UC Food Blog
American grocery stores began selling GMO foods in the 1990s and today stock thousands of items that contain genetically modified corn, soybeans and other crops. To date, no evidence has come to light indicating that foods developed using genetic engineering techniques pose risks greater than food produced using traditional methods.
Still, GMO foods are rejected by a segment of the population. Critics say the long-term effects of eating GMO foods are unknown, that genetically modified genes could flow into weeds or native plants, posing ecological risks, and that higher seed prices for GMO products prevent small-scale producers from competing with large farms. Without mandatory labeling, they find it difficult to avoid products containing GMOs.
UC Cooperative Extension alfalfa specialist Dan Putnam said he is generally in favor of GMO labeling in the United States, “as long as it’s not a warning and not mandatory."
“Consumers should be able to know more or less what they’re eating,” Putnam said.
However, mandatory labeling would raise a number of questions, including what exactly is a GMO?
"Triticale (a forage fed to dairy cows) is a new species, the result of an interspecific cross between wheat and rye, created by humans in the 1950s – a GMO if there was ever one, since it never existed before humans mixed up the DNA," Putnam said.
UC biotechnology specialist Peggy Lemaux suggests a possible alternative to mandatory labeling.
"If there is widespread agreement on the need for labeling, then a market could arise for GMO-free labeled foods for which people would pay extra," Lemaux said. "This would be similar to the current situation with Kosher and organic foods. Since having access to GMO-free foods is not a matter of food safety, but food preference, this approach would lead to a situation in which only those people who want the extra information would pay for it."
The European Union, Japan, Malaysia and Australia currently require labeling on foods that contain genetically modified ingredients. Whether labeling becomes mandatory in the United States or not, supplying food to these countries requires a system for production, separation and traceability of GMO and non-GMO products.
“There is a human factor involved,” Putnam said. “Neighbors have to get along and respect each others’ points of view.”
A reasonable level of tolerance will also help farmers using different production systems to coexist with one another. It is unrealistic to expect 100 percent food purity in a non-GMO food stream, Lemaux said. A small amount of engineered genes in non-GMO food can result from pollen flow or unintentional mingling during post-harvest storage, transportation or food processing.
But coexistence of different varieties and production methods is not new to California food production. Non-GMO farmers can coexist with conventional farmers by using some of the same good-neighbor farming agreements that have long been common in the agriculture industry.
If you buy fresh fish with any regularity you’ve likely come across tilapia. A relative newcomer to American fish markets, the mild, flakey white fish originated in Africa and was introduced to American markets about 10 years ago, sometimes accompanied by favorable sustainability ratings from markets like Whole Foods. Most farmed tilapia consumed in the U.S. currently comes from fish farms in Central America.
Alastair Iles, a UC Berkeley assistant professor of environmental science, policy, and management, whose policy research includes studying aquaculture and in particular farmed tilapia.
But sustainability turns out to be a slippery term. “Producing tilapia brings into play a wide range of issues — how developing countries are trying to create sustainable tilapia farming systems but are also struggling with the pollution and waste that they produce,” Iles says.
The scale of the aquaculture industry is expanding around the world, generating, Iles says, a number of environmental and social impacts that cause increasing concern. In addition to the waste problem that fish farms create, feed made from other fish can deplete fisheries even more, and making soy feed may involve land-based agriculture, which could lead to deforestation in countries like Brazil. Escapes of farmed fishes into the wild harm the genetic diversity of the wild tilapia, and there are land use effects as well. As a result, multiple certification schemes are emerging to try to define "sustainable" aquaculture at the global scale.
“It's essential to look at how these schemes are developing because they may affect what the whole industry looks like in the future,” he says.
Iles and his collaborator Elizabeth Havice, an ESPM Ph.D. graduate who is now an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina, are examining two certification schemes that are currently developing: the Global Aquaculture Alliance, the aquaculture industry trade group; and the World Wildlife Fund, working in partnership with the newly formed Aquaculture Stewardship Council.
