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Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The Inconvenient Truth About The Environmental Working Group's Dirty Dozen List

This post originally appeared on Forbes on 4/10/18
This term, popularized by Al Gore, certainly applies to some public data about organic produce (Hajime NAKANO via FLICKR)

Today, the Environmental Working Group – an NGO funded by big organic marketers – releases its annual “Dirty Dozen List” of produce items it categorizes as most important to buy as organic to avoid pesticide residues. EWG makes its list based on an egregious, science-free misinterpretation of what is really a remarkable, transparent source of public data generated by the USDA. What that data actually demonstrates is the outstanding safety profile of the US food supply, but EWG twists it into an argument for consumers to pony up the extra dollars to buy organic with the idea that by doing so they are protecting themselves and their family from exposure to pesticide residues in food.

The “inconvenient truth” here is that the very same USDA data EWG is using to classify commodities as “dirty” documents the fact that organic food samples also contain detectable synthetic pesticide residues. If those low level residues qualify as “dirty” when they are on “conventional” food, then organic is also “dirty.” Even if EWG wants to make a “dirty” index that isn’t supported by toxicology and health experts, it isn’t OK to ignore the fact that the same measure applies to the products that they are recommending as alternatives. A certain number of the samples in the USDA program happened to be labeled as organic, and EWG looked at the data at a level detail where they could have noticed that, so they have no excuse for this omission of information.

Many consumers believe that organic farming means “no pesticides.” That isn’t at all true because pests are definitely a challenge for organic farmers as they are for any kind of farmer. Organic growers are allowed to use a large list of pesticides which are considered “natural.” Interestingly the USDA pesticide residue testing program does not look for residues of most of the major organic pesticides (sulfur, lime sulfur, mineral oil, copper-based fungicides, Bt, live biologicals…). If it did there would be even more “pesticide detections” for the organic samples. Also, under the USDA organic rules, it is officially deemed “ok” of organic samples have synthetic residues that are less than 5% of the EPA tolerance level. Such residues are deemed “unintentional.”

So even though there isn’t data to look at all the potential pesticide residues on organic, lets look at how this “inconvenient truth” of synthetic pesticide detections plays out relative to the latest installment of EWG’s infamous list based on the most recent USDA, PDP data from 2016. (I won’t address the crops on their list that were not part of the 2016 USDA sampling data: #3 Nectarines, #6 Peaches, #10 Celery, #12 Bell Peppers).

A nice big strawberry (Steve Savage)
Number 1: Strawberries

There were 5.2 synthetic pesticide residues detected per organic strawberry sample. 75% of those were below the magic 5% of tolerance level that makes them officially OK for organic, but interestingly 76% of the residues on the conventional strawberries met the same criterion. Strawberries are best grown in areas with extended cool seasons as in coastal counties of California. There isn’t that much of that kind of land available and so the fact that organic strawberries only yield around 1/3 to 1/2 of the amount of fruit per acre – its actually not a good idea to do more organic production – certainly not based on pesticide residue concerns

Number 2. Spinach

There were 7.7 synthetic pesticide residues detected per organic spinach sample. 80% of those met the 5% of tolerance standard which is the same percentage for conventional. It is actually difficult to find any metric that differs between organic and conventional for this crop.

Number 4. Apples

There were 5 synthetic pesticide detections per organic sample for apples (vs. 4.25 for conventional). 78% of those met the 5% of tolerance standard to be ok for organic, but so did 76% of the detections for conventional. No buyer advantage for organic apples.

Number 5. Grapes

There were 2.35 detections/organic sample which is about half of the number for conventional (but remember, many of the most important organic grape pesticides are not tested for in the USDA program). 87% of the detections on organic were under the 5% standard, but so were 82% of the detections on conventional.

Number 7. Cherries

There was a very small sampling of cherries in the 2016 data (30 samples) and none were organic so this isn’t a crop for which we can say very much

Number 8. Pears

There were 5.7 synthetic pesticide detections on organic pears vs 4.2 per conventional sample. For both categories 69% of those detections met the “OK for organic” 5% rule

Number 9. Tomatoes

There were more synthetic pesticide detections per sample for conventional vs organic tomatoes (3.9 vs 1.5), but 97% of the conventional detections met the 5% organic ok standard while only 79% of the organic detections met that standard

Number 11. Potatoes

2.3 synthetic pesticide detections per sample on organic (vs 2.9 on conventional). 66% met the 5% organic standard vs 74% for conventional.

