Does my produce have pesticide residues?

In the realm of healthy eating, fruits and vegetables reign supreme. However, alongside their abundant vitamins, minerals, and other micronutrients, we’re bombarded with a reminder of a less savory and potentially harmful aspect: the presence of pesticide residues on our produce.

A Brief History of Pesticides & the EPA

But first, let’s get one thing straight: pesticides have a very necessary place in our global food system. Without products like insecticides, fungicides and other pesticide types, all crops would be prone to rot, leading to famine, disease, global hunger…just to name a few. If we suddenly nixed all pesticides, our current situation with egregious food waste in this country would seem inconsequential.

However, too much of a seemingly good thing always has unintended consequences. In the 1940s, the advent of powerful broad-spectrum pesticides, like DDT, gave farmers an effective, long-lasting tool to protect their animals and crops from insects. Furthermore, these powerful tools also helped combat malaria, typhus, and other insect-born human diseases.

But then its surge in application came at a cost.

By the ‘60s, word got out that excessive use of DDT posed unacceptable acute and long-term health risks to humans, including seizures, birth defects, and cancer, as well as damaging wildlife and the environment. In response to the outcry, the U.S. government took swift action and created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to protect human health and the environment from toxic chemicals, including now-prohibited pesticides like DDT, aldrin, and hexachlorobenzene (HCB).

Pesticide Reporting

Now, in conjunction with the USDA, various crops are monitored annually for pesticide residues with the annual Pesticide Data Program (PDP).

This year’s report is based on data from the 2022/23 season and includes multiple samples from over 20 fresh crops, like green beans, potatoes, and blueberries. Popular crops not tested this particular season, like apples, oranges, and avocadoes, will be included in the next rotation of tested crops.

The USDA then reports its findings in a comprehensive summary released on the PDP website. Once released to the public, consumer information agencies like Consumer Reports and the Environmental Working Group reinterpret the USDA’s findings to create these derivative reports, like the notorious “Dirty Dozen” list.

When you use the massive PDP database to start weaving information together across various crops over a multitude of years, you often find a conflicting story. Suddenly, these reports stating that you’re ingesting endocrine-disrupting and cancer-causing nerve agents feel sensational, at best, against the opposing PDP data that show a downward trend year-over-year in highly toxic pesticides.

Non-governmental or non-academic, consumer-centric reports can generate fear and deceive us into believing that ingesting any fresh fruit or vegetable is detrimental to our overall health, or that organic produce is free from all pesticides.

Despite the many claims in these consumer reports, available evidence suggests that the low levels of pesticide residues typically found on produce are unlikely to make most people sick or cause cancer.

Focusing on Facts

With that stated, we can’t ignore some of the pesticide residue data these reports found. Specifically, reports from the PDP and Consumer Reports shared the below facts based on information from the PDP database when the USDA’s initiative began in 1994:

The good news:

  • 99% of the samples tested in this year’s report had residues below the EPA’s legal limits (or “tolerances”)
  • 28% didn’t have any detectible pesticide residues

  • Despite growing fears about the long-term effects of Roundup, or glyphosate, the controversial herbicide was only detected on crops largely intended for animal feed – soybean grain and corn grain
  • The World Health Organization (WHO), and its Joint Meeting on Pesticide Residues (JMPR) committee, have found that pesticide residues in food are unlikely to cause cancer in people through dietary exposure:

“JMPR’s risk assessment found that based on the weight-of-evidence approach, these compounds are unlikely to cause cancer in people via dietary exposure. This means it is possible to establish safe exposure levels – acceptable daily intakes (ADI) – for consumers.”

The bad news:

  • Green beans had numerous residues exceeding current tolerance levels
    • The USDA found 16 unique pesticides on these samples, some of which the EPA canceled use or banned over a decade ago, like methamidophos
  • Of all produce exceeding EPA tolerances, 66% were from imported crops
    • Crop samples from Mexico reported the highest residue levels, including green bean samples with multiple residues exceeding EPA tolerances
    • Largely imported crops include blueberries, grapes, tomatoes and watermelon (rind removed).

An Optimistic Outlook

Though some of these findings sound concerning, we found plenty of information that shows the needle moving in the right direction.

Here are some of the highlights we found in these reports over the last few years, plus some information gathered from conducting our own research in the PDP database and other farming resources:

Lower toxicity

  • D2D analysis shows top residues found across most fresh produce crops are less toxic than previously reported years, as indicated by WHOs pesticide toxicity classifications
    • Lesser toxic fungicides include boscalid, azoxystrobin, and fluopyram; insecticides bifenthrin and imidacloprid

Increased localization

  • The USDA’s most considerable residue risks stem from just a few pesticides concentrated in specific foods grown on a small fraction of U.S. farmland
    • CR’s food safety expert, James E. Rogers, emphasizes that this concentrated risk makes it easier to identify problems and develop targeted solutions.

Better technology

  • Farmers and food producers continue to implement improved pest management practices, including advanced technologies
    • Precision ag systems in the field
      • AgZen’s patented pesticide droplet optimizer
      • FruitScout’s crop load manager platform
      • John Deere’s comprehensive machinery and production management tools
    • Scientific applications for crop management

What can we do right now?

It’s more like what you can’t do.

It feels counterintuitive, but don’t eat fewer fruits and vegetables because of pesticide concerns. The health benefits of eating lots of produce far outweigh the potential risks from these residues.

There’s no doubt about it: produce is loaded with vitamins, minerals, and micronutrients necessary for a healthy body and well-functioning brain.

If anything, we all should eat more produce.

And yes, while some pesticides can negatively affect health and the environment, the levels found on most produce are extremely low and not linked to adverse health effects.

If we follow the food-prep tips below, the surface residues will be largely eliminated, allowing us to enjoy our fresh foods without fear.

  • Wash fruits and veggies under running water for 15 to 20 seconds.
    • For those especially concerned about residues, consider one of the following methods:
      • Soak your fresh produce in a bath for a few minutes with 5 parts water and 1 part vinegar, then rinse; or
      • Soak your produce in a solution of one teaspoon of baking soda per two cups of cold water for 10-15 minutes, then rinse
  • Peel and trim produce when possible
  • Eat a variety of produce from different sources to reduce exposure to a single pesticide or environmental contaminant
    • If you can only tolerate certain produce items, consider purchasing the following alternatives:
      • Selecting the organic counterpart, which the PDP reports to have fewer residues despite having the same nutrient density as conventional
      • Frozen produce has already been through rigorous cleaning and processing, further reducing residues than its fresh counterparts
  • Try to stick with produce farmed in the U.S.

The key is moderation and making informed choices, not eliminating nutrient-rich produce from your diet due to pesticide fears.

Uncovering Illegal Fishing Boats

Growing up in northern New England, we were spoiled with abundant fresh, local seafood. It wasn’t until I moved away that I realized how good I had it eating freshly caught fish. The United States imports 70-80% of its seafood, mostly from China, Thailand, Canada, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Ecuador.   

My new reality was pulling out my phone at the seafood counter in my grocery store to find out where the catch originated. But with confusing adjectives, like “line caught,” “wild,” “farmed,” “no antibiotic-free,” “pole caught,” and “sustainable,”… I ended up just sticking with salmon farmed in Norway, where I knew the standard was high.

Turns out, I had every reason to be overly cautious. A study released in the January 2024 issue of Nature reports that 75% of global fishing vessels are untraceable. Research jointly conducted by Global Fishing Watch, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Duke University, UC Santa Barbara, and SkyTruth, gave concrete insights into this murky world of “dark vessels”. These stealthy ships roam the seas, plundering marine resources without a trace.

Understanding Dark Vessel Fishing

Dark vessel fishing ships operate well beyond the reach of regulation and oversight, hence the name ‘dark’.  Their impropriety threatens the delicate balance of marine ecosystems across the globe, not to mention posing a significant concern to global food security, economic stability, and the livelihoods of millions of people who depend on the ocean for sustenance.

The fishing industry has experienced a slowdown in recent years. Prolonged COVID shutdowns and overfishing in previous decades, as well as an increase in on-land and shore-based aquaculture operations, have contributed to decreased demand. Despite this, seafood remains a $250 billion market, with an estimated loss due to illegal fishing as high as $23.5 billion.

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) activity continues to proliferate, prompted by an increasing demand for fish. As long as there are fish to capture, these stealthy ships will attempt to reap profits by exploiting fishing grounds beyond the reach of authorities.

IUU fishing vessels use a variety of tactics to evade detection, from turning off or manipulating their automatic identification system (AIS) transponders to operating in remote and poorly monitored ocean regions. The result is a cat-and-mouse game between authorities and illicit operators, with significant implications for marine biodiversity and the sustainability of global fisheries.

“A new industrial revolution has been emerging in our seas undetected—until now. On land, we have detailed maps of almost every road and building on the planet.

In contrast, growth in our ocean has been largely hidden from public view.”


          David Kroodsma, study author, Global Fishing Watch

Identifying Dark Vessels

The study, conducted by an international team of researchers, analyzed satellite data and harnessed the power of artificial intelligence to track the movements of dark vessel fishing boats to identify hotspots of illegal fishing activity and gain a deeper understanding of the factors driving these activities.

The study’s findings paint a troubling picture of the prevalence of dark vessel fishing across various regions of the world, even in marine protected areas like the Galapagos Marine Reserve. Their study also found more than 25 percent of transport and energy vessels are considered “dark.”

“Historically, vessel activity has been poorly documented, limiting our understanding of how the world’s largest public resource—the ocean—is being used.

By combining space technology with state-of-the-art machine learning, we mapped undisclosed industrial activity at sea on a scale never done before.”


          Fernando Paolo, study author, Global Fishing Watch

Collecting and analyzing the incomprehensible amount of data (2 thousand terabytes worth) needed to find this specific information was no small feat. Thankfully, these brilliant researchers mined disparate sets of public data to pinpoint exact locations of fishing vessels, both traceable and non-traceable.

They started with amassing satellite images of coastal waters worldwide from the European Space Agency from 2017 to 2021. They then created proprietary automated technology to identify which of those vessels were fishing boats. Next, the researchers compared images of the ships with public records disclosing their AIS location to determine which vessels did not broadcast their whereabouts.

Armed with this information, they create a “heat map” to show legal and illegal fishing activity across the globe:

Targeting Dark Vessel Locations

One of the key insights revealed by the research is the concentration of dark vessel fishing activity in some geographic regions.

Despite public AIS records indicating a somewhat distributed sprawl across most continents, these researchers prove that most illegal activity occurs in Asia.

The study identified several regions in Asia as the primary hotspots of IUU activity, notably Southeast and East Asia.

These regions are characterized by complex maritime disputes, porous borders, a vast array of fish species, and limited law enforcement presence to oversee farmed aquaculture practices, environmental protections, water toxicity, and many other factors.

“Publicly available data wrongly suggests that Asia and Europe have similar amounts of fishing within their borders, but our mapping reveals that Asia dominates — for every 10 fishing vessels we found on the water, seven were in Asia while only one was in Europe.

By revealing dark vessels, we have created the most comprehensive public picture of global industrial fishing available.”


Jennifer Raynor, study author, University of Wisconsin-Madison

This lethal combination creates fertile ground for dark vessel operators to carry out an unconscionable number of illicit activities, especially in specific hotbeds of IUU activity:

Korean Peninsula

In East Asia, the waters off the Korean Peninsula have become premier battlegrounds in the fight against IUU fishing, with crustaceans, shellfish, and finfish populating the waters.

Also of note, South Korea is the largest global consumer of seafood. Surprisingly, 65% of their seafood is imported, despite their seemingly abundant waters.

Bay of Bengal

Similarly, the Bay of Bengal off the coast of South Asia’s Bangladesh and Myanmar, has emerged as a hotspot of illegal fishing activity, where 100% of all fishing activity is not tracked.

And to make matters worse, some fishers off of these shores use poison to catch the area’s abundance of finfish and shrimp. This not only damages the health of those who consume the poisoned products, but it also endangers the largest mangrove forest ecosystem in the world.

Strengthening Global Cooperation & Enforcement Efforts

This study can serve as a loud and clear warning sign for all of us. Addressing the scourge of dark vessel fishing requires international cooperation, significant investment in monitoring and onsite enforcement, and promoting sustainable fishing practices are all essential components of a comprehensive strategy to combat IUU fishing.

Though daunting, this undertaking would help recover an estimated global economic loss due to illegal fishing as high as $23.5 billion annually. Not to mention the restoration of vulnerable coastal communities and local economies suffering from devastating poverty and food insecurity.

Furthermore, this methodology can be easily adapted to tackle other global issues, like climate change. Mapping all vessels can improve estimates of oceanic carbon emissions and track marine degradation.

“Previously, this type of satellite monitoring was only available to those who could pay for it. Now it is freely available to all nations.

This study marks the beginning of a new era in ocean management and transparency.”


          David Kroodsma, study author, Global Fishing Watch

Much can be learned from this team of researchers in terms of determination to source discreet data sets around the globe, innovative implementation of artificial intelligence, and cross-organization cooperation. If we follow suit, we can find new ways to shine a light on these activities and hold those responsible for their crimes.

What We Can Do Today

We can empower ourselves right away by realizing the trickle-down effect of our everyday purchase decisions. If we don’t buy fish products sourced from countries like Bangladesh, Myanmar, and other areas of the world with rampant dark vessels, fewer IUU ships will bother fishing in less lucrative territories.

As for discrete locations, if you prefer wild-caught, stick with fish caught in the northern shores of Europe. For farmed, consider fish from reputable countries like Norway, Scotland, Canada, and Chile.

Organizations focused on sustainable seafood can provide practical, research-based recommendations, too. Seafood Watch creates helpful guides to better navigate our grocery aisles and stick to more sustainable species and acceptable countries of origin (here’s the Watch’s guide for shrimp). You can also keep an eye out for the Marine Stewardship Council’s blue “MSC” label to stick with sustainable fish species.

Still can’t find the country of origin for the fish you want? Ask someone, whether it’s the associate behind the seafood counter, customer service at the grocery store, or the waiter who must ask the chef. If many of us ask this question wherever we purchase seafood, more industry players will be compelled to start readily providing these details.

D2D Digs into the Future of Biofuels

We’re excited to dig into biofuels with Colin Murphy, Deputy Director of the Policy Institute for Energy, Environment, and the Economy, and co-director of the ITS-Davis Low Carbon Fuel Policy Research Initiative. During our podcast, we discuss advancements in the space and the massive effect biofuels will have on all points along the supply chain, including our food system.

Prior to joining the Policy Institute, Colin was a Science Policy Fellow with the California Council on Science and Technology, and an advocate for sustainable transportation and energy policy with the NextGen Policy Center, where he helped extend California’s climate programs through 2030.

Colin has a B.S. in Biological Systems Engineering from UC Davis, a M.S. in Science, Technology and Public Policy from the Rochester Institute of Technology and a Ph.D. in Transportation Technology and Policy from UC Davis.

To read the transcript for this podcast, please click here.

Expert Take on Defining ‘Sustainability’

Christine Daugherty has both a PhD in plant physiology and a law degree. She is widely recognized as both a deep thinker and active agent of sustainability, working with a wide number of companies and other organizations deeply committed to the idea of sustainability.

Christine will talk to us about the business community’s commitment to sustainability. She will weigh in on the continuing debate on carbon sequestration. And she will help us understand the parallels between sustainability and regenerative agriculture, including soil management practices.

If you believe sustainability is one of the most important topics in today’s world of food and agriculture, you definitely want to hear what Christine has to say.

FFA’s Nicholas Mello: The Importance of Seed Science

Nicholas Mello of California’s Hanford Future Farmers of America (FFA) Chapter is a finalist in the Agriscience Research–Plant Systems Proficiency field. Plant systems proficiency…what does this mean, exactly? Nick conducted research at Zonneveld Dairies, comparing the yield per acre of three different hybrid corn seed varieties planted on 95 acres each to determine the highest yielding variety.

Nick learned that nearby Zonneveld Dairies was interested in investing in higher yield producing corn seed variety to feed their dairy cattle. Mello developed and designed this experiment to ensure that each seed had the same acreage and grew under the same conditions. Dirt to Dinner had the opportunity to communicate with Nick about his experiment’s findings and his FFA experience.

Want to learn more about Nick’s research? Check out his video here.

Defining Research Objectives

Describe your Agriscience research experiment in detail for our readers—how did you develop the idea, what problem were you trying to solve, and how did you go about achieving results?

My agriscience research experiment compared three hybrid corn seed varieties based upon the yield they produce. These hybrid corn seeds are being used for silage for Zonneveld Dairies. I compared 3 branded hybrid seeds: Dekalb 67-44, Masters Choice 6522, and Croplan Genetics S5700. These seeds were selected based upon their similar and outstanding characteristics to grow in the Central Valley conditions, such as high heat and drought.

The goal of my experiment was to find which hybrid corn seed variety would produce the greatest yield to help the farmer generate more revenues and help Zonneveld save money in feed and make more money by providing the cows starch to produce more milk for dairy cow feed.

I hypothesized that out of the hybrid seeds, the Dekalb 67-44 seed would produce the most yield per acre due to its size and coating. I separated each seed into three 95-acre fields, totaling 285 acres of experimental land. I collaborated with DeKalb agronomists and 3D’s Family Farming about crop management, irrigation scheduling, and fertilizer management.

I then prepared the ground of each 95-acre field by ripping the soil in the fields, two passes of disking to break down the soil to be soft, then furrowing the ground into rows, and pre-irrigating the land so the soil has moisture for planting. I then planted the seeds at 34-35 thousand per acre.

We waited till the corn sprouted to begin soil compaction and injection of UN-32 fertilizer. After this, I irrigated the corn with 3D’s Family Farming and maintained the corn with fertilizer. Our goal was to reach 300 units of UN-32. I maintained the corn till it was a hard dent and was at peak starch. Starch is the nutrient that will allow the dairy cow to produce more milk.

Danell Custom Chopping came to harvest the corn, where I recorded the weight of the trucks and silage to find the total amount of yield. Masters Choice 6522 produced the most yield at just over 32 tons per acre, Croplan Genetics produced just under 31 tons per acre, and Dekalb 67-44 produced 28 tons per acre, going against my hypothesis.

Why this experiment? Have you always been interested in seed technology?

What got me into this experiment and interested in hybrid corn seed varieties is from working at 3D’s Family Farming. I work in the summer there as a tractor mechanic and operator. When I ran this experiment, my father, who normally furrows and does groundwork, had to take time off because he had surgery on his thyroid to remove cancer. Another worker also had to take time off. This opened the opportunity to step up and gain responsibility in the business and gain knowledge in farming.

When I found out that Zonneveld wanted to plant different hybrid corn seeds for silage, that sparked my interest in hybrid corn seed varieties. I collaborated with Dekalb Agronomists Barbra Kutzner, Pete Lain, Robert Fahey, and Jacob Lehar, who provided expertise on both hybrid corn seeds and crop management.

Crop Tech’s Future in Soil…and Beyond

This is such an exciting field that seems to be constantly evolving and innovating. How do you see seed technology advancing in the future?

I see technology evolving to make better crops that will hopefully help continue to fix the problems we face in agriculture. Agriculture has made a lot of advancements in technology and machinery. I can see technology evolving further in that field, as well as with hybrid crops and GMOs.

I believe technology in hybrids and GMOs will allow agriculture to produce more crops with fewer resources such as water, fertilizer, or other crop inputs such as potassium and phosphorus. This is especially true in California where water is scarce and creates more yield with less ground to feed a growing population.

Looking ahead to 2050, where there will be more mouths to feed, what do you think is the key to feeding this growing population? And why?

Advancements in modified crops and machinery will be vital in providing for this ever-increasing population. Maybe crops can be modified to require fewer resources such as water and nutrients from the solid but still produce more yield or crop.

This modification would allow for more production and may even allow our ground to last longer because the crops will take fewer nutrients from the ground. This modification in the crop can also enable more resources to be used elsewhere around the world or in agriculture.

Machinery advancements are needed to make agriculture more efficient in the production aspect of groundwork such as disking, ripping, furrowing, crop maintenance such as injection rigs and spray rigs and harvesting such as choppers, and also the repair and maintenance part of agriculture as well. Parts need to become more accessible for repair and maintenance.

These advancements will allow agriculture production to be faster, possibly allowing farmers to double-crop their land to produce more. This will also minimize the downtime lost when a tractor or implementation breaks.

These advancements with crops requiring fewer resources while producing greater yield and improving crop efficiency via machinery will allow agriculture to keep up with the growing population.

