Food Safety and Inventory Control. During that summer, we implemented a new warehouse management system and I worked with the inventory tracking personnel to take raw fruit weight measurements and label-finished product according to the product codes given by the process I had worked on the previous year. I also worked with production employees to ensure food safety protocols were followed.

Last summer, my job title was Production Quality Coordinator. I was responsible for ensuring the correct operation of our inventory tracking process within the processing plant, the product disposition process, and shipping finished pallets to the various cold storage facilities.

While in college, my hope had been to work with my grandparents to expand their cranberry operation and to eventually move into farming full-time. As a result, I began majoring in biochemistry since the university with the best scholarship didn’t have an agricultural program. I started taking some business classes, as well, and eventually realized my passion for accounting.

Perhaps I should have figured this out a little sooner because as soon as I graduated high school, I began coaching my chapter’s Farm Business Management team and have always been passionate about bringing business and agriculture together. I ended up changing my major to Accounting during my junior year and miraculously still managed to graduate on time.

In college, I realized that while my grandparent’s farm is great for them in their retirement, the amount of capital required to expand it to the point where it would be profitable for a family is extensive. At the moment, I am studying for my Certified Public Accountant (CPA) exams and this fall will begin working for a local public accounting firm with a lot of agricultural clients. While at the moment I’m not pursuing agriculture full-time, my plan is to save my money and slowly work into farming for myself.

Over the last few years, I’ve learned that I love educating people about agriculture, working to develop new processes, and the challenges provided by agriculture. My hope is that I will be able to use my business education and agricultural experience to help farmers do business better so that they can continue to do what they love. Whether that means that I continue in accounting or end up with my own farm, I think I can achieve those objectives either way.

Stay tuned for more Future Farmers of America stories like this. If you would like to get involved with FFA, visit www.ffa.org. If you’re a fellow FFA and want to share your story, or tell us more about an inspiring FFA member, please email us at info@dirt-to-dinner.com – we’d love to hear your stories!



Can GMOs Make Me Sick?

gmo, tortilla chips

According to a survey done by GMO Answers, only 32% of consumers are comfortable having GMOs in their food. Google “GMOs” and you will find a plethora of scary statements:

  • “GMOs damage our microbiome and can cause a leaky gut.”

  • “GMO wheat created gluten allergies.”

  • “GMOs may make my genes mutate and cause cancer.”

  • “Eating a GM diet causes liver damage.”

  • “Stomach lesions are linked to FLAVR SAVR tomatoes.

  • “Pets fed GMOs have organ damage, cancer, allergies and more.”

No wonder consumers are concerned! At D2D, we’ve heard comments like these all too often. So we dug into exactly what happens in our bodies when we eat food that has been grown with a GMO.

First off, let’s understand a little more about GMO crops. As you may know from reading our previous post, GMOs are Confusing: A Recipe for Understanding, genetically changing a crop simply means adding in one or two targeted genes from another organism to achieve a desired outcome.

Another thing to know is that there are only 10 commercially available GMO crops: corn, soy, cotton, canola, sugar beets, alfalfa, papaya, squash, apples and potatoes. If you read something scary about “GMO wheat”, or even see “Non-GMO water”, consider yourself armed with knowledge because now you know there’s no such thing.

What exactly happens when you eat a GMO?

As I write this, my husband and I are watching the pink and orange sunset from our garden patio. While dipping my corn chips in the salsa, my husband wryly asks if it contains any GMOs. I chew the corn chip and salsa. Whether the corn chip has GMOs or not, it is still loaded with genes. Every living organism has genes and corn has as many as 32,000 genes.

I am pretty confident that my body knows how to digest proteins as it has been doing so my entire life. I have eaten tons of GMO food over the past 20 years and I am still healthy. How does my body do this?

Using enzymes in my saliva and intestine, I, like all humans, am able to digest hundreds of thousands of proteins every single day. Trypsin and Chymotrypsin are digestive enzymes found in our saliva, gut, and small intestine, that break proteins down into peptides and amino acids. Our bodies use these as building blocks which, in turn, produce new proteins that control hormones, create muscle, and other very necessary functions. In fact, every cell in our bodies have proteins that were directed by specific genes.

Digesting GMO and Non-GMO Foods: It’s All the Same!

Simply put, GMOs provide a few added proteins into the crop. By inserting these genes into the DNA, researchers are ultimately adding in a non-corn protein to the corn plant. These proteins may provide either additional nutrition to a crop, give a crop insect resistance, tolerate herbicides, or even create a greater yield.

Different types of proteins are affected in a variety of ways when cooked. For instance, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is a soil bacterium that produces a protein that kills corn-attacking insects and is a common gene inserted into corn crops. These Bt proteins in my processed corn chips become inactive after cooking. If, by chance, there are any small protein pieces left, they are attacked by the enzymes in the mouth and stomach. They are then converted into amino acids, where the body can either use them to build its own proteins, use them for energy, or break down and exit the body.

But what if it isn’t cooked? You may have read about the citrus greening disease, which has killed millions of citrus plants in the Southeastern U.S. via an infected insect. To combat this, a GMO orange was created to resist the citrus greening. An anti-citrus greening gene from the spinach plant was isolated and inserted to protect the trees.

So, if you are allergic to spinach, will you now be allergic to genetically modified oranges? No, because the specific gene from the spinach plant was tested for human allergens before it was used in oranges.

What studies have been done to ensure human safety?

First of all, to be sold commercially in the United States, the EPA, FDA and USDA must agree that the genetically-modified crops are safe for human consumption and for the environment. Before a GMO comes on the market it is tested for human allergies and toxicity. Clinical testing has been conducted to determine changes to a genetic profile, effects on fertility, effects on internal organs, and nutritional composition.

 Foods from GE plants must meet the same food safety requirements as foods derived from traditionally bred plants” – FDA website

In addition, health groups such as the American Medical Association, WHO, Mayo Clinic, Royal Society of Medicine, European Commission, American Council on Health Science, OECD, FAO, American Society of Microbiology, just to list a few, have all concluded – from independent research – that GMOs are safe in our food system.

Researchers in the U.S. and countries around the world have completed hundreds of individual peer-reviewed studies that report on tests on GMOs in the environment and on human and animal health. The Center for Environmental Risk Assessment has compiled a database open to the public where you can see most of these studies. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences has also compiled a most comprehensive research on genetically engineered crops and food.

Given the extreme testing that GMO crops are subjected to, some scientists even argue that they are safer than traditional crops!

Some conventional crops carry genes that have the potential to cause harm when eaten. When a non-GMO potato is deep fried, a new chemical is created during the cooking process: a carcinogen called acrylamide. A variety of GM potatoes have been altered to produce less acrylamide when deep fried than a regular potato. To reduce the levels of acrylamide created from the cooking process, a natural protein is added to potatoes to reduce the production of this carcinogen.

Food fear is so prevalent online. For instance, GMO FLAVR SAVR tomatoes are not even on the market anymore, but critics continue to talk about it. The gene used to keep it fresh was the ‘reverse’ of the tomato fruit enzyme, which softens fruit but the public demanded it gone from grocery stores due to pervasive misunderstanding about GMOs.

Understandably, with all the information we read on the internet, it is hard to know what to believe. As I eat my chips and salsa, short of conducting the research myself, I choose to believe the 30 years’ work of independent scientists, researchers, and government organizations that have been published as peer-reviewed studies. The science says my corn chips are safe, so I confidently eat another chip and pass the bowl to my husband.