So, the bottom line is that there is no meaningful distinction between organic and conventional foods that the USDA tested in 2016. Both are quite safe and consumers should not hesitate to buy and consume these foods that are well documented to promote health. The real take-away is that consumers should be very wary of organic-funded organizations like the Environmental Working Group that are trying to manipulate them with fear. EWG ends its dubious list with a link to “Donate Now” because “EWG helps protect your family from pesticides!” Does convincing you to spend more for organic which has the same, low, safe levels of pesticide qualify as “protection?” Such organizations deserve no respect or support.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

A Food Waste Solution You Might Not Know You Are Already Using

The Food Waste Solution That You Might Not Know You Are Using

Some of the bagged bread options in a local grocery store

Do you buy bagged bread in the grocery store?  There are usually several options including bread made with whole grains or containing several different kinds of grain. You have probably noticed that such breads stay nice and soft for quite a while.  Some people are even suspicious about that imagining that the bread might be “loaded with preservatives.”  They are not.  If you buy the freshly “baked in the store” options like baguettes, or get those at a bakery, they are really tasty, but they rather quickly become stale.  They become candidates for making French Toast or maybe croutons.  That kind of short-lived bread is amajor source of food waste and some have even found creative ways to collect stale bread from bakeries and turn it into beer. 

Fresh bread from in-store bakery

The bagged bread on the other hand can remain good and usable for a week or more.  If you don’t get through using the loaf for a long time it might get moldy, but in general each loaf can keep a family fed with morning toast or lunch sandwiches for quite a while. That didn’t used to be the case.  Back in the 1960s the bread aisle was restocked almost every day and you could buy “Day Old Bread” at a discount - but it wasn’t very good. 

So what changed?  It’s an interesting story that involves crystals and enzymes.  We think of stale bread as being “dried out,” but that isn’t the real issue. Staling occurs when the starch changes to a crystalline form in the finished bread. The solution to the food waste problem of stale bread is a type of enzyme called “amylase” that can modify the bread’s starches during baking and keep that crystalline structure from forming after the bread is baked. To unpack that, I’ll go into some background on enzymes and on starch.

OK, flash back to high school biology class.  Do you remember learning about enzymes?  Those are proteins and if you do the 23andme analysis of your DNA, a good deal of it codes for the enzymes that make your body function.  These very cool proteins “catalyze” chemical reactions, serving functions like digesting our food, or turning it into the energy that keeps us going.  There are also enzymes in our liver that protect of from certain toxins.

Bread is made from mostly wheat grains that contain starch.  Starch is a really big molecule that is a long and branched chain built from many units of the simple sugar glucose linked together. The reason that a wheat plant makes starch is so the germinating seed can use it as a source of energy to start growing a new wheat plant.  About 10,000 years ago, we humans started growing wheat as a crop and it has been a major source of our food since then.  We get both energy and protein from eating wheat.

When we eat bread, there is an enzyme in our saliva called amylase that starts breaking the starch into simple sugars and the process continues in our digestive system.  There is a similar enzyme in the wheat itself because that seed needs to be able to tap into the energy stored in the kernel when it starts to grow.  The yeast we add to make bread also has various enzymes including amylase and there are even more enzymes from various organisms in something like sourdough bread.  Bread “rises” because the wheat and yeast amylase enzymes make some of the starch into simple sugars that the yeast then ferments to grow.  In the process the yeast makes carbon dioxide gas that makes bubbles in the dough that make the bread rise.  So in the enjoyment of bread there are already three different kinds of amylase enzymes involved- from the wheat, from the yeast and later from ourselves.

But after the bread is baked, the starch that is still mostly undigested can “re-crystalize” into forms that make the bread taste “stale” to us.  We think of it as “dry” but that isn’t really the issue. It’s a texture thing based on those starch crystals. What the baking industry discovered in 1990 is that they could add a different kind of amylase enzyme to the dough that would control the starch in baked bread and slow down the formation of the crystalline structure that makes the bread taste/feel stale. 