A new study by the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership, a non-governmental organization, compares the two schemes, and concludes that the WWF certification is tougher in its requirements than the GAA’s standard in that farmers tend to fail the WWF requirements more often. But there is little insight into why and how these differences occur. Is it because the two organizations are using science in different ways — for example, depending on a relatively narrow fish farm-centered impacts analysis, versus using a life-cycle approach that looks at where all the inputs comes from? Or is it because the negotiators of the schemes are aiming at technology-based standards that only large-scale farms can meet?
“We think the World Wildlife Fund has paid much more attention to a participatory process and has heard from many more stakeholders, whereas the GAA has been quite top-down,” Iles says. They plan to publish their findings next year.
For now, what’s an environmentally sensitive consumer to do? Avoid farmed fish like tilapia? Iles says that’s not the answer. “We need aquaculture for the foreseeable future because wild-caught fisheries just can't supply enough fish,” he says.
But he stresses that there are very different ways to practice this aquaculture. The new standards, together with Iles’ research to clarify the science behind them, should help navigate the murky waters.
“Our aim is to help improve the science-based process for developing these standards so that aquaculture can evolve into the most genuinely sustainable forms and will actually change how farmers across the world practice their work,” he says.
In the meantime, Iles recommends that if you are buying farmed fish, ask for certification to help ensure that the fish is more sustainable. The new certifications are just beginning to show up in stores, so, watch for them, and demand from your store that they be used.
Like many of us, you may feel completely helpless when you hear of the desperate need for healthful food, especially in the world’s developing nations.
Experts tell us that global population will climb from 7 billion to 9 billion by 2050, and society must face the prospect of dramatically boosting food production while safeguarding the environment.
It’s a challenge of utmost importance to UC Davis’ College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and the theme of a Nov. 5 public program titled “Feeding a Hungry Planet.” The event, to be held in the UC Davis Conference Center, will open with a continental breakfast at 8:30 a.m., followed by presentations from 9 a.m. to noon.
Dean Neal Van Alfen and three faculty experts, featured in the current issue of the college’s biannual magazine CA&ES Outlook, will speak during the morning program. (The magazine is available online at http://caes.ucdavis.edu/NewsEvents/News/Outlook.) Topics will include an overview of global and local food challenges, as well as research on potential solutions involving sustainable agriculture, biotechnology, and the equipping of people in the developing world.
In addition to Van Alfen, speakers will be Beth Mitcham, a postharvest biologist and Cooperative Extension specialist in the Department of Plant Sciences; Kate Scow, a professor of soil science in the Department of Land, Air and Water Resources; and Alison Van Eenennaam, a Cooperative Extension animal genomics and biotechnology specialist in the Department of Animal Science.
A portion of the $35-per-person registration fee will help support the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Dean’s Circle, an unrestricted fund that enables the college to meet high-priority needs and provide scholarships for students transferring from community colleges.
More information on the Outlook Speakers Series and registration for the Nov. 5 event are available online at http://outlookspeaker.ucdavis.edu or from Carrie Cloud in the dean’s office at (530) 204-7500 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
When we think of preserved food, however, we often conjure up thoughts of sticky, sweet jams and jellies and salty pickles and sauerkraut. The treats from the kitchen of a home food preserver are tasty, but it's not exactly health food, right? Well, you might be surprised to learn that this is not necessarily the case.
The many benefits of fermentation
Typical fermented foods include yogurt, soy sauce, miso, tempeh, buttermilk, pickles and sauerkraut. Fermented foods have been used for centuries in almost every culture for long- term food storage, to flavor foods and in times of food shortages. These foods offer a wide variety of health benefits due to the process of fermentation, which actually increases nutrients such as folic acid, vitamin B12, nicotinic acid, riboflavin, and thiamine. Fermented foods also have "friendly bacteria" or probiotics, that are similar to the beneficial microorganisms found in our gut. More research is needed in this area, but some studies show promising results in treating bowel diseases and stimulating the immune system with probiotics. Additionally, the process of fermentation partially brakes down lactose, making it easier for lactose-intolerant people to consume milk-based products such as yogurt.
When food is cooked, dried, frozen and reheated, there is always a loss of nutrients.