A Vast Array of Careers in Ag

We love to share about the diversity of career opportunities in the ag space. We know farmers and ranchers are just one piece of an enormous ag puzzle. Where do you see yourself in the ag field in the future? And why?

I can see myself in the agronomy field of agriculture as a Certified Crop Adviser (CCA) or research agronomist to continue experimentation and also try to find new ways to help agriculture.

I am currently pursuing a biology degree at UC Merced, focusing on ecology to use in the agriculture field. My dream job would be either a research agronomist or CCA because a research agronomist does similar actions such as my experimentation and also tries to find new ways to help agriculture.

I want to make a change in agriculture and try and solve one of the many problems agriculture is facing. I would also enjoy being a CCA as it helps farmers with their crops and production.

I would enjoy both of those careers because they are both involved in science which is my favorite subject, and understanding plant science and the interaction of plants with the soil and the environment is crucial for agriculture.

If you could advise other young people interested in seed science or agriculture in general, what would it be?

My advice to other young people interested in seed science is that it’s complex but exciting. Don’t let the complexity of genetics steer you away because this is a field of research that will be needed in agriculture to help solve the problems that agriculture is facing.
My advice for young people interested in agriculture is that it isn’t just farming and animals. There are so many aspects to it, and I’m sure one may have your interest for a career.

Also, don’t believe all the stereotypes and bad things in the media about agriculture because a lot of it isn’t true, and it just gets generalized over all of agriculture. The best thing to do is to actually get involved in agriculture through classes, FFA, or even working in an agricultural job.

By being involved, you learn the true experience and knowledge of what agriculture is all about. I would like to also say that although agriculture seems to be frowned upon by many, please remember that we eat, have shelter, clothing, other jobs, and actually survive because of agriculture because everything depends on it.

Gratitude and Community Building with Farming

Many of our regular readers are farmers. Is there anything you would like to leave them with – a piece of advice? Something to consider? A call to action?

I would like to tell farmers please don’t give up even if times are rough because everyone depends on you to feed them and provide resources. Although I understand you don’t always get thanks or appreciation, I know that I appreciate agriculture. I know I’m not the only one and know that a whole community is out there supporting you.

I would also like to say to farmers that many kids are willing to go into agriculture in this future generation, but not enough for the future of agriculture.

I would like to ask that farmers and any agriculturalist who listen please try to draw in the younger generation’s attention to agriculture and don’t try to push them away from it.

My family tried to warn me of the hardships of agriculture as if trying to push me away, but I found my roots there and am happy I did. Agriculturalists can reach the younger generations through FFA, agricultural advisors, and a big one is social media. Use social media to try and draw their attention to truly understand the different aspects of agriculture, which may help them find their passion by holding events or tours of agricultural business and destroy these stereotypes of agriculture.

Let’s try to get the younger generation into agriculture for the world’s future, but also have them understand that agriculture isn’t just farming, dairies, and cattle, but so much more and a great big community that is more than happy to teach anyone that decides to explore agriculture.

What do probiotics have to do with it? Why soil health matters.

Dirt to Dinner is pleased to have Renée Vassilos contribute to our site. Renée is The Nature Conservancy’s Director of Agriculture Innovation where she manages investments in companies practicing regenerative agriculture. Previously, Renée worked at John Deere, including several years in Beijing, building global market product strategies, design and manufacture equipment, and marketing and sales. She also led her consulting firm, Banyan Innovation Group, advising growth-stage agriculture technology start-ups and investors. Renée has a BS and MS in agricultural economics from the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana and University of California, Davis respectively.

Probiotics: For Our Body and Our Soil

As you’re walking through grocery store aisles, I suspect you’ve seen items labeled as ‘prebiotic’ and ‘probiotic’. Much of this push comes from a compelling and growing body of research around the critical role our complex gut microbiome plays in our immune system. Our immune system’s role is to protect our body from outside invaders, such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi. This system is made up of different organs, cells, and proteins all working together. We can either support or hinder our gut health by what we consume.

David Montgomery and Anne Bikle’s book, The Hidden Half of Nature, puts it simply:

“It’s not only how much we eat, but also what we eat and what lives within us that matters.”

In parallel to this growing body of knowledge around the role of our gut microbiome, there is a growing and compelling body of research around the critical role of the soil microbiome.

We are learning a tremendous amount about the role the soil microbiome plays in healthy environmental ecosystems. The soil microbiome is a complex group of microorganisms that can be found in soil, including bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other microbial forms of life. At the farm-level ecosystem, the benefits of improved soil microbiome include higher rates of productivity and profitability over the long term. At the societal level ecosystem, the benefits of boosting the soil microbiome are even more profound, including improved water quality, filtration, and storage; richer biodiversity; and reduced greenhouse gas emissions, mitigating the impacts of climate change.

It is because of these profound ecosystem benefits we at The Nature Conservancy have a critical body of work focused on rebuilding the U.S. soil microbiome. We refer to this as rebuilding soil health, the equivalent of rebuilding gut health. Since 2016,  TNC scientists, economists, and policy experts are focused on executing our roadmap to soil health and getting us closer to our audacious goal: 50% of U.S. cropland under adaptive soil health systems by 2025. The core focus of this brilliant team is to scale four critical practices we know are part of adaptive soil health systems: maintaining a living root in soils, minimizing tillage or disturbance, increasing crop diversity, and optimizing nutrient application.

This critical work towards our goal continues with our team of scientists, economists, and policy experts at the national level and at the tactical, boots-on-the-ground level. In 2019, however, it was acknowledged that we were not moving fast enough towards our goal. We needed to think about other ways to expedite change. How could we tap into innovation to drive farming for soil health?

Taking a Seat at the Venture Investment Table

We believe there is tremendous opportunity to drive progress towards adaptive soil health systems through innovation. We believe that TNC’s investments in those innovations will send a critical signal to other investors around the opportunity to invest for returns and impact. To date, TNC has invested in five companies. Their solutions are wide-ranging:

  • Kula Bio is developing an organic alternative to synthetic nitrogen with the potential for localized production.
  • Swarm Farm is developing an autonomous tractor that will provide farm enterprises a cost-effective way to practice precision application of inputs. This eliminates unnecessary treatments.
  • Growers Edge is a financial technology company that is using warranties to help de-risk the adoption of new technologies on-farm. We are working with them to develop a warranty to de-risk the practices we know build soil health.
  • Stony Creek Colors provides the enabling services for farmers to diversify crop rotations with crops that can be used for plant-derived dye.
  • Pattern Ag provides soil microbiome analysis and recommendations for input optimization on farm.

Our work continues to support the transformation towards large scaling farming of adaptive soil health systems.

What can you do to support the transformation?

Start with your own microbiome. What foods foster your healthy gut microbiome? How do you see these efforts improving the overall health of your immune system? Then you can make that intellectual leap to the microbiome needed in the soil for it to thrive and support plant growth. The better our collective understanding and appreciation for our gut microbiome, the easier it will be for all to make the connection to the soil microbiome and a recognition of how critical it is to move the needle on soil health for our collective planetary ecosystem.

An excellent resource to read, David Montgomery and Anne Biklé, The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health. You can also watch them discuss their book.

5 Things ‘Seaspiracy’ taught me about Seafood

On the run? LISTEN to our post!

As native Bostonians, my husband and I instinctively demand seafood in our diet. When planning a visit with our family in coastal New England, the first two things on the to-do list are placing an uncomfortably large order with the local lobster pound and buying up all the unsalted butter at the grocery store. It gets intense, to say the least: the array of surgical-looking utensils, wet naps strewn all over the table, and those silly-but-necessary lobster bibs. But we feel comfortable in our consumption, knowing it’s all locally sourced and sustainably caught. And that our cholesterol levels are reasonably low.

So when our marketing director, Hayley, asked if I had seen the Netflix documentary, Seaspiracy, I guffawed and got a sudden pang for a buttered lobster roll. But then I started recalling my previous blindspots in our global food system and the deeply unsettling opacity of the seafood industry.

For instance, only 10-20% of the seafood we consume in the U.S. is sourced from here, leading to cases in which purveyors don’t even know the source, let alone the type of fish sold to us. So with that fundamental knowledge (and echoes of recent headlines questioning the main ingredient in  Subway’s tuna salad), I sat down and prepared myself for the incoming deluge of information.

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing practices contribute to the mislabeling of seafood, as well as many other prohibited activities that Seaspiracy identifies throughout the film.

Seaspiracy Journey

The producers of Seaspiracy know how to create a compelling journey; after all, Kip Andersen and Jim Greenbaum also produced the very dramatic, very anti-meat documentaries, Cowspiracy and What the Health.

Knowing this, I assumed my reasonably rational thinking and iron-clad stomach would pull me through. But, disappointingly, I definitely grew queasy during some of the really brutal scenes, which then triggered my anger at human nature to pollute with such wild abandon. These filmmakers know what they’re doing, that’s for sure.

I then tried to see the larger picture of the story. Despite the obfuscated facts and pro-vegan sentiment that concludes each of their films, it still brings a lot of frightening but necessary issues to light.

“Even if it’s chocked full of lies and half-truths, maybe [Seaspiracy] is still good overall if it introduces people to ocean issues and inspires a desire to make a difference.”

– Liz Allen, marine sustainability writer at Forbes

But does that mean we must throw the delicious, soft-shell chick lobsters out with the bathwater? I would still like to eat seafood, after all. Just maybe not yet.

Diving back in

To help me get back on the seafood track, I merged some of the broader points made in the film and some of the concepts we practice here at Dirt to Dinner to find a simple yet strategic way to improve my selection of sustainably sourced and responsibly managed seafood. Below are five key rules.

Rule #1: Farmed fish can be the most sustainable seafood

Despite common misconceptions (including my own), farmed fish that’s sustainably managed is the most cost-effective and planet-conscious choice. How else can you be 100% certain that the fish you’re paying for is actually what you think it is. For wild-caught, it could be flounder bottom-trawled off the coast of Southern Asia and not the $30/lb halibut from Norway.

Since farms facilitate the entire lifecycle development, filtration systems, and production management, farmed seafood offers an unparalleled level of transparency compared to wild-caught seafood, making consumer research much more accessible.

Are you still feeling meh about aquaculture? When you zoom out on the fish-farming landscape, aquaculture is the same practice as livestock management for cattle, sheep, chickens, etc. Don’t forget that modern ag practices have guaranteed incredibly safe, fresh, and affordable food on our tables for decades.

Rule #2: Where your seafood is raised or caught matters

Just like buying your beef, lamb, and chicken, it matters which regulatory food system is involved. But trying to find a nice, tidy little crib sheet of countries with the most stringent sustainability and safety guidelines is like seeking out the elusive Mid-Atlantic blue lobster.

Though the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has done an incredible job defining various codes of conduct for sustainable fisheries all over the world and is highly regarded by many countries, I had a hard time finding any detailed data that I could play around with on their site.

My data source target then turned to Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch project.

This resource is impressive – it offers highly specific recommendations for sustainable seafood and is very transparent. I used their search function to see the most consumed seafood in the U.S., like shrimp, salmon, albacore tuna, and tilapia. The regions most often cited as offering the “best choice” in terms of sustainability among these kinds of seafood are the U.S. & Canada, Europe, New Zealand, and Japan.

But it’s important to note that more countries are following suit, like Australia, Chile, Indonesia, Jamaica, Kenya, Mexico, Namibia, and Palau. These countries will end harmful subsidies contributing to overfishing by 2025 as part of their sustainability initiative.

Rule #3: Labels can be an easy way to dress up a questionable product

I expect the producers of Seaspiracy and the Dirt to Dinner team to agree on this rule wholeheartedly: non-government-issued third-party verification package labels displaying a qualified, certified, or recommended product are generally garbage.

Unless you see a government department on the label from reputable countries with sustainable seafood practices and accompanied with some sort of grade or indication (think USDA “Choice” or “Prime” beef; USDA “Organic” products), focus on rules 1 and 2.

At best, labels allow non-government organizations (NGOs) to “certify” products to the degree they feel necessary. The organization then gets paid royalties by a food producer to apply the NGO’s label on their products. But at their worst, they can prey on our most basic survival instincts of fear and mistrust to manipulate us toward their often-obscured agenda. And I believe some organizations with these highly visible labels, like the Non-GMO Project and MSC, lie somewhere deep within that spectrum.

Rule #4: When in a rush, buy your seafood from highly reputable stores with not-too-cheap prices

First things first: I genuinely believe any decent grocer with U.S.-farmed seafood will have sustainably-produced fish that’s fresh and safe.

The trouble is, it’s not always easy to find. Our demand is low for U.S.-specific farmed fish, and it’s often a little more expensive than its potentially questionably-sourced counterpart, which really stinks because the U.S. is a global leader in sustainable and responsibly managed fisheries.

So I was disheartened to read the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA)’s assessment that U.S. production only accounts for $1 billion in a $100-billion global aquaculture market. Hungry for more market data? Please check out their site – it’s surprisingly easy-to-read and fact-heavy.

But as far as retailers are concerned, it appears that Whole Foods, Hy-Vee, Aldi, and Target are all great picks. These stores have seafood procurement departments that only purchase from sustainably caught or raised fisheries that are also responsibly managed.

There are some great home-delivery seafood options, too, like Crowd Cow. We really like the information they provide on where and how their fish are caught, and your selections arrive at your doorstep within a couple of days. Give online retailers like this a try by checking out how transparent they are with their sourcing and supply chain.

Rule #5: For wild-caught, dive deeper into your research…and wallet

Still want to stick with wild-caught fish? That’s ok! But you’re gonna have to check out a few more things and pony up a little more dough if sustainability is important to you.

Basically, nothing compares to wild-caught Alaskan seafood. Period. Producers feel incredibly responsible for maintaining their unique and pristine marine life, so everything is carefully managed to limit overfishing and bycatch. But this will affect your food budget, so prepare accordingly. And, again, if you stick with those aforementioned countries, you’re on the right path.

Another consideration is how the fish is caught, which you can better understand with the Seafood Watch site. It lists a bunch of reasons why it’s essential to be equally aware of seafood capture practices as country of origin. So try to stick with fish caught with handlines, pole-and-lines, midwater trawls, and trolling lines. And don’t buy seafloor captures, like trawls, seines, and dredges. Gillnets can be dangerous to local marine life, too.

Some quick dining and takeout rules

Need some time for research but craving shrimp pad thai tonight? Consider these tips:

  • Do your research about the meat & seafood philosophy of the restaurant and its holding company before you leave the house. This may help reduce awkward staredowns with your waitperson.
  • Feel free to ask questions that are important to you, like if they sell sustainable seafood, if it’s farmed or wild-caught, and which country it’s from. If the waitperson doesn’t know, ask them to check with the chef. If the chef doesn’t know, order the burger.
  • Are you a sushi lover who’s curious about sustainable yellowfin tuna? Or only interested in fish locally caught in the South? Seafood Watch has a guide for you. Seriously, this site has almost everything you need to make informed decisions about what you eat.

How we can create demand for responsibly managed fisheries

Yes, government and academic sources are great for a particular industry. But if you’re eager to find a company you feel you can stand behind, ask your local fish market where they buy their seafood from. And then check out the producer’s site. The more information the site has, the better.

And if you really like a tilapia that’s caught in a country not listed here, that’s fine! Fisheries aren’t inherently “good” or “bad” based on overgeneralized criteria – those are for finding our way initially. As with most things ag-related, it depends on the producer and their practices, so more reason for research.

And, if you’re open to it and it’s available, please give U.S. aquaculture a shot. We need to drive demand for responsible seafood by standing behind products that do just that. It’ll help drive down food waste, transportation costs, carbon emissions, and unfair labor practices while supporting supply chain transparency, marine biodiversity, and future generations to fully reap the benefits of our waters.

Food Transparency Starts With Farming’s Digital Transition

man controlling drone flying above field

We are pleased to have Drew Slattery publish his article on Dirt to Dinner. Drew is the Human Dimensions of Change Lead for Farm Journal’s Trust In Food, where he applies human dimensions theory to empower agricultural producers in the U.S. to continuously improve their operations’ environmental, financial, and social outcomes. 

A lack of transparency into food production is one of the fastest-rising concerns among U.S. consumers. Plenty of people want to know they are buying food products that were ethically and sustainably produced – and for good reason. General Mills, Walmart, and McDonald’s are just a few of those companies whose sustainability reports are showing transparency in their supply chains.

But building this transparency from grocery store shelf to farmgate isn’t as easy as it sounds.

What you might not realize is that asking farmers for data about how they produce their harvest is akin to asking someone to show you their family’s detailed medical records. Would you be comfortable if your friends and neighbors had access to a detailed report on your health? Even if farmers are willing to open their record books, the supply chain systems that rely on agricultural products are incredibly complex, and that data can be lost along the way.

Enter: Agriculture’s digital transition.

By collecting data each season through digital tools and managing that data through a software platform, farmers are helping make transparency easier for the supply chain to achieve, all while improving the efficiency of the decision-making processes for their operation.

The companies involved are significant. As an example, Project Mineral, formerly Google X, has a robotic buggy that roams the fields capturing data to enhance farm productivity.

And John Deere has a field-sharing data management system to fully integrate equipment used for tilling, planting, and harvest.

And then there is Descartes Labs which has geospacing technology that consolidates information such as crop yields in certain parts of a country. And this is a very short list of companies in an ever-expanding industry.

Balancing Transparency With Privacy

Privacy is a major concern for the American farmer – and really, for the vast majority of all Americans. In Trust In Food’s most recent survey of farmer perspectives on this topic, 73% of respondents said they don’t trust private companies with data on their farm’s production while 58% don’t trust the government with this data.

Those perspectives closely mirror average Americans’ data concerns – in a 2019 study, for example, 79% of Americans expressed concerns over how companies use their data, while 64% expressed concern over government use of data.

In many farmers’ eyes, the details of how they manage the production on their farms is private. Trust In Food’s research has shown that in certain cases, up to half of producers don’t think consumers and supply chain actors have a right to know how their farm products were managed.

For many farmers, this data represents proprietary business plans and trade secrets. In the Midwest where the farmland market is incredibly competitive, there have been reports of farmers who implement regenerative soil health practices yet have their land scooped up by others who want to benefit from their years of work to build soil health. So for many farmers, it feels safer to keep their cards close, especially if they have good things to share.

Challenges Abound With Agriculture’s Digital Transition

More than half of the farmers we surveyed this year (62%) said that they don’t use a digital (software) platform to manage their farm’s production data.

Put another way, only about 38% of those we surveyed are able to consider providing the transparency the food supply chain requires in today’s connected world.

Without digital collection and management of farm-level data, there is no way for the supply chain to provide transparency for the final product consumers purchase.

In addition, many farmers could be missing out on insights available to them through a digital platform. Although this is an incredibly complex environment for farm businesses to operate within, here are three of the key drivers that might explain why farmers aren’t using digital tools more universally, based on our research:

  • The cost associated with setup is too high, especially since there is not always a guarantee of a return on investment for farmers. Oftentimes, these data and insights don’t provide farmers with any benefit, such as a financial premium for providing greater transparency into the food products they grow or raise. Instead, organizations downstream in the supply chain reap the benefit.
  • It is a technically complex process, and many farmers lack the training and understanding to do it alone.-At the same time, the support network of advisers and service providers to help farmers transition to regenerative practices using software systems to capture data illustrating that transition, is limited as well.
  • Trust is a challenge. Farmers don’t want to see their detailed production data fall into the hands of groups they don’t trust.

Patience Is A Virtue

What does all this mean? Consumers are pushing for more detailed transparency into on-farm production, and as a society, we are transitioning by focusing our buying power more and more on sustainable products. Yet the data bridge onto the farm remains hard to cross. In a way, we can’t blame them. Going back to the example of sharing your medical data – how farmers farm is as personal to them as sharing our cardiovascular report would be to our community.

The encouraging news for the public and for farmers is that many producers are embracing digital ag and rushing into the future because they are in agriculture and food for the long term. They see a future in which incentives will shift and farmers will indeed be rewarded for their stewardship and transparency into farming practices, in a responsible, safe and privacy-protected way. Additionally, many organizations are working to support them, ensuring farmers don’t bear all of the costs for outcomes that benefit our environment and society at large.

Regenerative Ag: The New ‘Sustainable’

On the run? LISTEN to our post!

At a high level, Regenerative Agriculture is a system of farming practices based on decades of science and applied research that when combined, helps to enrich soils, increases biodiversity, improves watersheds, and ultimately harnesses carbon in the soil.

