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