So if you look at the ingredient list of the bread in the store, it could list “enzymes.”  The one that keeps the starch from crystallizing is an amylase. Not only does that reduce the amount of bread waste generated by stores and in customer’s homes, it also has dramatically reduced the number of trips that bread trucks need to make from the bakeries to the stores, thereby reducing the amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere

Note the Enzymes" in this bread ingredient label
When we eat the bread, that tiny amount of enzyme is just a protein that our own digestive enzymes easily break down into the amino acids that we need as a part of our diet. 

So the next time that you pull a loaf of supermarket bread out of your breadbox and find it still soft and tasty, you can appreciate this robust, enzyme solution to the food waste issue of stale bread!

(Note: I am writing this article as part of a partnership with the enzyme producing company, Novozymes. This gives me the time to delve into the technical details about specific enzymes and then try to explain those in ways that make sense to as many readers as possible)

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

In Defense Of An Important Example Of Food System Transparency

An example of the fresh produce widely available to
American consumers
(This post originally appeared on Forbes on 3/25

Consumers have a legitimate desire for transparency when it comes to their food - particularly when it comes to the issue of pesticide residues. Consumers can get exactly that kind of information from a yearly publication from the USDA’s Pesticide Data Program, or PDP. Consumers deserve to get this information since they are the taxpayers who fund EPA regulation of crop protection products. This USDA, PDP program essentially “checks up” on how well that regulation is working. Fortunately, what the data shows is very encouraging in terms of the system and food safety.

What consumers don’t deserve is the way that the very transparency of the PDP is misused to manipulate them through a fear-based marketing scheme funded by certain “Big Organic” companies. This annual “analysis” of the PDP data is known as the “Dirty Dozen List,” and it is published by the Environmental Working Group or EWG. EWG purports to tell you which foods you most need to buy organic to avoid pesticide residues. Their assessment methods have been repeatedly and completely debunked by real toxicologists, but they persist in using this list to scare people into buying organic. I am glad that the USDA perseveres with transparency in spite of this chronic abuse because the real data demonstrates the utter fallacy of the EWG fear mongering.

Since 1990 the USDA has responded to consumer interest in residues by conducting an extensive monitoring program. They collect around ten thousand food items from the US distribution system (mostly fruits and vegetables but also sometimes grains, milk, eggs, baby food etc). They take those samples back to labs and conduct extremely sensitive tests for the presence of residues related to the chemicals that farmers use to protect the productivity and quality of their crops. For the 2016 program they collected samples of these foods:
  • Fresh: Apples, Cherries, Cranberries, Cucumbers, Grapefruit, Grapes, Green Beans, Lettuce, Oranges, Pears, Potatoes, Spinach, Strawberries, Sweet Potatoes, Tomatoes. 
  • Processed: Apples Sauce, Frozen Cranberries, Canned Olives, Canned Tomatoes

As has been the case for many years, the 2016 results released by USDA confirm the fact that between EPA and state level regulation and grower compliance, consumers can confidently enjoy the US food supply free from concerns about pesticide residues. The results are summarized on the USDA Pesticide Data Program website in the form of links to high-level assessments by governmental experts. There is a downloadable webinar on the topic. There is also a very detailed report (110 pages plus appendices) that breaks down the data by commodity, source (domestic, importer country…), and by specific chemicals. Again, the take-away is documentation of how well the system is working to protect American consumers.

The deepest level of transparency of the PDP is in the form of a 10,365 row table of information about the samples and a 2.2 million row table about the testing results for the 2-300 specific chemicals looked for in each sample (most of those results were negative for detection of the chemical in question).  For several years I have taken advantage of that transparent resource.

For the cases where a residue can be detected, the question of safety at the consumer level has to be based on knowing how much of which specific chemical or chemical metabolite is found on which specific kind of food. This is because the EPA conducts extensive “risk assessments” using everything known about the toxicity profile of each crop protection chemical and uses that to set a very conservative, crop-by-crop “tolerance” which is a level below which they can confidently say that the residue represents no health risk to the consumer. This generally represents around a 100-fold margin of safety from any known effects of the chemical.  Elsewhere around the world these thresholds are known as MRLs.

For the most recent year of released data (2016), only 0.15% of the chemical “detections” were above the EPA tolerance threshold and most of those were only slightly above. About 1% of the detections were for compounds for which there are not specific tolerances for the crop in question – but all of these were at extremely low levels and not deemed to be of concern by the experts. So 98.8% compliance with tolerances is clearly an A++ grade for those who produce our food both in the US and in countries from which we import many items.