The premise of Regenerative Ag is to replicate nature instead of conquering it. It promises to increase yields, enhance the health and vitality of farms for generations to come, as well as provide resilience to climate instability. But not all farms apply these principles the same way. Because there is no stringent set of guidelines for what is considered “regenerative farming,” each operation will vary the application of these practices, as well as how they measure the success of their regenerative efforts.

Soil can save our planet? And reverse climate change? Regenerative ag is also a tool to reduce CO2. Even though agriculture, forestry, and land use account for approximately 18% of annual greenhouse gas emissions, these claims about soil are only partially true. Farming practices and soil health are just a piece of the puzzle to carbon emission reduction.

The Trailblazer: Gabe Brown

The face of the regenerative ag movement is North Dakota farmer Gabe Brown. After nearly losing his 1,760-acre family farm outside Bismark due to a series of massive hailstorms, blizzards, and successive crop failures, Brown turned it all around. Having been introduced to the central ideas of regenerative farming over the years, it was not until he aggregated his learnings and applied them simultaneously to his farmland that he was able to boost microbial activity in the soil, retain carbon, and restore ecological balance.

As Brown explains, regenerative ag is a real paradox: the best way to achieve it is to do less, not more. 

Gabe Brown used synthetic fertilizers like many other farmers in his area but decided to try something a little different when he removed them altogether. Brown then experimented with planting several one-acre plots with varying monoculture cover crops and then on one plot, he planted everything together in what he called a “biodiverse polyculture cocktail.” What he witnessed over two very dry and challenging months was that productivity was three times greater on the polyculture cocktail plot.

Since Gabe’s polyculture plot also realized higher yields than his neighbors, he was determined to find out how this was possible. His water filtration rates also skyrocketed, going from a one-half inch of water filtered per hour to one inch in only nine seconds. To further measure his success, he conducted carbon-retention testing using soil samples.

Given these dramatic results, Gabe no longer applies synthetic fertilizer. He practices rotationally grazing his livestock on these plots, leading to increased soil health and yield. Many farmers find they reduce synthetic fertilizers with this method, but few have gotten to the point of eliminating them altogether without negative yield effects.

Compared to the typical 10 to 30 tons of carbon stored in conventionally-farmed soils of the Northern Plains, Gabe has found “where we’ve done in-depth, significant testing, our soils have 96 tons of carbon per acre in the top 48 inches”.  Many agree that measuring carbon sequestration is the best hope for demonstrating the power of regenerative agriculture, though not all operations will have the ability to use this measurement technology.

What Makes Something “Regenerative”?

At the core, regenerative agriculture is the practice of farms finding various ways to draw substantial carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But it is much more than that: it enriches the soil by diversifying its microbiome, preventing erosion, and increasing its water. Regenerative ag can be done with a variety of methods, including no-till farming, crop rotation, and animal grazing, just to name a few. But all methods must adhere to these four key principles:

(1) improving soil, water, and biodiversity

(2) creating unique combinations of these farming practices to suit each operation

(3) ensuring these practices work for the landowner, farmer, producer, and all other stakeholders

(4) continually grow and evolve practices to reach maximum potential

How is the Success of Regenerative Agriculture Measured?

One of the more contentious debates within regenerative ag is how farmers measure the successes of their operations. However, efforts are in the works to make quantifying regenerative ag an affordable, relatively pain-free process.

Currently, the majority of farmers calculate their reductions of inputs and increased crop yieldsto determine the effectiveness of their particular regenerative ag practice. This includes decreased pesticide use which ultimately reduces overhead costs, increases yield, retains water in the soil, and enhances resilience to pests and drought.

Subsequent Investigations

Dirt to Dinner seeks to answer these questions in subsequent Regenerative Ag posts:

  • How does carbon make the soil healthier, and by how much? Who benefits – the farmer? The consumer? The environment?
  • What is in it for the farmer? And will the government mandate specific practices? A deeper dive into carbon credits versus incentives.
  • What does the ramp-up to becoming regenerative look like? How long does it take soil to be regeneratively productive?
  • What is the payback for farmers to compensate for the ramp-up period? Does the yield increase in all cases? Or is it location specific?
  • What are the stories of other farmers successfully practicing Regenerative Ag?

Have questions about Regenerative Agriculture that you would like answered? Let us know here.

Will New Wheat and Barley Genomes Help Feed the World?

On the run? LISTEN to our post!

By the time I am 60 years old in 2050, our global population will have increased to 9.7 billion people. That’s an additional ~2 billion human beings that will need to be fed. With over 275 million hectares (680 million acres) of irrigated land globally, researchers note that to grow enough food for our projected population increase, we will need crops to produce more output on existing land.

Experts estimate that to provide for the 2050 population forecast, annual cereal production will need to rise by 50% to about 3 billion tonnes. To do this, we must implement plant breeding technologies as one part of a comprehensive solution for global hunger.

A Genetic Breakthrough in High-Yield Crops

The big news, as reported in the journal Nature, is that researchers have sequenced new variations of genomes in barley and wheat. The international team includes scientists from the University of Adelaide’s Waite Research Institute, along with the 10+ Genome Project, spearheaded by Curtis Pozniak, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan, Canada. Pozniak is in collaboration with the International Barley Pan Genome Sequencing Consortium, led by Nils Stein, professor at the Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research.

Associate Professor Ken Chalmers at Adelaide University’s Waite Research Institution inspecting wheat grain.

What does that mean for society today? Because barley and wheat are staple crops on a global level, scientists may have found a way to produce the high yield necessary to feed more mouths within our lifetime. And it’s not just a boon to cereal production; these discoveries bring us one step closer to unlocking the entire gene set, otherwise known as pan-genome, in wheat and barley, which has ramifications for all future research in plant genomics and cereal farming.

Here’s how the research unfolded: Scientists conducting field tests in Chile found a way to increase the amount of protein (expansin) in the plants, which controls growth rate. The result: grains that were up to 12% larger than usual‚ with higher yields as well. In the past, there had always been a tradeoff between grain size and number.

This is especially good news because wheat provides about 20% of the calories consumed by humans, and the current yield is increasing at only about 1% annually — a far cry from the 50% needed to supply the population by 2050. Field results were a critical component, as they helped prove the effectiveness of these variations, by showing that the plants could perform under typical agricultural conditions. The teams of researchers are now working to make this research available to farmers and the greater food industry to help inform their decisions on crop production.

Consumer Acceptance is Key to Survival

Currently, more than 800 million people worldwide are chronically hungry, and about 2 billion are nutritionally deficient. This is a huge public health concern. What’s more, fertile land and water supply are becoming scarcer, and production increases are falling off — amplifying the need for more productive land.

United Nations World Food Program

Gene-editing technologies can only address global hunger and land and water availability if they’ve gained consumer trust. GMOs and gene-editing are some of the most studied plant technologies. They also have the capacity to increase yield and lower chemical fertilizer and pesticide use, provide crops with better resilience to poor climate conditions, ward off pests, reduce post-harvest loss, and produce more nutrient-dense foods.

And yet, even with 30 years of research and countless commercial applications proving that gene-edited or GMO crops are as safe as conventionally grown crops, there is still hesitation from mainstream culture.

What if you were to wake up at 60, 70 or 80 years old, and — instead of looking at flourishing families — you’re looking at 900 million people going hungry, land once used for playgrounds now dedicated to growing food, and the population still multiplying? While this may seem like a stretch, if we don’t accept plant breeding technology and realize its fundamental impact on food security, we may not meet increasing global food demands. More and more people will go hungry.

It seems like a luxury to even discuss consumer food production preference when people in developing countries are dying of starvation. With COVID running rampant, Africa is unable to make use of new plant technology, including GMOs, due to bottlenecks caused by the pandemic. This, as Ruramiso Mashumba, an African smallholder farmer shared with us, is not a matter of preference but truly, a matter of life and death.

So, while our issue here in the United States remains a social challenge of widespread consumer adoption, developing countries are struggling with political barriers, preventing them from using lifesaving technology.

We hope to see more plant technologies such as this emerge and we hope that consumers do their research and come to understand the safety and vital nature of these developments.

Making the Case for Sustainable Aquaculture

While fish is still a secondary choice in protein in the U.S., coming in behind poultry, beef, and pork, it is projected to be a growing industry. How can we ensure our seafood comes from sustainable fish farms, like those in Europe, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia? And how will domestic production react to this need for more local, sustainable, and traceable ways to farm fish?

When it comes to seafood, the average American diet is about as limited as it gets.

We eat salmon, crabs, lobsters, shrimp, and scallops and that’s about it for most people, with some pollack and cod thrown in for good measure. You’re likely to get far more variety in a bowl of seafood stew at a restaurant than you do in the typical American’s seafood diet.

Not only do we lack variety, but volume as well. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the average American consumed a little over 16 pounds of seafood in 2018. Although that figure has been steadily rising for several years, it still pales in comparison to the 94 pounds of chicken, 58 pounds of beef, and 52 pounds of pork we consume every year.

The Food Marketing Institute’s 2019 Power of Seafood Survey found that 56% of Americans eat seafood twice a month. Freshness, flavor, and information about the product all play a major role in the decision to buy a piece a fish at the grocery store, along with the understanding of how to cook and enjoy it once they get home.

Some recent studies have suggested that a large and growing segment of the U.S. is interested in eating more shellfish and finfish (the industry term for fish like salmon and cod), provided they can find it at a price and quality they expect. This aligns with the EAT-Lancet Commission, as they fully support increasing seafood consumption for a healthy diet – as long as it’s sustainable.

Farmed fish – a “cleaner” option?

“The global demand for fish protein in people’s diets is growing and will continue to grow,” says Jacob Bartlett, CEO of Whole Oceans, a company raising sustainable Atlantic salmon in land-based facilities in Maine.

Companies like Whole Oceans hope to benefit from the rise of responsible fish farming by offering cleaner, more sustainable seafood than is commonly available from today’s aquaculture producers.

There has long been a difference between farmed and wild-caught when it comes to seafood. Many consumers perceive that wild-caught products are “cleaner” and more sustainable. Farmed fish, however, has a reputation more associated with dirty pens, sick fish, and an overuse of antibiotics to compensate for all this. In reality though, wild-caught fish is fraught with sustainability issues and farmed fish can be a clean alternative – depending on its country of origin.

To be fair, there are environmental pros and cons to wild and farmed seafood. Though wild-caught fish require fewer resources, it’s not a long-term alternative – 90% of wild-caught fish are either fully or overfished. Aquaculture – done safely and sustainably – is a great way to support a healthy diet and a healthy environment.

An unsustainable system

As of 2018, wild-caught and aquaculture (farmed) seafood each made up roughly half of the world’s fish consumption. But that balance is expected to tilt increasingly toward farmed fish, which is easier to scale and overall more sustainable. Major grocers like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s have been actively promoting its benefits to their customers.

But it hasn’t always been this way.

Aquaculture, or fish farming, was a $169 billion global industry as of 2015, and that’s on track to exceed $242 billion by 2022. It produces more than 80 million metric tons of fish annually from some 580 aquatic species and employs roughly 26 million workers around the world.

From 1990 to 2018, we’ve experienced:

+14% Rise in global capture fisheries production

+527% Rise in global aquaculture production

+122% Rise in total food fish consumption

Despite its size, however, the industry is largely concentrated in central and southeast Asia, with China dominating overall production, followed by Vietnam, India, Thailand, and others. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the Asia-Pacific region accounts for more than 85% of all aquaculture production, followed by Africa at 10% and Latin America and the Caribbean at 4%.

The U.S. ranks surprisingly low in aquaculture production at 17th in the world as of 2017, which equates to just 0.2% of total production. This is no surprise because the U.S. imports more than 80% of the seafood we eat. Most of the imports – in the order of volume – are shrimp, Atlantic salmon, tilapia, and shellfish.

90% of the shrimp that Americans eat is imported from facilities in southeast Asia, while the vast majority of the farmed tilapia sold in this country comes from Latin America and Asia. Canada, Norway, Scotland, and Chile supply most of the salmon. Typically, smaller, more resilient species – tilapia, carp, trout, and salmon – are farmed, as their feed-to-growth ratio has been optimized through research and development.

No matter the farmed species, practices vary by country…and that’s part of the problem. Lax government oversight of the industry in countries like China, which make up the majority of all aquaculture producers, has created a two-tiered system: places like the U.S., Europe, Canada and elsewhere with industry practices with strict quality and environmental regulations, and those where the industry regulations are under-enforced.

Murky farming practices

This part of the aquaculture industry has a well-earned reputation for environmental contamination, poor working conditions, and poor health conditions for its fish. Raised in large, open-water pools, many of these unregulated farms are a hotbed for disease and pollution, and the chemicals and antibiotics often used to control these problems leach out into surrounding waters, affecting the local ecosystem, and just generally making matters worse.

That’s to say nothing about the working conditions at these facilities. For one thing, the parts of Southeast Asia – and now Africa – where much fish farming is conducted are a known hotbed for human trafficking, and a 2018 report by Human Rights Watch found widespread abuse in Thailand’s fishing industry, where migrants from all over the region are effectively sold into modern-day slavery.

Though the wild-caught seafood industry doesn’t have the safest labor practices, either. Because most fishing takes place in international waters, few regulations exist to keep the industry and its workers safe. It’s easy to exploit a vulnerable crew when out on the open seas for weeks at a time.

It’s a grim picture…no one wants to eat fish that was packed into filthy open-water pens, fed a diet of farm waste, and hopped up on antibiotics before being harvested, processed, frozen, and flown halfway around the world to market.

These practices raised questions as recently as 2012, when it was reported that fish being fed a diet of pig waste was being sold to the U.S. market. Contaminants ranging from fish waste to antibiotic-enhanced feed, to parasites, chemicals, and more have been known to leak out of open-water facilities, impacting wild populations in the area.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, farmed species can even escape from their pens and interbreed with local wild stocks, throwing off the gene pool and further spreading disease.

Higher quality comes at a price

Proper regulation and safe working conditions are costly, positioning quality fish against the prices that many of these international producers can offer for their seafood. Higher quality operators in the U.S. and elsewhere are finding it difficult to compete.

It’s no wonder that the idea of fresh, healthy seafood is so foreign to most Americans.

“Our seafood supply chain is worse than broken”, says Eric Pedersen, founder of Ideal Fish, which is raising branzino fish in Connecticut in a sealed, land-based facility that hopes to bridge this gap by shortening the supply chain to reduce costs.

“We almost have no domestic seafood supplies. Almost everything we eat in the U.S. has been imported from abroad, flown thousands of miles, which means a tremendous diminution in the quality, freshness, and shelf life of the seafood.”

At the same time, Pedersen says, often we don’t even know where it’s coming from. Neither do the retailers we’re buying it from and the restaurants that are preparing it.

“You walk into most grocery stores and go to the seafood counter and it’s a sad experience,” he says.

Traceability is another concern that domestic aquaculture providers are working to overcome. As it stands today, most people know very little about the seafood they eat. Wild-caught fish often goes straight from the boat to a wholesale fish market, either locally or in cities such as New York and Seattle, where most seafood enters the U.S.

From there, it can go anywhere, from restaurants to grocery suppliers, to meatpacking and more. Fish buyers are a knowledgeable bunch, often tasked by their employers to identify and purchase products that are fresh and healthy, but that information is lost once that fish is loaded onto trucks for their next step in the process.

Farming – a solution

By leveraging fish farming to source some of this fish, proponents hope to introduce new layers of traceability to this traditional system. Fish sourced from a particular facility and bound for a particular customer can be tagged and traced, from pool to plate, using everything from blockchain technology to direct sales, in ways that the fragmented fish supply chain never has before.

That’s why there has been a push in recent years for more aquaculture production in countries where it can be produced with more regulatory oversight such as Norway, Canada, and the U.S. (the U.S. Department of Agriculture oversees aquaculture operations in this country).

In May 2020, President Trump issued an executive order promoting American seafood competitiveness and economic growth to create jobs while eliminating illegal, unreported, and unsustainable wild-caught or farmed fish. This order also prompted offshore aquaculture as another solution for sustainable fish, resulting in the NOAA developing two out of the ten designated Aquaculture Opportunity Areas to develop fisheries.

Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch is a non-profit organization dedicated to helping consumers and businesses make choices for a healthy ocean. They even have a smartphone app consumers can access while food shopping.

Ryan Bigelow, Senior Program Manager with Monterey Bay says, “There’s increasing interest in knowing more about our food, having local sources, and aquaculture could certainly fill that niche.”

He’s quick to admit that U.S.-based producers won’t be able to compete on price due to the costs associated with running sustainable, regulated facilities, but the truth is we as consumers should also be questioning our consumption habits.

“That $15 all-you-can-eat shrimp plate, how is that possible?” Bigelow asks. “What’s happening in those pens, on that production line, that makes it possible to raise an animal on the other side of the world and ship it over for less than it costs to grow here?”

As with many things, the COVID-19 outbreak brought this reality into stark relief. Why is the U.S. relying so much on a hazy, underground seafood supply chain involving thousands of international suppliers when the technology exists to farm fish safely and sustainably here at home, or in countries that take pride in their aquaculture production?

Due to the gross lack of safety standards in some of the countries we import from, the FDA in recent years has discovered chemicals, carcinogens, antibiotics (often expired), and pesticides. Even more alarmingly, of the imported seafood, the FDA inspects less than 1% of it. And of that 1% the U.S. regularly rejects 50 to 60% of imports.

What can you do? 

While regulations are being updated to increase imported food inspections to ensure quality, and efficacy, there are things we can do at the consumer level:

  • Check out Seafood Watch, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Guide – use their app at the seafood counter and see what you learn while you shop!
  • Look for packaging with Aquaculture Stewardship Council and Global Aquaculture Alliance labels that certify sustainable farms and seek out operations with best aquaculture practices worldwide
  • Beware of misleading statements on packaging, like “Prepared for” or “Packed by”, as this may not be the country of origin. Instead look for labels showing the fish are from the U.S., Canada, the European Union, Australia, or New Zealand as these countries have some of the safest seafood regulations.
  • Know your fish market! Buying from a local, trustworthy fishmonger can help to ensure the highest quality, as they will do the label and country sourcing for you.
  • Consider buying shrimp sourced from the U.S. and the Gulf of Mexico – it’ll be more expensive, but you can feel good about its quality and production.
  • Vary your seafood choices. Lower food-chain fish, like anchovies and sardines, are smaller and have had less time to accumulate contaminants than larger fish. Add farmed bivalve shellfish – oysters, clams, and mussels, to this list – eating lower trophic farmed fish is good for the environment and healthy for you.

5G’s Revolution: Will Ag be Ready?

Cropduster airplanes are a familiar sight in the skies over farms worldwide — spreading fertilizers, surveying crops, and keeping an eye on cattle herds. But, as drones and other unmanned aerial systems have grown in popularity, innovative companies have begun finding new uses for these “eyes in the sky.”

One example is SlantRange, a company based in San Diego that is working to improve agricultural efficiency and productivity by flying drones over farms and using remote sensing and analytics to provide on-demand crop performance data and real-time insights. Agriculture producers are using its platform to better target their precision ag efforts, doing everything from measuring stress conditions across fields, determining plant sizes, surveying infestations, and more.

It’s a powerful tool, but it’s facing one significant challenge: connectivity.

“At a bare minimum, we’re using imagery that can distinguish individual leaves in the field,” explains SlantRange CEO and co-founder Michael Ritter. “To do that, we’re talking about a resolution on the order of a centimeter or smaller, and that translates into several gigabytes of raw data per acre.”

Many farms, especially those in remote agricultural regions with poor internet service, just aren’t yet ready to handle this type of network load. To date, SlantRange has used mobile computing solutions – effectively setting up a local network in a truck and parking it near the field while its drone works to support the connection – but there is a better solution on the horizon that could throw open the doors to advanced new applications for agriculture: 5G.

With this next-generation technology, the company hopes to make “digital farming” a reality, implementing state-of-the-art cost and time-saving solutions, like:

  • Cameras capable of up to 5x the resolution of today’s hardware
  • Sensors that gather spectral band information to isolate key markers of plant health
  • Imagery that adapts to sunlight and weather conditions to ensure accurate prescription management and forecasting

All these benefits will make farming much more efficient. Less chemical applications, better crop knowledge, more efficient water usage, better crop breeding information.

What is 5G?

There has been a lot of talk around 5G in the news lately, but little discussion of the actual definition. Right now, your voice, the photos you share, and all data that leaves your computer travels through the atmosphere. It is all in one piece when it leaves your phone and computer – but then travels in a disarray of atoms through the air. It must come together in a readable or listable form at the receiving end.

