Saturday, 28 February 2015

There's been an error

Apparently some people thought I was anti-GMO. Not so.

I don't know enough to be opposed to genetic modification as such. I'm an enthusiastic student of soil biology but I know sod all about the various GM techniques.

Even if I did though, GM technology is surely in its infancy and nature is extremely diverse, so there could easily be future GMOs that might be beneficial. Lipsey was probably right to include GM as a potential general purpose technology, consistent with his 4 criteria:
  • It is a single, recognisable generic technology
  • Initially has much scope for improvement but comes to be widely used across the economy
  • Has many different uses
  • Creates many spillover effects 
Its still early days but GM is off to a bad start, or as Lipsey might say it "initially has much scope for improvement". Market data suggest that the herbicide resistance trick is not good for farmers or consumers.
  • Switching to roundup ready plants was a bad move for North American farmers: international panel data shows non-GM systems have increased productivity faster and are much less pesticide intensive. 
  • Consumers are increasingly switching to organic foods in preference to GMO, with 14% CAGRs expected in organic food in the USA.
Consumers have no real need to differentiate between a GMO and the way it's grown. They know GMOs are drenched in pesticides are trying to avoid them, pushing for labeling etc.

Suppliers of version 1 GMOs have a lucrative business to protect though, so they naturally want to push back on this consumer resistance. They also have massive resources to share with supporters.

The support crew includes lobbyists and biologists who worry (among other things) that public concerns with the current version will hinder or block future GM technologies. One obvious way to address public concerns would be to show there is actually a complete and transparent assurance system in place. But this argument doesn't work, because there isn't one. That's why people are concerned.

Which leaves a choice: either agree that a complete and transparent assurance system should be created, or deny that one is needed.

If I was an investor in new GM technology I'd strongly advocate for agreement rather than denial. Even if I didn't care that human rights and ethics demand fit-for-purpose oversight systems, it'd be better for my own business if the GM brand wasn't mired down in controversy.

Unfortunately the support crew is in denial. That doesn't help investors in new GM and it doesn't help consumers. It only helps delay the "scope for improvement" the sector needs to get on with.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Our brand is toxicer

Recent arguments over our food safety / pesticide testing regimes have pointed to the glyphosate-based herbicide market.* Since glyphosate came off patent in 2000, any of Monsanto's competitors can mix up their own brews of glyphosate-based herbicides.

I'll get to the price and volume effects later.

More interesting at this point are the marketing lines pitched to farmers by producers of all these Roundup knock-offs. To my eye, they are focussed around one central theme: toxicity. Here are a few examples.

  • Ravensdown's advertising for Glyphosate 360 says it "works better with" an adjuvant called Accelerate which is sold separately.
  • Nufarm sells its own glyphosate-based formulation called WeedMaster TS540, a "premium herbicide" offering "outstanding results on difficult to control weeds".
  • Dow, who Taranaki will remember well, sells something called Glyphomax without overtly revealing its marketing line, though the "max" bit is clearly signalling toxicity.
Prompted by that scurrilous rogue Professor Seralini, I've been trying to figure out if the extra toxicity claimed or implied on such products has been subject to safety testing of full formulations including adjuvants recommended for farmers to add later.

So far, it's been a wild goose chase at best. I have therefore sought under the OIA further information about how we do it in NZ and shall report in due course.

* this is just one example: similar concerns exit for other pesticides.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Pesticide regulaton update

A couple of days ago I reported on what I heard Professor Seralini say at the Food Matters Aoteoroa conference last weekend, seeking rebuttal of three claims I thought he made. Nothing came back, which seemed odd given the pretty active opposition to my more general post about the conference just a day earlier(please do read the comments). So I directly asked all the people who'd volunteered criticisms a day earlier, several people who'd been at the conference, and the Science Media Centre.

In the course of those discussions, my competence to discuss this issue has been queried. I see that as a big red warning flag. There is a very simple issue here that does not much depend on understanding the science. No one has disputed that all pesticides (including herbicides and insecticides) have several ingredients but only the declared "active" ingredient(s) are tested for toxicity. If the other ingredients can magnify toxicity, then we need to test whole formulations not just the declared active ingredient. A smart 8 year old could understand that.