Vitamins A, C and B are often degraded through the cooking process, however, some cooked vegetables actually supply more cancer-fighting antioxidants than their raw forms.
For instance, researchers at Cornell University found that heat from cooking actually increases lycopene content and overall antioxidant activity in tomatoes. Lycopene is a naturally occurring chemical (or "phytochemical") found in tomatoes that decreases risk of cancer and heart disease. So what does this mean, exactly? Is it better to eat our veggies raw or cooked? Well, raw tomatoes are undoubtedly a great source of Vitamin C, but it's also a good idea to eat some canned or cooked tomatoes to benefit from the high levels of lycopene and antioxidant activity. This is true for many other vegetables in our diet, as well.
What about all that sugar and salt?
Sure, jams and jellies are often made with a good amount of sugar, and we need to use salt to ferment pickles and sauerkraut, but there are ways to preserve food without high amounts of salt or sugar.
We can't remove the sodium from fermented pickles or sauerkraut (unless we rinse them before eating), but sodium can be removed from fresh-pack pickles. You can find delicious, low-sodium recipes on the National Center for Home Food Preservation website (http://www.uga.edu/nchfp/how/diet_pick.html). One concern we may have about canned vegetables (whether homemade or store bought) is that they are often high in sodium. Well, the salt in canned food is only used to season the food, it is not necessary for safety. So, if you desire to keep sodium levels low, you can omit the salt when canning and use salt substitutes when you're ready to eat the food. Cooking with garlic and fresh or dried herbs is also great way to add flavor to a low-sodium canned food.
There are a variety of fruit spreads that can be made lower in sugar and calories than regular jams and jellies. There are also two types of modified pectin that can be used that require less sugar. Recipes for low-sugar fruit spreads can be found on the National Center for Home Food Preservation website (http://www.uga.edu/nchfp/how/can7_jam_jelly.html).
You can also use gelatin as a thickening agent in low-sugar recipes, but these fruit spreads must be refrigerated and used within a month or so, rather than canned for long-term storage.
Fruits can also be canned more healthfully in water or 100% fruit juices, rather than sugary syrups. These fruits must be ripe but firm and prepared as a hot pack. Refer to the USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning for more information. Splenda is the only sugar substitute that can be added to covering liquids before canning fruits. Other sugar substitutes can be added when serving.
Enjoy the fruits of your labor
The next time you enjoy a jar of home canned vegetables or fermented pickles, think cancer- fighting antioxidants and friendly bacteria for your gut. Not only are you consuming produce that was preserved at the peak of its freshness, but you are certainly doing your body some good!
Synthetic soil fumigants such as chloropicrin and 1,3-D are used by some commercial growers to control soilborne pathogens, weeds and nematodes prior to planting strawberries, onions, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and spinach.
These fumigants and all other biocidal products with the potential to harm the environment and human health are highly regulated by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the state Department of Pesticide Regulation, and county agricultural commissioner's offices.
UC Cooperative Extension farm advisor Oleg Daugovish and his collaborators work hard to find effective, environmentally safe and economically viable ways to improve efficacy of fumigants and to investigate alternatives to soil fumigation. The Ventura County Cooperative Extension website has archived audio and visual presentations, which include the following topics:
- Assessment of permeability of commercial tarps under a variety of cultural practices and in various soil and environmental conditions is expected to lead to better understanding of maximizing fumigant effectiveness while reducing emissions.
- Growing in substrate (soil-less culture) allows growers to produce crops with minimal plant disease and weeds without using fumigants.
- Heating soil using steam is a successful way to disinfest it. However, the process to generate steam in a field can be slow and very expensive. Researchers are working to find ways to improve speed while reducing cost.
- Most organisms, including plant pathogens, cannot survive without oxygen. Researchers are investigating an organic method to create anaerobic (oxygen-free) conditions to treat soil before planting.
- Planting mustard as a cover crop can provide many positive benefits, one of which is allelochemical compounds. These compounds found in mustard are similar to those found in fumigants. Current research shows it is possible to use this green biomass to prepare fields for production.
To read more about Daugovish's research, visit http://ceventura.ucdavis.edu/Com_Ag/comveg.