In its analysis for the “Dirty Dozen List”, the EWG treats each “detection” as a problem irrespective of the specifics of which chemicals is found at what concentration. It then uses that science-free version of the data to “guide” consumers about which foods are most important to “buy organic” as a residue avoidance strategy.

What EWG neglects to mention is that there are pesticide residues detected on the organic foods that happen to be picked up in the USDA sampling program. Of the 10,365 samples tested from 2016, 4.8% were organic and 95% were “conventional” with the remainder having some other type of claim. On average there were 2.6 detections of residue per organic sample (1299 total detections among 501 samples). Many consumers believe that organic means “no pesticides” which is not at all true, but that is a “convenient fiction” that is rarely addressed by organic marketers. Farmers of organic crops definitely need to protect them from pests and they have an extensive list of “natural products” and biological control agents that they can use (options also often used by “conventional” farmers). However, most of those options are not something that can be detected using the analytical chemical methods employed in the PDP labs. Only the fermentation-produced chemical Spinosad and the plant extract Pyrethrin, both approved for organic, are picked up in the methodology mainly designed to detect synthetic chemicals.

The fact that most of the organic-approved pesticides go unmonitored isn’t really a problem because with the possible exception of very old, mineral-based fungicides like copper sulfate these are things with very little or no toxicity to people. So, only 15 of the 1299 pesticide “detections” on organic PDP samples were of organic-approved products. The rest are all “synthetic” chemicals, which certainly does not mean they are scary, but they are not things that are allowed to be applied to USDA organic crops. More than 100 different synthetic chemicals were detected at low levels on the organic samples.  Interestingly, there were an average of 3.1 residues detected on the “conventional” samples – not very different from the 2.6 found on the organic – and certainly not something that fits the narrative that organic is “clean” and conventional is “dirty.”

Once again, 99.85% of these residues on organic samples were found at levels below the EPA tolerance so its not a safety issue with organic just as it isn’t with the identical 99.85% “below tolerance” detections for conventional. However, these results certainly don’t fit with overall organic branding. I have some ideas for why those low level synthetic residues might be there on organic items, but I will leave it up to the USDA organic program or those produce organic to explain this phenomenon.

Now, the part of the USDA that oversees organic certification (National Organic Program – NOP) has set a somewhat arbitrary standard that if a synthetic pesticide residue is found at less that 5% of the EPA tolerance, it is considered to have been an “unintentional” event and wouldn’t disqualify the item as organic if this were part of a compliance screening effort (that is a program that USDA-NOP does conduct separate from the PDP, but in that case the results are not published in any transparent way).

Remarkably similar residue detections for organic and conventional foods with regard to the organic standards

Well, most of the residues (78.3%) detected on the 2016 organic samples were either spinosad or below the 5% threshold – thus they are not officially a problem. Interestingly, 79.7% of the “conventional” samples met those same criteria. There were; however, 20.2% of the synthetic detections on organic that were over the 5% of tolerance threshold – once again essentially the same as the 19.2% of detections for conventional in that same safe, but not ok for organic range.
So what the transparent, publicly generated data tells us is this: “enjoy our food supply without worries about health effects from pesticide residues, and by the way there really isn’t any meaningful difference in this regard between organic and conventional.” Neither category is “dirty” and in fact they are quite similar in the details of how clean they are.

But there is one more important conclusion that can be drawn from a deep dive into the transparency of the PDP. Not only are the residues on conventional samples below tolerance, 43% are 10 to 100 times lower than the already conservative tolerance. 36% are 100 to 1000 times below the tolerance. 11% are more than 1000 times below the tolerance. (The same categories for organic were 44%, 33% and 12% - again, remarkably similar to the “conventional”)

How low can you go?  These detections are just a tribute to the skill of analytical chemists

Transparency of the type that the USDA exhibits with its Pesticide Data Program does run the risk of misuse by parties with an economic incentive to mislead consumers. But ultimately that same transparency also allows us to know what the data really says. It turns out that the whole idea that consumers should worry about foods that are “dirty” because of chemical residues is false. The narrative that organic is really different in that regard also turns out to be false. Bottom line: enjoy our diverse, safe, affordable food supply!  Perhaps the conclusion is well expressed by the Weird Al Yankvich parody song, “Just Eat It!”

