Law Firms Get a Failing Grade In Document Review

FailureOutsourcing is big business! Today, just about every firm today outsources something. Big firms, little firms, manufacturers, accountants, lawyers and technology firms. All big corporations perform certain common functions: payroll, accounting, PC support, and so on. When you’re ready to outsource you identify the functions that can best benefit from outsourcing, test that your list makes sense, review the most likely vendors and then sign an agreement. That’s the standard process. But not for legal outsourcing. The legal profession has gone off on different and dangerous path. Can they get back on track?

The culture of the large American legal firm developed more than a century ago, and a lot of that development came from a peculiarity of the legal industry. Over the last century, the largest American (and European) businesses have moved from private ownership to being almost exclusively publicly traded corporations. However, for legal firms the path to public ownership was barred. Law firms can sell shares to lawyers within the firm, but not to the public. Legal firms overwhelmingly became partnerships, organizations controlled by the founders and major rainmakers. Clients of the firm are for all practical purposes “owned” and managed by individual partners. This culture of partner client relationships creates silos inside of  large legal firms.

In an earlier age, when life was simpler, this culture was effective. Each silo is bound by some company rules, but it maintains significant autonomy. That was all well and good, until the early 80s. Document review, an important but relatively minor activity during a lawsuit where documents requested by the court are collected, read, and classified into various collections. Before the arrival of the computer age, this was a relatively simple process, involving a few thousand documents. Suddenly, the nature of computers caused an exponential increase in document volume… especially after the corporate world discovered e-mail! Today a document review in a large corporations can involve 5,000,000 pages or more.

The management of a corporate lawsuit used to require few junior lawyers or paralegals, and a more senior lawyer to answer questions. But as review sizes grew, law firms lacked the junior lawyers… and space.. for a large review. A review was no longer a boring and repetitive task to heap onto junior lawyers. Now it was major project that required the procurement of temporary lawyers, space and equipment. By the late 90s, corporate clients were noticing that reviews were a rapidly growing legal expense. Some financial firms, specifically Investment Banks, having undergone major internal cost reduction programs themselves, asked their legal firms, “Why aren’t you outsourcing?”

Massive tobacco industry lawsuits drove document reviews to new heights. Teams of hundreds of lawyers would spend years shuffling and re-shuffling documents in the doc review for a single case. Law firms were forced to investigate outsourcing…. First onshore and then offshore. This was a step in the right direction. But then the silos we discussed exerted their influence. Instead of a creating a single high quality, very efficient “document review machine”, law firms developed an outsourcing process that followed their legal culture. Individual lawyers negotiated outsourcing agreements on a case by case basis. By bypassing central administration (if it existed,) cases were kept moving and clients were happy… at least until the bill arrived. While this was horribly ineffective outsourcing, it was still a better option than any other internal solution.

By the turn of the millennium, outsourced discovery and legal review was becoming big business. What was a $300 million business in 2000, grew into $3 billion market by 2011 and is expected to be $10 billion by 2017. Document review is now a high volume, multi-billion dollar market but is still treaded with a “one-off” mentality. This miss match in the business and the process, just doesn’t work. Consider how this “one-off” process has impacted legal outsourcing:

CASE BY CASE: Individual lawyers match the case to the vendor resources,  usually based on their familiarity with the vendors rather than the use of vendor performance metrics. Every lawyer has a different selection process, which includes determining which tools will be used, which vendor will staff the review, AND which vendor/tool will be used to host the document collections. The combination of these factors (lawyer, tools, hosting site, contract conditions, linear vs. TAR, etc.) makes it difficult for any individual lawyer to compare or improve cost, time or results…. Since they only use a limited set of each. Yet, a centralized function (say, procurement) might be able to collect some metrics to show if any specific confirmation of tools and vendors is dramatically more effective.

DIFFERENT TOOLS: Hundreds of review tools are on the market, each with different features, licensing agreements and costs. If tested, some tools would be found to be more accurate or faster. A tool with a higher initial cost per user could easily justify the higher cost, if reviewers processed more documents per hour. This would reduce the hours billed, and (depending on how the tool is billed) might require fewer licenses or licenses for a shorter period of time. The number of “documents reviewed per hour, per reviewer” is the key factor for determining the efficiency of the review, and is known to vary dramatically between tools. In a linear (manual) review, a reviewer is expected to examine 40 documents per hour, or more. Linear tools have limited automation, such usually have at least basic document sorting and organization features. Advanced tools claim reviewers can complete 200 or more document per hour.

Full blow document review automation (often referred to as Technology Assisted Reviews, or TAR) can read thousands or millions of documents on day one, and then automatically do the reviewer’s job of tagging the documents, with little or no “reviewer” time. While the very conservative legal industry is only beginning to embrace true TAR systems, that provide a dramatically higher quality document review at a significantly lower cost.

CONTINUOUS IMPROVEMENT: Outsourcing is the right step in an ongoing process of improving efficiency. When an outsourcing program begins, several competing processes may be identified. Over time, less effective processes are stripped away and the remaining processes are standardized, and become more efficient… even if they stay in-house. Eventually, best processes are identified and applied, and improvement initiatives are developed for any problems that arise. The fractured and silo-ed management of legal review works against the usual cycle of continuous improvement, making new efficiencies difficult to implement. Individual vendors do learn how to work effectively with a given client, but when a best practice is learned by one vendor, this information is rarely shared with other groups and vendors. With many different products used, expertise is dispersed, and new innovations become unnecessarily rare.

Understandably, the old silo culture is under pressure to change. Some law firms have created centralized, global, outsourcing programs. But his is more likely to be the case for support services, than document review.  Still, the rise of Global Procurement is exposing the many inefficiencies, and the many opportunities to reduce cost. However, to be effective, each legal group’s connection with their own vendors must be broken, and the financial control over these contracts must be moved to an objective contract management group, that can leverage the entire firm’s spend in document review.