There is still a policy question that needs science information though. If the other ingredients can never magnify toxicity, then lets not bother incurring the cost of testing the whole formulation sold to the punters. But how on earth could you prove that?

With that background, here is an update based on what I've discovered from inquiries since my last post on this topic.

  1. My recall of what Seralini said appears accurate. He apparently referred to this paper which includes the following statement. "Since pesticides are always used with adjuvants that could change their toxicity, the necessity to assess their whole formulations as mixtures becomes obvious". Makes sense to me.
  2. While the claim was probably stunning for many of us, this is actually very old news for Seralini. Check out this paper from 2005.
  3. The ability of adjuvants to increase the toxicity of "active ingredients" is not restricted to glyphosate. These people (none of whom are Seralini) say much the same thing about the insecticides Talstar and Termidor, concluding that "increased toxicity due to inert ingredients should be considered in risk assessments and regulation of insecticides".
  4. The German government (none of whom are Seralini) is also concerned. Its regulator "believes that there is convincing evidence that the measured toxicity of some glyphosate containing herbicides is the result of the co-formulants in the plant protection products."    

I understand that SciBlogs will be commenting on this issue tomorrow, which is great. Debates need two sides.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Agricultural innovation options

New Zealand is heavily dependent on primary production for export earnings, notwithstanding the growing contributions from other sectors. Agriculture is particularly important and for New Zealand that mostly means pastoral agriculture.

Pastoral agriculture is becoming increasingly specialised and scientific. We now have access to tools that can massively improve precision for applications of water and fertilisers, to monitor animals individually for health and productivity, and even to remotely fly over distant paddocks observing stock, water etc.

But we're still basically just growing plants to feed animals, so improving the productivity of farm land should be our #1 priority. All that cool technology could be used any pastoral farming systems.

We can and should recognise two alternative pathways for New Zealand agriculture. Neither can be completely defined, because the R&D is ongoing for each, as it should be. But the broad directions of each are nevertheless clear enough. They differ in two dimensions:
  • how we kill off undesirable organisms, and 
  • how we feed desirable organisms.
One option is the conventional system promoted by outfits like DairyNZ, the fertiliser duopoly of Ravensdown & Balance, and the multinational seed & "plant protection" companies like Syngenta, Monsanto and Bayer. This option views farmers as being constantly at war with some kind of bug or weed that we'll always need to kill. It's slightly different to Orwell's 1984 in that the enemy is constantly changing, but similar in that both require perpetual war. That's great for the business of arms dealers who in this example are suppliers of agricultural herbicides and pesticides.

To feed desirable organisms, the conventional system advises the use of N sourced from fossil fuels, soluble P mined and dragged halfway around the world and, K which is also drawn from finite resources.

In my humble opinion this approach is foolish and doomed. Our farming philosophy reflects the other option and is the complete opposite of the status quo. To kill off weeds and pests, we nurture their natural competitors and sometimes also use mechanical methods - photos of Darren's awesome gorse mulcher will be posted in due course. We re-grass 10-20ha chunk each year planting a diverse mix of (often modern) varieties including plenty of legumes (for nitrogen) and deep rooting herbs (for drought resistance). We ignore the conventional advice by not spraying out the old grass and using un-treated seeds, which works fine.

To feed desirable organisms we design our own brews. This is a fairly sophisticated system involving regular testing of soil mineralisation, pasture composition and soil biology - we use the test results to design custom brews for feeding the soil & plants (our foliar system is here). It is definitely working for us, but it's all based on ad-hoc reading around and talking to people. We lack guidance from solid peer-reviewed science, as do the increasingly large number of other kiwi farmers heading down this route.

Which brings me to the point. Why do New Zealand's public research funds primarily go to corporates? Specifically, why is co-funding from industry required to get almost any public research money? The co-funders are just getting subsidised to create saleable intellectual property rights, while genuine public good research is crowded out. This biases our agricultural innovation toward private profits earned under the conventional system. Its madness, and not just in my opinion....


Many other farmers support our view that we need to invest in science that explores public good methods to

  • extract nitrogen from the atmosphere rather than fossil fuels;
  • understand how to profitably farm the bacteria and fungi in our soil so that they unlock and harvest nutrients for plants; and
  • control pests and weeds by fostering their competitors rather than killing them.
Under current policy settings, none of this will happen because no corporate could monetise the outcomes. Damn shame.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Fooling the regulators

One of the international speakers at the Food Matters Aoteoroa conference was Giles-Eric Seralini, who has been a lightening rod for attention from industry-funded scientists for a few years now (his responses to those criticisms are here). So I was pretty interested in hearing what he had to say.

