Archive for the ‘Policy’ Category

Why Science?

I think one of my main motivations of this blog is to check back every so often, and think about the context of my work within a greater body of knowledge.  That, and considering the importance of my work and the potential impact it has.

As I was getting an oil change the other day,  I came across a Scientific American article about scientific perception, the title: Trust Me, I’m a Scientist.  It made me think of another science-y article, The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science, on Mother Jones.  One short article, one long article, both valuable in trying to understand the battles I may face as a scientist.

There is truly a great deal of value in the work in which my colleagues are involved.  My focus is in the applied sector and problem solving with growers.  In this regard, it is important to understand and recognize the preconceptions and notions based on cultural and experiential knowledge that people may have.



New Buzz

Bee-keeping and sustainability projects?  Sounds like a good idea.


There has been and continues to be a lot of discussion regarding genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or genetic engineering (GE).  While there are many things that fall under this category, I’m going to stick to food crops (which is an expansive category in itself).

This is what I’m not interested in.

Although it looks pretty cool, and might entice children who are picky eaters to try something nutritious, I find the blue hue of strawberries completely unnecessary and unnatural.  It looks radioactive and reminds me of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. (Speaking of which, who thought it was a good idea to let kids pal around with teenaged mutant turtles who were ninjas and took orders from a sewer rat?  That said, I loved that cartoon.)

What intrigues me is the possibility of using genetic engineering to reduce the use of pesticides, reduce environmental impact, and help create a more sustainable agricultural system for the future.  The blue strawberry above is an example of one kind of genetically engineering a transgenic crop.  An arctic flounder gene coding for an antifreeze protein was introduced to strawberry to help protect the crop against frost.  In theory, it seems like a pretty good idea to protect crops.  But I’m curious to hear the reasoning for using a fish protein in contrast to a cold-hardy plant from the tundra regions of the world.

Another hot commodity in the Frankenfoods debate is Bt corn.  Bacillus thuringiensis is a bacteria currently used in organic agriculture as an insecticide for particular crops.  Different strains of Bt are effective against different kinds of pests which means not all pests are susceptible to the insecticide.  The bacteria produces proteins which disrupt the gut membrane of insects, causing pests to stop feeding.  Currently, Bt has been genetically engineered into certain field crops like corn, soy, and potatoes.  Instead of the pest coming into contact naturally with the bacteria, the plant continuously produces the protein toxic to insects.  This dramatically reduces the insecticides necessary to control pests, as is the case with Bt corn and the European Corn Borer.  But it’s important to keep in mind that all the concerns about insecticide resistance and resistance management still exists for Bt crops.

Photo courtesy of Iowa State Entomology

Genetic engineering is not a cure or a method.  It’s merely a tool that might assist with production and the promotion of sustainable agriculture.  It is equally important that we proceed with caution and concern for social and cultural values.  It’s a complex issue that has no singular answer.  And that seems to be my answer for everything.

For more information, Harvest of Fear was a televised report by NOVA and Frontline exploring this issue.  The report can be viewed on YouTube by clicking here.  The Future of Food was a documentary on the same issue produced by Deborah Koons Garcia.

Integrated Pest Management

Integrated pest management, or IPM, relies on biological, cultural, and chemical methods to manage pests in agriculture and in your community.  It is neither conventional pest management, nor organic management.  Instead, it draws on the best of both, and uses many other tools and resources available.

Biological control focuses on using living organisms to suppress the population of a pest organism in an effort to reduce damage below a threshold. Such control organisms may be other insects which include predatory insects or parasitoids.  Other biological control agents might be bacteria, fungi, or nematodes.

These control efforts include physical barriers like mosquito nets or row covers as well as traditional practices such as crop rotation or intercropping. Field sanitation, the removal of diseased plants or pest refuge, is also considered under cultural control.

Chemical control includes using pesticides judiciously to manage pest, but also manage for pesticide resistance. Considering the mode of action, or how the pesticide kills the pest, is an important aspect of chemical control.