PROJECT MANAGEMENT: Tobacco cases started the current trend in mega-lawsuits, but billion dollar lawsuits have taken on a life of their own and have become common. Tobacco litigation is being replaced by lawsuits over: psychiatric drugs, telecommunications, mortgage fraud, the general malfeasance by banks during the collapse of the financial industry. Mega-lawsuits don’t just require a larger number of document reviewers. These reviews may go on for years. That means: more managers, longer-term management, replacing and re-sizing staff, retraining staff, changing instructions, communicating changes, etc. A review that requires 10 times more staff requires more than 10 times the management.

NEW CHALLENGES: The cost for legal review is growing because the legal industry has not kept up with technology and best practices. Linear review dominates, while more modern TAR is relatively rare, even though TAR produces more accurate results at a lower cost. The explosion in email created the rise in review costs, but email (for the first time in 20 years) is finally on the decline. Rather than going away, email has transformed into social media: Facebook, twitter, LinkedIn and other social media sites. Law firms took decades to understand eDiscovery, which largely deals with information in their client’s hands. Now there is more information in the “Cloud”, outside of the client’s control. Social media requires new tools and different skills. Consider a gaffe on Facbook and Twitter, from Reed Hastings,  Netflix’s CEO. He posted Netflix’s new July record of 1 billion hours of content viewed. Hey, new record… congratulations! Or is that a private message to a privileged group or individuals (insider trading). Or was it a CEO memo to shareholders, or a new release that could manipulate the streaming content market? Whatever it was, it wasn’t vetted by compliance. Ouch!  Legal needs a partner to deal with the issues raised by social media and the “Cloud”.

COST: The cost of litigation rose sharply between 1998 and 2011, increasing from $166 to $281 billion. This rise might have been curtailed if lawyers used the latest technology, or if they outsourced more aggressively. Because of the down economy, many legal firms could rely on outsourced local lawyers and law students to perform reviews. This has worked for years, and the economy is improving, but clients are not showing an appetite for higher rates. If anything, rates continue to be under pressure from clients for lower rates, while law firms are under just as much pressure to raise rates. Some domestic lawyers have been employed at just above minimum wage. Even so, he offshore rate has been lower still. Doc review work has continued to move offshore. However, the record low prices in India provided a one-time benefit. The world-wide economic collapse forced offshore rates to record lows. Yet, offshore inflation has continued to be two to three times that of the US. At some point, prices must rise.

At its most basic, legal review is merely the process of reading documents and finding the ones you need. Today you hire many people to read through the pile, new instructions are periodically issued, and the work is frequently re-worked. This is an incredibly inefficient process. Compare this to a nearly identical process that you perform every day, looking for documents on the Internet. The Internet (or Cloud or Web) is a vast collection of documents and other media. When you want something, you type in or speak a search request, and seconds later Google provides results from its collection of trillions of documents. Search engines aren’t perfect, but they are better than any other method of navigating these documents. Yahoo!’s early search engine relied on human beings entering website information, just as document searches rely on lawyers. But Yahoo abandoned human based “indexing”, decades ago, and built computer based search engines.

The average legal review takes months to complete, and costs nearly $2,000,000 to search a few million documents. Every Google search examines billions to trillions of documents in just seconds. The cost? FREE. A legal review is more complicated than the average Google search, but TAR tools can provide accurate and inexpensive legal reviews. Most legal firms haven’t grasped how great their failure is, producing poor quality results while charging clients millions of dollars more than alternatives. The legal industry gets an “F” for document review. But, don’t worry! Social media and an economic recovery bring new challenges AND the chance to earn a new grade. The creation of documents both inside and outside of the corporation, is growing and changing faster than law firms can manage. Law firms need to partner with LPO providers and other knowledgeable experts to meet these challenges. At least, that’s my Niccolls worth for today!

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Another Industrial Disaster: Crane Collapses in the Middle East

Earlier this week over 100 people, primarily tourists, were killed in a crane collapse in Mecca. As terrible as this accident was, it was not unique. Every year millions of pilgrims the site Mecca to perform the Hajj, a religious obligation to visit holy sites in and around Mecca. In the past the Mecca has seen many disasters that have killed thousands of religious pilgrims, making Mecca the most dangerous tourist location on earth.

Mecca - Mosque

Picture 1: The Grand Mosque of Mecca

Mecca - Clock Tower

Picture 2: The Clock Tower of Mecca

Mecca has hosted religious tourists for centuries. As travel has become easier, and the Muslim world has grown richer, the number of pilgrims has grown. The Mecca of old has been plowed under in a building frenzy, and been replaced with gigantic buildings, including the Mecca Clock Tower. In the past, one of the biggest and most important buildings in Mecca was the Masjid al-Haram (the Grand Mosque), seen in Picture 1. In Picture 2 you can see the Clock Tower (now completed), and in the white area in the middle… between the tower on the right and the construction on the left… you can see a tiny black dot. THAT is the Grand Mosque.

The grand Mosque, and what used to be a humble shepherd’s path nearby, are the primary sites of the Hajj in Mecca. Both of which are now completely surrounded by the new structures. Old Mecca, essentially the purpose of the Hajj, is now buried inside of the “gift shop” that is the new Mecca. Bad taste? Possibly.  But more importantly, by funneling 12 million tourists a year through what appears to be an open construction site, is a massively bad idea. And is an indication of how little attention is given to industrial safety rules.

Mecca is not the only city where where industrial disasters occur. Or even where there are specifically disasters caused by falling cranes. In New York City there was recently a crane collapsed in mid-town Manhattan that killed the operator. A few years ago, in 2012, another Manhattan crane fell and killed two workers. But when a crane falls and it kills over 100 people, it requires spectacularly bad planning and a complete disregard of safety regulations.  Businesses thinking of opening operations in the Middle East might wonder if the super buildings of the middle east are built to the same standards as the US and Europe.