Here, in my own words, are three things I heard.

1. The components of herbicides and pesticides are often divided into two groups: active ingredients and adjuvants which are also referred to as "inert ingredients". This classification is done by the manufacturer and regulators are then given data from the manufacturer's trials that show the active ingredient to be safe when used as instructed. Regulators scrutinise that work and approve the poison if it looks OK.

2. The adjuvants are rarely if ever tested themselves, and neither are the whole products sold to farmers and gardeners (there can be many different formulations based on the same active ingredient).

3. Some products don't work or work much less effectively without the adjuvants. For example Glyphosate, which is the active ingredient in Roundup, is ineffective as a herbicide in its pure form. It is only effectively toxic when combined with adjuvants. He found that a commercial formulation was many thousands of times more toxic than glyphosate alone.

I should emphasise that these points are from my memory of what Seralini said. Hopefully someone will correct me if I mis-remembered, and I'm sure that someone will correct Seralini if he got any of this wrong. There are certainly differences in regulatory practices across countries, so some variation on these points is possible.

Actually I really hope these three points are seriously wrong, because the implications of them being right are shocking. I quite liked Seralini but I'd be happy to find that he's dead wrong on all of this, because otherwise I'll be forced to conclude that this regulatory system is deeply compromised.

Point 2 is devastating all by itself. If regulators have no information on the safety of the actual product being sold, how can they approve it? Imagine if the warrant of fitness test on cars only made sure the (active ingredient) engine worked OK and ignored the (adjuvant) brakes. Or testing just one ingredient in a cigarette. That would be crazy, which is also why the #1 demand for reform on this site makes a lot of sense to me.

Points 1 and 3 make point 2 worse. They open up an obvious loophole by allowing manufacturers to redefine the active ingredient list so that anything that might not pass a safety test is smuggled in as an adjuvant.

This puts a whole new angle on the concept of blind justice.

More generally, and stepping away now from Seralini's talk, there are also obvious incentive and oversight problems associated with regulators accepting confidential industry funded safety studies as evidence. Economists have long recognised a risk of "regulatory capture" whereby regulated firms use their superior information to gull the regulator into basically protecting them rather than constraining them.

Transparency of the information used to inform regulatory processes is one way to mitigate this capture risk. If all we're told is that 10 rats were tested, then it's pretty difficult to know whether the  regulator has been captured.

My day job involves a fair bit of work on designing and operating regulatory systems. If the above is true then it's definitely the worst regime I've heard of. Please tell me it isn't so.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Food matters

Some twitterers were pretty pissed off at the speaker list for the Food Matters Aoteoroa conference last weekend in Wellington, perhaps fired up by Alison Campbell's warning on SciBlogs (a week ahead of the conference) that it'd be crap. 

Serious offence was duly taken over the topics and speakers. The next day Eric Crampton made it clear how he saw the intellectual merit of the conference, likening it to anti-vaccination campaigns and Lord Monckton's lunatic denial of anthropomorphic climate change. 

Please do read Eric's piece and think about it. His real concern seems to be that Food Matters might get attention from the media and thereby attract more gullible loonies.  He aimed to weaken these ideas in advance, for fear they might take root and spread, because they're all wrong according to experts that Eric can find for you.

I really dislike this. It is deliberately trying to suppress diversity and demonise a view for the reason that it is a minority view. But it does neatly underscore the fact that Food Matters. That's why we care about it so much. 

Lynne and I booked early because we love natural farming. I wasn't thrilled by the headliners being all visitors to be honest. The program had a cargo-cult feel, despite the presence of lots of very cool kiwis down below the headlines.

As it turned out though, the conference was really great. Lots of very interesting presentations, many references to literature for further reading and plenty of interaction. I can't do justice to the material in one post, but here's a bit of a summary.

One theme was that modern industrial food systems use a lot of poisons in producing our food. We're constantly ingesting residues of these poisons, three times a day, year in, year out. Coincidentally we are also seeing the growth of modern diseases. To take just one example, the following chart from this paper matches the growth of glyphosate applications to wheat with incidence of Celiac disease.