The best way to explain this technology is to think of Legos. Legos, you say? Yes. Visualize 4G as a simple Lego airplane. It leaves intact, the parts fly through the air separately, and then must be put together right before it lands. Now take a table-sized Lego spaceship. 5G will allow this complex structure to leave, disassemble, fly through the air, and come together much faster than the airplane. The real value of 5G is that massive amounts of data will be transmitted through the air and at faster speeds.

At the most basic level, 5G is the fifth-generation mobile network that debuted in 2019, replacing the 4G networks that provide data connectivity to most current smartphones and mobile devices. Its big selling point is capacity and speed. 5G will extend high-speed mobile service into new areas, effectively bringing full, uninterrupted internet experiences to every customer – regardless of the rural destination. Farmers will be able to have instant access to all the crop, soil, and weather information on their fields.

Think of 5G like Wi-Fi, but instead of being tethered to your home or office, it’s available everywhere – all the time.

5G is expected to positively affect all industries, but may have a greater impact on the food industry, in particular. Logistics can finally go digital, supply chain tracking can be fully realized, energy companies will have better insights into the grid, and much more. 

5G on the farm

5G will be especially groundbreaking on the farm. “5G technology will allow farmers to cultivate their crops in a more ecologically responsible manner,” says Ryan Douglas, a cultivation consultant who works with cannabis companies. Access to this type of connectivity will greatly improve producers’ ability to track inventory, which is of particular concern for cannabis companies that need to keep up with regulatory tracking demands.”

But regulatory tracking is just the beginning. Douglas continues, “Drones equipped with 5G technology can be used to monitor large outdoor crops for nutrient deficiencies, pest infestations, and disease outbreaks. Problem areas can then be spot-treated, instead of applying fertilizer or pesticides to the entire crop.”

It will also enable 24/7 drone monitoring of fields, allowing farmers to pinpoint the exact moment to harvest based on supply chain needs and adjust fertilizer and irrigation needs on a plant-by-plant basis to maximize yields. Real-time soil analysis can help producers decide where and when to plant to ensure the best possible crop for their current and expected conditions, while autonomous tractors can manage the harvest themselves, circling the fields while the farmer sleeps based on data being gathered and analyzed by remote sensors.

Implementation in the Field

While the agriculture industry has been slow to adopt other new technologies, 5G is coming along at a good time, after many farmers have adopted farm management software, 4G sensors, and other new tools. They’ve seen the power of these platforms; the expanded bandwidth of 5G will only make them better.

Dr. Kuang-Ching Wang, a professor of engineering at Clemson University who was involved in the development of the first-generation Internet, explains, “we have been working closely with agriculture to push a vision of the future of food production, all the way from building smart farms, to connecting them through these new networking technologies, to all the other systems technologies that will be built on top of these network capabilities. Our goal is to make agricultural production much more efficient and also to integrate artificial intelligence into this whole picture.”

5G can bring a lot of promising applications to life, he says, by focusing on data-enabled systems to help make agriculture more efficient. For example, when developing smart farms, it’s one thing to invest in farm robotics and the Internet of Things (IoT). But, how do you deploy massive numbers of sensors into your environment and then consume the data that they collect right there? Not in an office somewhere, but right in the field. You need a powerful remote connection to make that happen.

It’s the same with automated agriculture. The technology exists to gather sensor data and manage automated harvesting systems, but it will take 5G coverage to get those robots all talking to each other and the farmer.

A number of startups are working to solve this problem, and legacy brands like John Deere are on board, as well, partnering last year with Verizon to expand the 5G use cases for agriculture. This built on John Deere’s 2017 acquisition of Blue River, an artificial intelligence company that is now developing new machine learning, deep learning, and robotics tools for the company’s farm equipment.

Challenges remain

There’s a lot of promise here, but another problem exists: 5G is just part of the puzzle. To get these new ag applications off the ground, the underlying fiber optic networks will have to be extended out to rural areas, as well. In addition, all the sensors that capture the data will have to be upgraded to handle the speed and data capacity.

“It’s a whole ecosystem that has to be transformed,” says Dr. Wang. “But the promising note is that we do see these efforts happening, not just driven by the 5G industry but rather by this new global awareness of the data-driven future of agriculture.

Getting the fiber to the farms is difficult, but there are some projects underway to make it happen.”

This includes the National Science Foundations’ Broadband 2021 effort to boost broadband infrastructure, as well as the $400 million the organization committed in 2016 in support of the White House’s Advanced Wireless Research Initiative, which continues to fund new wireless technologies and applications to support widespread adoption and more robust networks for commercial use. And in December 2019, the United States Department of Agriculture made $550 million in funding available to deploy high-speed broadband internet infrastructure in rural areas across the country. Just this month, the Federal Communications Commission voted to offer $16 billion in subsidies for rural broadband buildouts this year as part of its Rural Digital Opportunities Fund.

“There is a clear consensus that, for us, the next challenge is really not about just pushing a faster network or cooler applications in the cities,” Dr. Wang says, “but rather how you bring together complete broadband capabilities, including the rural communities.”

But is 5G Safe?

Further challenges exist within the field of personal safety.  Because the emerging 5G technology is essentially packed with higher levels of energy radiation than 4G, the major fear is the potentially adverse health effects on humans and animals.

The most pressing question that scientific and health organizations, like the World Health Organization, are currently exploring is finding out if the type of radiation emitted by 5G is safe non-ionizing waves, like radio waves and infrared, or harmful ionizing waves, like x-rays and gamma rays. Current studies on 5G’s radiation type are not clear cut.

Even if 5G emits non-ionizing radiation, we still have to consider how much more radiation we’ll be exposed to. The Environmental Health Trust believes that currently, “5G will require the buildout of literally hundreds of thousands of new wireless antennas in neighborhoods, cities and towns.” However, according to Dr. Steve Novella, a professor at Yale, and editor of Science Based Medicine, the amount of radiation we are talking about is a frequency less than light. “You go out in the sun, and you’re bathed in electromagnetic radiation that’s far greater than these 5G cell towers.”

Bettering Farms in Zimbabwe…and Beyond

Dirt to Dinner is excited to introduce Nyasha Mudukuti, a science communication and network associate with the Cornell Alliance for Science, where she was a 2019 Global Leadership Fellow. Nyasha is a Mastercard Foundation scholar from Michigan State University, where she majored in plant breeding, genetics and biotechnology. She is also a BSc honors graduate in biotechnology from Chinhoyi University of Technology, Zimbabwe. Nyasha served as the 2016 AGCO Africa Ambassador, advocating for agricultural reforms across the African continent. 

Nyasha is a member of the Global Farmers Network, a proud Global Youth Ambassador fellow of the United Nations initiative, “A World at School”, and a 2016 Young African Leaders Initiative fellow as an emerging young leader.

Nyasha’s dream is to help her continent see the importance of biotechnology in agriculture and use it to improve the livelihoods of African smallholder farmers.

It’s 2 a.m. and I am sitting in my apartment in Ithaca, New York, trying to call home to check on my family in Zimbabwe. My sister picks up and says, “Let me call you back, I am in a queue.” “For what?” I ask. “Mealie meal,” she replies. “I need to send some to mum!

Concerns amidst a Food Crisis

Our mother lives in a rural area, Chikombedzi, which is where I grew up, while my sister works in the city. It’s 8 a.m. her time and panic-shopping has started there, too. With the government’s announcement of a 21-day nationwide shutdown to contain the spread of COVID-19, basic commodities are now scarce. She hangs up and I try to get some sleep but I can’t. There is a level of comfort knowing that my family will be OK but there’s a restlessness in my mind as I wonder what the next 21 days will be like for the majority of Zimbabweans, who rely on the informal sector and feed from hand to mouth.

What will they eat? The government had announced a shutdown without providing a strategy of how to feed its struggling citizens in abject poverty. This shutdown exposes them to a silent threat, and the very real fear that hunger may kill them before the coronavirus does.

Thirty minutes later, I am still tossing and turning in my bed, contemplating how times have changed. It used to be that people in rural areas would send food to those in the city. But now, my sister has to send food to my mother, whose small piece of farmland has not been yielding much. I remember her recent calls complaining of how the fall armyworm had destroyed her maize. I would then try to put a smile on her face, laughing about how back in 2011 we used to handpick and squash stem-borers with our feet because we could not afford pesticides. Yet we still survived, even after losing almost half of our three hectares of maize and sorghum to the stem borer. “It will be OK, Mum,” I would try to assure her over the phone. But the truth is, it’s NOT going to be okay.

Farming in Chikombedzi

See, I grew up on a small farm in rural Zimbabwe. From it, we could feed ourselves, sell the surplus, and pay the fees that allowed us to attend school. But I took no pleasure in farming. I didn’t want to get up early, before school, to weed the fields. I didn’t like the long days in the hot sun. I didn’t want anything to do with agriculture. I wanted to be a doctor, a profession I thought of as “classier”.

However, everything changed in 2011 when I was admitted to study biotechnology as an undergraduate student at Chinhoyi University in Zimbabwe. That is where I started learning about the role of science in agriculture and its potential benefits, especially for African farmers like my mother, in developing drought-tolerant, insect-resistant herbicide-tolerant crops.

An Agricultural Disconnect

My journey began with a Facebook post. While scrolling through my timeline, I read an article about genetically modified (GM) crops in Africa and how some of my people were destroying the products. Reading the comment section, I realized there were a lot of misconceptions about GM food products. I decided to engage in the conversation, and of course, that didn’t come without a backlash! It didn’t make sense to me that the very same people earning less than US$2 per day, struggling with weeds and crop failures due to climate change, were the very first to object. Misconceptions fueled by fear can paralyze people, so I took on a mandate to raise awareness of ways we can leverage this technology to our benefit.

My first Facebook post on GM ultimately got the attention of Dr. C. Prakash from Tuskegee University, who later invited me to tell my story with the Global Farmers Network (GFN) at the World Food Prize in Iowa in 2014. During my time in Iowa, I got to see a GM cornfield for the first time.

By visiting farms in Iowa, I witnessed the tremendous potential of modern agriculture to help us overcome enormous challenges. I took those lessons and observations and ran with them to ensure African farmers are not left behind.

After returning to Zimbabwe, I continued to participate in GFN activities and wrote columns on my country’s anti-GMO attitudes. Our government recently relaxed and lifted the ban on the importation of GM products. However, the ban still stands on planting GM crops. Upon completing my undergraduate studies, I decided to advance my knowledge on biotechnology issues in agriculture.

Finding A Platform

In 2016, one of my articles was published in the Wall Street Journal, where it caught the eye of Robin Buell, a professor of plant biology at Michigan State. She connected me with the MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program, which recognizes academic achievement and a commitment to Africa. She later served as my principal investigator in her genomics lab, where I researched dry beans. This gave me a deeper understanding of the science behind GM crops and an appreciation of the amount of work scientists put into developing new varieties.

However, knowledge of genetic engineering is just not enough to ensure that those who need this technology can benefit from it. What’s the point of making a product that the end-user doesn’t fully understand? They will eventually reject it, no matter how beneficial it may be to them. This brings me to one of my biggest challenges as a scientist: how do I communicate in ways that people like my mother, without a scientific background, can understand?

Spreading the Message with Science

Today my work with the Cornell Alliance for Science involves addressing some of these issues. One of our approaches is hosting a “seeing is believing” activity, where we bring non-scientists to the lab so they experience the extraction of DNA and realize it’s not rocket science! They even participate in a hands-on, personal DNA isolation from their cheeks. Another example is bringing media professionals to GM field trials and exposing them to peer-reviewed scientific literature so they can better report on agricultural innovations.

I might not have become a doctor but nothing gives me more fulfillment than knowing that with these modern technologies, I am helping farmers feed their families and send their children to school as they farm better and smarter.

As I finally begin to drift off to sleep, I make a silent prayer thanking the farmers for risking everything so we can have food on our tables. They are the truly essential workers! For once, it seems that no one cares whether food is organic as we hoard food like there is no tomorrow. The empty shelves should help us understand how privileged we are to be able to choose. In desperate times, food is food — it all comes down to survival.

When this pandemic is over, I hope we remember how anxious we were about stockpiling sufficient food and realize that more than 815 million people go to bed hungry every night, in desperate need of food.

Jack Bobo: How We Choose Our Food

At D2D, we find Jack’s insights on consumers interesting and unique. He brings an informative perspective about our choices in the grocery store. Jack searches into the questions that drive our decisions in the marketplace, such as:

In the following interview with Jack, we scratch the surface on some of these curious topics.

D2D: How did you shift your focus from global conservation to understanding consumer food choices?

Jack: I was stationed in Mekambo, Gabon when I worked for the Peace Corp. in Africa. As I lay awake at night listening to the rain patter on the tree canopy, I vowed to protect these beautiful forests. Fast forward to my work with the State Department, it became clear that one of the biggest impacts on our environment is agriculture. My hero is Nobel Prize Winner Norman Borlaug who started as a forester, yet he saved more forests as an agronomist.

What is your personal mission?

The agricultural system has to grow 60% more food by 2050 using less land, water, fertilizer, and pesticides. Technology is key. Unfortunately, we love innovation almost as much as we despise change. There is no place we dislike change more than in the food we eat. This has led to a polarization of understanding about the role of science and technology in sustainably feeding the world.

I would like to de-escalate the tensions in the food system to save the planet. There is not just one answer and one production method. We need diversity of thought and diversity of methods. It is also important for the farmers to have the freedom to farm the way it works best for their land.

As I learned about science, agriculture, and the potential to solve these problems at the State Department, I was taken aback by the lack of public support for agricultural technology. I went on a journey to discover how to educate consumers on food science and agricultural technology. I spoke to thousands of people in dozens of countries. What I learned was: If you lead with the science, you may lose with the science. Science tends to polarize the conversation. This led me to study behavior science, psychology, and consumer trends.

Why do we, as food consumers, not trust research and science?

The lack of experience with food production has led to a trust lost between food producers and the public. Consumers are not convinced that companies have their best interest at heart. But this is not just food companies – there is a lack of trust in many organizations across the sectors. The internet has accelerated this because we get information and answers from different places. It can be liberating – like getting a second opinion – and on the other hand, make people more skeptical on any advice they are given.

“Consumers have never cared more, nor known less, how their food was produced.”

This has led to the desire for transparency. Where does our food come from and whom do we trust? Animal welfare, the environment, production practices, and food safety are all topics that the consumers wants to understand.

How does the consumer know whom to trust?

We only ask questions if we don’t trust and never ask questions if we do trust. Most people don’t ask the necessary questions.  For instance, are you concerned about local issues, global issues, or both? Are you willing to change your mind based on new information? What makes you trust an organization? Why do you not trust the information source? These are the types of questions to ask yourself before making a decision.

In your talks, you mention the difference between Hazard and Risk. Can you explain how that applies to food?

A hazard is something that can cause harm, and risk is something that does cause harm. A shark in the water is a hazard, but not if we are standing on land. Even if you are in the water, it is a low risk (1 in 3,748,067). Most consumers are hard-wired to know hazard. If it can hurt us, we immediately believe it will hurt us. Risk is a statistical concept.

Consumers mainly perceive risk by communication through various organizations such as businesses, governments, and NGOs. Governments are good about communicating real risks – like coronavirus. They do not focus on hazards. Through marketing and the internet, consumers are flooded with information on hazards that might hurt us.

Regulators think of risk like this: “Hazard multiplied by Exposure equals Risk”. My formula is now: Hazard times Media Exposure equals Perception of Risk. Let’s take Hint water as an example. It is non-GMO, gluten free, sugar free, sweetener free, preservative free, vegan, no MSG, nuts, soy, and the bottles are BPA-free. This leads the consumer to believe these items are in most of our foods and will hurt us. And, with all these perceived ‘risks’, we grow fearful of our food.

When you say that people don’t see reality as it is, what do you mean?

Often our brain sees things as we want to see them. It uses mental shortcuts to make decisions, but often that can lead to the wrong result. Take this chart below: you automatically think there are two hues of blue, when in reality, it’s all the same hue.

Also, there is confirmation bias, which is the root of polarization. We look for information consistent with our beliefs and avoid information that is inconsistent. Our brain also uses word association as a short cut. For instance, with the word ‘natural’, we think of positive thoughts, such as fresh, home-baked bread and honey. We don’t think of Ebola and Zika viruses – which are also natural. We tend not to support man-made things because our brain wants to think of things it understands.

In general, we don’t really understand food safety additions, such as food additives and food preservatives, so we tend to avoid them. For instance, many people avoid chemicals in their foods, but what many don’t realize is that foods are made up of chemicals, whether natural or man-made.

What kind of articles can we look forward to reading?

I will be writing on subjects about consumers. For example, how decisions are made; why we fear the food we eat; and how powerful words change our feelings. There will be a series of 10 articles on the Futurity website. Some of these ideas were covered in a TED Talk I gave last year.

Click here to be directed to Futurity Food

We look forward to summarizing Jack’s concepts on Dirt to Dinner in the future.

Interested in Jack’s perspective on another topic? Email us at!

Packing Social Concerns in the Lunchbox

Dirt to Dinner is excited to feature Dr. Sarah Evanega’s post on our site. Dr. Evanega earned her PhD in plant biology and science communications from Cornell University, where she now directs the Alliance for Science and serves as Senior Associate Director of International Programs in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She resides in Ithaca with her husband and three young children.

The Cornell Alliance for Science works to ensure global access to life-improving agricultural innovations that can shrink farming’s footprint, deliver food security, reduce the drudgery of field work that often falls on women and children, provide rural families with sufficient income to educate their children, and inspire young people to pursue a career in agriculture and science.

As a child, I highly anticipated the return to school, the thrilling day when my siblings and I headed over to campus to pay our fee and look on the bulletin board to see which teacher we were assigned to and which of our friends would join us in class. The hallways had a distinct smell that we barely noticed during the school year and nearly forgot over the summer break, which meant the odor of paper and gymnasium hit us hard as we walked in the front door after months away. Back to school meant buying supplies, the hope of getting a Trapper Keeper with a cool design, and maybe even a new pair of jeans or shoes.

Today, as a mom of three young kids, back to school means shifting from the laid-back rhythm of summer to a tightly tuned schedule of early-to-bed, early-to-rise, the regularity of dinner, bath and bedtime books, and early mornings. After the coffee is on, I pull out three lunch boxes and face the challenge of packing lunches that will both appeal to my kids and my sense of what’s healthy and socially just.

As I pull together sandwich fixings, carrot sticks and fruit, I’m aware that our well-stocked refrigerator and cupboards are a luxury that many families throughout the world do not share: that my choice of what to pack, and what to leave out, is not available to the millions who struggle with the hunger and poverty that accompanies failed crops. I know my children won’t have to skip school to hand-weed the family’s fields or miss class entirely because a miserable harvest left no extra money to pay tuition.

As a plant scientist who works in international programs at Cornell University, I’m fully aware that fussing over the ever-growing list of food items restricted in schools is very much a “first-world” problem, as are the half-eaten apples and the sandwich crusts my kids bring back home at the end of the day. Hunger, the frequent companion of far too many children in developing nations, always trumps the pickiness that leads to food waste.

I know that many other American parents share my concern about hungry children, others and our own, and that they want to see a world that’s just. But because of my job, I know something they may not—that technology exists to solve some of the problems that face us all…

I’m talking about using genetic engineering to improve crops, boost the livelihoods of smallholder farm families, enhance nutrition, reduce climate change impacts, even remove the pesky protein that makes the classic PB&J sandwich an unwelcome allergenic addition to lunch boxes across the country.

Yes, the same technology that can reduce the use of pesticides in crops can also render peanuts hypoallergenic. The same technology that can eliminate the need for nitrogen fertilizers that generate greenhouse gases can keep cut apples from browning. The same technology that can add essential nutrients like vitamin A to staple foods like bananas and rice can silence the gluten proteins that make life miserable for those with celiac disease.

Sadly, this technology has been pushed to the sidelines, dismissed as a dirty three-letter word: GMO. Never has a plant breeding technique been so reviled, so falsely accused of everything from solidifying corporate control over the food supply to making people sick. The demonization of this technology funds numerous NGOs and has even become a cottage industry of sorts. American supermarkets are filled with products that bear the badge of misinformation—the trademark butterfly of the “non-GMO verified” label. This marketing ploy tricks consumers into believing GMOs are somehow bad, and so they should pay more for products without them — even products like salt and water, for which there is no GM equivalent. Sorry—those tricks don’t work on scientist moms like me. And they shouldn’t work on you.

As Americans, our ideologies and shopping habits reverberate around the world. And when we say no to GMO, we’re simultaneously depriving smallholder farmers and consumers in developing nations from exercising choice about what to grow, what to eat. Or in too many cases, about whether they will eat.