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Update On The Rapidly Growing Biologicals Sector In Agriculture

This article was first posted on Forbes on 3/15

Biological crop protection products are an important set of options in the agricultural "tool box."  Last week I had the opportunity to attend meetings held in California and get an update on that industry - one I have been following since the 1990s when I worked for Mycogen, one of the earliest companies in this field.  The big take-aways from these meetings were: 

1) this continues to be a rapidly growing sector, 

2) the best fit for these products tends to be in integrated programs with synthetic chemical options, and 

 3) that the lack of international harmonization of regulations is problematic for even these "soft" products.

The meetings were the Biological Products Industry Association Spring Meeting and the  International Symposium and the Biocontrols USA West Conference.  Biologicals are crop products based on naturally occurring chemicals and/or live organisms, and thus they tend to get a positive reception from most who hear about them. They tend to be low in toxicity and generally “soft” when it comes to environmental impact. They have been a rapidly growing segment of the crop protection market for some time, expanding their sales at a compound annual growth rate of around 17%, but biologicals still represent only around 5% of the global market for products used in the growing of crops.

This kind of product is attractive in the sense that development timelines tend to be shorter than for synthetic chemicals and the development costs are much lower. These lower barriers to entry have encouraged nearly 500 companies to participate in that 5% of the market.
Locusts killed by the biocontrol fungus Metarhizium
The biocontrol sector is an extremely diverse collection of technologies. There are natural chemicals that are extracted from plants or produced by microbes grown in fermentation tanks. There are bacteria and fungi that compete with pathogenic fungi and/or produce compounds that inhibit their attack of plants. There are live fungi and nematodes that can infect or attack insect pests and kill them. There are things like predatory mites or parasitic wasps that can be enlisted to help keep insect pest populations in check. There are viruses that infect very specific insect pests, and there are bacteriophages, which are viruses that can be used to control bacterial diseases of plants. There are “semiochemicals,” which might repel insects or attract them to a trap or be used to make it impossible for a male insect to find the pheromone trail to a suitable female for mating.

Graphic showing how the "Pheromone Confusion" strategy works for crop pest control

While most of these products are used in agriculture, some of them play an important role in vector control to combat the increasing threat that society faces from insect-borne diseases.

There is a large subset of biologicals called “bio-stimulants.” Some are based on seaweed extracts, some on yeasts, some on single-cell algae, and many that are mixed “consortia” of fungal and bacterial strains. (There are 235 examples of microbial biostimulants in the market, making it challenging for growers to even know what to try.) These agents can induce plants to activate their own defenses and stress-tolerance strategies.
This part of the industry was described as the “Wild West” of ag products. Its players are working actively to overcome some past tendencies toward the marketing of “snake oils” and to institute more rigor on quality control and the generation of independent data to back up claims. At this meeting, there was clear evidence presented that many biostimulants made a big difference in crop yield – particularly under stress conditions (e.g. heat, drought, cold).
At this meeting, I heard confirmation of a general observation I have made about biocontrols over the decades: They actually make the most sense as part of an integrated program that also involves things like crop genetic resistance and the use of synthetic pest control products. The biologicals can often reduce the need for other chemical agents, and they can also reduce the risk of selecting for pest resistance, which would jeopardize the utility of those expensive-to-develop tools.
As popular as the biologicals approach has been, there are some challenges that were articulated by several of the presenters at this meeting. One issue is that although the food system as a whole is becoming increasingly globalized, the oversight systems under which these products are regulated are highly parochial, with no significant degree of international harmonization. This can undermine the very features of reasonable costs and at least somewhat predictable timelines for regulatory approvals.
As one would expect, the European regulatory system tends to be excessively precautionary and unpredictable. Europeans want their farmers to use more biological controls, but are not making that easy.
In the U.S., regulatory timelines are becoming less predictable because a system called PRIA is uncharacteristically caught up in a political strugglebetween the Trump administration EPA and certain key Democratic legislators.
One of the hallmarks of U.S. regulation, relative to that in the EU, was that it tended to be relatively free of political influence. That status was eroded somewhat in the Obama era, and that change certainly continues today. The EPA is chronically understaffed, so in 2003 a system was set up to collect fees from the companies seeking registrations in order to augment the EPA’s budgets so that they could meet timeline goals. Unfortunately, Congress has not been appropriating its full share, and the FTEs at the EPA have been declining.
Now the reauthorization of the PRIA fee system is being held up by politics and may expire on March 23. It is not just the approval of popular technologies like biocontrol that are being disrupted in this spat. Training programs that are valued by farm worker advocates are also being affected. The industries that develop both biological and chemical control methods for agriculture are perfectly willing to work with a regulatory framework that is based on sound science and overseen by an adequately resourced EPA.
Another concerning issue discussed is that players like global food retailers are sometimes imposing their own rules on their suppliers in ways that go beyond the already-comprehensive regulatory systems. They argue that this is driven by what consumers want in terms of transparency and the absence of chemical residues. Serving customers is a positive goal, but it can be problematic when consumers have misperceptions that have been intentionally cultivated by certain for-profit organic companies.
Overall, I was still encouraged by the progress that is being made in this broad category of crop protection and stimulation. There were several “old timers” like myself involved, but also a gender- and nationality-diverse set of younger participants. This is an important set of tools in the broader toolbox that farmers need in order to meet global food demand in a sustainable fashion.
(Disclosure: I have worked for 40 years in the crop pest control area, including the biologicals and synthetic sectors. I currently produce a bi-weekly podcast on food and agriculture called POPAgriculture, and that communication effort is supported by the CropLife Foundation, which is the nonprofit arm of CropLife America.)

