Saturday, May 11, 2013

What Does A Leading Maker Of Carrageenan Say About Its Use In Organics?

Marinalg International, the organization supporting sustainable seaweed farming and the seaweed based hydrocolloid industry, agrees with the Proposed Rule by the National Organic Program (NOP) of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to renew the approval of carrageenan, a common food stabilizer, as an ingredient in American organic foods. The rule would codify a recommendation by the National Organic Standards Board regarding carrageenan. “Seaweed is farmed on six continents and is critical to the economic growth and stability of emerging countries”
The basis for the NOP’s Proposed Rule to continue carrageenan use without restriction is the result of a comprehensive review of science providing strong evidence concluding that the processing and production of carrageenan from red seaweed is non-synthetic. The production of carrageenan is carefully controlled under alkaline conditions to avoid degradation or chemical changes during isolation and purification. This minimal process relies on water, heat and lye to produce the major types of naturally-occurring carrageenan that differ in structure and food-processing characteristics with a broad range of functionality that enables solutions to pressing food issues including fat and sugar reduction, expansion of protein availability and reduction in food waste through shelf life extension.
Common to other ingredients, the approval came as part of a standard five-year ingredient sunset review by the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board, established by the Organic Food Products Act of 1990 to examine ingredients allowable in foods labeled as ‘organic’. The decision to relist carrageenan as a non-synthetic ingredient for use in organic food reaffirms carrageenan as a safe food ingredient.
Carrageenan has been approved for use in food by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the World Health Organization and many other regulatory authorities throughout the world. Those organizations have examined decades of science devoted to this ingredient, relying on scientific evidence that carrageenan, when ingested with food, poses no health risk to humans.

These same organizations, particularly the FDA, have rejected the conclusions of some recent experiments with isolated cells that allege adverse health effects and rely instead on well-established science that more closely mimics the way human beings consume carrageenan in foods as a natural stabilizer, gelling agent and emulsifier.
William B. Matakas, president of Marinalg, said, “We are gratified that after thorough reviews by the FDA and the USDA, carrageenan continues to be recognized as a safe and important ingredient in organic foods in the United States. Carrageenan is consumed by millions of families throughout the world each and every day and has been for a very long time. The experience of that continued use, coupled with careful science, is clear evidence that carrageenan is worthy of its place in organic milk, ice cream and other food products.”
Carrageenan is a natural soluble fiber product of red seaweed and a natural ingredient that has been used in cooking for hundreds of years throughout the world.

It is currently harvested by seaweed farmers primarily in Africa, Indonesia and the Philippines, supporting more than 30,000 farming families in practices that are models of sustainable aquaculture. Seaweed production does not require fresh water, arable land or fertilizer and increasing its production does not create competition for food production any where in the world.
“Seaweed is farmed on six continents and is critical to the economic growth and stability of emerging countries,” said Matakas. “Seaweed farmers want for their families the same things all of us want – economically viable opportunities to ensure the health, safety and education of their children. Seaweed farming is not only environmentally sound and sustainable, it is transforming lives and livelihoods in hundreds of coastal communities.”
Carrageenan, in addition to being used as a food stabilizer, has widespread applications in pharmaceuticals, as well as personal care and dietary products. The use of carrageenan enables the export of countless products by preserving their texture, structure and stability.
Marinalg International is a global association supporting the interests of seaweed farmers and the seaweed-based hydrocolloids industry. Marinalg’s primary efforts include the delivery of sound science and technical expertise related to the safety and efficacy in the production and use of hydrocolloids from seaweed farms to family tables. Marinalg represents the regulatory interests of the seaweed-processing industry before various international bodies such as Codex Alimentarius, and national regulatory authorities including the European Food Safety Authority, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. - MarinAlg, Business Week

Is The USDA Trying To Make It Easier For Farmers To Obtain Certification?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture National Organic Program’s 2012 list of certified organic operations  reveals there are now nearly 25,000 certified organic operations worldwide. Those operations represent more than 100 countries and show a significant increase over the past years. Efforts are ongoing to see those numbers continue to increase.

“One of USDA’s strategic goals is to increase the number of certified organic operations in the U.S. to 20,655 by 2015, a 25% increase from the 2009 baseline of 16,564,” Sam Jones-Ellard, USDA public affairs specialist, said in an e-mail.

As part of this goal, in 2012, the USDA began its Organic Literacy Initiative, an effort to train USDA staff on how the USDA supports organic agriculture. The initiative also includes a toolkit, titled “Is Organic an Option for Me,” which is designed to help growers decide whether organic farming is an option for them.
Another aspect of the USDA’s efforts to encourage organic farming is the Sound and Sensible initiative, which is designed to streamline the organic certification process, according to Jones-Ellard.

 “The Sound and Sensible initiative, which streamlines the organic certification process while maintaining high standards, ensuring compliance, and protecting organic integrity, is another important step in support of this strategic goal,” Jones-Ellard said.

The project will focus on helping growers achieve organic certification, which could in turn increase the number of certified operations in the U.S. “The goal of this initiative is to help ensure that organic certification is affordable, accessible and attainable for all operations interested in exploring the organic option,” Jones-Ellard said in an e-mail. 

As part of the initiative, the National Organic Program attempted to clarify the information that USDA agents can provide to clients without being considered “consultants” by publishing new instructions for certifying inspectors, according to the April issue of Organic Integrity Quarterly, the organic program’s newsletter.
“This instruction, which will be released this spring, will outline what certifiers and inspectors can and can’t do to assist organic operations,” Jones-Ellard said.

Sound and Sensible is also set to provide an updated list of certification instructions, which will be released as they are completed. Training sessions for program auditors are scheduled for the end of April, which will teach the new Sound and Sensible principles to help increase consistency, according the newsletter. Future projects of the initiative will strive to remove barriers small businesses can encounter when striving to achieve organic certification. The “Removing Barriers” project already has considered feedback from the Accredited Certifiers Association, among others. - Melissa Shipman, The Packer

Should We Be Worried About What Conventional Farming Does To Soil Biodiversity?