Would you say no to GMO if you knew it could save orange trees from the devastation of citrus greening disease, bananas from the scourge of wilt, crops from succumbing to drought or cattle to heat? Would you push it away if you knew this technology could help keep cacao, the primary ingredient in chocolate, from going extinct?  Would you get on board if you knew it meant that kids could safely munch a bag of peanuts without risking anaphylactic shock, be spared the blindness of vitamin A deficiency? Would you have a change of heart if you knew that biotechnology could increase the income of a smallholder farmer in Bangladesh six-fold — enough to send his children to school, buy a propane stove so his wife didn’t have to prepare food over a cow dung or charcoal fire?

Or to bring it back home, would you embrace this technology if you knew it meant the daily challenge of packing a school lunch could be immensely simplified with hypoallergenic peanut butter spread on gluten-free wheat bread and accompanied by an apple that retained its fresh, white flesh, even hours after slicing?

Some of these products, like the Arctic Apple, are already available. Others are moving forward and many more are in the works, ready and able to do their part to end hunger, shrink agriculture’s outsized environmental footprint, increase crop yields, reduce pesticide use, withstand the temperamental and often extreme growing conditions that characterize climate change, and curb food waste. Even more products are likely now that the science has advanced through the precise, predictable use of gene editing tools like CRISPR.

But these new plant varieties, created by scientists working in public institutions like me, won’t advance without our support, our recognition that they have a role, just like organics and conventional and natural, in keeping our planet healthy and our kids fed. They aren’t backed by the multinational corporations that can pay $100 million to move a genetically-engineered crop through an unreasonably onerous regulatory process. They need consumers, people like you and me, to say that we want scientific evidence, not ideology, to determine what enters the food supply.

These are the thoughts that enter my mind as I sip coffee, pack lunches, prepare my children for another day in the school environment that I loved. I want them to have the same opportunities that I enjoyed, and I want those opportunities extended to kids across the globe. And from where I sit, access to the healthy, affordable food that genetic engineering can provide is a huge part of that.

As we bid farewell to the unstructured days of summer and re-enter the school year routine, let’s remember that the decisions we make each day in the grocery store reverberate not only in our children’s lunch boxes, but all around the world.  

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.

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.

What’s Happening in Ag?

aerial view of grain harvest

There’s no such thing as a completely quiet time in farming, and the job of bringing food from the field to the dinner table never takes a day off.  Something constantly needs to be done, at every step of the dirt-to-dinner journey.  But spring always seems to be a particularly busy time of year, and 2019 is proving to be no different.

Like any good farmer, let’s start with a look at the weather.

Enough Already

More rains in key agricultural producing regions of the central United States continue to delay spring planting.  As fields slowly dry out and recovery efforts continue for areas devastated by floods, the Department of Agriculture reports the corn crop is behind its normal planting progress, with 23 percent planted, trailing the five-year average of 46 percent. The soybean crop is behind by even more, now at 6 percent complete and behind the average of 14 percent.  Spring wheat planting stands at about 22 percent, also below last year. Generally, with low spring plantings, markets might expect higher prices come harvest. But the outlook for U.S. Agricultural trade exports expected to remain the same from 2018, as a result, no one is so far predicting a major run-up in prices that would lead to higher consumer prices.

US agricultural trade and trade balanceSource: USDA Economic Research Service

New Soybean Reality

And, to add to the rainy day, China will continue to affect the global soybean market. Not just because of U.S. tariffs but also because of African Swine Fever. The Chinese pig herd has dropped by 20% in the past 20 months.  The USDA is predicting a global 42 million ton decline for China’s import demand. The sliver of a silver lining is that this will help U.S. pork exports to Singapore.


Source: USDA Foreign Agricultural Service

New Hope for Dairy Farmers

The plight facing U.S. dairy farmers has been well documented. Due to a global oversupply of milk and increasing consumption of almond and soy milk, dairy farmers are in their fifth year of low milk prices. Many are operating on a negative margin. The USDA is planning on helping the farmer by rolling out the Dairy Margin Coverage program which will send out $600 million in payments to milk producers.


Survey Finds Glum Farm Investments

The economic uncertainty in the agricultural sector is doing more than reducing farm income. It’s also affecting farmers’ willingness to invest. The Ag Economy Barometer produced regularly by Purdue University and the CME Group this spring found that 78 percent of farmers surveyed felt it’s a “bad time” to make major investments in farm operations. Continuing tensions over trade with China and continuing weather problems in key producing areas are concerns for investing in technologies and equipment to increase productivity and profitability for farmers.

This also impacts food security for the people who depend upon them.  The Barometer measures a monthly economic sentiment with 400 agricultural producers and a quarterly survey of 100 agriculture and agribusiness thought leaders. The latest survey showed the fourth largest one-month drop since data collection began in October 2015.



US-China Trade Dispute Escalates — Again

 The continuing trade dispute between the United States and China has taken a new and ugly turn, with U.S. farm interests firmly in the cross-hairs.  The latest round of economic tit-for-tat saw the United States impose further tariffs on a wide range of imports from China, followed by China’s announcement of new tariffs on imports of U.S. farm products, including wheat, poultry, sugar, and peanuts.  The escalation of trade tensions sent financial markets into a sharp decline – and raised concerns among a farm community already beset by another year of declining farm income.

image showing usa-china-rivarly


EU Acts to Spur Food Waste Reduction

The fight against food waste continues everywhere.  The European Commission has adopted a common methodology for uniform measurement of food waste across all 28 member countries.  This unified measurement system will allow improved reporting of efforts to cut food waste across the food chain.  It also is expected to promote greater cooperation with food processors by food manufacturers and retailers, notably in promoting greater diversion of waste to bioenergy.

The total amount of food waste the EU 27 is estimated at 89 Mt. , i.e 179 kg/per capita/year. Households produce the largest fraction of EU food waste at 38 Mt or 76 kg per capita.

Some African Countries Think Again on GMOs

Kenya, Uganda, and Nigeria have recognized the benefit of GMO crops to help feed their people. Prolonged drought and widespread hunger have the Kenyan government looking more closely at food security and re-thinking its ban on genetically modified corn.  With an estimated 1 million Kenyans facing hunger and malnutrition, government officials say they will make a decision in the next two months.  Their decision could help open the door to wider use of the GMO seeds important to improving Kenyan food security. Uganda has moved ahead and pulled together a legal framework to approve GMO cassava, potatoes, cotton, and corn all of which are now resistant to insects requiring less insecticide and better yield. Their research has also developed a biofortified banana. Nigeria has commercialized Bt cotton and also approved the GMO pest resistant cowpea.


Danes Turn up the GMO Heat on EU

Denmark’s Ethics Council has added to the pressure on the European Union to rethink its opposition to GMOs.  Much has changed since the 1990s, the Council observed, and policymakers must now think about how genetic technologies can help advance the development of the crops needed to contend with climate change, with greater resistance to pests and disease and more efficient use of water and nutrients. Until now, the Danes have been among the most vocal critics of GMOs, so the Council’s call for a new debate can’t be easily ignored by lawmakers and regulators.

Beyond Meat Goes Beyond Expectations

When Beyond Meat, who wants to separate meat from animals, began operations in 2009, no one saw the amazing response to the alternative meat producer that was to come from the investing public.  Beyond Meat’s initial public offering (IPO)had set its opening price at $25 per share, only to see the trading price immediately jump to $46 and rise to a high of $85- the best performing first day for an IPO in 20 years.  As of Tuesday, May 14th, the price is $79.68 with a market cap of $4.58 billion.

beyond meat

Presidential Hopefuls Look to Change Ag policies

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) are looking to get attention by making agricultural policy a key element of their campaigns.  Warren and Sanders, for example, would attack economic concentration in agriculture, looking to break up large vertically integrated operations. Klobuchar, who helped write the farm bill would boost all aspects of farming from dairy to animal disease outbreaks, to conservation. She also suggested a fee for mergers that would be used to investigate anti-competitive practices.  As more and more attention shifts to the difficult economic environment facing farmers and rural America, expect the list of candidates with other provocative policy ideas for our farm and food system to expand still more.




Saving Chocolate, One ‘Kiss’ at a Time

chocolate chunks

Cocoa’s Dilemma

Our sweet tooth is facing a quandary: while chocolate is one of the world’s most favorite sweets, cacao is grown and harvested in some of the poorest and most ecologically sensitive regions of the world. At the expense of some of the most biodiverse flora and fauna, the destruction of rainforests especially in Western Africa where 70% of cacao is grown, has occurred as mostly small-holder farmers try to capitalize on earning just cents per day.

The impact of ineffective farming techniques, poor environmental management, increasing dry spells and lack of water has led to weakened plants more susceptible to pests and disease. In addition, political conflicts, cartels, and government intervention compromise efforts for sustainable management.

While the future of the cacao tree looks dim, the World Cocoa Foundation has over 100 supply chain members from farmers, warehouses, manufacturers, and retailers, who collaborate on solutions to save the cacao tree, protect vast tracts of rainforests, and improve the livelihoods of cacao growers.

But the elephant in the room is biotechnology. Will consumers eat chocolate that has come from a genetically modified plant? For over 30 years, Penn State, through their endowed cacao research program, has focused on biotechnology as a way to positively impact the challenges facing cacao cultivation. The University of California is working with candy giant Mars on gene editing technology to enable cacao to not only to survive but thrive in a drier, warmer climate.

A Pro-GMO chocolate brand emerges

A Fresh Look is a consortium of over 1,600 U.S. family farmers who invite consumers to learn more about the farmer behind their food. Each of these farmers uses genetically-engineered crops to grow safe, healthy food using less water, land energy, and pesticides.

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, A Fresh Look has come up with a clever chocolate promotion called Ethos Chocolate to bring attention to not only the plight of the cacao tree but also to the crops that have been saved through the use of biotechnology.

“We want to help educate the public on the value of GMO farming and the positive impact biotechnology can have on a local and global scale, like slashing pesticide use an average of 37 percent worldwide,” said Rebecca Larson, A Fresh Look’s lead scientist. “We want people to enjoy these delicious chocolates but also take a fresh look at GMOs.”

The 4,000 promotional chocolate bars were quickly scooped up– the D2D team couldn’t even get any! Each flavored bar tells a story about a beloved and important fruit where technology has played a “heroic role in solving a real-world food challenge.”


The Only Thing Better Than Chocolate Now is Chocolate Forever.
That’s Our Ethos: (Ethos Chocolate)

The “Hero” is orange flavored to highlight citrus greening disease that threatens the entire Florida citrus crop.

The “Optimist” is an all-chocolate bar created by sustainably grown cacao trees.

The apple flavored “Trendsetter” demonstrates the non-browning apple that stays fresh longer to help reduce food waste.

The “Survivor” illustrates the Cinderella story of how genetic engineering saved the entire Hawaiian papaya industry from ringspot virus.

“I know first-hand how challenging it is to maintain cacao orchards,” said Eric Reid, a cacao grower and owner of Spagnvola Chocolatiers, the company that produced the limited run on Ethos Chocolate. “As a single-estate chocolatier, I understand how the finest chocolates are derived from the hands of farmers. We must take care of the cacao plant if we want to continue enjoying one of the world’s most cherished foods.” (FoodBev Media)

What do you think? Could you face a world without chocolate? Or have it be as scarce or expensive as caviar or truffles? Would you support GM technology to save the cacao tree?

The Year in Food News: What To Know Before 2019

world being pierced by a fork illustration

Within this post we discuss the following topics:

Trade Tensions with China. How does this affect you?

NAFTA is Dead, Long Live USMCA. Well, Sort Of…

What’s the Farm Bill? About a half-trillion dollars— or maybe more.

The 2018 harvest is almost done. What does it mean for food prices?

Keeping CRISPR Alive in Europe

Glyphosate Debate No Closer to Resolution

Trade Tensions with China. How does this affect you?

After the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, the United States and China announced a pause in the on-going trade dispute between the two nations, with President Donald Trump agreeing to postpone a scheduled increase in U.S. tariffs on Chinese goods set to go into effect January 1, 2019.

On December 1st, Trump agreed to a 90-day tariff truce in order to give both sides time to begin a serious discussion of the myriad of trade and intellectual property issues leading to the escalating series of tariffs. News reports indicate that as part of the agreement, the Chinese have agreed to step up purchases from the United States, including agricultural products such as soybeans. Just exactly what other agricultural products, and in what time frame, remain unclear.

As of December 11, the Chinese are believed to have resumed soybean purchases. President Trump was quoted saying the Chinese are “buying tremendous amounts of soybeans.”

So what does this mean for U.S. food consumers?  Not much, immediately.

The food industry continues to have more than enough commodities to satisfy immediate demand, even if the Chinese resume larger purchases of U.S. soybeans and other farm products.

The real issue for consumers is the long-term economic health of the farm sector. Exports are an important aspect of farm revenue, yet net farm income has been declining steadily in recent years, to a level about half its 2013 peak.  Without a clearer picture of future market stability for U.S. exports, that pressure is likely to continue.

With more and more farm operations on margin, look for further growth in farm size as farmers consolidate, and continued pressure for investment in the technological and operational improvements to keep food costs down.

Related Reading:
In the News: China Trade on Soybeans and Pork
Net Farm Income Projected to Drop to 12-year Low
How Consolidation is Changing Rural Agriculture
Examining Consolidation in U.S. Agriculture

NAFTA is Dead, Long Live USMCA. Well, Sort Of…

President Trump raised eyebrows by signing a new trade deal among the three countries known as USMCA (the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement), formerly known as NAFTA.

What’s the big deal?  Quite a bit for certain sectors of the U.S. economy, notably the automotive industry – and agricultural interest in all three countries.  Favorable trade terms under NAFTA helped agricultural trade among the three explode.

U.S. agricultural exports under NAFTA grew from $11 billion in 1993 to over $43 billion in 2016, making Canada and Mexico the second- and third-largest markets in the world for U.S. producers.  Canadian and Mexican ag interests – and consumers – reaped comparable benefits.

USMCA would build on NAFTA’s open trade principles to extend favorable ag trade terms to several sectors previously outside the tri-lateral agreement, including poultry, dairy, and eggs.

Preserving the open trade spirit behind this long-standing trade policy has never been more important to U.S. agriculture. The U.S. farm sector’s reliance on a robust export market as a major source of farm income provides us with the low-cost food we eat today.

Should food consumers care?  As with most major public food policy issues, the immediate effect of all this is virtually undetectable. But its role in preserving the economic health of a vibrant and responsive food system isn’t.  Without policies that help create economic opportunity for U.S. farmers, consumers can’t assume the world’s most productive and efficient food system can stay that way indefinitely.

So, if you like to eat and feed your family with an abundant and affordable supply of wholesome food,you might listen with at least one ear when those talking heads on TV mention trade.

Related Reading:
The USMCA explained: Winners and losers, what’s in and what’s out
United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement
What is NAFTA?

What’s the Farm Bill? About a half-trillion dollars— or maybe more

As the year winds down, a lot of people in and out of Washington are breathing a sigh of relief over the final resolution of the running battle for new farm legislation. The bill passed with an 87-to-13 vote in the Senate on Tuesday, Dec 11thand will now go to the house, where it is expected to pass as well. This new five-year bill lays out the complex web of policies and programs governing the U.S. food system.

The National Association of State Departments of Agriculture

The bill makes no major changes in policy direction, and still covers everything from crop subsidies, crop insurance and conservation programs to urban farming, research and nutrition assistance programs – and a heck of a lot more in between, including new hemp regulations.

The 2014 Farm Bill has been estimated to cost taxpayers about $488 billion, although the final tally may come in a tad lower than that figure. Comparatively, the 2018 Farm Bill is expected to cost taxpayers $827 billion.

The share of that spending going to farmers? This is a bit controversial. Commodity programs, crop insurance, and conservation make up only 19 percent of the tab.  About 80 percent – four of every five dollars in the bill – goes to some form of nutritional assistance for those who are in need. This is commonly referred to as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), or food stamps.

The 2018 compromise is expected to address various cost-control mechanisms but nonetheless entails 10-year spending of about $687 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

So, what do consumers get for their tax dollar?  Even though a small amount goes to the farming network, the Farm Bill provides the framework of policies and programs — the rules of the road — needed to guide production, processing, research, product innovation, manufacturing, marketing, retailing and all the other elements of a modern food system.

It provides the framework essential to attracting investment and incentivizing the effort that keeps the system responsive to the evolving needs and demands of consumers.

The American public gets a stable, innovative and reliable food system, unlike anything seen in previoushistory. It’s government policy-making that can be argued to actually work, and work well, especially in today’s fractured political system.

Related Reading:
What is the Farm Bill — and why should you care?
Congress just passed an $867 billion farm bill. Here’s what’s in it.
Farm Bill: A Short History and Summary
The Farm Bill (archives from the NYT)

The 2018 harvest is almost done. What does this mean for food prices?

The end of the calendar year normally means corn and soybean farmers are wrapping up harvests of their crops.  Tough weather conditions have slowed the harvest in some production areas.  But overall, more than 90 percent of the corn and soybean harvest is completed. The final numbers will impact future farm production trends and have implications for future food prices.

Corn and Soybean Digest

The Department of Agriculture will release official numbers for the crops in mid-January.  But all signs point to a good harvest for corn and soybean producers, with some early estimates pointing to crops of more than 14.6 billion and 4.6 billion bushels, respectively.

Why should anyone outside the farm community care about such dry and mind-numbing statistics?  Because they point toward the future for supplies of the commodities that fuel the American food system – and the prices consumers are likely to be paying.

Experts are looking to see not just what stocks are on hand, but what farmers’ intentions for the next crop year will be.  Big stockpiles – and an export outlook clouded by trade tensions — can mean tough markets for soybean exports, for example.  Waiting for higher commodity prices, many farmers stockpile their crops rather than sell them thus creating more uncertainties. That may lead to smaller planted acreage for soybeans in the coming year as stocks increase and producers look for alternative crops, such as corn or specialty crops such as hemp.

Government estimates of food expenditures, meanwhile, show modest growth in prices paid for food.  USDA estimates say, prices for food consumed in the home should hold flat, or rise by only 1 percent, while prices for food consumed away from home are projected to be up 2-3 percent.  This is mainly due to higher labor costs.  Projections for 2019 show similar modest increases in food prices.

What keeps food costs so stable in the midst of such ups and downs in the commodity world? Part of the answer lies in the complexity and efficiency of the modern food chain.  Statistics show that the cost of key commodities represents a small fraction of the total food dollar – somewhere between 12 and 15 percent, by most estimates.  (Incidentally, the commodity share of the food dollar has shown a steady decline in recent decades.) The remainder goes to processing, packaging, transportation, retail costs, food service costs and other costs (such as energy, financial expenses, and insurance).

Related Reading:
USDA – Food Dollar Series
National Farmers Union: The Farmer’s Share
USDA Graphs Explain The Breakdown of a U.S. Food Dollar

Keeping CRISPR Alive in Europe

The European Court of Justice earlier this year ruled that held gene-edited crops must be subject to the same onerous regulatory standards as genetically modified organisms (GMOs).


While many anti-GMO groups hailed the Court’s actions, reaction to the ruling ranged from howls of outrage to sighs of despair among the scientific and agricultural communities.  The ruling would effectively make Europe a non-player in the world’s efforts to use gene editing technology – known as CRISPR – to spur the next generations of agricultural innovation and progress in better plant development.

Now 75 leading scientists from a spectrum of European life science research centers have called upon European policymakers to reverse the court’s decision.  How policymakers respond will provide the next big indictor of which direction Europe will move in the global effort to produce the innovative new plants needed to deal with growing world demand for food – plants capable of resisting disease and pests, crops capable of dealing with changing climatic conditions, organisms capable of thriving on less water and fewer added field nutrients.

Related Reading:
In the News: European Court Hinders CRISPR Technology
CRISPR & Co are GMOs, says EU court

Glyphosate Debate No Closer to Resolution

2018 was a big year for glyphosate – the key ingredient in Monsanto’s widely used herbicide, RoundUp.

Glyphosate has been under steady and sometimes heated attack by a range of individuals and organizations concerned that excessive exposure to RoundUp can cause cancer.  When a California jury awarded $289 million to a man claiming the product caused his cancer, the debate entered a new and even more contentious phase. The award was later reduced to “only” $78 million, but new trials involving thousands of claimants remain in the works in various locations.