This is correlation rather than causation. However we also know that farmers now routinely spray wheat with glyphosate just before harvest/sale/consumption. We also know that glyphosate is a broad-spectrum chelator (locker-upper) of minerals and that it will disturb the microbial balance in our gut. So there is a coherent theory that might explain the above pattern and is therefore worth testing.

In response, it is often argued that farmers can't do without these poisons. And that is true for many farmers, because if you tell yourself something is impossible then you definitely can't do it. But funnily enough some farmers can. We haven't applied a single poison to our farm in 5 years and there is nothing wrong with our production.

I got a lot from the international speakers and will write more about it/them over the coming weeks. However, for me, two kiwis are worth a mention right now.

Meet Mark Cristensen, an accountant from Whanganui. Mark noticed Cornell research showing that red delicious apples have high levels of antioxidants that suppress the growth of cancer cells. He started researching and testing heritage varieties of apples and discovered Monty's Surprise which is many times better than red delicious in this regard (NZHerald story). He then went on to tomatoes, sourcing and testing heritage varieties from around the world and identifying an orange variety called Moonglow as the standout winner. Rather than seeking to privatise these findings, he is distributing the plants and seeds as widely as possible.

Meet Jack Heinemann, research Professor at Canterbury working on genetic engineering, molecular biology, microbial genetics, and genotoxicity. Jack didn't do any of that on the weekend but he did MC most of the conference, and presented a paper showing that non-GM Europe has matched/bettered North American GM production yields and growth rates on corn and other crops.

He also came up with two points in response to a final "what should we do?" question. Paraphrasing, Jack reckoned we should....
  • Remove the bias towards private profit in New Zealand's public research funding. 
    • By requiring industry co-funding we biases our innovation system towards saleable intellectual property rights and against public goods. 
  • Consider using (Pigouvian) taxes to reflect the cost of negative health and environmental impacts from the use of agricultural poisons. [update: this is my interpretation. Jack actually raised the idea of not allowing tax deductions for poisons, which is a different instrument aimed at the same target]
These are both very reasonable requests. The first is simply asking for equal funding opportunities for research projects aimed at creating public goods, like the knowledge Mark Christensen has produced and shared. It'd also be hard to object to the second request, though there would of course be a debate about what the effects are.

Friday, 6 February 2015

Quad Bike Safety

Farms are dangerous workplaces, quite obviously. You'd be way safer working in an office or shop or call centre. Still, danger does lurk pretty much everywhere: you could easily get bowled just crossing the road.

Back to farming though. We could drastically reduce the risk of injury or death in farming by adopting the factory model for everything. We already torture chickens & pigs this way and people still buy the eggs and meat, so its a proven model. There are a couple of downsides though:

  1. some people care about animal welfare and dislike the idea of factory farming
  2. we happen to be pretty good at pasture-based farming: its a comparative advantage.

So lets assume we stick with the system that our customers want and we are good at. How do we make it safer?

The official experts in this area are WorkSafe, a division of MBIE, whose governing laws are so broad they could easily force pedestrians to wear body armour. But that'd be crazy, right? It would also make people wonder if perhaps the law is mad. Can't do that. So lets pick on the most dangerous jobs and try to make them safer.

This is presumably the thinking that led the good people at WorkSafe decide that quad bike helmets would be compulsory. An alternative would have been to make roll bars compulsory - which they could easily have done. I was intrigued by the choice, so I requested information from WorkSafe. Here's what I found.

On average there are 17 deaths per year in agricultural workplaces and 5 of them involve a quad bike. Here are the causes of those quad bike deaths.

This is about what I expected. Mostly people get crushed in ways that helmets would not prevent but roll bars might. Helmets would help in 15% of cases. The picture is broadly the same if we look at injuries. WorkSafe reported that around 10% of the recorded injuries involved the head or face. 

The helmet campaign has been pursued with vigour and resulted in some astonishing fines. Farm workers are an easy target and a culture has developed in which people questioning the whole plan get shouted down and accused of not caring about safety. 

While this probably makes WorkSafe staff feel happy & productive, I think it alienates farmers and detracts from the overall safety message. The chart above is only confirmation of what we all pretty much knew anyway.