The world’s worrisome decline in biodiversity is well known. Some experts say we are well on our way toward the sixth great extinction and that by 2100 half of all the world’s plant and animal species may disappear. Yet one of the most important threats to biodiversity has received little attention and though it lies under our feet.

Scientists using new analytical techniques over the last decade have found that the world’s ocean of soil is one of our largest reservoirs of biodiversity. It contains almost one-third of all living organisms, according to the European Union’s Joint Research Center, but only about 1 percent of its micro-organisms have been identified, and the relationships among those myriad life-forms is poorly understood.

Soil is the foundation on which the house of terrestrial biodiversity is built. Without robust soil ecosystems, the world’s food web would be in trouble. To understand more, scientists recently embarked on what they call the Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative to assess what is known about soil life, pinpoint where it is endangered and determine the health of the essential ecosystem services that soil provides.

They are not just looking at soil in remote, far-off landscapes. One of the more intensive studies is taking place in New York’s Central Park. The focus is on the life that resides in the soil, the microbes, fungi, nematodes, mites and even gophers that make up a complex web of interrelationships.

A teaspoon of soil may have billions of microbes divided among 5,000 different types, thousands of species of fungi and protozoa, nematodes, mites and a couple of termite species. How these and other pieces all fit together is still largely a mystery.

“There’s a teeming organization below ground, a factory, with soil animals and microbes, each with their own role,” said Diana H. Wall, a professor of biology at Colorado State University who has studied soil biodiversity in Antarctica and Kansas over the last two decades and who is the scientific chairwoman of the soil biodiversity initiative. “A leaf falls, and earthworms and termites are constantly ripping and tearing it apart, and microbes and fungi pass the nutrients on to plants.”

Forget the term “dumb as dirt.” The complex soil ecosystem is highly evolved and sophisticated. It processes organic waste into soil. It filters and cleans much of the water we drink and the air we breathe by retaining dust and pathogens. It plays a large role in how much carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere. Soil, with all of its organic matter, is second to the oceans as the largest carbon repository on the planet. Annual plowing, erosion and other mismanagement releases carbon in the form of carbon dioxide, and exacerbates climate change.

The last decade of research has overturned a key concept. For decades there was a saying among soil scientists “everything is everywhere,” which meant that soil was largely the same across the globe. That has proved to be spectacularly untrue.

A 2003 study in the journal Ecosystems estimated that the biodiversity of nearly 5 percent of the nation’s soil was “in danger of substantial loss, or complete extinction, due to agriculture and urbanization,” though that was most likely a very conservative guess, since the planet’s soil was even more unexplored then than today, and study techniques were far less developed. That means that species critical to some important functions could have already disappeared or be on their way out. That’s why the global soil assessment is a matter of some urgency.

There are numerous threats to soil life. Modern tillage agriculture is a big one, because it deprives soil life of organic matter it needs for food, allows it to dry out and adds pesticides, herbicides and synthetic nitrogen. Soil “sealing” from the asphalt and concrete of suburban sprawl destroys soil life, as do heavy machinery and pollution. Even long-ago insults like acid rain still take a toll on life in the soil by having made the soil more acidic.

The problem is global. In nearly half of Africa, for example, overgrazing and intensive agriculture has destroyed topsoil and led to desertification. Yet few things are more vital than healthy soil life. Our food supply begins in the soil. Wild plants need healthy soil to grow well, so other species can eat the leaves and seeds and fruit, and predators can eat the plant eaters.

Healthy soil can prevent human disease. Valley fever is found in the southwest United States and is caused by a fungus that becomes airborne when soil dries out and is inhaled. It is rapidly increasing. The soil system also plays what is thought to be a key, if poorly understood, role in the spread of cholera, fungal meningitis and other diseases, which live part of their life cycle in the soil.

Healthy soils also hold the cure for some diseases. Antibiotic compounds are the chemical weapons of competing soil microbes, and most of the antibiotics we use came from there. Scientists are searching soil in various places now for a new class of antibiotics to deal with antibiotic-resistant diseases. Who knows, the answer may lie underneath the fountains and sidewalks of Central Park.

New technologies that enable scientists to study the genes of soil microbes and to track microscopic amounts of carbon and nitrogen as they pass through the soil ecosystem have provided leaps in the understanding of soil ecology. But the more scientists learn, the more they realize how little they know.

Global warming will no doubt greatly compound the threats to soil biodiversity. Food security is a big concern. What will happen to crops as the earth gets warmer? Slight changes in temperatures and moisture can have profound impacts on soil, altering the composition of soil life and the types of plants that will grow. We may no longer be able, for example, to grow wheat in Kansas.

Some plants are expected to gradually migrate north to cooler climates as it warms, but others may not be able to adapt to new soil communities. “The world above ground and the world below are very tightly linked,” said Dr. Wall.

Scientists are also discovering that a healthy soil ecosystem may sustain plants naturally, without chemical inputs. “The greater the soil diversity, the fewer diseases that emerge in plants,” said Eric B. Nelson, who studies soil and disease ecology at Cornell. Insects are also deterred by plants grown in healthy soils, he said.

What can farmers and gardeners do to protect their soils? Practice no-till agriculture for one, Dr. Wall said, which means not plowing every year and allowing dead vegetation to decompose. Backyard gardeners can do the same. Avoiding synthetic chemicals is also important. Adding compost, especially worm compost, can help by making soil ecosystems more robust.

The topic is starting to get the attention it deserves. Dr. Wall was just awarded the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, a distinguished prize that comes with $200,000 that she says plans to use for her research. “It’s showtime for soil biodiversity,” Dr. Wall said. - John Robbins, New York Times

Is Chinese Organic Food Exported To The U.S. Fraudulent?

The House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats gathered information today regarding concerns being raised about imports of food from China that are entering the U.S.