Friday, January 5, 2018

Yes, We May Have No Bananas, But Monoculture Wasn't So Easy To Avoid

(This article originally appeared on Forbes, 1/4/18)

Standard retail banana display - photo by Steve Hopson via Wikimedia Commons

In 1923, Frank Silver and Irving Cohn published a song that became a major hit for the Billy Jones Orchestra, with the signature line “Yes, we have no bananas; we have no bananas today.” It turned out to be sadly prophetic as, in the 1950s, the banana trees that supplied the entire global banana export business were wiped out by a soil-borne fungal disease known as “Panama Wilt.”

The industry at that time was almost entirely based on a single banana cultivar called “Gros Michel” (meaning “Big Mike”), and it was susceptible to infection by a strain of fungus called Fusarium. Once the soil of a given plantation was contaminated with that strain, any Gros Michel tree grown there would soon die.

By good fortune, a different banana cultivar that was being grown in the South Seas was able to substitute for Gros Michel as a commercial line, and this new “Cavendish” cultivar became the new banana of international commerce, as it remains to this day. (Check out this interesting blog post about the history of the Cavendish variety and how it actually passed through a greenhouse in England in that process! And here is another good post about the history of this disease and the industry.)

Unfortunately, it's about time for some band to cover “Yes, We Have No Bananas” because, evolution being what it is, a new strain of Fusarium — Tropical Race 4 — has arisen and it is lethal to the Cavendish. The disease is slowly making its way around the world, and since it can be spread in a particle of dirt on something like a boot, it will almost inevitably make it to the Central and South American growing regions that supply both North America and Europe with their bananas.

Although this unfortunate scenario has been on the minds of the banana industry for decades, it is now starting to get more attention in the mainstream press. One part of the story that has been shocking to these outside observers is that such a huge industry would ever be dependent on a single cultivar of banana. As Stephen Mihm put it for Bloomberg, this looming “bananapocalypse” is attributable to a vulnerability that comes from the practice of “extreme monoculture.”
While I understand why observers might be shocked that a nearly $12 billion industry depends almost exclusively on the Cavendish banana, I do want to push back on the implied conclusion that this represents some sort of irrational or irresponsible expression of “big ag” or whatever other demons are imagined by the Food Movement.

Banana tree dying from Panama Wilt (Photo by Scot Nelson)

When you see something that is a standard practice in a very large, nationally diverse and multi-company business like bananas, I would suggest that it is appropriate to ask not “what is wrong with this system” but rather, “What are the practical factors that drive this seemingly irrational practice?”

I’m not a banana expert, but in the mid-1990s, two of my first jobs as an independent consultant had to do with the banana industry. It was during the exciting early years of commercial plant biotechnology, and many industries were asking, “What might this new technology do for our business?” Both of my projects involved early-stage discussions between a major banana company and a plant biotech company — four different entities in all. These were “drawing board stage” projects, with the goal of figuring out if certain ideas could ever make economic sense: Would they be something worth years of effort and millions of dollars for research? Still, overall, biotechnology looked like a way for this industry to tap into genetic diversity.