Mass disasters in Mecca have not been limited to worker safety issues. Tourism in Mecca has expanded far faster than safety measures to protect tourists. In 1990 pedestrians on the Hajj stampeded, trampling to death nearly 1,500 pilgrims. Similar, though somewhat smaller stampedes seem to happen every few years: in 1994 (270), 1998 (118), 2004 (251), and 2006 (346). Despite Mecca’s role as the destination for millions of Pilgrims every year, and despite the investment in luxury hotels and skyscrapers, there is a fundamentals gap when it comes to providing safety.

Just a short time ago I wrote about the explosion in Tianjin, that killed over 170.  There too, a lack of basic safety regulation led to a completely avoidable tragedy. The city of Mecca is filled with construction that may continue for decades to come. As more accommodations are built, we can expect more tourists. In just the next few years, Mecca’s 12 million tourists are expected to rise to 17 million.  A lot of tourists, who are essentially touring a construction site, is a pretty obvious formula for more industrial disasters. Saudi Arabia needs to put more attention into safety, and a bit less into the glitz of the tourist trade. Whether you are traveling to a country for tourism or to move your business, safety maters. At least that’s my Niccolls worth for today.

What do you think?

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Fiery Explosion in Tianjin: The Ongoing Cost Of Outsourcing

Tianjin chemical explosion - All rights Wikipedia

Tianjin chemical explosion – All rights Wikipedia

When you calculate the costs and benefits of outsourcing, most of the time we only calculate the obvious costs. We calculate the exchange rates, the cost of space, wages, taxation, electricity and equipment. Some look further and examine the education system, political stability and the probability of dangerous weather.  But few firms analyze, or are capable of analyzing, the maturity of worker safety in a country or location. We forget how recent, and how rare, our own worker safety rules are. We also forget how recent most of the laws are that protect workers and the neighborhood around factories and warehouses. Even when you do choose to dig a bit deeper and see that your contract includes sections on safety, the maturity of worker safety rules and infrastructure outside of your worksite can have a dramatic impact.

In August (2015), there was a massive explosion in Tianjin, China. Tianjin is in the middle of a government economic development zone, which contains a seaport. It is not at all surprising that this is where you can find heavy industry and chemical manufacturing. The rapid growth here was perhaps too rapid for Rui Hai International Logistics, the firm that owned the facility that exploded.

Rui Hai was a specialist in shipping “dangerous chemicals”, and dealing with the paperwork and special knowledge needed to ship explosive and poisonous substances. The explosion, which killed 150 and injured over 700, is still being investigated. Given the nature of Rui Hai’s operation, there is a great deal of concern as to what was in this building. The chemicals that exploded were only a part of the building’s contents. The explosion, deadly was it was, may have spread even more deadly hazardous chemicals into the air. Is the entire area contaminated? Is it safe for people to return to their homes (if they still have homes)? Can the survivors of the explosion expect deadly side effects years from now?

This was a terrible tragedy, but it is tragedies like this that call attention to long overdue safety issues. Should this building have been located in the center of a city? Are there specific building codes when a facility handles explosives? Is the nearest firehouse and hospital aware of the chemicals they have on-site, and are they prepared to deal with their effect on the injured? Does the building have the insurance to cover payments to any parties that might be injured? These are the questions that are now being asked. Almost certainly, the answers will not make the survivors happy. But it is this process of shining the light on bad government decisions, corruption, inadequate regulations and poor enforcement that creates improvements in worker safety.

Safety standards may vary

We shouldn’t be too conceited about our own worker safety rules. Today they are among the best in the world, but that wasn’t always so. Some of the newest factories in China, especially in high tech, are close to US standards for safety, at least on paper. But not that long ago, most of the US wouldn’t have been able to meet current standards. The standards the US had just a century ago, looked a lot like China does today. In 1911, in New York City, 146 workers burned to death at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, a typical textile factory of that age.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire was the turning point in US worker safety regulations. This tragedy was not an exception. In Nova Scotia, Canada in late 1917 a ship pulling into port loaded with explosives blew up, killing 2,000 and injuring another 10,000.  In 1947 in Texas City, Texas a ship that was loaded with fertilizer exploded, killing 581 and injuring 5,000. Today, the US and other advanced countries still have industrial accidents, but the extent of the damage is limited because of safety regulations. Perhaps the most  important industrial safety rule is: if you produce, store or transport dangerous materials, KEEP IT AWAY FROM POPULATION CENTERS! Accidents will happen, but when accidents happen around people the scale of the disaster is magnified. Plan so it  doesn’t happen!

Outsourced locations often have a poor or missing record for worker safety. It’s not as good as the safety record in the west, but it’s better than the record was in the past. In China, some of the most dangerous industrial chemicals produced today are the result of outsourced work, in the 1990’s or later. By the 1950s and 1960s the US and Europe learned their lessons and built new factories and storage facilities in safer locations, minimizing danger to the surrounding community.

China and other outsourcing locations are only now learning those lessons. China isn’t any different from any other country. Every country only puts factory and worker protection in place after they experience their own Triangle Shirtwaist Fire…. Or Tianjin Explosion.  When you are ready to outsource your work, ask your vendors about the worker safety in their country. If your told that they never had any major disasters in their city or country, it may not mean that they are safe… just that they’ve been lucky so far. And that’s my Niccolls worth for today!

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Robot Cars Pick Up the Pace In Florida!

Human driver crashes in St. Petersburg Florida

We’ve talked about robots and self-driving cars for a while now. You’ve seen articles and videos showing cars driving themselves, but these are test vehicles. While we haven’t yet reached the tipping point for the robotic car, 2015 may be the year of the semi-autonomous vehicle. This year’s cars have self-parking features, autopilot (far more than cruise control) for lower speed and traffic jams, blind spot detection, robotic braking in emergencies (i.e. a child running out on the road), correction to “lane drift” (perhaps because the driver is falling asleep), and of course a variety of cameras and sensors that further assist in the management of your car. As the New York Times points out, if you put all of these features together, you already have a fully robotic car. However, most high end cars that offer these features “a la carte”, are reluctant to merge these features and remove the driver from the center of the car driving experience.