“We don’t trust, for good reason, the Chinese to supply ingredients for our dog and cat food,” said hearing witness Mark A. Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst at The Cornucopia Institute.  “Why,” Kastel asked, “should we trust Chinese exporters for the food that we are feeding our children and families?”

Kastel added that the USDA and FDA are only inspecting 1%-2% of all the food that enters U.S. ports.  And even with this small sample size, Kastel noted that a “disproportionate number of serious problems” are being found with Chinese exports, including “unapproved chemicals, dyes, pesticides and outright fraud (fake food).”

The Cornucopia Institute, based in Wisconsin, has been acting as an organic food and agriculture industry watchdog for the past decade.  The farm policy group has been critical of fraud occurring with imports of organic commodities and finished products entering the U.S.

In February 2011, the USDA’s National Organic Program began informing the public of fraudulent organic certificates, the paperwork required for the formal sale of organic foods.  Since then, the USDA has announced 22 fraudulent organic certificates, with nine of these from China.

“Because of the restricted nature of doing business in China,” Kastel told the Congressional Subcommitttee, “U.S. certifiers are unable to independently inspect farms and assure compliance to the USDA organic food and agriculture standards that are required for export to the U.S.”

“These imports should not be allowed to reach our shore until and unless we have a system in place to assure consumers they are getting what they pay for.  Just like U.S. grown organic commodities, the safety of these products must be rigorously overseen by independent inspectors,” Kastel said.  (The full testimony of Mark Kastel is available here.)

Patty Lovera, the Assistant Director of Washington, D.C.-based Food & Water Watch also appeared before the House subcommittee.  “The U.S. imports over a billion pounds of [organic and conventional] fruits and vegetables from China every year and over a billion pounds of fish and seafood,” Lovera said.  “And for some products, like apple juice and garlic, China has replaced domestic production of crops that have traditionally been grown here.”

Food and Water Watch produced a Chinese Imports Backgrounder in 2009 assessing the extent of lax inspections and breadth of scandals surrounding food imports from China that have been linked to human illnesses from eating the unsafe food.

As Lovera noted, food fraud is occurring “despite very public efforts by the Chinese government to crack down on food safety problems.”  The news from China, she observed, “is a steady stream of controversies ranging from adulteration with counterfeit ingredients like melamine in dairy products, to widespread outbreaks of animal diseases like avian flu, and high levels of pesticide residues. Just last week, news reports described a Chinese government campaign to break up a fake meat operation, leading to arrests of more than 900 people accused of passing off more than $1 million of rat meat as mutton.”

Subcommittee chair Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) also voiced criticisms of Chinese regulatory controls, saying “it is beyond their ability to do a good job.”  Added Rohrabacher:  “The record of Chinese food plant facilities is extremely poor.”

Representative Steve Stockman (R-TX), who said he buys organic food himself, expressed his concerns about mislabeling and referred to it as “Orwellian.”  Stockman mentioned that “the safety of imported food is something the media should really be spotlighting.”

In addition to discussing food, the House Subcommittee also focused on fake, counterfeit drugs coming from China. After the hearing, Cornucopia’s Kastel said that The Cornucopia Institute welcomes the increased scrutiny of how the USDA and FDA are assuring U.S. citizens that foreign organic imports are commensurate with U.S.-produced food.

“I hope that Congress will pressure our federal agencies to ensure that they do their job.  And if they need additional resources to protect us from fraudulent and unsafe food imports, then I hope Congress will provide the necessary resources to get the job done.” - Cornucopia Institute

Monday, April 15, 2013

Will Having Unified Organic Labeling Make Africa's Agriculture More Profitable?

The world’s leading nations are profiting from myriads of trade protectionism and marketing communication initiatives that dispose agricultural and agro-industrial produce to profitable returns. Is the African continent ready to learn or at least adapt some of such initiatives with potentials for positively impacting the socio-economic circumstances of its people?

For some time now, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Economy (DREA) of the African Union Commission has identified and has been holding consultations across the continent over one of those protectionist initiatives - Geographic Indications (GIs) which if well-articulated and exploited, would offer some elixir to the continent’s theming resource poor agricultural populace are largely peasant farmers.

Geographical Indications (GI)are signs or names conferred on products emanating from specific geographic regions or origins - e.g. a town, region, or country certifying or giving assurance that the products possess characteristics or have reputation of possessing qualities, made in consonance with the traditional skills peculiar to the geographic areas.

The DREA, African Union and the Legal experts - resource persons also explain Geographic Indications (GIs) as signs that attest that goods emanate from a geographical area and do possess characteristics, reputation or qualities that are specific to geographic regions.

GIs are aimed at conferring proprietary rights to communities that produce or add value to produce or products that are peculiar to their terrains. Much like trademarks and patents over industrial goods or technologies, GIs intend to win ownership rights for communities over their ancestral or traditional produce, skills, products and technologies that have been associated with their geographical regions.
Geographic Indications become necessary where over time, a product made in a specific place earn a unique reputation - often due to special characteristics present in the place: its people, its climate and its landscape.

Since the turn of the century, futuristic nations have been employing trade names and trademarks for identifying food products associated with particular regions, employing laws to forestall false claims or passing off, generally protecting against suggestions that a product has a certain origin, quality or association when indeed they do not. Willy-nilly, such curtailment of competitive freedoms does facilitate monopolistic employment of geographical indication which yield good dividend and consumer or producer protection.

The French are behind appellation d'originecontrôlée (AOC - Apellation of Origin), one of the first GI systems. The government issued stamps, which represented official endorsement or certification of the standard and origin of the product of the consumer. Many French wines and Gruyère cheese (from Switzerland) have such appellations.

Similarly, the European Commission has three schemes: 
 PDO - (protected designation of origin), 
PGI - (protected geographical indication) and 
TSG - (traditional speciality guaranteed) which promote and protect names of quality agricultural products and foodstuffs.

Through the schemes, the European Commission encourages diverse agricultural production, protection of product names from misuse and imitation and help consumers by giving them information concerning the specific character of the products.