IPM is an ecological approach to pest prevention, observation, and intervention.  It is a tool that can be tailored to grower needs and resources for practical pest management while reflecting biological, social, and economic understandings of the system.

There was some buzz a while back about the funding and future of the New York State IPM program.  Thanks to public support, the state budget has allocated monies to continue supporting the agricultural and community programs.  The power of people is incredible.

Save science education!

While researching some interesting bugs for Expanding Your Horizons, I came across this great educational project engaging young scientists and teaching them about vernal pools.

It’s an inspiration to see environmental outreach and science education working together to encourage a new generation of citizen and research scientists.

So when I heard that the NSF GK-12 program (National Science Foundation Graduate Fellows for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) in K-12 Education) has been cancelled due to cuts in the 2012 budget, I couldn’t be more disappointed.  An article published in Science describes reasoning for and reaction to this decision.  It’s a large program, and an impactful one at that.  Not only is it beneficial for K-12 classrooms, it is valuable experience for graduate students like myself.  Suffice it to say that many, many people are upset.

If you want to add to the discussion and dissent, I encourage you to write to save GK-12 and support opportunities for science education.

Eat, Corn, Love

Days are getting longer and warmer in Ithaca, and I’m getting antsy for the food of summer.  Especially fresh delicious corn!  The United States is the largest producer and exporter of corn, with about 80 million acres planted. But only about 12% is for “food, seed and industrial uses.”  About 45% is used for “feed and residual uses” while 43% goes toward “alcohol for fuel use.”  Let’s break that down.

I’m assuming that fresh market corn that I can buy at the food co-op or at the farmer’s market is part of the “feed, seed and industrial uses.” And “industrial uses” refers to the processing of corn for high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), beverage alcohol, corn cereal, and corn meal.  Processing is not inherently bad, I would never get Flax Plus granola cereal without some kind of food processing plant.  But when HFCS starts showing up in foods that might not need it (spinach dip) I get a little more than just concerned.  Especially because research shows that HFCS is linked to our current obesity epidemic.  Countering the debate, are the silly little clips revealing the extremely biased “facts” about HFCS.  They make me want to tear my eyes out.

How does corn go from being this:

to this:

For more information, which is definitely biased in my direction, I would recommend watching King Corn.  It’s a cute, informative documentary about two friends who are trying to understand where our food comes from.

And to top if all off, even these bees are as inundated with HFCS as we are!

Sneaky chickens

I don’t want to jump on the exposé bandwagon, but there is something about the lack of accountability and transparency in our food system that is really unsettling.  The issue is definitely complicated, but Iowa’s effort to ban undercover investigative reporting doesn’t seem like a good way to move forward.  There are food safety issues like contamination that deserve to be addressed.  While  I don’t believe sensational videos posted on YouTube is necessarily the answer, I do believe public awareness is critical for change to occur.  And maybe the public should be riled up.  I know I get angry when I drive down I-5 and smell manure  for miles on end.  These are not the happy cows from California.   But I’m willing to bet the Clover cows are- I’ve seen them when driving around Sonoma County.

As consumers, we have a lot of power.  We all eat, and when it comes to food, we can definitely vote with our forks.  There’s been a severe dissociation between the food on our table and where it grows.  Michael Pollan covers this issue in The Omnivore’s Dilemma.  Moreover, consumer demand of aesthetically perfect produce fuels increased pesticide use because of low pest tolerance.  Choosing organic is a great practice if you can afford it, but it doesn’t always solve the problem.  Likewise, being a selective-sometimes-eco-vegetarian/flexitarian doesn’t really get you far.  But I have found that the conversations sparked when responding, “I’m a flexitarian,” can be informative and educational for both sides involved.

If you want more, there’s Food Politics by Marion Nestle, The Food of a Younger Land by Mark Kurlansky, and so many more.  You could find hundreds of publications on issues related to food security, food sovereignty, food policy… It’s not just about industrial and commercial production, it’s a systemic issue that affects every individual, in the US and world-wide.  Even Michelle Obama.