Not surprisingly, driving for driving’s sake is not the center of car automation. Instead, it is driving as a business that is at the forefront of the robotic revolution. Florida has announced that semi-autonomous crash trucks will be rolling to work sites in just a few months. Let’s break that down. First, if you are not familiar with the term, a crash truck is a truck that follows a road construction crew… often on a highway. While the work crew rebuilds the road, the crash truck hangs back at the tail end of the construction (i.e. it’s the

Crash Truck "Attenuator"

Crash Truck “Attenuator”

first vehicle that you see as you drive down the road). Why is there a crash truck? So that you crash into it! More specifically, this truck… with signs, flashing lights and a platform in the back… is there so that you crash into it, INSTEAD of running over workers.

Second, anyone who regularly works on an active roadway is in a dangerous profession. If I were to ask you, “What is the most dangerous profession: police officer, fireman or garbage collector”, which position would you pick? Most would think it is the police officer or the fireman. After all they have such dangerous jobs they need protective clothing to protect them from fire and weapons. Yet it is the garbage collector that has the most dangerous of these professions.

“Garbage Collector” is one of the 10 most dangerous jobs in America. Why? Because they work on the street, and their work often causes traffic problems. Drivers get annoyed, and as a result they drive with anger, and kill workers. In 2013 579 road workers (only road workers, not garbage collectors or others), were killed. That means that every 15 hours, a driver kills a road worker. In Florida, the combination of a large population and a considerably higher than average number of vehicular fatalities, makes it a very good place to use a robot crash truck.

My third and final point, is how the crash truck will work. The manned crash truck itself, was a major safety innovation. In a lot of road work, the “work site” is in motion.  Laying asphalt, painting new lane lines or cleaning up weeds on the shoulder or meridian  means that the work crew, must slowly move forward, and that static barriers to protect the crew are not practical. A crash truck has become a common way to put a barrier between oncoming traffic and the work crew. You can also see crews laying down orange cones prior to work starting… often from a platform suspended behind the truck. The life of a crash truck driver is to drive forward a few feet, and then park for 20 or 30 minutes and wait to be hit, drive forward, wait to be hit, etc. Given the job position, the union rates for the driver are understandable. But the cost of the driver and the truck together causes some states to choose more dangerous alternative, such as just positioning a guy with a red flag or just using orange cones and lights.

These robot trucks aren’t yet fully autonomous, but they don’t have to be. A fully autonomous robot might leave from the garage and meet the road crew at whatever location they are working at. This version of the crash truck leaves from the same garage as the road crew and follows the human controlled trucks. Sort of like a baby duck not yet being fully autonomous and following a moma duck around. It knows how to stop at lights and not hit pedestrians or other vehicles, and it can sense the road around it. When it does arrive at the work site, it will simply move forward when the other trucks and equipment move. So it doesn’t yet need any greater autonomy. Yet, it’s good enough to replace a union job.

Step by step, we are getting closer to fully autonomous robot cars. Crash trucks are an early sign, but so too are the individual automation features in today’s high end cars. What’s coming next? No one may know, but we do know that something is coming next and something after that. We will continue these baby steps forwards until we start to see some big changes in transportation. So, keep and eye on this space for the next update, because the robot revolution is already here! And that’s my Niccolls worth for today!

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Continuous Improvement And The Environment

Food ParamidOver the past few months I’ve written a number of articles on the environment. I wrote these articles because I truly believe that the environment, and recent changes to the environment, are one of the most important issues affecting the world today. I was also motivated by the amazing amount of misunderstanding, and intentional misinformation, about how farming, fishing and other human activities are driving environmental change.

Do huge corporations distort information on their product to favor higher profitability? Yes, they do. Do consumers misunderstand scientific reports and create harmful pseudo-science. Yes, they do… too. The problem is, quite simply, that we have more humans on earth than at any other point in history. The earth, as vast as it is, has limits. Technology has allowed us to keep pushing those limits, but until we can shrink our population, we’re going to need to learn how to live comfortably at the very edge of the earth’s capacity… without falling over that edge.

The world needs to understand continuous improvement. All  or nothing solutions don’t work in the real world. Today’s polarized politics try to get everything at once. Instead, we need to take a step at a time, and just make tomorrow in some way measurably better than today. That means compromises… lots and lots of compromises. That’s the problem. We live in very polarized times, with little regard for compromise.

Conservatives have embarrassed themselves by denying climate change. Now, Washington’s agreement to ignore any and all scientific findings that interferes with petro-dollar donations, is crumbling. All but the most conservative Republicans now admit that global warming is real, and the rest are slowly agreeing that humans activity is the cause. The next step, agreeing to effective actions, requires that we also measure the resulting changes. Some actions will work, and some will fail. Just like a corporation that adopts continuous improvement, America needs to identify key metrics, develop effective tracking, and perform root cause analysis to know when our actions are effective or need correction.

Of course, objective analysis is not just a conservative issue. Liberals also need to give up magical thinking, and rely on scientific analysis. Liberals are quick to tell conservatives, “Look at the overwhelming research, written by the top scientists in the field, and stop quoting the few contrary reports by researchers with no credentials.” At least liberals are quick to say that when the subject is Climate Change. When the discussion is about industrial pesticides or nuclear power, suddenly expertise is equated with bias. Now we hear, “Big research studies cannot be trusted, and the only reports that are trustworthy are written by researchers from outside the establishment (i.e., no credentials).” In order to save the earth, we need to take a hard look at the mythology of Organic farming, and objectively review major industrial innovations to improve the foods we eat.