According to the European Commission: 
PDO - covers agricultural products and foodstuffs which are produced, processed and prepared in a given geographical area using recognised know-how.
PGI - covers agricultural products and foodstuffs closely linked to the geographical area. At least one of the stages of production, processing or preparation takes place in the area.
TSG - highlights traditional character, either in the composition or means of production

Should Africa get its acts together, the continent with untold agricultural resources and processing technologies is eminently positioned to benefit from conferring  Geographic Indications on some agro-produce that are home to its peculiar endowments of soil and climatic conditions.

Commencing with a thorough grasps of GIs and implications for agro- industrial development in the continent, the DREA has strategized sub-regional enlightenment with conferences held in Abuja, Nigeria and Johannesburg, South Africa. The consultations which started two years ago, often involves academicians, legal, agro and allied experts, dissecting the issues and strategizing initiatives that would enable optimal realizations from the enormous products that deserve GI in the African continent.

Early March, it was the turn of the South African Development Community (SADC), the  consultation on Geographic Indications held at the Pan African Parliament, Midrand, Johannesburg,  in the South African rich Gauteng region. In attendance were participants from the sub- region viz Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Tanzania, Malawi and of course the host nation, South Africa. There were also on hand participants from Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda and Kenya as resource persons or carefully selected to foster regional cross referencing. They were specialists in agriculture, organic agriculture, law, the media and government.     

There are enormous potentials in Geographic Indications to positively impact the agro industrial economies of beleaguered African nations if well exploited. GIs would enable the development of several farming communities as recognition and protection on the markets of the names of these products would encourage the community of producers to invest in maintaining the specific qualities of the product on which the reputation is built. After developing the technologies of production, there can be wholesome development of markets, employing tools of marketing communication to develop several brands while promoting the reputation of the products

Geographical Indications would also facilitate the structuring of the supply chains around products which have won such renown, translating to much-needed economic enhancement for African farmers and agro-allied industries.

The potentials are enormous, a product having won renown can be so developed that it would engage streams of idle hands, allow for out grower schemes as is visible in the Nigerian tobacco industry, have a chain of services as industrial production chains, logistics support at the local and international levels, national socio – economic, preservation of the natural resources on which the product is based, agro or eco-tourism, preservation of traditions and traditional technological know-how.

Lofty as the potentials in GIs are, much wouldn’t be realizable where nations states become slip-shod in galvanizing resources towards the attainment of GIs for products and services or backing them it with political and economic will, ensuring compliance with the process of developing the geographical indications (GI), adherenceto Codes of Practice, a philosophy of engaging and enlightening industry players and quality marketing initiatives.

Expectedly, the relatively advanced nations of the globe are reaping fortunes through Geographic Indications. Through strategic protectionism, engagement of marketing communication tools and positioning in the minds of consumers, European farmers are making fortunes from the likes of Parma ham, Roquefort Cheese, Scotch whiskeys. Americanpomologists and agronomists have been reaping fortunes from Florida oranges and Idaho potatoes respectively. In the food and drinks sector there are fruits and vegetables, wines, cheeses and cured meats: Champagne; Chedder and Tipperary turnips. Manufacturers in Europe, Asia and the US are profiting much from reputations built over the ages think Persian carpets, Murano glass, Toledo steel and Japanese electronics.

Importantly, through global, regional, bi- lateral or multi-lateral agreements, nations protect consumers, ensuring that they access the true qualities they demand, thus saving their farmers and industries from competition and keeping them in business and having their economies running.

There appears to be a ray of hope on the continent though. At least one nation seems to have woken to the realisation and that is Ethiopia. The well documented handling of Ethiopian coffee by the Ethiopian government may facilitate an appreciation of the viability of GIs and trademarks. An estimated 15 million people are directly or indirectly involved in the Ethiopian coffee industry with Ethiopian coffee alone generating about 60 per cent of the country’s total export earnings. The nation enjoys a strong reputation for its heritage coffees which command a very high retail price in the international market. Ethiopia is also the origin of some of the world’s finest coffees - Harrar, Sidamo and Yirgacheffee. These coffees have unique flavors and aroma that distinguish them from coffees of other countries and even other coffees within the country.

Despite the reputation of and Ethiopian heritage of the coffees, it is claimed that barely 5 to 10 per cent of the retail price actually goes back to the Ethiopian nation; most of the profit shared by distributors and middlemen in the marketing sector. Odd too, while a cup of these high priced coffees would sell for as much as US$ 4 in advanced nations, the poor Ethiopia grower earns less than a dollar a day.

These led to farmers abandoning coffee production due to low returns and engaged in growing more profitable narcotic plants. The Ethiopian government turned the tide by strategizing through intellectual property rights to differentiate their coffee in the market place and achieve higher returns. Through the Ethiopian Coffee Trademarking and Licensing Initiative, the Ethiopian Fine Coffee Stakeholder Committee comprising a consortium of comprising cooperatives, private exporters and the Ethiopian Intellectual Property Office (EIPO) as well as other concerned government bodies committed the nation to protecting its commercial origin through registering trademarks, steps that avoid the complexities in GIs .

This granted the government of Ethiopia the legal right to exploit, license and use the trademarked names in relation to coffee goods to the exclusion of all other traders. Unlike a GI, a trademark registration does not require a specific coffee to be produced in a specific region or have a particular quality in connection with that region. Using trademark registrations, the government of Ethiopia then produce greater quantities of specialty coffees from all over the country.

Now, producers outside the Sidamo region could grow Sidamo coffee, without necessarily having the characteristics unique to the Sidamo region. The Stakeholder Committee opted for the trademark-based solution, with the Ethiopian government as the owner of these marks. This strategy gave the Ethiopian government greater and more effective control over the distribution of its product, which ultimately increases revenue by exporting more goods, enabling a rise in prices and benefits to farmers.

What need border the African continent is the reality that there is continuous erosion of resources owing to inability to maximize or optimize potentials. Undoubtedly, more can be gained from putting some indication on a vast range of produce of the continent and employing the tools of marketing communication to draw gains from these produce. To drive the point home, imagine what losses the economy of a State like Kenya would have incurred if it hadn't showcased and built its economy on tourism and conservation of wildlife?