The fun part for me was getting to do a deep dive into the details of how bananas are grown, handled, shipped and marketed. I got to travel to Honduras, Costa Rica and Ecuador to tour banana plantations and interact with experts at the major banana export companies. As I said, I’m not an industry insider, but I think I can shed some light on why there are not more kinds of bananas grown for export.

As modern consumers, we are offered an amazingly diverse selection of fresh fruits and vegetables year-round, so it is important to think back to the early days of this offer of plenty. Having grown up in Denver in the 1960s, I can recall that, except for a few summer months, almost the only fresh fruit options at the grocery store were bananas, apples and oranges. I have a podcast about why apples were ever on that list. But if you think about it, the very fact that we can so easily enjoy fresh bananas in temperate regions is a bit remarkable.

Bananas can grow only in regions where there is never frost, and they do best in truly tropical climates. How did a tropical fruit become a mainstream, reasonably priced, healthful, kid-popular fruit for people who experience winter?
In tropical regions, there is a great deal of genetic diversity among wild bananas and considerable diversity among the banana or plantain types that humans cultivate. However, very few of these bananas could ever meet the criteria needed to be a viable export crop.

A typical wild banana with seeds (image by Mkumaresa via Wikimedia Commons)

First of all, a banana for export has to be seedless. Many wild bananas have large, very hard black seeds – not something that has much consumer appeal. The bananas that people like are seedless because they have triploid genetics – three of each chromosome vs. the two that we have. That is the same way we get seedless watermelons, grapes, etc. It's not some “GMO” thing; it happens at times in the plant kingdom, and we humans like it! Still, improving or changing the cultivar through “conventional breeding” isn’t an option if it makes no seeds.

Next, the banana needs to be productive in terms of overall yield per tree or acre. I’m sure no one in the 1920s was calculating it, but in modern “sustainability” thinking, the “land-use efficiency” of a crop is an important criterion. That, along with “water-use efficiency,” small “carbon footprint” and “energy footprint,” is all very much tied to good yield. The usable per-hectare yields of the Cavendish variety are quite high, and that is why it has been a both economically viable and environmentally sustainable choice for a long time.

But probably the most limiting requirement for a banana variety to be commercially acceptable is that it has to be shippable. In the modern era, we have lots of transport options for food products, but during the era when the banana was becoming an item of international trade, the only viable option was ocean shipping. A product being moved from the tropics to North America or Europe needed a very-low-cost transport option if it was ever going to be a mainstream consumer product. Most fresh produce products loaded onto a ship for a two-plus-week trip to a northern port would be a soup of decay by the time they arrived.

What made the Gros Michel and its successor, the Cavendish, remarkable was that they could make that trip at a temperature range of 55-58 degrees Fahrenheit, and so not even require lots of energy for refrigeration. Very few of the wonderful range of cultivated or wild banana types could ever do that, but because the Cavendish can be shipped this way, the energy and carbon footprint of its shipment is small. This crop has a very attractive "food-miles" profile.

Banana Black Sigatoka infection (Image by Scot Nelson)

In addition, it turns out that the conditions under which bananas grow can affect their shipping potential. There is a disease that infects only the leaves of banana plants called “Black Sigatoka.” If a banana tree has suffered too much of that infection, even the robust Cavendish variety won’t be able to make the trip by sea. One thing I learned on my tour was that plantations have employees whose whole job is to survey the plantation on a tree-by-tree basis in order to qualify the fruit for shipment based on how well that disease has been managed.

But it gets even more complicated than that (here's a good video summary of the process). Bananas are picked in Central and South America at a “green” stage — imagine a fruit more completely green than the greenest one you've ever seen in the clusters in your store. When they get to their destination, they are put into “ripening rooms,” where they are exposed to ethylene gas to start them on the way to the ripe yellow fruit you know. Before you freak out, know that ethylene is the fully natural plant hormone that induces ripening in most fruits and vegetables.

There is a definite art to this ripening process, and highly valued experts who can assess each shipment of bananas know just how to handle them in the “ripening rooms” to achieve the goal of delivering “just right” bananas at retail. This process has to factor in issues like ups and downs in demand and turnover rates at key retail customer outlets, in addition to the condition of the incoming fruit.