Let’s be very clear on a few important points. All of the farm land in the world is currently being farmed. In fact, around the world we lose 5,000 acres of productive farmland a day. Those losses will increase over time. This is the normal effect of farming. All modern farming has a negative impact on the land. Planting food and harvesting it, disturbs the land and cause the erosion that eventually makes land unproductive. The use of irrigation, the type of water we use, use of heavy farm equipment, and other activities on both conventional and organic farms accelerate land erosion. If we try to expand farmlands, it will both worsen existing environmental problems and require plowing under parks, forests and other public lands. Organic food requires 25% more land than conventional farming. If America switched to 100% organic farming today, we would need hundreds of millions of acres of new farmland. By 2050, America will have an additional 100 million citizens. Hungry citizens. How will they be fed?

That 25% higher productivity is why farmers use industrial chemicals and modern agricultural techniques. Humanity needs that 25%, and more. Tomorrow’s farmers MUST become even more productive, raising more food on every acre. Yet, that productivity must come from less water and a smaller carbon footprint. Pesticides help farmers to deliver high productivity, but their use is highly  controversial. Yet, farms, both conventional and organic, are using increasing amounts of pesticides.  As pests gain resistance to these chemicals, usage rises. The newest pesticides have been found to be safe, but even the safest pesticides have some risk. After all, pesticides kill insects and weeds. Newer pesticides are less toxic than the ones they replace, but less risk is not “no risk”. Old pesticides were essentially universal poisons, such as arsenic. Newer pesticides are specific to individual pests, and not directly toxic, but that doesn’t meant that they couldn’t indirectly affect your health or might have cumulative effects over your lifetime.

Today, a pesticide called Roundup is receiving a lot of attention. Massive amounts… literally hundreds of millions of tons…  of pesticide are used every year to grow corn, soybeans and other staple crops. Roundup has tested as an exceptionally safe pesticides, certain far safer than the pesticides it replaces. Yet, over a lifetime it may be a cause of cancer. No studies yet have linked Roundup to cancer, but it can take decades to establish these links. After all, every pesticide used in organic farming has been found to cause cancer, or is directly toxic. Roundup may be safer than older pesticides, but we do need even newer pesticides that are safer still. New pesticides are under development today that fit that description, but it means that they will work in a very different way. A new generation of pesticides will be completely non-toxic, killing pests by disrupting targeted RNA. The genes affected by this new class of chemicals only exist in the specific insects that are being targeted. Not in human beings.

A chemical that alters the cell structure of… anything… will attract a lot of negative attention. A new breakthrough that can significantly raise farm productivity will be very different, more than just a tweak to existing techniques. Delivering big  improvements to crop productivity will take big breakthroughs. Scary breakthroughs. Genetically modified foods (GMOs) need to be looked at again. New techniques we haven’t yet developed, will need to be considered. In the next few decades our world’s population will grow by billions. Unless we sacrifice our public spaces and forests, we MUST dramatically increase farm productivity. We are all stakeholder in the quality of our environment. We don’t know if the next “big thing” will help or hurt, but we need to objectively analyze each new option, and use science rather than opinion, fear and self-interest to decide if it should be used. At least, that’s my Niccolls worth for today!

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Is America’s Food… Deadly?

Food LabelWhen I was a child, I remember reading the “sort of newspapers” near the checkout in the supermarket. The National Enquirer, The Globe, The Star. “Supermarket Tabloids”, more entertainment than news, were kept safely separate from real newspapers. Stories of the “Bat Boy”, news about Big Foot, and of course the latest coverage of UFO abductions. Today, these outrageous stories pale compared to a brief glance at the Internet. Especially stories about foods. Conservatives approve mega-tons of farm chemicals being dumped on our food. Liberals who refuse to admit that “chemical free” organic foods are loaded with dangerous chemicals. All kind of crazy blogs about our food killing us. Hey… can the little green men stop building crop circles for a few minutes and tell me if any of those crops are safe to eat?

While operators stand by for a call from our intergalactic farm hands, let’s talk about how safe our foods are. In the last two blogs, we discussed how scientific data is made to look more confusing than it is (“If Science Has The Answers, Why Are We Fighting Over The Questions?”), and how all farming impacts the environment (“Does Farming Destroy The Earth?”). Today, we’ll use what we’re learned from these blogs to understand food safety.

So, let’s set aside our partisan beliefs, and lets focus on facts. The Internet is full of stories about the dangers of foods, but few of these stories quote real research, or they only take evidence from a single paper, and ignore everything else. When much of the “real” information comes from huge corporations, there are lots of reasons to question if the data is biased. But we can’t “confirm” that we should ignore data just because it comes from a big corporation. The US farm chemical industry is indeed huge, generating revenues of $769 billion annually. Then again, the US organic industry, which is still in its infancy, has revenues of $81 billion. There are no players (including us) that don’t have a big stake is the truth behind food safety.

What we all want is food that is: nutritious (vitamins, minerals, ant-oxidants, etc.), healthy (farmed without additives that makes us sick), and free from contamination (food isn’t adulterated after being harvested). The processes needed to make this simple statement happen is incredibly complicated. Terrible mistakes have been made in the past, but it appears that food is getting safer all the time. But the farming process is also looking more like a cross between a laboratory and a factory, and less like a farm. It’s not obvious how pesticides, fertilizers, GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) and other products used by big agricultural firms, like Monsanto, work. As consumers, we want lots of options, but as the farming process grows ever more complex, we’re not even sure what we’re asking for. It seems easier to just say, “I want my food to be natural”, and anything that is not “natural” is seen as a type of contamination.