Africa for now is lacking compelling laws that control or protect its resources that necessitate Geographic Indication. There is the painful reality of absence or abysmal cohesion of efforts to reverse the ill-tide in the interest of millions of challenged farmers across the continent. What is needed is a development of strategies to stem further erosion of the rich array of agricultural products, handicrafts, foodstuffs, traditions and knowledge passed on over generations that are domiciled in the continent

Good enough, the Department of Rural Economy and Agriculture, African Union  is taking great strides at raising a crop of stakeholders that hopefully would develop strategies for wining for the continent, grounds lost by inertia and uncoordinated approaches towards GIs for agricultural goods. - Niyi Egbe, This Day Live

Has The National Organic Safety Board Restricted Use Of Antibiotics On Apples and Pears?

The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) rejected a petition to extend the expiration date for the use of oxytetracycline to treat fire blight in apple and pear production beyond October 21, 2014. The decision is a victory for the organic standard and advances efforts to preserve the effectiveness of antibiotics.

The vote came after a long and controversial debate because some apple and pear growers do not believe they have adequate alternatives to antibiotics. Consumer and environmental advocates urged them to end the use of tetracycline as soon as possible in order to meet consumer expectations and to respond to mounting evidence that antibiotic-resistant bacteria is a serious threat to public health. Antibiotics are not allowed in any other types of organic food, including production of organic livestock.

We applaud the Board for making the right decision to end the use of this antibiotic as soon as possible and we believe this timeline for ending the use of tetracycline is consistent with consumer expectations. This decision will drive the organic apple and pear market to a higher standard. 

We urge the USDA to help growers continue to find workable alternative treatments for fire blight that are compatible with organic production. The Board passed a resolution to encourage the USDA to investigate a transitional option for the emergency use of tetracycline until 2017. The agency must guarantee that any emergency use is extremely limited, ends as soon as possible and, most importantly, apples and pears from treated trees cannot be sold as organic. - Center For Food Safety 

Consumers Union, the policy arm of Consumer Reports, Food & Water Watch, and the Center for Food Safety are urging the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) to discontinue the use of antibiotics in organic apple and pear production, citing the potential undermining of the integrity of the organic label and threats to public health and consumer expectations. The NOSB—which meets in Portland, Oregon, this week and will vote on a petition to extend the use of oxytetracyline beyond the existing expiration date of October 21, 2014.

New data from a poll commissioned by Consumer Reports confirms that most consumers do not know that the USDA organic label can be found on foods produced with antibiotics and don’t believe they should be allowed to carry that label if antibiotics were used. Specifically:

When asked whether antibiotics are used to treat disease in apple and pear trees, two-thirds (68 percent) of people said they don’t know, 17 percent said they don’t think they are, and 15 percent said that antibiotics are used.

When told that apple and pear trees can be sprayed with antibiotics to treat disease and then asked whether fruit from these trees should be allowed to have an “organic” label, more than half--54 percent--said they don’t think they should be labeled as organic. Only 11 percent of thought they should be labeled as organic, and slightly more than one-third (35 percent) answered that they don’t know if they should be labeled organic.

Some organic apple and pear producers use oxytetracycline and another antibiotic, streptomycin, to manage a disease called fire blight. Antibiotics are not allowed in other types of organic food, including production of organic livestock.

The groups submitted over 35,000 public comments to the NOSB in advance of their meeting, raising concerns about consumer expectations and the mounting evidence that the public health threat posed by antibiotic resistant bacteria make it critical that all uses of antibiotics in food production be minimized.

The use of antibiotics is allowed for organic apple and pear production through a petition process to the NOSB, which has already extended the deadlines for this loophole to close several times since the organic label was implemented in 2002. Despite these extensions, there has been limited help for apple and pear growers to find alternative treatments for fire blight, although some alternatives do exist.

For example, U.S. farmers do not apply antibiotics to the organic apples and pears they sell to Europe, where the use of antibiotics is not allowed. The groups urge the USDA to work with the organic apple and pear industry to incentivize viable alternatives for producers and uphold the integrity of the organic label by rejecting the petition to extend the expiration date for oxytetracycline. - Center Food Food Safety

Has Costa Rica And Canada Agreed To Trade More Organic Produce?

Costa Rican organic producers will have increased opportunities to export their products to Canada following an arrangement reached between officials from the two governments.

A press release sent Friday by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency states the Canada-Costa Rica Organic Equivalency Arrangement is "the outcome of an extensive analysis of both countries' production and certification systems.”

The agreement will allow for easier import and export of certified organic products between the two nations without the need for additional certification, thus reducing costs and red tape for the industry.

"This arrangement with Costa Rica eliminates trade barriers to give organic producers a competitive edge," said Canada's Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz. "Canadian consumers will also benefit by having increased access to organic food options."

Costa Rica and Canada have had a free trade agreement since 2002, and it was updated last September. According Costa Rican Foreign Trade Ministry data, total trade between the countries has increased from $102 million in 2002 to $273 million in 2011, a cumulative increase of 168 percent. - Canadian Food Inspection Agency 

Do The Majority Of American Consumer See Organic Labeling As An Excuse To Increase Prices?

Does an uptick in the economy give people more reason to care about Mother Earth? That is what a March 2013 Harris Poll of 2,276 U.S. adults (ages 18+) interviewed online set to find out as Earth Day quickly approaches (full findings and data tables available here). Turns out that concern for the current state, and future, of the environment is on the rise in 2013 (38 percent vs. 31 percent in 2012), just as economic indicators point to all time stock market highs and a solid housing market recovery. However, as Americans start to feel better about reaching into their pockets, they still may not be ready to dish out the extra green on organic items. Turns out that more than half (59%) agree that labeling food or other products as organic is just an excuse to charge more.

