The Secret Fruit Decoder Ring

Nope, not organic

Nope, not organic

When you get to know a farmer, you get the opportunity to ask him or her all sorts of questions about how the fruits and vegetables you are eating were grown. But what if you don’t get to meet your produce’s maker? How do you know that that nice-looking broccoli under the “Organic Broccoli” sign really is organic? What if it had been grown with pesticides? What if it was really genetically modified broccoli?

The answer to all these questions lies the code–the code in that little sticker stuck on your produce.

Eight years ago, produce marketing groups from around the globe got together to create the International Federation for Produce Standards. It took over the task of standardizing the price look-up codes (or PLUs) that supermarkets had begun introducing a decade earlier. The IFPS has assigned more than 1,300 price codes, and once you know how the codes are created, you can tell how the produce was grown.

Here’s how.  All codes begin with four digits: 4805 would be for a vine-ripe tomato. If the tomato in question is organic, the IFPS tacks a 9 in front, or 94805.  If somebody had monkeyed with the tomato’s genes, its sticker would have to begin with an 8, which is used to designate genetically engineered produce. (You can pause your reading here to look for and toss any vine-ripe tomatoes in your fridge bearing the sticker 84805.)

Alas, this system isn’t perfect. The IFPS is concerned with accurate pricing, not policing. It wants its members to be able to ring up the right price for organic apples every time, and not send them by the cash register as cheaper conventional fruit. But I can’t find any evidence that it has the time or resources to nab a wholesaler who is tagging pesticided produce as organic or failing to flag GMO garbage as such.

In the end, as Michael Pollan has said, you have to shake the hand that feeds you.

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Superweeds becoming super headaches for chemical ag

No GMOThe gospel of high-tech, genetically modified (GM) crops is not sounding quite so sweet in the land of the converted.

An old nemesis, the evil pigweed, is chomping its way across Sunbelt states, transforming cotton and soybean plots into weed battlefields. This so-called superweed isn’t the first and surely won’t be the last. Nature has a way of outlasting even the best of man’s inventions.

In population dynamics, which has been studied at least since Gregor Mendel studied the traits of peas, we know that species adjust through natural selection. This works with plants that are engineered as well. They don’t lose the ability to adapt just because there are foreign genes spliced into their genetic code. They continue to adapt and so far are keeping the very traits that are spliced into them thus creating weeds that can’t be controlled by the present suite of chemicals. This will drive the next generation of herbicide and pesticide development.

A farmer friend, who was once a pesticide industry researcher, told me that he switched into organic farming when he realized that the pesticide industry’s business model is designed to keep farmers hooked. Consider the cycle:

  • Company makes pesticide/herbicide,
  • Pesticide/herbicide is used until plants or pests develop resistance,
  • Farmer needs more chemicals or different chemicals,
  • Company obliges,
  • … and repeat.

Meanwhile homeowners, convinced by ads of what they need to do to have a perfect lawn, use pesticides and herbicides without regulation and often to excess. This adds to the likelihood that resistance will develop, making the general public unknowing partners in the evolution of the next superweed.

In late 2004, superweeds resistant to Monsanto’s iconic Roundup herbicide popped up in GM crops in Georgia’s Macon county. Monsanto is the world’s leading producer of Roundup, as well as genetically engineered seeds, and company figures show that nine out of 10 U.S. farmers use Roundup Ready seeds for their soybean crops.

Last year, Southeast Farm Press had a lengthy story about the widespread, growing resistance to glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup. Here’s what the agribusiness news site learned from Alan York, a respected weed scientist:

York says we have an ideal recipe for weed resistance in the Southeast. A number of crops may be rotated with cotton. However, from 1996 to 2000, the vast majority of cotton, perhaps as high as 75 percent, was grown as a continuous monoculture. Prior to the dramatic drop in cotton acreage in the Southeast in 2007, Texas, Georgia, Mississippi, Arkansas and North Carolina represented 10-12 million acres of cotton annually. With the exception of Texas, all these states planted 97-99 percent glyphosate-resistant varieties as late as 2006. The end result, York contends is a perfect recipe for disaster, when you factor in growth potential of Palmer amaranth, compared to any of these crops.

It seems ironic that this variety of the first domesticated grain, amaranth, has been relegated to the weed heap. Maybe industrial agriculture needs rethinking.

Federal Judge Bars GMO Crops on U.S. Wildlife Refuge

A federal judge in Delaware has ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife agency should not have allowed genetically modified crops at the state’s Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge. But in wisdom that only Solomon could fathom, the problem was not that the agency’s own biologists found that the farming of GMO crops posed significant environmental risks to the refuge. No, it seems that the agency failed to do the proper environmental reviews. Still, the ruling is a victory for the Audubon Society in Delaware and two Washington-based nonprofits, the Center for Food Safety and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

And the victory could have repercussions here. Every year, I have to tell potential CSA members why there won’t be any sweet corn from Upper Meadows Farm in their shares. That’s because thousands of acres of nearby federal land have been planted with GMO corn by the farmers who lease these fields. I will not risk cross-contamination from those crops, so I don’t plant sweet corn. (I will have popcorn this year because it shouldn’t be pollinated by the GMO corn). Funny thing is, I read a study years ago that was published for the National Parks Service that recommended that organic practices would be preferred. I’ll see if I can dig it out of my files. Practice and preference are often more than arms length apart.

You can read the full text of the Delaware judge’s decision here.

Send A Message To The USDA

A few weeks ago, Leonard told you about a group called Food Democracy Now. It successfully got a friend of organic farming, Kathleen Merrigan, to be nominated for deputy secretary of agriculture. Now it has a new challenge for us: Tell the U.S. Department of Agriculture that it can’t open the way to genetically engineered foods until we see more data about their safety.

Tomorrow night, March 17, is the deadline for submitting comments on proposed rule about GE crops known as Docket Number APHIS-2008-0023. Food Democracy Now wants the current rule, which it is calling the “Monsanto loophole”, withdrawn and its environmental impact statement released to the public.

If you’re still in the dark on GE crops, which Food Democracy Now says can already be found in 60% of packaged foods sold in the U.S., the group wants you to take a look at a documentary called “The Future of Food.” I’m embedding the first few minutes of it below; the rest can be found on YouTube.

And if, after watching this, you’re ready to send a message to the USDA, you can get started here by clicking through the docket link to the “Add Comments” tab.