The fact is that farming, organic or conventional, hasn’t been natural for a very long time. Look at corn. The stuff we eat today, is unrecognizable in its original form. And we would

Ancestral Corn - All Rights: John Doebley

Ancestral Corn – All Rights: John Doebley

need to eat about a hundred of these, to equal one ear of modern corn. Organic corn is the same corn as the commercial kind (with the exception of very recent genetically modified corn). Those who favor organics tend to focus on the difference between one recent variant (or cultivar) of corn, and another… usually a Genetically Modified one. You will see very little, if any, comparisons with an original versions of corn. If wouldn’t make any sense to do with comparison with “natural” corn, because no one is going to go back to growing corn with just 5 or 10 kernels. Likewise, what we consider to be an acceptable form of corn today (the taste, nutrition, cost, etc.) may be seen in a hundred years as just as primitive and impractical a crop as original corn is today. The history of farming is a progressive march towards higher crop productivity, squeezing more food our of less and for a growing population.

A Bit Of History: In 1840, all farming was organic, and 70% of American workers were farmers. In this organic world starvation and famines were common: Bengal famine of 1770, 10 million dead; Chalisa (India) famine of 1783, 11 million dead; Irish potato famine, 1.5 million dead (2 million more left Ireland); Russian famine of 1921, 5 million dead; and so on. In addition to the death tolls from famines, many more were crippled by malnutrition and vitamin deficiency (ex.: vitamin A deficiency causes blindness in children).The rise of the industrial revolution allowed farmers to dramatically increased the food produced per acre, eventually allowing the US to produce enough food to feed all

Photo, All Rights Wikimedia Commons - Famine in the Ukraine

Photo, All Rights Wikimedia Commons – Famine in the Ukraine

Americans (300 million today, 400 million by 2015), export $136 billion in food, all the while reducing the labor needed for farming to just 2% of the American workforce. There few regional famines we still see are due to war, not crop failures.

The need to feed a hungry world slowly changed the nature of farming, creating the massive industrial farms we have today. The vast increase in farm productivity did not come without a cost. Flood irrigation became our preferred form of farming, when the US was relatively unpopulated. Now agriculture competes with homes, industry and  recreation for increasingly scarce water resources. Pesticides have been proven to be relatively safe, but our use of pesticides.. both in conventional and organic farming…. keeps increasing. Is there an upper limit, past which it is np longer safe? Mistakes in the past, such as DDT… which proved harmful, but in complex ways that were not easy to predict… make us cynical about tests that are performed by the firms that manufacture the products that are being tested.

The world population in 1800 was 1 billion, which doubled to 2 billion by 1920, and then to 4 billion in 1970. The introduction of more productive cultivars, “miraculous” fertilizers and safer pesticides allowed world food production to more than double between 1960 and 1980. Experts say that the world population will stop growing at some point, perhaps as soon as 2050 at 11 billion, or we might grow past 16 billion. In our last blog (“Does Farming Destroy the Earth?”) we found that America has little land to spare for new farms, and that are losing farmland to land erosion (globally, 5,000 acres a day). As global climate change continues, we will lose still more farmland as acreage becomes flooded,  too hot or are invaded by pests that thrive in the new weather.

Poison in Our Fields?: In a murder mystery, the target of a poisoning consumes some beverage or food, clutches at their throat, gasps and falls dead. Science is very good at finding this type of poison. Pesticides aren’t this type of poison. If you drank a  glass full of pesticide… a quantify that is millions of times greater than what you would normally consume… it would undoubtedly make you sick, if not kill you. Pesticide is supposed to be poisons, usually of plants or insects, so they need to be in some way lethal.

The current generation of pesticides is more specific, and less toxic than the last generation. Each generation is measurably less toxic, or is found to have an unknown toxicity and removed. Sometimes the toxicity is not understood, or self-interest and bureaucracy slow down the process of removing  toxic chemicals. Nonetheless, the chemicals we use on the farm today are safer than what they replaced. And the next generation of pesticides are likely to be still less toxic. Every chemical we use on a farm has some risk, but moving to newer and less risky chemicals is one way to make our food safer.

Many people believe that Organic food does not use pesticides or dangerous chemicals, but this is wrong. Organic foods use BT (Bacillus Thuringiensis), Rotenone, Nicotine, lead and  other substances. All of these substances are known to cause health issues, including cancer. However, many (if not most) of the foods that we eat naturally contain substances that can poison us or cause cancer.  It is absolutely true that we bombard our crops with mega-tons of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and synthetic fertilizers. Yet, American’s live longer than ever before and all statistics tell us that our life expectancy will be still longer in the future. Perhaps, you are thinking, “OK, we’re exposed to more pesticides and all of the objective science says we’re healthier, but what if a very small population is getting sick?”

A lot of blogs talk about autism, allergies, and other non-specific diseases being caused by farm chemicals, but the research is very weak. Studies are showing that more children are showing severe allergic reactions than in the past. The association with pesticides is usually no more than, “We keep using more pesticides and kids are getting more allergic. So, there you go!” The latest studies. however, show that the cause of allergies is “hyper cleanliness”, not pesticides.

If our immune systems are not exposed to allergens when we are kids, our bodies never learn how to cope. Later in life, kids can have extreme, even fatal,  allergic reactions. Add to this the narrowing of the Western diet. Vegetarian diets may reduce fats in the diet, but it also reduces the range of proteins and bacteria that we are exposed to. That stunts the growth of our immune system. Gluten, a protein that humans have consumed for 10,000 years, is an allergen for a very small number of people. However, a growing number of hyper-protective parents are removing it from their children’s diet, even when children are not allergic. Finally, consider children that only eat chicken fingers, hot dogs or mac and cheese… and possibly pizza. Pesticides may cause health problems, but these changes in kids diets are KNOWN to cause health problems. Consumer food choices appear to do more to influence health issues than farmer’s choice of methods.