"What surprised us most was that while Americans are showing more concern for the environment, they aren't necessarily willing to pay more to do anything about it," said Mike de Vere , President of the Harris Poll. "While Americans feel better about the economy, many are wary of the 'greenwashing' concept that gives companies a chance to cash in on consumers who want to help the planet but are confused by all the eco-friendly jargon."    

Fact vs. Fiction
Going green continues to be a gray area, as consumers try to decide where it makes sense to incorporate it into their lives. While recent research shows that organic produce and meat typically aren't any better for you than conventional varieties when it comes to vitamin and nutrient content1, more than half of Americans 

  • (55%) believe that organic foods are healthier than non-organic. In addition:
  • 41% think organic food tastes better and/or fresher than non-organic   
  • Only 23% know what the term "dirty dozen" (The Environmental Working Group's annual list of foods consumers should always buy organic due to pesticide levels) means in regards to organic food
  • 48% think washing dishes by hand is more environmentally friendly than using the dishwasher, though a study from Scientists at the University of Bonn in Germany found that the dishwasher uses only half the energy, one-sixth of the water, and less soap than hand-washing an identical set of dirty dishes.

Is it Easy Being Green?
Americans are divided on how easy, or not so easy, it is to live a more environmentally conscious lifestyle, with nearly equal percentages of U.S. adults perceiving it as difficult (49%) and easy (47%). When asked about sentiments towards going green, respondents indicated the following:

  • Eight in ten Americans (80%) say they will seek out green products, but only three in ten (30%) are willing to pay extra for them.
  • 60% of Americans prefer to use environmentally friendly cleaning supplies because of the chemicals contained in traditional cleaning products.
  • As noted, the majority of Americans agree that labeling food or other products "organic" is just an excuse to charge more (59%). 
  • Men are the most skeptical about organic, with 63% agreeing that the labeling of food or other products as organic is an excuse to charge more, versus 54% of women.
Overall, efforts to be green seem to have leveled off, with nearly two-thirds (63%) making the same amount of effort to be environmentally conscious as a year ago, up considerably from 2009 (51%). - Harris Interactive, PR Newswire 

Has The Organic Food Movement Increased Attention To Food Packaging?

Call it “greenwrapping.” From popcorn to peanut butter, from tuna to tea, the fancy food biz is increasingly looking to sustainable packaging to attract green-conscious consumers. Organic ingredients are no longer sufficient for green cred. What’s outside the product is starting to matter as much as what’s inside.

Tuna has made headlines in years past as a controversial catch, but now it’s the cans that are cause for conservationist’s contemplation. Metal cans use up more raw material than plastic pouches do, and they require more energy to transport. Now, Sea Fare Pacific is bucking tradition by packing wild-caught fish in sleek eco-friendly, BPA-free  pouches.

Popcorn bags may seem inconspicuous enough, but they’re increasingly drawing scrutiny. It turns out that many commercial microwave popcorn bags are lined with PFOA, which the FDA labels a toxin. Other sketchy stuff in the bags ranges from plastics to Teflon, not to mention artificial butter substitutes. Into the breach Quinn Popcorn arrived with a Kickstarter campaign and plans to clean up the much-beloved snack.

Here’s how the Quinn founders’ site describes their mission: “First, we tackled the bag. Gone are the chemical coatings (PFOA, PFCs, Poly, etc.). We even pulled out the susceptor (gray metal/plastic patch). What’s left is a bag that’s made from paper and paper alone. Well, it is special paper that is pressed to make it grease proof. That wasn’t easy to figure out. Did we mention, it’s even compostable?”

Bags are bound for even more change. Pipcorn of Brooklyn is another new-style popcorn company selling mini popcorn made from hull-less kernels. It comes in hand-stamped, simple paper bags.

Even tea packaging can be greened-up. Numi now packs organic tea in biodegradable filter paper. And wine bottlers have gotten into the green game, too. Alternative Organic Wine commissioned a super-green wine bottle from The Creative Method, an Australian design firm. The resulting package — which won a 2012 design award from The Dieline, a leading package-design blog was organic from head to foot. It included balsa wood, organic string and wax, and even organic inks for the bottle’s images.

Creative packaging comes in myriad shapes and sizes. Morning Ritual packs its organic strained yogurt with a bamboo bowl and spoon set, while peanut butter up-and-comer Justin’s uses already-recycled plastic for its jars.

Sustainability-conscious retailers looking to deliver fresh goods outside of their local markets face another challenge: how to ship temperature-sensitive materials without compromising their green ethos. Thermopod offers a solution in the form of biodegradable, temperature-controlled packaging made of recycled textile fibers. Thermopods come in crates and envelopes of varying sizes designed to protect everything from organic foods to chilled wine.

For organic food purveyors already focused on premium consumers with a discerning eye for sustainability, the recent wave of greenwrapping is just the start. A survey last summer by research and consulting firm EcoFocus found that more than two thirds of those who shop for natural and organic foods consider it important to choose foods packaged responsibly. Whatever they’re buying, they want it green.

More from UPS:
  • A Supply Chain for Temperature-Sensitive Pharmaceuticals Starts with Logistics
  • Sustainability: Packaging Matters
  • Sustainability Is a Key to Long-Term Success - Jeremy Caplan, Forbes 

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Does Gender Play A Role In Sustainable Forestry?

While the world is coming to appreciate the unique perspective women have on forest management, researchers, conservationists and policy makers are still struggling to find ways to incorporate these views into their work. A new report by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) sets out to offer guidance.

By combing through 40 years of literature and tracking down researchers with relevant expertise, Carol Colfer and her co-author Rebakah Daro Minarchek were able to place existing methodologies to address gender and forestry research into three broad categories, each corresponding with the level of resources available.

The most optimal was the broad, multi-level participatory approach, whereby well-trained, qualified researchers, committed to being regularly involved in the lives of villagers, strive for long-term and beneficial development. In addition to significant finances and expertise, however, this requires a lot of time and sometimes decades.

“Although we recognise a number of institutional and resource constraints to doing this, we see this approach as the most likely to result in improvements, both for the environment and the welfare of both women and men,” said Colfer.