I know that at the stores where I shop, I can consistently buy bananas that are close to ripe but not fully, such that I can hope to consume them all before they turn black. We consumers might think we have a balancing act to do when it comes to timing ripening and consumption of the bananas from our counters, but imagine that on a huge scale for the banana distribution chain.

There is one more critical element of the business model: Those ships that come to our ports loaded with bananas certainly can’t go back empty. The banana shipping companies are also seriously involved in their “back-haul” business of bringing back products of interest in the source countries. Having a well-understood, predictable crop helps with running that business efficiently as well.

So for the international banana business to work in a way that provides a relatively low-cost product acceptable to consumers, it needs to be able to function in a reliable and predictable fashion. Figuring out how to do this with a new banana variety would be a huge challenge. How do you grow it efficiently? Can the crop make the trip reliably? How can its ripeness be managed in order to meet both the distribution chain requirements and the needs of consumers for decent “counter life”? Will all of this work in a way that is compatible with a viable back-haul business?

So while it is easy to think that the banana industry is crazy to depend on one cultivar, I submit to you that it is not without reason and it implies no irresponsibility.
So does that just mean that we are inevitably going to live out the unintended prophecy of “yes, we have no bananas”? I think that depends on whether we continue to live in a world where anti-biotechnology groups are able to exercise the control that they currently have over our food system.

Let me explain. Remember that my introduction to bananas was based on excitement about what biotechnology could do for the crop. One of the concepts was to develop bananas that were resistant to that leaf infection disease that can compromise shipability. Control of that disease requires something like 40 fungicide sprays a year, so as you can imagine, there would be a huge cost savings if the trees could be made resistant.

The other concept on the table was modifying the banana so that it would stay in that nice yellow, but not yet black, stage longer on the consumer’s counter. I’ll never forget that in the first meeting about that idea, a participant who worked for a UK-based banana importer said in his very British accent: “Why would you want to do that? Don’t you know that the dustbin is a major consumer of bananers?” Obviously he wasn’t attuned to current sensitivity to the need for food waste reduction. I thought it was cool that a banana company was serious about an idea that might reduce food waste, with the hope that it would make consumers more comfortable about buying even more bananas.

Well, these were just theoretical ideas at the time, and they didn’t go anywhere because it soon became evident that the anti-GMO forces were quite successful at putting brand-sensitive companies in an untenable spot if they were using “GMO crops” not just for generic ingredients but for brand-central crops. A dramatic example was how fast-food chains like McDonald's moved to avoid biotech potatoes for their signature fries.

It quickly became clear to the banana companies that their brands and their retail store access could be compromised if they pursued “GMO” options. The irony here is that this would have been the most viable strategy with which to bring genetic diversity into the logical but extreme monoculture of bananas.

So the irony is that if the “yes, we have no bananas” scenario becomes a reality, it will be because we as a global society didn’t use a safe, viable, scientifically sound strategy to rationally deal with the problem in the banana crop.

Public institution scientists in Australia and entrepreneurial scientists in the Latin America have come up with ways to modify commercially relevant bananas to resist the Fusarium disease. Ideally there would be the potential to use several approaches, either in the same banana or in different fields; that would avoid delay selection for resistance and avoid yet another dependency on a single line. It is likely that the "heritage variety" Gros Michel could be made commercially viable once again!

If the Fusarium-resistant biotech bananas were introduced, activists would almost certainly attack them as “GMO.” Would any of the big banana companies have the guts to move forward with the technology in spite of the inevitable brand attacks by NGOs? Would any big food retailers be willing to resist the inevitable pressures not to stock that fruit? That retail blockage strategy is being used today against other new biotech offerings such as non-browning apples and potatoes and fast-growing, terrestrially raised salmon.

At one level, this is a question about what will be available for us as consumers. Will we continue to have this highly consumed, reasonably priced, child-friendly, healthy food option? Maybe not. But there is another big question.

One thing I witnessed on those visits to the banana industry back in the '90s was that large communities in Central and South America flourish because of the jobs that this industry creates. We in the rich world will still have lots of other fruit choices if the stores have no bananas, but that flexibility isn’t there for the families that have been doing the work to provide us with this staple food option for so many decades. I would think that most activists are the kind of people who care about the availability of healthy, low-cost fruit options; I doubt that they would want to see the banana-producing communities impoverished. However, if the current paradigm of anti-GMO intimidation of fruit companies and retailers continues, that is where we are headed.


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