Expect to see the battle spill from the media and courtroom to the legislative arena.  Bayer AG, who acquired Monsanto for $63 billion in June 2018, has signaled its intent to continue battling to defend what it sees as a proven and important tool for farmers worldwide.  In early December, the company garnered widespread media coverage when it posted more than 300 studies regarding the safety of glyphosate. As part of the company’s “Transparency Initiative,” the release was touted as an important step in establishing trust in the science behind its products.  That material also has been provided to the European Parliament as part of their deliberations on the renewal of authorization for glyphosate production.

The debate in the European Parliament mirrors the political divisions related to GMOs.  Many legislators see a need to embrace science and products that maintain the EU’s competitive position in the global agricultural system.  But others favor a more restrictive approach as they think it is the best way to protect human health and the environment.

Related Reading:
National Pesticide Information Center: Glyphosate
Bayer committed to transparency: Posts more than 300 glyphosate safety study summaries online

In the News: European Court Hinders CRISPR Technology

crispr technology concept

The Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ), which represents all 28 countries in the European Union, has set back progress by regulating the genetic engineering technique, CRISPR, to such an extent that it will stifle growth in agricultural innovation.

As a surprise to almost everyone, the court ruled that crops produced from CRISPR-Cas9 must face the same rigorous, time-consuming and hugely expensive evaluative process as genetically modified crops.

In contrast to the European Court, the USDA recently issued a statement that the agency does not plan to regulate plants edited with CRISPR technology. The USDA deemed a distinct difference between edited genomes and genetic modification. This decision only applies to crops with genes removed by the technology or added if the genes are commonplace in the species. GMOs and other transgenic crops, with DNA modified from another organism to make the crop pest-resistant, for example, will still be closely monitored by the USDA.

“Genome editing…can introduce new plant traits more quickly and precisely, potentially saving years or even decades in bringing needed new varieties to farmers.” (USDA Press)

Why are we concerned about what the European Union does with gene editing?

Imagine for a moment that we still used a horse and plow to grow and harvest the food we eat. We would all be hungry. Food production has kept pace with population growth due to ongoing seed, planting and harvesting technology. Seeds resistant to pests and diseases, GPS-driven tractors, and precision irrigation are some of the technologies that have helped to increase crop yields, preserve and improve soils, and produce healthier foods.

Since the 1940s, corn yield has increased to roughly 170 bushels an acre from 30. This has saved over 2.7 billion acres of land, globally. In 1990, the average farmer fed 100 people. Today, the average farmer produces food and fiber for 165 people annually, both in the U.S and abroad!

Food would not be as plentiful today if we kept to horse and plow methods of cultivation.

Modern tractors are efficient and use precise GPS technology to manage fields and crops.

The EU Ruling Causes Frustration.

The Court’s ruling, which the French government requested, has not received much public praise. This decision shocked many in the business and academic communities regarding its questionable logic.  Even European editorial pages sympathetic to the anti-GMO position expressed incredulity with the decision.

Until now, Europe’s regulatory approach to genetic engineering was simple: Anything that could occur naturally should not be as heavily regulated, but “unnatural” processes, like GMOs, require strict regulation. GMOs are considered “unnatural” as they use a transgenic process of inserting genes from one organism into another organism.

CRISPR, on the other hand, uses the organism’s own genetic material, therefore the change could occur naturally. There are no transgenic properties in CRISPR. It is just a faster and more precise way to breed better crops compared to what farmers have been practicing for centuries. CRISPR can help plants resist pests and disease, and survive in higher temperatures and drier soil conditions.

So, by stating that CRISPR must now undergo heavy regulation, the ECJ has contradicted itself on the topic of genetic engineering. In fact, they’re creating even more confusion. For instance, did you know the EU considers radiation as a “natural” process and therefore is not as regulated? This “natural” process is called conventional mutagenesis and includes the use of chemicals or radiation to cause mutations within the plant for future breeding purposes. How is radiation, an imprecise method of breeding, any more “natural” than CRISPR?

“By any sensible standard, this judgment is illogical and absurd.  For a start, it argues that crops should be judged not on the safety of their traits but only by the technology that was used to create them.  It also maintains that the highly precise technology of gene editing is somehow more risky than past, imprecise techniques. This is simply untrue.” (The Sunday Observer, July 29, 2018)

The Court’s decision ignores this critical scientific point of difference. Additionally, this ruling further mystifies the already complex issue of GMOs. As we saw with GMOs, some countries may follow Europe’s lead on this ruling. This will be especially detrimental to the developing world, with concerns about food security with a growing population. Basing those policies on poor science and an over-abundance of caution could forestall the very improvements in farm productivity needed around the world.

“To classify gene-edited crops as GMOs and equivalent to transgenic crops is completely incorrect by any scientific definition.  Precise modern gene-editing technologies allow accurate, predictable changes to be made in a genome.” (Nick Talbot, molecular geneticist. University of Exeter, United Kingdom)

A Loss for Europe’s Ag Sector

Immediate effects from the ECJ ruling.

The ruling will have immediate and long-term effects on Europe’s farmers and ranchers. As of now, all ongoing trials of gene-edited crops and animals in the EU must cease, halting valuable research findings and turning ag R&D spend into sunk costs for many. To get a field study up and running, the EU now requires that they first receive authorization.

As for crop and animal sales, the European Food Safety Authority must review any plants or animals affected by these gene-editing techniques before for approval. The approval process must demonstrate that the organisms are safe for consumption as well as the environment; the EU then grants final authorization for commercial use.

Once approved for commercial distribution, genetically edited plants and animals will require special labeling indicating its GE status, and all products must be traced back to its source.

Europe to fall behind in global competition.
Another consideration of this ruling is that it will now be prohibitively expensive and out of reach for smaller companies and institutions to enter this globally-competitive market. Taking just one gene-edited plant through the European regulatory process costs about $35 million, which is only accessible to the largest of companies. This will force many to either give up or move out the E.U.

“[This ruling is] the death blow for plant biotech in Europe.’ (Sarah Schmidt, Heinrich Heine University of Dusseldorf)

This will also have a broader effect on the European agricultural market.  Their crops will become increasingly more expensive to produce while other global producers offer better, less expensive crops for customers worldwide. Use of bio-engineered crops is expanding steadily around the world, especially in the United States and throughout South America, where they’re competing for lucrative foreign markets. In addition, trading with Europe will be increasingly difficult since the labeling laws will be different.

Effects on global food supply. The FAO reports that we need to grow as much food in the next 50 years as we have in the past 10,000 years combined.  This means the world’s farmers will have to grow about 70% more food than what is now produced. How are we going to do this without continuing to advance technology?

Genetic Engineering: The Future Insecticide?

farmer spraying strawberry fields

Last month, we invited our readers to take part in a survey conducted by Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Science School students. The survey was part of a study on the perception of genetically modified insects used as a form of pest management in agriculture. These insects have the potential to combat crop insect pests without the use of pesticides and insecticides.

The survey had a total of 132 respondents. Most respondents completed the survey via social media or via the Dirt-to-Dinner email. The survey results show a wide acceptance of this type of genetic modification. Furthermore, the respondents support GE pest control over traditional pesticide methods. The results of the survey are below – thanks to our D2D readers who participated!

For more information on this study, please



D2D on the Farm: GMOs

Green Cay farm talking with Dirt-to-Dinner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diamondback moth leaf damage.

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

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

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

Let’s Byte into Ag

computer programming language on a computer screen

In today’s global agricultural system, we are collecting, sorting, analyzing, and acting on data. Data mining is now integral in the universal effort to improve the quantity, quality, and sustainability of our food supply—now and into the future.

Feeding the world while protecting the environment is a science— a data-driven science. Data allows us to find practical solutions that deliver better results across every segment of the food chain.  While the role of data and intelligent data management may seem to be invisible to most of us, it is essential to assuring that today’s consumers—and future generations—don’t just eat, but thrive.

Intelligent, innovative data management is already a critical core competency in feeding animals and people with wholesome, safe, and affordable food. 

Statistics on the amount of data being created every day is mind-boggling

Many data science experts support the notion that we risk “drowning in data,” when what we really want to do is “swim in knowledge.”  Data scientist Abdelbarre Chafik highlights that every day, more than 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are created. (That is 2,500,000,000,000,000,000 bytes!)

AppDeveloper magazine recently stated,

More data was created in the last two years than the previous 5,000 years of humanity. In 2017, we will create even more data in one year alone, creating more challenges around consuming that data to make strategic and tactical decisions. Yet, recent research has found that less than 0.5 percent of that data is actually being analyzed for operational decision making.

Bits and Bytes and the Agricultural Sector

What has changed, however, is the sheer volume and variety of data that is now available to the agricultural sector through the emergence of new information technology. In order to use data effectively, we need to be collecting with purpose.

The value of an idea lies in the using of it.
—Thomas Edison

Collecting data is to drive better decision-making at every step along the food chain.  What’s more— this emerging focus on data management is rapidly becoming a core competency for all members of the food system.  Data holds the potential to make every segment of the food chain work better.

Because this is a new and rapidly growing market, many companies are trying to find their niche. It will be very interesting to see how this market place develops and which agriculture and data companies are able to work together in order to find the best solutions.

There are many companies competing in the agricultural data space. Source: AGC Partners

Data isn’t new to agriculture

Farm data has been collected for centuries— first as hieroglyphics etched in stone, followed by hand-written entries in dusty ledgers. Data is stored everywhere: in grain elevators, on commodity exchanges, in the basement of barns, on the rolling handwritten inventories of food stores, and countless other places along the food chain.

Farmers used basic facts and figures about input costs, pest controls, machinery expenses, yields, market bids, etc. to help themselves better produce their crop in future seasons. Commodity merchants tracked market trends, historic demand, crop estimates, stocks and other factors important to buying and selling farm products at a profit. Food manufacturers took careful note of stocks, purchase needs, ingredient prices, market demand and more. Food consumers also had a role to play in data management, even if only to stay within their household budget.

Today, the difference is that all of this information from the farmers, merchants, distributors, food processors, and the grocery store can be loaded into algorithms to provide consolidated information from farmer to consumer.

But, at every step along the way— all the players have different objectives. The farmers want to grow their crops with the best yield and the least inputs (pesticides, herbicides, and water). The commodity traders want to buy low and sell high. The food processor wants to buy food from the farmer and efficiently process it into a different product (for example soybeans into soybean oil.) And the consumer wants affordable, healthy, and safe food that is accessible daily.

Let’s imagine a few things can be done by harvesting this volume of data

As a consumer:

  • Scan the label on your produce or fruit to learn about the farmer who grew your food.
  • Scan the label on your meat packaging and know exactly what the cow was fed throughout its life.
  • Supermarkets can manage their end of life products and notify consumers and food banks who could use them.
  • Restaurants can use Food Genius to gather the popularity of over 22 million menu items to see what sells to which type of consumer – and then tailor their own menu.

As a farmer:

  • Know the exact locations on the fields that have heavy water, normal, or drought conditions and manage pesticide applications.
  • Know the approximate yield, around the globe, of their crop so they can decide whether to sell their crop at harvest or store it on site until prices are more favorable.
  • Know the exact moment to plant their crops through weather and soil analytics.
  • Program the driver-less tractor to manage the fields.
  • Purchase the right seed each year for today’s climate and soil.
  • Use big data to provide crop insurance for farmers regarding crop yields and weather patterns.

As the food producer:

  • Be able to instantly track all the ingredients and their prices that come from around the world.
  • Have instant access to sales at the grocery store so inventory can be managed accordingly.
  • Know about every animal that is purchased for your farm and have access to what it was fed pre-purchase.
  • Streamline transportation logistics in order to get optimal pricing to send product via rail, ship, or truck.
  • Increase understanding of all food inputs to effectively manage margins.

How can we use data to improve food sustainability?

As we discussed in Farming from the Thermosphere, technology is becoming increasingly important in farming practices. Data becomes knowledge, knowledge becomes insight, and insight should inevitably become action.

But of all the data that is captured, it is important to discern what kinds of data are important to agriculture. While the internet and subsequently the Internet of Things (IoT) has allowed for better data collection, there is room for improvement. Here are some areas within the food supply chain that will benefit from improved data collection and management:

One of the most important questions to be resolved in a brave new data-driven world is— what we do with the data once we have it?

Many companies are trying to answer this question. In fact, 2016 Global Opportunity Report cited “smart farming” as the top-ranked opportunity.

The idea that agriculture is now a tech industry is firmly established. The farming community knows they have to embrace this. —Roger Royse (Silicon Valley attorney)

Farmers Edge specializes in precision agronomy and helps enable farmers to better monitor their fields and collect effective data. IBM’s artificial intelligence product, Watson (IoT), is attempting to transform precision agriculture by utilizing predictive weather analytics to help farmers. The platform also offers real-time plant and field monitoring. Bayer Digital Farming uses Amazon Web Service to help feed a growing population. In 2014, John Deere introduced SeedStar a mobile application that gives farmers a row-by-row assessment of their field and its performance. Moreover, John Deere recently (Sept 2017) acquired See and Spray Robotics, which sees, diagnoses, and executes on something as small as seedlings. Monsanto bought The Climate Corporation, which uses big data to predict weather and climate change. Cargill invested in Descartes Labs, which uses satellite imagery to help with crop forecasting. U.S. Foods bought Food Genius— and the list goes on…

Source: IBM

As technology enables the creation of larger amounts of data, determining which data is relevant, complete, and honest grows more difficult. Unfortunately, it is easy to twist data to support a pre-conceived idea, and data alone is often fuel for argument and debate.

In an age in which consensus about important issues (such as climate change, water use, and topsoil depletion) has become bogged down in rhetoric, claims, and counterclaims, objective data management enables informed decision-making. More and more effort is being devoted to sorting through competing data analysis methods and conclusions. But finding critical data— and true insights within reams of legitimate data — remains very much a work in progress.

Water, Water…Everywhere?

Irrigation equipment on farm field

Our water supply is stressed!

Water is essential to all living things. Humans, animals, and crops rely on a steady water supply in order to survive. But, with a growing population and a finite water supply on earth, we are finding ourselves in a bit of trouble! While about 80% of the Earth’s surface is covered with water, it is the fresh water supply that we are most concerned about. Freshwater assumes only 2.5% of all water on Earth – and 90% of this fresh water is located in Antarctica. To put that into perspective, if you were to take all the world’s water and fit it into a one-gallon jug – fresh water would only account for roughly one tablespoon.

Based on current projections, our population is expected to grow .89% per year through 2050. At this rate, that is approximately 66 million more mouths to feed each year! Thus, our farmers are expected to not only produce more food but to use less water throughout the growing process. So, as shifting rainfall patterns, frequent droughts, and population growth put added stress on our water supply, farmers are looking to technology for new ways to reduce, manage, and reuse fresh water.

Water on Earth is a closed system.

There is the same amount of water on our Earth today as there was two billion years ago, but it may be in a different form. Water on earth is recycled daily through evaporation, condensation (clouds), precipitation (rain, snow, or hail), filtration down through the earth, and surface run-off. Consider this: When you drink a glass of water you could be drinking the same H20 molecule that your Grandmother met when she got caught in the rain 50 years ago! That same H20 molecule may have also met the dinosaurs 200 million years ago or, more recently, George Washington in 1789!

Farming requires a lot of water

Growing crops and raising animals requires a lot of water. Worldwide farming activities account for approximately 70% of freshwater withdrawals. Farming in the mid-west, for example, requires millions of gallons of water to keep crops and livestock healthy and happy. These farms utilize rainwater as well as underground aquifers. After this water gets used on the farm, it can take a lifetime to make its way back into an aquifer. In addition to recharging groundwater, water can also run off into streams and/or rivers and end up in the ocean. It may also be evaporated! Water is rarely used in the same way more than once.

The areal and vertical location of the major aquifers is fundamental to the determination of groundwater availability for the Nation. An aquifer is a geologic formation, a group of formations, or a part of a formation that contains sufficient saturated permeable material to yield significant quantities of water to wells and springs. Source: USGS Aquifer Map

Farmers want to conserve water

Technology experts have been working for decades to create innovative technology to help farms save water. Most farmers are very motivated to use water efficiently, and many rely on water-saving techniques in their conservation efforts. (Additionally, as we discussed in our previous post, they must also address soil health to ensure optimal water and nutrient retention.)

There are various ways that technology can be used to conserve water – let’s explore some of the available approaches…

  1. The biotech approach begins with engineering seeds and crops that can grow with less water and have drought resistant properties.
  2. The computer-related approach includes aerial imaging, sensor networks, data analytics, and social networking. These systems are helping farmers optimize their water inputs, create smarter irrigation systems, and communicate with each other on water-saving techniques.
  3. Advancements in filtration and membrane technologies have made it more cost-effective for farmers to conserve water.
  4. Absorbent soil additives can increase the amount of water the soil can retain and release throughout the growing season.

Seeds of solution

If you are an environmentalist, then drought-resistant genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are the answer to your water concerns. Seed producers are using biotechnology to create seeds that can grow a water-efficient, drought-resistant crop. Breakthroughs in seed technology can help farmers around the world growing in different climates optimize water use.

Digital tools

One of the primary water-related issues farmers face is: where to put the water— as some parts of their field often need it more than others.

Drones help farmers perfect irrigation techniques.  Image source

Thanks to computer-related technologies (aerial imaging, sensor networks, data analytics, and social networking), farmers can now determine where the drier part of their field is located. The goal of agricultural aerial imaging, sensor networks, and digital tools (such as data analytics) is to perfect irrigation techniques.

When the sensors detect low soil moisture in a specific area or crop, the control network will turn on the computer-automated irrigation system and turn it off when an optimal amount of water is delivered to that zone.

A single field can differ in slope, land elevation, exposure to the sun, and/or contain various soil types (i.e., mineral and clay content, sandiness, etc.), all of which affect the amount of water needed to grow crops. The development of these computer-related technologies is to allow farmers to more precisely deliver water to meet crop needs on a real-time basis.

In a previous article, D2D described how the use of aerial imaging captured by drones, satellites, and aircraft has been “taking off” in the farming industry.

Large farms today can synthesis data from the fields, the animals, the machines and the barns to run more efficiently.

Normally, growers manually evaluate their soil moisture, crop health, and potential yields on foot or by tractor, but aircraft or drones can quickly fly over their field or satellites can produce a bird’s eye view of the field generating more accurate data often at an accelerated pace. The data produced by the satellite or aircraft imagery can be directly downloaded to a farmer’s smartphone or tablet allowing the farmer to adjust their field management accordingly.

There are many drone companies offering imaging services. Searching the internet for aerial crop imaging companies brings up dozens of entries. However, many of these companies provide only images without any analytics or “actionable intelligence” to make sense of what is shown. DroneDeploy and Agribotix are two startups that offer both imaging services and analytic software platforms where farmers can analyze images taken from their personal drones. Another imaging-as-a-Service company, CeresImaging, captures high-resolution images at specific wavelengths by flying close to the ground. Using various image processing techniques, they generate highly accurate data on every plant in the field then use biological and mathematical modeling to correlate this data to the plant’s physical properties.

Sensing the Earth

Similar to aerial imaging, wireless sensor networks create a smarter irrigation system that allows farmers to customize irrigation to a field’s unique needs. The sensors are placed around a field and continually report various soil measurements, including moisture levels, directly to a computer, tablet, or cell phone. The farmer can then take that information and act on it. More advanced sensor systems have control networks installed in a field’s irrigation system.

CropX, a company with offices in Tel Aviv and San Francisco uses publicly available data to generate algorithms for a particular piece of land. After formulating the algorithm, they use data from sensors strategically located within a field to generate detailed information about how much water is needed as well as where and when it is needed. Raptormaps is another company that combines sensor technology with analytics to provide farmers with information to optimize crop inputs and to make decisions based on field and crop conditions.

Additionally, pressure and acoustic sensors wirelessly connected to a cloud-based monitoring system can be attached to a field’s irrigation pipes and groundwater sources. Using sound waves, the sensors can detect and pinpoint leaks in irrigation pipes below the ground, as well as accurately measure a farmer’s groundwater storage. Ag data analytics use the massive amount of information from imaging and/or sensor networks to assess and predict field conditions.

Farmers utilize social media to communicate with one another

Computer use and access to the internet have not only given farmers tools to more precisely irrigate their crops but have also provided a forum to communicate with other farmers about farming issues such as water-conversation. Social networking and mass text messaging have been successfully used in other industries for communication but is now also starting to be used more widely in agriculture.

Studies show that farmers rely on their social network as a primary information source. Farmer-specific social networking platforms are attempting to leverage this natural tendency by encouraging farmers to share their questions and knowledge with others in the industry on issues including water use, irrigation tools, and weather information.