Nutrition: For years organic consumers have believed that organic is more nutritious than conventional foods. The nutrition of organic and conventional food has been tested many times and the verdict is… there is no difference. It is true that one study will find that organics are slightly better in anti-oxidants and another will find that convention food has more vitamins. Another study shows the opposite results. A recent large scale study looked at 200 peer reviewed scientific reports (peer reviewed studies, are the preferred form of research) and found no significant differences between organic and conventional. An even larger study… reviewing some of the reports from the previous study… found that organic had more vitamins, but conventional had more protein. There may be small differences, but not enough to matter. Besides, most of these reports are missing the two most important points about food nutrition.

First, every farm is different. It doesn’t a matter if it is a conventional farm or if it is organic. The US is a big nation with states that have different soil, different weather. From farm to farm there are variations in the appearance and the nutrition of produce. These variations are not enough to matter, but they are enough to measure. If you truly want the best nutrition, then it’s a matter of consumer selection, not farming methodology. Consider your choice of Lettuce. It has three times the vitamin K, 5 times the carotenoids and 10 times the vitamin A of Iceberg lettuce. That’s a vast difference. Even within the general type of Romaine lettuce, there are different cultivars that can impact the specific nutrition of a head of lettuce, and the weather in a given season many make small differences in the nutrition of a given head of lettuce, at a given time in the season. Are you one of the lettuce lovers who prefers the tender yellow leaves at the heart of a head of Romaine rather than the slightly bitter outer leaves? Did you know that the greenest of the outer leaves that has the highest nutrition? Likewise, “baby greens” are usually nutritionally inferior to their more mature cousins. There is more nutritional difference between which leaf you choose on a head of lettuce, than which farm it came from.

The second factor in nutrition is… freshness! Strictly speaking, this is not a farming issue. Instead, it’s about something called “supply chain”. This is the combination of cooperatives, transportation firms, packing plants and processing centers that move food from the farm to your dinner plate. All along the way, the enemy of nutrition is time and heat. The fields that grow your produce are hot, and every moment after produce is picked it is decaying. Big farms immediately move produce from the field to an ice bath, to quickly cool it down. The biggest corporations see that most of the route is kept cool… refrigerated cars, trains and warehouses. The factory farms is very efficient at moving vast amounts of food quickly. Still, the farther the produce, the more likely that it has lost some nutrition. The impact of shipping on produce is easy to see on leafy greens, but harder to see on apples and other produce that can be stored for long periods of time. There is a simple rule. If the food looks old and tired, buy something else.  If you want the maximum nutrition, focus on buying food that was grown locally, and might get to you faster than if it was grown in another state or country.

Healthy: “Is my food healthy?” This is what we really want to know, but most consumers don’t understand the question. Before modern farming, we would want to know if some unfamiliar food could make us sick or even kill us. Many common foods have deadly poisons, or must be carefully prepared to be safe. Apples are good to eat, but the seeds have arsenic, a deadly poison. All parts peaches and apricots are eaten around the world, but the seeds have high levels of cyanide. Does that potatoes have a bit of green? That’s a deadly neurotoxin. Cashews are good for us, but cashews (even “raw” cashews) must be processed to remove a natural toxin (the same one that makes poison Ivy itchy). Even carrots, innocent little carrots, that wonderful source of vitamin E, can be deadly in large amounts. It takes a LOT of carrots to be poisoned by Vitamin E, but every year 60,000 instances of vitamin toxicity are reported to poison centers in the US. There’s an old saying, “The difference between medicine and poison is dosage.”

These are all “simple” cases of poisoning. Eat something poisonous, get sick, and then identify the problem. If modern farming chemicals are toxic, they are not poisonous in this straight forward way. Next, we ask, if these chemicals are not directly poisonous, could they give you some other illness? There have been questions about the connection between farm chemicals and… autism, Parkinson’s, asthma, diabetes, hyperactivity and other disorders, but the evidence is contradictory. Some reports  show a relationship between these diseases and pesticides, and others disprove any link. The best interpretation?  There is no definitive link between farm chemicals any and of these disorders. This doesn’t mean that a new study won’t change this tomorrow, it just means that there is no easy link that can be found today.

What about Cancer? Most simply described, cancer is a copying error. Cells constantly copy themselves, and occasionally, something goes wrong. Most mistakes die off quickly. But mutated cells that survive, don’t function as a healthy cell, continue to replicate themselves, and copies itself faster than a healthy cell… this is cancer, or a precursor to cancer. The latest studies say that we all have pre-cancer, but our natural defenses constantly kill off cells with errors. That’s what our immune systems have been doing for millions of years.

Mutated cells only become a disease because they can grow fast enough to overwhelm our defenses, or they discover how to hide from our defenses. BT, the most common pesticide used in organic farming has been designated as “can cause cancer”. When used as recommended, it doesn’t appear to be toxic. No studies show an increase of cancer in the population, or a conclusive link between individual cases of cancer and organic foods. A common commercial pesticide, Roundup, may get the “can cause cancer” label. As the use of pesticides continues to rise, we do need to keep testing for links between disease and farm chemicals, but the link is still to be found.

The problem with truly understanding the link between food and our health is understanding if there is any such thing as a “safe” dose of a toxic substance. An industrial chemist knows which pesticide, in what quantity will kill a pest. Obviously, that pesticide must be in some way toxic, or it wouldn’t work. A chemical that kills a mammal is more likely to kill a human than a chemical that is specific to insects or plants. Just as our bodies know how to deal with poisons in limited quantities, but if the quantities are too large or poisons are unfamiliar, there might be health problems, but they are very difficult to detect. Many studies merely point to the rise in cancer in America and conclude that it must be our food. However, when you look at any age cohort (for ex: all males under 21 years old, everyone in New York from 30 to 40 years old, etc.) cancer has been falling. The “rise” in cancer has been due to our living longer, since 2/3 of all cancer cases occur after age 60. The rate of new cancer cases is unchanged and we’re living longer. Shouldn’t we conclude that something has been happening to our food that is making us healthier?