Moreover, she argued, shorter time spans supposedly required by the other two approaches are often a chimera. The systematic, academic approach (using existing documents, qualitative and quantitative analysis, and interpretive methods), is suitable to those with access to significant social science expertise. Most often these findings end up being published in peer-reviewed journals.

And, for those with very limited resources, there is the “quick (and sometimes, somewhat) dirty” approach, whereby a researcher may head into the field for a rapid-fire assessment of local people’s interests and goals. Not ideal, perhaps, but better than having no information about gender at all.

“Whichever case, though, unless you explicitly say women and men as you gather your information, people will often ignore the women,” cautioned Colfer.

“Generally, when people do address issues of people and forests, they very often see the community as a homogenous mass who all interact with the forests in the same way.”

Not all forest users are created equal
Decades of research have consistently shown that in addition to playing important roles in forest use, women and men appreciate forests in very different ways. Rather than exploiting resources (timber, game and mineral wealth), in many areas women have long recognised the value of more sustainable activities, such as gathering edible fruits, and harvesting of medicinal plants. In some parts of the world, they also are more actively involved in the trading of non-timber forest commodities, such as nuts and shea butter.

Unfortunately, the role gender plays in forests is rarely, if ever, addressed in the political arena. This is largely due to the globally disadvantaged situation women face as compared to men, something that is now starting to be acknowledged, with a number of institutions, including the International Food Policy Research Institute and the Institute of Social and Environmental Transition, establishing indices to measure disparities.

Still, this does not provide instruction on how to fix the problem. And even for experienced forestry researchers who well understand the powerful contribution women have to make, it’s often hard to escape old, preconceived notions that they are primarily interested in family and health.

“All the systems we know are inequitable towards women,” says Colfer, “so it’s a topic that people have difficulty addressing.”

Though a number of reviews of women and natural resources have been produced, Colfer is unaware of any to date specifically relating to forests. That’s what makes this new how-to report, 'Women, Men and Forest Research', so unique.

“I felt there was a need for something that is longer than an article, because the amount of material compared to what is out there is phenomenal compared to when I started working in this field in the early 1980s, and the analyses have become much more sophisticated,” Colfer said as the world marks International Women’s Day.

“Today we increasingly appreciate that we not only need to acknowledge that women have different kinds of involvement in production activities, but we also need to look at things like power differentials and interactions between men and women. The more we know about women, the more complex the systems become.”

Saving forests with a stethoscope
For example, there are many issues that affect women that may not intuitively be related to forests, like violence against women (some are subject to reprisals for legitimate activities outside the home) or the need for family planning.

“If we want forests to thrive, we need to have a fairly low population density in the area,” says Colfer.

“If we want women to have equal access to education, income generation, and political leverage, we have to allow them to control their fertility and there is a widespread demand for more birth control.”

A handful of initiatives, Colfer noted in an earlier CIFOR study, are already striving to integrate conservation and human health. Women living in the lush, biologically diverse forests of Indonesia’s portion of Borneo, for instance, are vulnerable to lung disease from cooking with wood, a problem that is exacerbated when land-clearing fires blanket the region with heavy, choking smoke.

Because they have so little access to formal healthcare (few doctors, clinics or drugs) they have to travel long distances on bad roads for anything from a routine doctor’s visit to a medical emergency. The latter costs money, enough at times to ruin a family financially, forcing some to turn to illegal logging, others to burn rainforest to clear new land for pesticide-laden crops and plantations. Clean watersheds become contaminated and floods damage fields and roads and accentuate disease.

It’s a vicious cycle, one the Indonesian non-governmental organisation, Alam Sehat Lestari (ASRI), based next to Gunung Palung National Park, sought to address by setting up a high-quality mobile health clinic. In addition to offering free birth control, affordable diagnostics and ambulance service, they offer training in organic farming. Treatments don’t have to be paid in cash. Patients and their families can instead give manure for the clinic’s garden or seeds for its reforestation site.

Integrating gender is good science
Colfer acknowledges she and her colleague only scratched the surface with their latest report, but it’s a starting point. Cristina Manfre, author of a related CIFOR guide published recently agrees. In 'Integrating Gender into Forestry Research', she lays out the numerous steps that researchers can take to ensure that perspectives on gender are included in their work. She hopes the research will help fill the knowledge gap and rectify many of the imbalances in people’s daily lives.

“How do you involve women in governance? Formal government, resource governance, and household governance – who does what work and who benefits,” Manfre said.

“This is ultimately about the division of labour: who gets to determine who does what.”

This requires long-time collaborative work with communities, she said. Only then is it possible to implement policies effectively.

“Integrating gender perspectives,” she said, “is good science.” - Zoe Cormier, AlertNet

Is Tunisia Moving Towards A Sustainable Agricultural Future?

Africa's infrastructure is under pressure from increasing disasters but the infrastructure deficit is an opportunity for the continent to take a global lead on sustainable development and to leap-frog environmentally unfriendly technologies, said Mrs. Rhoda Peace, the African Union Commissioner for rural economy and agriculture, at a seminar marking the 11th African Day for the Environment hosted by the Tunisian government.

"Green growth and the avoidance of unsustainable consumption patterns are integral to Africa's efforts to reduce disaster risk and we would like this reflected adequately in the discussions at the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction in a few months time as well as in the new post-2015 framework agreement on disaster risk reduction when the Hyogo Framework for Action expires," she told UNISDR.

Mamia El Banna Zayani, Minister for the Environment, Tunisia, said her country was honoured to be the first country in North Africa to host the Africa Day for the Environment dedicated to the memory of the Kenyan Nobel Prize Winner and environmental activist, Wangari Maathai.

Mrs. El Banna Zayana said that Tunisia has realised the importance of the green economy as a promising field for employuments and had enshrined this in the new employment strategy at the national level.

She said that Tunisia was looking forward to playing a regional role in promoting the green economy with a strong focus on water, energy and food. "We cannot think of the development of Africa without addressing these."