Water re-use and membrane filtration

This approach shifts from water management and conservation techniques to water reuse. Water purification and desalination (a process that removes salt and minerals from water) has been around for decades and is used in mostly arid countries around the world. Israel is a major proponent of water reuse — reusing about 80% of its municipal wastewater for irrigation. Israel not only reuses grey water from sinks and showers but also uses black water – better known as sewage. Following the Israelis lead in water reuse is Spain at 17%, followed by Australia at 10% and the U.S. at less than 1%.

In addition to water reuse, desalination provides another major water source for Israel. Breakthroughs in membrane technology have lowered the cost of desalination technology significantly.

The World Bank reported advances in membrane filtration have lowered the cost from $1 per cubic meter to 50 cents per cubic meter in less than five years, making seawater desalination considerably more affordable water source option.

Graphene membranes can be used for water filtration, gas separation and desalination projects.

There are a few startup companies working on membrane technology. Most startups or academics that develop promising technologies typically sell it to large companies such as LG ChemAquaTechKoch Membrane Systems, Inc.Evoqua Water TechnologiesMarlo, Incorporated, and The Dow Chemical Company are already heavily invested in the water utility markets.

The most popular membrane technology is reverse osmosis – a process that uses a semipermeable membrane to remove ions, molecules, and larger particles (salts) from drinking water. Historically, the reverse osmosis process used a lot of energy, but newer membrane technologies (e.g., nanomaterials and graphene-oxide membranes) and solar powered electrodialysis are able to filter seawater using significantly less energy (although some of these technologies have obstacles to overcome before becoming commercially available).

Soil sponges

One of the most unconventional, exciting and innovative approaches is to add a biodegradable sponge in the soil. These super absorbent polymers that farmers can put in their soil ahead of planting are slowly gaining popularity.

The size of a grain of sand, a polymer particle can soak up to 250 times its weight in water. Absorbing the excess water left behind from crop irrigation, the polymer then slowly releases the water back into the soil as it dries out. Developed at Stanford University, one such polymer is said to help farmers reduce water use by 20 percent and cut water bills by 15 percent. Environmentally, the polymer lasts about a year before it starts to break down without leaving any by-products behind.

Farming from the Thermosphere

man controlling drone flying above field

At D2D, we often discuss the importance of feeding a growing global population while keeping our environmental resources secure for future generations. The fact is, world population is growing at a fast pace— so, we need to find ways to better manage and preserve our existing resources. For example, we have investigated indoor agriculture and crop biotechnology as innovative ways that our farmland and natural resources have benefited from technological advancements.

What do drones and satellites do?

For generations, farmers have relied heavily on old fashioned senses, such as touch, smell, and taste to ascertain how their crops and soil are managing through the growing season. Today, they have the advantage of relying on advanced equipment and heavy-duty machinery to efficiently and productively sow seeds, apply fertilizers and pesticides, feed animals and harvest crops. Now, technology is taking crop management to the skies. Drones and satellites are new, exciting tools to help farmers reduce chemical inputs, manage water usage, ensure animal welfare, and increase crop yield.

Helping Farmers manage their crops

During a typical growing season, farmers face many different types of challenges, such as weeds, pests, and weather inconsistencies. Drones and satellites allow them to monitor and handle these impending crop threats as quickly as possible.

For instance, the average drone can cover over 160 acres of cropland in one hour and satellites can take detailed pictures every 24 hours to identify weed species, plant heights, population densities, and specific types of crop damage caused by pests.

Close examination of a crop

This data helps farmers quickly recognize problem areas, such as water and pest issues. Invariably, drones and satellites have a positive environmental impact as farmers are able to manage their chemical inputs, increase their yield, and minimize machine passes through the field, hence minimizing pollution.

For those not familiar with drone technology, a drone is considered an unmanned aerial device vehicle (UAV). They are commonly used by amateur and professional photographers as a flying camera to take cool pictures, document events, or make movies. They have also become very useful to survey weather systems or act as a surveillance device for the U.S. military.

The technology that makes drones so effective is imagery that measures wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation, which enable a farmer to see specific areas where crop inputs need to be applied. (image source)

Companies such as AgEagle and DroneDeploy offer services that take aerial infrared images to detect the health of crops. The images are processed and consolidated, and a specific “prescription” map is provided to the farmer.

However, some farmers find it more efficient (and cost saving) to operate the drones themselves. Drone image mapping can be used by corn farmers in Iowa, potato farmers in Idaho, fruit growers in Georgia, or cattle ranchers on the remote plains of Montana. In fact, some vineyards in California use specially-designed drones to look like hawks to scare pesky birds away from their grapes.

Robert Blair, a wheat farmer in Idaho, recently invested in drone technologies and praised the effectiveness of drones. “Instead of spraying 100 percent of the field I’m spraying exactly where it is needed instead of across the whole field. That’s huge to be able to identify those areas to treat before the treatment takes place.” (AOPA Pilot Magazine)

Some drones can even take the place of a crop duster airplane and spray the crops. However, this is mostly used for fruits and produce. Source

Helping farmers manage their animals

Animal farmers are using drones to monitor their cattle in the field and in the feedlot. Drones help provide answers to questions like: are any of my cattle sick? Have any wandered off? Are there predators harassing my animals? This new technology is starting to play an important role in how crops and animals are grown and managed. 

Drones keeping an eye on cattle

A cowboy can see, via a drone, whether any animals are sick by a hanging head, shaking body, or excess heat coming off the cattle. On large-scale dairy farms, drones can quickly ascertain who is limping, who has strayed away from the herd, and who might be suffering from mastitis (an udder infection).

For instance, cattle are social animals. Cows that spend time in the feedlot like to be with their fellow cow-brethren from the ranch. If they feel sick they don’t want to leave the herd to go to the infirmary. So, when the cowboys ride the pens checking on the animals, a cow can actually “fake it” and pretend to be healthy because he doesn’t want to be separated.

Drone view of a mixer box feeding cows.

While drones have many great benefits, not every farmer has a drone waiting to fly out of the barn.

While flying over 160 acres an hour is a lot of ground to cover, they eventually run out of battery power! The farmer also needs to operate the drone, and even if it is pre-programmed it needs to recharge. Additionally, in order to be precise, they have to fly exact coordinates. Thus, drones have not been implemented into all farming practices quite yet. AgFunder reported a 68% drop in investments in agricultural drone technology for 2016.

Up to the Thermosphere! Satellites


Of course, we all know how satellites provide GPS to get us to our destination. Satellites are rocketed into the thermosphere by companies such as Geoimage, who set up satellite constellations with 150 or so stations circling the earth. Recently, Planetary Resources raised $21 million with their Bayer CropScience partnership.  They will have a ‘constellation of 10 Arkyd 100 microsatellites in low Earth orbit’.  The images are refreshed daily and are incredibly clear and precise, pinpointing locations to a 5-meter radius. The data is compiled and downloaded to an intermediary, such as Descartes or IntelinAir, who make sense of this data along with weather forecasting and agronomy analysis to provide agriculture mapping for crop and soil analysis.

Satellite images provide a color map of soil and crop health.  This is not as easy as it sounds as there are many variables which occur from day to day, such as the atmosphere, cloud cover, shadows, angle of the sensor, the angle of the sunlight, etc. Additionally, pixel size, the number of satellites, and the quality of near-infrared wavelengths are all considerations to reliable data.

Yet, the data has to be consistent and trusted. To be a successful farmer, one has to know and understand any changes in the color or health of the soil, water, plants, and weeds. Are there more or fewer pests? Is the crop darker or lighter? Are there more weeds or less? Is the soil appropriately hydrated compared to yesterday?

Satellite imagery helps farmers maximize their harvest and minimize damage to their fields. Source

Using an iPhone or computer, satellite technology allows the farmer to literally track the fields by comparing the color and visuals on a day-by-day basis. Farmers can see any change immediately, program their combine or tractor, and go right to that specific location with the needed chemicals, fertilizer, or water.

Precision agriculture has a whole new meaning!

Let’s bring this technology to life:

  • On the very desolate high plains of Nebraska, you can see if your cattle are fed, watered, and healthy.
  • In California, you can see the exact areas of your field that need water by looking at the color of the soil.
  • In Colorado, you can see what part of your wheat field needs extra spray for the weeds.
  • A soybean farmer can tell by the color whether part of the crop is being eaten by pests

Using satellite technology, a farmer can get a good idea of their farm’s yield as well as the overall yield of the crop in the area. They can also tell which part of their fields had the best/worst yields. This knowledge helps to manage a farm’s income and expenses.

image credit: Asia K. Kalcevic

The weekly satellite imagery of growing crops enhances the field scouting and increases the accuracy of the field by identifying the best and troubled areas of the crop. With consistent monitoring, the farmer can define trends in the field and make better-informed decisions in specific areas of the field or the farm. I relate it to a weekly x-ray of our crop and soil health.
A 65,000-acre wheat farmer, Colorado

CRISPR: An Innovative Technology in Ag

genetic code crispr

CRISPR, short for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, is a technology that can affect anything – or anyone – that has a gene. It has the potential to make monumental changes in human medicine, animal health, and agriculture. Although human trials are not fully underway, editing a human genome to cure cancer and/or eliminate blood diseases, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s is just one example of the medicinal and human health genetic possibilities scientists are currently exploring with this gene editing technology.

Genome Editing with CRISPR-Cas9. McGovern Institute for Brain Research, MIT

The gene editing future is so optimistic that scientists are even attempting to convert an Asian elephant into a wooly mammoth to combat climate change. Additionally, scientists at MIT are combating the Zika virus by either changing a gene within the mosquito so it cannot host the Zika virus or making susceptible mosquitos sterile so they cannot breed and further spread the virus.

Curious about eliminating the food allergy gene in eggs or peanuts? What about virus free pigs? The laundry list of opportunities for CRISPR is tremendous and expansive. As a first look at CRISPR, D2D will focus on some of the CRISPR possibilities that will affect agricultural plants and animals.

How does CRISPR work?

Let’s take a moment and go briefly back to high school science. DNA is a double-stranded molecule that contains a genetic code. Essentially, there is a set of “instructions” stored in DNA that dictates how a human, animal, or plant is constructed from multiple amino acids (the building blocks of proteins).

The messenger RNA (mRNA) is the exact single strand replica of the DNA, except its role is to carry out the instructions of the DNA, and tell the proteins what to construct. These proteins build muscle, give us the color of our eyes, and help assemble all the genetic traits any organism with DNA carries. Think of the DNA as the architect creating the blueprints for a new house and mRNA as the contractor who takes the blueprints and directs the plumber, electrician, and woodworker to build the house to the exact specifications.

Traditionally, any changes made to an organism’s DNA has to come through years of selecting specific characteristics and then cross-breeding those traits into specific varieties. CRISPR accelerates the process by precisely creating the new DNA sequence, cutting out the existing DNA that needs to be replaced and using the Cas9 protein to guide the mRNA to the specific spot to make a genetic change.

Each cell has DNA. Sections of DNA can be naturally altered if it is malfunctioning or if it needs to be changed. The CRISPR process can take these specific DNA sections, cut them out, and/or replace them with another code. The Cas9 protein specifically cuts out a section of the existing DNA and then existing cellular enzymes insert the new DNA sequence.

Rewriting the Code
Scientists can use the gene-editing technology called CRISPR-Cas9 to correct disease-causing mutations. Here’s how it works: (Source: Innovative Genomics Initiative. Credit: John Gould/The Wall Street Journal)

A chunk of RNA is programmed to look for a specific problem segment of DNA. It is paired with a natural protein called Cas9 taken from bacteria, where it functions as a genetic scalpel.

Once inserted into a cell, the RNA/Cas9 combination looks for a DNA sequence that matches its RNA.

When it finds a match, the Cas9 cuts both strands of the DNA.

Repair enzymes can fill and seal the gap in the DNA with new genetic information to change the underlying genetic code.

Let’s go back to the architect/contractor example. If there is a flaw in the framework, rather than tearing the whole house down and starting over, the general contractor (mRNA) identifies the flaw compared to the blueprint and directs the woodworker (Cas9) to cut it out, and replaces it with a perfect frame. The two videos below provide more detail.

Video by Jennifer Doudna, biochemist at UC Berkeley who created the CRISPR-Cas9 editing sequence.

Science is the future of agriculture

Today’s agricultural goals are to grow enough food to feed a growing population on our current land while enhancing sustainable environmental goals. Crops grown to resist pests and weeds with fewer chemicals, less water, and higher yield are considered the ‘holy grail’ of farming. Animals grown with strong immune systems, more muscle, more milk, and being conscious of the environment and animal welfare is critical for today’s farmer. Selecting the best traits using conventional breeding often takes decades (sometimes generations) to get the desired result. However, with a population increasing to 9 billion by 2050, we don’t exactly have time on our side. Now with gene editing techniques, producing and selecting these traits can be much more precise and achieved in a shorter period of time. Here is a sample of some agricultural companies that are either partnering with gene editing companies or independent working in the gene editing field.

Recombinetics is focusing on using gene editing to combat world hunger by focusing on animal genetics, human health, and human life. Some of their projects include Foot and Mouth disease resistance, milk composition, and production in dairy cows, or better feed conversion to yield more meat. One simple example goes toward animal welfare in cows. For instance, just about all cows are born with horns and (in modern agricultural systems) horns are an undesirable trait for safety and animal welfare perspectives. Removing them is important for herd animals, but it is a difficult, wieldy, and uncomfortable process for both farmers and cows alike. Through CRISPR, they have created the first hornless cows. Rather than breeding a Holstein horned cow with a hornless Angus cow, they just edit the gene in the traditional Holstein cow to create hornless Holsteins.


Source: Genetic Literacy Project

DuPont has invested in Caribou Biosciences, a spin-off from Jennifer Doudna and the University of California, Berkeley. They are currently working on modified starch corn production, drought resistance in corn, and hybrid wheat to increase crop yield.

Source: Caribou Biosciences

The University of Missouri and Genus, an animal genetics company, are among the first to use CRISPR-Cas9 to breed pigs to be resistant to the porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus (PRRSV). In 2013 alone this virus killed more than 10% of the entire U.S. herd.

Source: Scientific American

Archer Daniels Midland has partnered with Synthetic Genomics to produce a consistent supply of Omega 3- DHA from CRISPR edited algae.

Source: Synthetic Genomics

The Regulatory Process

Because gene editing techniques are more closely associated with natural genetic processes, the USDA is currently considering whether to regulate it or not. To date, they have given several gene editing plants a pass on the food safety assessment.

As we have mentioned, GMOs are the most highly tested agricultural product on earth. The fact that CRISPR products are not going through the same regulatory process is certainly interesting. For example, scientists at Penn State successfully deleted the browning gene in a mushroom genome. The removal of this enzyme reduces the browning process in mushrooms, thus increasing their shelf life. Removing the discoloration from fruits and vegetables reduces the millions of tons of food that is wasted every year. Because the CRISPR-Cas9 edited mushroom did not have any foreign DNA inserted, the USDA has determined that it does not require further testing or regulation.

The decisions around the regulatory process are critical to the success of CRISPR. Will CRISPR follow in the footsteps of GMOs? Or will the USDA and FDA consider it the same as traditional breeding and eliminate regulatory approval? Whatever the answer, it is critical that the rest of the world is on the same page because the food supply from the United States is an integral part of the global food system. CRISPR will certainly have implications on trading, importing and exporting food around the world.

NYT: Reporting Based on Science?

fingers typing on a computer keyboard

Contributing writers Susan LeamanDiane Wetherington, and Samantha Duda have extensive experience and knowledge in the food industry. Susan works with companies and associations to develop solutions that address produce-related food safety issues; Diane is CEO of iDecisionSciences, LLC, a provider of specialty crop consulting services, and iFoodDS, Inc., a software solutions provider for the food industry. Sam joined iDecisionSciences, LLC as a research and analytics associate.

We were curious what experts in this field thought about the research presented by Hakim to support his claims, and found that a number of respected scientists swiftly responded.

Many who wrote letters to the editor or posted their opinions online called the author’s main assertion that GM crops were designed primarily to increase crop yields and reduce pesticide use as “a false premise”.

Dr. Steve Novella in his blog NeuroLogica writes, GM technology “is not inherently tied in any way” to any one application. Rather, he describes the promise of GM technology as providing “a tool for agricultural scientists to make more rapid and more specific changes to crop cultivars” using methods deemed “safe with no demonstrable inherent risks beyond any other method of crop development”.

In an open letter to the NY Times Public Editor (, a group of scientists assert GM crops were “designed to manage and mitigate some of the causes of crop loss, especially pre-harvest losses due to insect pests or weeds.”

To many scientist critics, Danny Hakim missed the point of GM crops from the start.

Crop Yields

Let’s take a closer look at the claim “GM crops promise, but do not deliver high crop yields.” To support this claim, Mr. Hakim uses rapeseed (canola) yield data from the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations to compare GM rapeseed yields in Canada to non-GM rapeseed yields in Western Europe. The data that is presented by Mr. Hakim does show that non-GM rapeseed yields in Western Europe are higher than Canadian GM rapeseed yields even as yields are increasing at a similar rate for both production areas.

Comparing yields in developed countries is inappropriate with since GM crops were not intended to further increase already high yields in developed countries like the United States and Canada.

GM crops are widely used in developed countries today primarily for two traits:

  • Insect resistance (IR; resistance to certain types of pests)
  • Herbicide tolerance (HT; imparts tolerance to an herbicide like glyphosate).

Graham Brookes, an agricultural economist with PG Economics UK, notes it is not surprising that average yields are higher in Western Europe than in Canada due to the seasonality of this crop. Canadian rapeseed is mainly a spring crop whereas in Europe, it is a winter crop, and winter crops generally yield better than spring crops.

Dr. Matin Qaim, a professor of agricultural economics at the Universities of Bonn and Kiel, further points out that Canadian farmers use GM rapeseed to reduce herbicide cost, labor, and fuel use due to the herbicide tolerance trait, and not to increase yields.

Although prior to the implementation of GM technology, many North American farmers were already using effective pest and weed control methods. Dr. Val Giddings, a senior fellow at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation in Washington, D.C. explains that seeds provide superior pest control to non-GM seeds. GM seeds are designed to select and attack a specific pest rather than a broad-based effect typically delivered by common pesticides.

If you assume (as Danny Hakim proposes) that one of the main reasons developed countries like the U.S. and Canada use GM crops is to increase yields, it is still inappropriate to evaluate yields solely based on genetic modification. According to Graham Brookes, a seed’s genetic capability and “its ability to withstand yield-reducing effects of pests, diseases and weeds” are only two of many factors that affect yield. When considering the complex nature of the outdoor growing environment, there are numerous factors affecting yield including weather, soil quality, farming practices, inputs (e.g., fertilizers, pesticides, and seeds), farmers’ knowledge and skills, and the effectiveness of existing technology to control pests, diseases, and weeds among others.

Dr. Qaim published an analysis of 147 independent studies showing GM technology has indeed increased crop yields worldwide by 22% with developing countries experiencing higher increases in yields than developed countries.

GM crops and reduced pesticide use

Danny Hakim reviews herbicide, fungicide, and insecticide use data from the Union of Industries of Plant Protection in France, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to support his claim that GM technology broke its promise to reduce pesticide use. He states “the United States has fallen behind Europe’s biggest producer, France, in reducing the overall use of pesticides, which includes both herbicides and insecticides”.

The data in the chart he used as evidence to support this claim had different units of measurement (thousand metric tons for France, compared to million pounds in the U.S.). Additionally, the amount of pesticides is not standardized per unit area. As Dr. Andrew Kniss, an associate professor in weed biology and ecology at the University of Wyoming points out, this is acutely important since the U.S. has over 9 times the amount of arable land that France has. After converting the chart to the same units and standardizing by farmland, it is clear that France (though reducing their pesticide use) still uses far more pesticides than the U.S. — in particular fungicides and insecticides. As Dr. Kniss explains in his analysis of Mr. Hakim’s article,

“A relatively tiny proportion of these differences are likely due to GMOs; pesticide use depends on climate, pest species, crop species, economics, availability, tillage practices, crop rotations, and countless other factors. And almost all of these factors differ between France and the U.S. So this comparison between France and the U.S., especially at such a coarse scale, is mostly meaningless, especially with respect to the GMO question.”

Dr. Andrew Kniss, Associate Professor in Weed Biology and Ecology, University of Wyoming

Dr. Kniss also posted charts showing herbicide use for other European countries as evidence pesticide use has actually increased, with France being one of a few exceptions.