A statement from the UN Environment Programme recognized Tunisia's potential to accelerate transition to a green economy in view of the fact that it is the second largest producer of organic farming in Africa with over 285,000 ha of organic farms and organic agriculture product exports reached 89 million Tunisian dinars. Tunisia also has a solar programme underway since 2005 and has the goal of reaching 4.3 % of its energy needs from renewable sources by 2014.

Frank Sperling, Chief Climate Change Specialist with the Africa Development Bank, highlighted that strengthening risk management and building resilience is essential for advancing green growth in light of climatic change, increasing natural resource pressures and population growth globally and in Africa itself. "The rationale for green growth is global and regional but we need solutions tailored to national circumstances," he said.

Desta Mebratu, UNEP's Deputy Regional Director for Africa, said that most part of the technological innovation required for the Green Economy transition is already here and where we have a significant lack is in the area of social innovation which will enable us to make the best use of the available technological options.

Mr. Mebratu highlighted the fact that Africa needed to improve its capacity to transform to new technologies and make maximum use of the available opportunities from global financing mechanisms including funds that are made available through the Global Environment Facility. - Denis McClean, Prevention Web 

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Should The Food Term "Natural" Have A Legal Definition?

The million-strong Organic Consumers Association (OCA), North America’s leading watchdog over organic and fair trade standards, announced today at the national Expo-West Natural Products convention, along with its allies in the organic and natural health community, a new nationwide campaign: the Organic Retail and Consumer Alliance (ORCA). This new alliance of public interest groups and food producers and retailers, including co-ops, natural food stores, farmers markets, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) buying clubs and wholesalers, will aggressively promote organic food and products, and expose and eliminate the misleading practice of “natural” labeling and marketing that has slowed the growth of America’s $30-billion dollar organic sector.

“Routine mislabeling and marketing has confused millions of U.S. consumers, and enabled the so-called ‘natural’ foods and products sector to grow into a $60-billion dollar a year powerhouse, garnering twice as many sales in 2012 as certified organic products,” said Ronnie Cummins, OCA’s National Director. “By exposing these misleading tactics, and promoting truth-in-labeling, we believe we can rapidly grow sales of certified organic and authentically natural food and products.”

Polls and surveys indicate that the majority of America’s health- and environmentally conscious consumers are confused about the qualitative difference between organic foods and items and so-called “natural” products. The majority of consumers believe, contrary to fact, that the cheaper foods, supplements, body care, clothing, and other products bearing the “natural” label are “almost organic,” while many consumers actually believe that the “all natural” label means a product is better than organic.

“This is outrageous,” said Cummins, “given that organic food and products, by law and by third-party certification, are produced without the use of synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers, animal drugs, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), irradiation, nanoparticles, or sewage sludge, whereas so-called “natural” products are unregulated.”

ORCA members will ORCA members will use a combination of public education, marketplace pressure, boycotts, class action lawsuits and state legislation to end misleading labeling practices in the “natural” products sector. Member will agree to:

Promote organic foods and products, especially local and regionally produced organic, as well as products in transition to organic, rather than so-called "natural" products. (“Transition to organic” means a producer has signed a contract with an accredited organic certifier to begin making the transition to organic.)

Promote truth-in-labeling by demanding signed, legally binding affidavits from “natural” product and ingredient suppliers stating whether or not their products contain genetically engineered ingredients. Voluntarily label or inform consumers about which “natural” or “conventional” brands or products contain GMOs.

Educate customers and the public about the qualitative superiority of organic and truly natural products (i.e. 100% pastured and free-range meat and animal products), as opposed to bogus “natural” products, which in most cases are no different than “conventional” chemical-intensive, factory-farmed products. - eNews Park Forest 

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Have Scientist In Dubai Created Genetically Modified Camels?

Researchers in Dubai hope to create the first genetically modified (GM) camels capable of producing pharmaceutical proteins in their milk,which can then be processed to manufacture cheaper drugs for the region.

The project aims to slash the prices of life-saving drugs including insulin, and clotting factors for treating hemophilia in the Middle East and North Africa, according to Nisar Wani, head of the Reproductive Biology Laboratory at Dubai's Camel Reproduction Center, in the United Arab Emirates.

The cost of camel milk in the region is comparable to that of cow's milk, but the former is more suited to local climates, said Wani. Camels are highly resistant to disease, easier to maintain in the region's arid climate, and are more efficient in converting food [into body mass] than cows.

"We are establishing camel cells modified with exogenous [foreign] DNA, for use in producing transgenic cloned animals, or GM camels," Wani told SciDev.Net. "Hopefully we will transfer camel transgenic embryos to surrogate mothers for the first time later this year."

Wani said he was unable to pinpoint when the first transgenic animal would be born, as the calving rate for cloned embryos was only five per cent, and "this rate gets even smaller when transgenic cells are used".

"We have crossed some critical barriers but still need to do a lot of work to reach the final destination," he added.

"Producing a transgenic animal will bring the Emirates to the top of the international research field," Serge Muyldermans, head of the Laboratory of Cellular and Molecular Immunology at Vrije University Brussel, in Belgium, told SciDev.Net.* "However, so far they have just been repeating what others are doing with goats and cattle."

"Cows would be better producers of transgenic protein as they produce more milk," Muyldermans said. "But as camels can be kept in arid areas and are used to living under harsh conditions, they might be better suited to the Middle East."

The Reproductive Biology Laboratory was established in Dubai in 2003, to study the reproductive techniques in species from the region, particularly camels.

"[Previously] there was little or no literature available on assisted reproductive techniques in camels, so we had to standardise all the basic techniques one by one," explained Wani. "Finally, in 2009, we produced the first cloned camel calf named Injaz and thereafter produced many more."

The lab's researchers have established a cell bank from 'elite' camels, which excel in milk production and adapting to drought and hot weather, and now plan to clone these animals. The researchers are also setting up a cell bank for the region's other critically endangered species. - Rehab Abd Almohsen, Science Developement