In the U.S., switching to an herbicide-tolerant crop allows more toxic herbicides to be replaced by a less toxic one such as glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup®…

Dr. Kniss reports, “Glyphosate has lower chronic toxicity than 90% of all herbicides used in the U.S. in the last 25 years.” So as U.S. farmers increased their glyphosate use, this usage has replaced more toxic herbicides that posed known risks to the environment and human health. Assessing herbicide usage alone misses the overriding fact that harmful effects on the environment and human health from more toxic herbicide use have dramatically decreased due to the implementation of GM crops. A 2016 peer-reviewed study took into account a pesticide’s environmental impact in its analysis and found that U.S. farmers growing GM maize and soybean crops used as much soybean herbicide as non-GM crop adopters, 9.8% fewer maize herbicides, and 10.4% fewer maize insecticides (Perry, 2016).

Hakim used a faulty comparison and an inaccurate chart to support his claim that pesticide use, as measured by weight, has not been reduced— but is using weight to evaluate pesticide use even useful? The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) doesn’t think so.

In their report, on The Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the U.S. released early this year, the NAS recommended “researchers should be discouraged from publishing data that simply compares total kilograms of herbicide used per hectare per year because such data can mislead readers. Simple determination of whether total kilograms of herbicide used per hectare per year have gone up or down is not useful for assessing changes in human or environmental risks.”

Otherwise, using the measurement of weight for pesticide does not tell us anything about its toxicity. While Hakim cites pesticides such as sarin in his discussion of pesticide toxicity, he does little to explain the toxicity differences between pesticides commercially available and used in agriculture today and pesticides developed decades ago and nefariously used as weapons in wars.

To say that all pesticides are toxic is true but misses the point that they all differ significantly in the magnitude of toxicity and the organisms they affect.

In her response to the NY Times article, Dr. Nina Fedoroff who is Emeritus Professor of Biology at Pennsylvania State University explains how herbicides used today are developed to be toxic to plants by interfering with biochemical pathways and processes humans do not have.

For readers who are researching GM crops whether driven by interest or concern, it is imperative to investigate reports that appear to contradict other published peer-reviewed scientific studies. The formal and informal peer-review process that comes with publishing in the scientific literature provides an added level of confidence you are getting information that is not manipulated to support a particular narrative.

Rarely does technology create a magic bullet, and genetic engineering is no exception. However, the article goes beyond discussing any downsides to GM technology by misusing data in an attempt to dismiss the value of GM technology altogether. This article ignores the fact that farmers are business people who rely on their land and crops to stay in business. They test different varieties of seeds and analyze benefits and trade-offs to see what works best for them. So if the cost of GM crops outweighs the benefits, farmers will be the first to react by not planting GM seeds.

The Challenges of Indoor Farming

lettuce in a vertical farming container

Dirt-to-Dinner welcomes contributing writers Susan LeamanDiane Wetherington and Samantha (Sam) Duda, who have extensive experience and knowledge in the food industry. Susan works with companies and associations to develop solutions that address produce-related food safety issues, and Diane is CEO of iDecisionSciences, LLC, a provider of specialty crop consulting services, and iFoodDecisionSciences, Inc., a software solutions provider for the food industry. After completing a degree in sustainability and business administration, Sam joined iDecisionSciences, LLC, this year as a research and analytics associate.

In a previous article, “Meet the ‘Ponics,” we discussed how innovative farming techniques include growing on rooftops and inside greenhouses, shipping containers, and warehouses. But to understand the big picture, we also need to examine the various challenges associated with this type of farming.

Vertical Farming. image credit: Aerofarms

The Startup Cost

The first challenge for any company wanting to start an indoor farm is the startup costs. For companies looking to take part in indoor farming, there are hefty expenditures and operating costs including real estate, marketing, loan payments, lighting, and growing equipment and electricity.

For companies that are growing indoors on a large scale, startup costs are in the millions. Some of the biggest players already established in indoor growing received millions of dollars from investors before beginning their endeavors.

Before breaking ground on their first indoor facility, Gotham Greens, which operates four urban rooftop greenhouse farms in New York City and Chicago, raised over $30 million from numerous private investors. To convert a former steel mill in Newark, New Jersey, to a 70,000 square foot vertical indoor farm, AeroFarms raised over $70 million ‒ mostly from private investors. As indoor farming practices and technologies become more established in the future, the industry hopes for lower startup costs and more interested investors.

The Complexity of Lighting

One of the reasons the indoor farming industry has expanded in the last several years is due to the falling price of light emitting diode (LED) lights. LED lighting provides the same amount of lighting as fluorescent light but requires half the amount of energy. In July 2015, the lighting company, Phillips, opened a research facility, GrowWise Center in the Netherlands, to study the interaction between crops and the light spectrum. Plants react uniquely to different spectrums of light and color at different points in their growing cycle.

GE Mirai Lettuce Farm. Source:

Despite LED being energy efficient compared to other lighting sources, LED lights still may not be the most efficient way to mimic natural sunlight. Erico Mattos, an urban agriculture advocate, reports that plants can waste up to 80% of the energy provided to them due to each crop having a different threshold for optimizing photosynthesis. For example, a sweet potato plant needs only 64% of the light energy produced by a LED light for optimal photosynthesis. If light output is not adjustable, sweet potatoes grown in an indoor growing environment waste 36% of the provided light energy – light paid for and not used. In conventional outdoor or greenhouse farming with the benefit of free sunlight, this waste of light energy by the plants does not impact a farmer’s costs.

For indoor growers, unused light represents a real economic and environmental challenge. To address this challenge, Mattos has created a technology called PhytoSynthetix that allows plants to communicate how much light they need by triggering the lights to dim. The technology uses sensors to detect chlorophyll fluorescence measurements that ‘communicate’ to the LED lights to adjust accordingly.  This sensor-triggered technology reduces energy consumption but has yet to be applied on a large scale. As technological advances become cheaper, the research and data collected from programs like GrowWise and PhytoSynthetix can help indoor farmers lower their energy cost and grow crops more efficiently.

Limited Crop Range

Examples of greens suitable for indoor farming

Unlike conventional farming, indoor growing has a limited crop range. Robert Colangelo, CEO of Green Sense Farms said, “You could pretty much grow anything in an indoor vertical farm. But there are only a few things you can grow commercially and economically viable today.” Green Sense Farms grows leafy greens in their vertical warehouse farm in Portage, Indiana using horizontal growing racks. Colangelo believes that farming in the future will be different for different commodities. Indoor vertical farming may be the future for leafy greens, but tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers are best grown in greenhouses, and commodity crops like soybeans, corn, and wheat are best grown on field farms. Thus, indoor farming plays a specific role in the future of farming, but will not account for all growing operations.

Furthermore, each indoor farm, greenhouse, or warehouse, is engineered for a specific crop including the lighting, climate, nutrition, irrigation, software, and sensors for that particular growing environment. The cost of a massive reengineering or remodel of a building and its infrastructure to accommodate a new crop is currently not economically sound for a grower who wants to expand or change an existing operation into different crops (i.e., switch from leafy greens to strawberries).

Food Safety

Many have the false perception that due to the controlled environment of indoor farming, the need for food safety is eliminated. David Rosenberg, CEO of AeroFarms, worries that people unfamiliar with indoor growing may under-appreciate the risks associated with growing crops indoors. Nate Storey, the CEO of Bright AgroTech says, “If you’re growing indoors and growing plants, biology is messy and invites disease; you will have pathogens, you will have disease organisms, you will have insects and pest; these things are inevitable.” Fungal disease and mildew are common in indoor growing environments, especially in horizontal plane vertical warehouse farming.

The key to reducing plant disease and pests is AIRFLOW

In an indoor growing environment, humidity is naturally produced from plants transpiring and irrigation water evaporating in combination with heat produced by the LED lights. Humidity creates a favorable environment for human and plant pathogen growth. Airflow systems pump CO2 in for plant respiration and remove excess humidity. Effective airflow is difficult in horizontal plane vertical farming due to the limited space between the crop’s canopy and lighting fixtures. This lack of space for adequate airflow results in a higher risk of foodborne pathogens as well as higher energy cost to aggressively pump more CO2 and air through the growing chambers. Add to this the fact that most indoor environments are kept exceptionally clean – almost sterile – creating an environment with few competitive microorganisms if pathogens are introduced. Pathogens in this type of environment with little competition for available nutrients are able to grow more rapidly and unchecked.

Diagram of Horizontal Plane Vertical Farming vs. Vertical Plane Vertical Farming
(source: Bright Agrotech)

Airflow in Horizontal Plane Vertical Farming vs. Vertical Plane Vertical Farming
(source: Bright Agrotech)

Horizontal indoor growing limits visual access for workers, making it difficult for them to check crops for infections or contamination. For workers to visually inspect what is happening between and inside each rack, they must use expensive scissor lifts and reach into the growing bed to look for diseases or pests. This process is time-consuming and reaching over plants also presents a food safety hazard. Nate Storey uses vertical planes instead of horizontal planes for his indoor farm, allowing for better airflow, lower heat production, and easier access for workers. This shift from horizontal to vertical planes with better airflow also improves food safety while lowering energy consumption and labor costs.


Some indoor farmers believe that their greatest challenge is finding labor who have the necessary skills and educational background to monitor the crops at all hours. Indoor farming companies look for candidates with a deep understanding of plant biology and data manipulation. Even though indoor growing is not a new concept, recent operations are on a much larger scale than previous operations, and it is sometimes difficult to find enough people with relevant knowledge and experience. David Rosenberg of AeroFarms says, “While hiring is a challenge, ensuring the right people are running indoor ag businesses is also of utmost importance as the industry scales.” The labor force of an indoor farm operation must oversee the massive amount of crops without cutting corners on food safety.

Innovations in Indoor Farming

large commercial greenhouse growing leafy greens

Indoor agriculture is no longer just for the greenhouse…”farmland” is now on a rooftop, contained in a repurposed shipping container, and made vertical in a multi-level warehouse. Because of new technologies and consumer demand, this fast-growing industry will play an important role in our food supply chain.

Local and Fresh

As consumers, we are looking for transparency in the food supply chain. Where is our food coming from? Is it safe? How was it grown? New farming technologies help answer that for fresh greens, herbs, and some veggies, which can be grown almost anywhere.  For instance, 90% of the salad greens we eat are produced in California and Arizona. However, companies like Gotham Greens and BrightFarms let urban dwellers buy locally-grown greens as soon as 24 hours after harvest. That certainly has a lot of appeal! It is more nutritious, tastes better, and can be cheaper as it cuts out much of the transportation costs.

graphic adapted from

Making an Environmental Impact

Amid projections that the world’s population will grow from today’s 7.5 billion to 9.6 billion by 2050, the environmental pressures on our water, soil, and land are increasing. Alternative forms of agriculture offer another way to alleviate some of these stresses, especially in urban areas where adequate farmland is limited. Creating “farmland” from unused space is in the future. High-tech growers use hydroponics, aeroponics, and aquaponics methods to grow leafy greens and vegetables. Large metropolitan cities, like Chicago and New York, and cold regions with limited growing seasons, like Northern Minnesota and Wyoming, have the ability to grow local crops all year round via indoor “farmland”.

A recent report from Cornell University and several other organizations found that revenue could be up to 4000x higher in indoor farming systems because of the ability for multiple year-round harvests, higher yield per acre and higher retail pricing (a premium for local or organic). For example, lettuce grown by a conventional farmer will have 4-5 harvests each year, whereas an indoor farmer can have as many as 18 harvests per year. According to the USDA, the average yield for an outdoor farmer was about 30,000 pounds per acre and indoor farmers reported an average of 340,000 pounds per acre.

Head lettuce growing vertically hydroponically in a Freight Farm. Source: Freight Farm

In addition to this increase in productivity, indoor farming practices also significantly reduce the environmental impact compared to that of a traditional farm. Indoor farms reduce greenhouse gas emissions, minimize waste, and recycle water to produce the best, most sustainable crop. On average, they use 85% less water, 80% less fertilizer, 70% less land than conventional farming. In addition, these companies utilize sophisticated technologies to improve facility construction, LED lighting, water circulation, plant nutrient delivery, and environmental controls.

Meet the ’Ponics: Hydro, Aero, and Aqua

Because of these advancements, hydroponic, aeroponic, and aquaponic farming systems are quickly moving from the realm of “experimental technology” to verified commercial applications. Researchers and growers alike have turned indoor systems into working models of sustainable food production. According to the report “Vertical Farming Market”, the market is estimated to reach $3.88 billion by 2020, at a compounded annual growth rate of 30.7% between 2015 and 2020. The factors driving the vertical farming market include the need for high-quality food without pesticides, less dependency on weather, produce availability for an increasingly urban population, and the need for year-round production.


Hydroponic farming is a method of growing plants in water, without soil. Plants are fed minerals and nutrients directly in the water where the roots grow.  This is particularly good for greens and vegetables.

Simple hydroponics: Nutrients are added to a tank of water to create a nutrient reservoir which is kept separate from the plants. The water is then pumped up a network of tubes, and released to the plants.
image source: hydroponicsgrower

Hydroponically grown lettuce. Image source: citycrop



Aeroponics is a subset of hydroponics, but instead of the minerals and nutrients circulating within the root chamber, it is misted to the roots at regular intervals. NASA began studying the feasibility of plants grown aeroponically in 1990 as a way to have crew members grow their own food while circling Earth.

source: Aerofarms


Aquaponics works on the basic idea of a closed production system. Farmed fish produce waste that is the perfect fertilizer for plants. Plants utilize the waste and filter the water to give the fish a clean habitat. The Aztecs grew a wide variety of crops such as maize, squash, and other plants in tandem with rearing fish for food. And as early as the 6th century, Chinese farmers reared ducks, finfish, and catfish in a symbiotic cycle: the finfish were fed with duck droppings, the catfish were fed with the finfish waste, and any “leftover food” was used to supply the nutrients to the rice in the paddy fields.

image source:

Where Do These ’Ponics Live?

Freight Farms is bringing farming to the city. image source: FreightFarms

…shipping containers

Freight Farms, based in Boston, uses the “Leafy Green Machine” (LGM), to harvest year-round in any region of the U.S. The LGM is a pre-assembled hydroponic farm inside an up-cycled freight container. The hydroponic system automatically delivers precise water and nutrients for maximum crop development and uses LED lights optimized for each stage of the growing cycle. Vertical growing towers maximize space and create a high-density growing environment.

Alaska’s Vertical Harvest Hydroponics also uses repurposed shipping containers to grow fresh greens in the most inhospitable environments. What makes shipping containers unique is that they are transportable, can fit in small spaces, and can withstand extreme temperatures without affecting the crop. The modular tower system from ZipFarms is adaptable to a hydroponic or aquaponic system and can be utilized by commercial growers and backyard growers alike.

…rooftops and greenhouses

Gotham Greens has built and operated over 170,000 square feet of technologically-advanced, urban rooftop greenhouses across four facilities in New York City and Chicago. They have partnered with Whole Foods and have built their greenhouses in strategic urban areas to distribute fresh produce within 24 hours of picking to retail operations. And their annual produce production? 200,000 pounds! Equivalent to 100 acres of conventional field farming.

Gotham Greens greenhouses in Greenpoint, Brooklyn

Bright Farms and Mighty Vine are further examples of high tech agriculture companies innovating and developing ways to grow indoors. BrightFarms finances, designs, and operates greenhouse farms at or near supermarkets, cutting time, distance, and cost from the produce supply chain. They operate three on-the-ground greenhouses in the greater Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and Chicago metro areas. MightyVine, based in Chicago, grows tomatoes all year round in sophisticated greenhouses using vertical growing methods, which produce 900,000 lbs of tomatoes per month in peak season!

…in a warehouse

New Jersey-based vertical farming company, AeroFarms approaches food production with aeroponics to mist the roots of greens with nutrients, water, and oxygen. The company asserts that its closed loop aeroponic system uses 95% less water than field farming, 40% less than hydroponics, and zero pesticides. Their growing technology is very modular and can be adapted to different repurposed industrial spaces. And they harvest up to 2 million pounds per year with this system.


While no one expects that urban agriculture will never replace traditional farming, it relieves some of the pressure off rural land and satisfies some of the demands for local and sustainable agriculture.

Additionally, Green Sense Farms, from Indiana, harvests 26 times a year and since it has teamed up with grocery stores, restaurants, caterers and produce companies.

GMO Labeling: What’s the Point?

GMO Label on snackfood

The Dirt-to-Dinner team understands the importance of food labeling. It helps consumers understand the nutritional content, identify ingredients, and to avoid an allergic reaction!

Nutrition labels help us identify the daily percentage or specific key nutrients and unhealthy additives, like sugar. (Sugar is Sugar discusses how sugar can cause long term health issues.) But, in the case of GMO vs. non-GMO products, this is not applicable. All genetically modified produce has the same nutritional content as non-GMO food. For instance, your corn tortilla has the exact same nutritional profile regardless if it was made with GM corn or not.

Labeling GMO produce gives implies that there must be something wrong with GMOs. It is labeling initiatives like this that fuel consumers distrust of GMOs. And a lack of understanding often leads to fear, which urges consumers to select ‘made without GMOs’ foods when given a choice. But, in reality, when polled, over 60% of people are not sure what the acronym “GMO” even means!

Vermont is the first state to require labeling — will others follow?

The state of Vermont is home to the most certified organic farms per capita. Thus, it is not surprising that Vermont is the first state to require such labeling. But this arduous labeling process is not solely focused on food transparency. More than helping the consumer “know what is in their food”, Vermont’s legislation condemns GMOs. The Vermont Labeling Rule implies that the FDA has not done a thorough review of GMOs; that there is no scientific consensus on the validity of GMO research; and that they are protecting public health and food safety. But, if we simply refer to the FDA’s website, you will find the agency’s exhaustive research on genetic engineering, from plant toxicity levels to the nutritional value against its traditionally-bred counterpart.

The FDA has a very real responsibility to protect its American citizens and would not lazily let some “new food technology” slip through the cracks. But GMOs are the most highly tested food ever created without one documented negative health event. Our food is safer than ever before. Why can’t we trust the FDA, USDA, WHO, EFSA, and even the EPA, all internationally recognized organizations indicating that GMOs pose no human health or environmental risk?

Proponents of GMOs have shown crops can be grown with a higher yield per acre while still reducing pesticide, herbicide, and water use. The opposition doesn’t like the use of the pesticide, glyphosate, which is a less toxic pesticide than most. They think it poses health risks as well as reducing crop biodiversity.

For those still opposed to genetically modified foods, there are still many options. Legally, certified Organic foods cannot contain GMOs. Whole Foods has even dedicated a portion of its website on ‘How to Shop if Avoiding GMOs’. There are cost-effective ways to be a smart shopper without wasting state government resources and money to further increase GMO labeling.

Scientific Studies on GMOs

USA National Academy of Sciences (NAS)
Transgenic Plants and World Agriculture (2000) | Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States (2010)

USA Institute of Medicine (IOM) & National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academies.
Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods: Approaches to Assessing Unintended Health Effects (2004)

USA National Academies (IOM, NRC, NAS, NAE)
A Science-Based Look at Genetically Engineered Crops (The study will be ready in 2016)

USA American Medical Association (AMA)
Council on Science and Public Health Report (2012)

USA American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)
Statement by the AAAS Board of Directors On Labeling of Genetically Modified Foods (2012)

USA American Council of Science and Health (ACSH)
Biotechnology and Food (Second Edition) (2000)

USA Society of Toxicology (SOT)
The Safety of Genetically Modified Foods Produced through Biotechnology (2003)

USA American Dietetic Association
Position of the American Dietetic Association: Agricultural and food biotechnology (2006)

USA Genetics Society of America
Assessing Benefits and Risks of Genetically Modified Organisms (2001)

USA American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB)
ASCB Statement in Support of Research on Genetically Modified Organisms (2009)

USA American Society of Plant Biology (ASPB)
Statement on Plant Genetic Engineering 

USA American Society for Microbiology (ASM)
Statement of the American Society for Microbiology on Genetically Modified Organisms (2000)

USA American Phytopathological Society (APS)
APS Statement on Biotechnology and its Application to Plant Pathology (2001)

USA Society for In Vitro Biology (SIVB)
Position Statement on Crop Engineering 

USA Crop Science Society of America
CSSA Perspective on Biotechnology (2001)

USA Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST)
Crop Biotechnology and the Future of Food: A Scientific Assessment (2005)

USA Federation of Animal Sciences Societies (FASS) – representing the American Dairy Science Association (ADSA), American Society of Animal Science (ASAS) and the Poultry Science Association (PSA).
FASS Facts On Biotech Crops – Impact on Meat, Milk and Eggs (2001)

USA Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
Questions & Answers on Food from Genetically Engineered Plants