Contamination: Once your crops are picked and off the farm, we’re done with food safety issues, right? The truck that carries produce today, carried had something else yesterday. This happened in the past, but hasn’t been an issue in the US for decades. Likewise, in the past there were small, local outbreaks of food contamination, but today we see regional or national outbreaks.  The change in food contamination has a lot to do with the supply chains we discussed in the last section. As the chain gets longer, a small mistake at one farm becomes a national problem when produce gets comingled. The big contamination problem have been bacterial, especially E Coli, but also salmonella and a other bacteria.

These bacteria come from the guts of animals and people. How do they get into our food supply? Farms often have farm animals. The rise of organic farming has led to the return of manure as a crop fertilizer. Animal manure has been stored near harvested foods, and manure is often move around in the same trucks that later move produce. Conventional farms can also have animals, even if they only use synthetic fertilizers, and can also have bacterial contamination. However, as organic practices expand, we can expect more contamination. Consider these recent cases of food contamination: US 2006 – organic baby spinach, 6 dead 198 sickened; Germany 2011 – organic leafy greens, 53 dead, 3,950 exposed). Leafy greens are very vulnerable to this type of contamination because they have many nooks and crannies where bacteria can hide. Both cases involved pre-packaged, separated leaves (ex.: a bag or a clamshell box of separate leaves). This allows just a small amount of produce to be mixed into a very large bin of separated or chopped leaves. Those leaves are then divided into hundreds or thousands of packages that are sent around the country, or around the world.

In meats and processed foods, there are similar examples. In 2011, there was a large recall of ground turkey from Cargill (a national meat distributor), due to salmonella. One person was killed, and 78 sickened across 26 states. Earlier, other meat processors had similar outbreaks involving hot dogs and hamburgers. Ground and processed meat products have been repeatedly contaminated, but steaks,  turkey drumsticks and other meats that haven’t been ground up rarely become contaminated. Surface contamination is more easily killed by the cooking process than contamination at the center of a ground food, like a hamburger.

Conclusion: It takes a lot of processes and a lot of people to keep America’s food safe. Looking at the number of instances of food contamination, our ever increasing life expectancies, and other superficial but important statistics, this may be the golden age of food safety. Most Americans have enough food to eat and few showing signs of food borne illness or disease. New chemicals, new farming techniques, the arrival of GMOs and even the expansion of Organic farming may have health consequences that we cannot imagine today. We do need to remain vigilant as our farms diverge farther tan farther from “natural” farming. Still, the average consumer has a lot that they can do to control the safety and nutrition of their foods. Choosing the right types of foods, knowing how fresh your purchases are, selecting local producers, and ensuring that our children have a balanced and varied diet can do a lot of ensure that our food keeps us nourished and healthy. At least that’s my Niccolls worth for today!

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Does Farming Destroy The Earth?

Tilling teh field

Tilling the field

In our last Blog, “If Science Has the Answers, Why Are We Fighting?”, we discussed how we live in a polarized world, where we pay the most attention to the facts we already believe in. Today, we’re going to see how our selective hearing impacts some specific environmental issues and see if we can move past self-interest, and look at the facts objectively.  We will look at one of the most fundamental environmental issues… “What is farming doing to the earth?” That’s an enormous issue, that involves pesticides, fertilizers, use of water, soil erosion and GMO crops. In the next blog, our third in this series, we will look at a related issue, “Is our food safe for human consumption?”. Let’s dive right in!

America’s farms have long since ceased to be idyllic rural hideaways, where you wander through orchards with cows softly mooing in the background. Sure, you can go to a family farm to pick some apples or find your Halloween pumpkin, but that’s destination entertainment more than it is farming. Our farms are closer to factories than something your granddad would recognize. America’s farms use artificial fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, genetically modified foods (GMOs) and gigantic farm equipment. Americans want to return to a simpler time, that is easier to understand, and this desire can best be seen in the Organic Movement. If we get rid of chemicals and harmful farm practices, so the movement says, returning to the way farmers used to raise crops, we’ll have better food and the earth will be better off. It sounds good, but can organic foods really deliver what we expect?

One hundred years ago, the world had just 1 billion people, and all farming was organic. Today, organic farming is just not productive enough to support today’s population of 7 billion. That’s why farming changed. Mechanical tractors and flood irrigation raised productivity. By the turn of the last century, farmers selected the most productive seeds for their land, rather than just replanting seed from last year’s crop. Since the 1930s, long before GMOs… or labeling laws, new seeds were blasted with radiation and soaked in mutagenic chemicals to create new characteristics and higher yields; some of these mutations may be growing on organic farms today, as heirloom or heritage varieties. Productivity was again boosted, with synthetic fertilizers, and then still again with the green revolution (a world-wide, scientific evaluation of crops around the world, and what was best to plant where). And finally, the rise of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in the fields, and hormones and antibiotics for cattle in the pastures.

Today, all but a few percent of our farmland uses these “conventional” farming methods. At the same time, organic farming, which attempts to get rid of chemicals and technology dependent methods, is rapidly gaining interest around the world. In America, Most organic foods consists of “premium” foods at a premium price. Is it worth it? While every major study to date, shows little or no benefit, consumers of organic produce strongly believe in the “back to a simpler time” message, and feel that it is healthier than conventional food. Today we will only cover the impact of farming on the environment (food safety and nutrition will is covered in the next blog), but we should quickly touch on personal vs public good.

If you have evidence (or you just believe) that organic food is good for your health, you are certainly justified in choosing to buy organics. That’s a personal good. But what about the good of the public? What if you are right and you are better off eating organic foods, BUT… by doing so, you cause great harm to the environment? What if the continued use of organic foods was responsible for the deaths of thousands of people, thousands of children. Not your children. Someone else’s children. Would you still buy only organic fruit for your family? These issues of public vs. private goods are at the center of farming today. Let’s take a deeper look at the public good, at how farming affects the environment.

ACREAGE: No matter how you look at it, farming is not good for the environment. On a

All Rights: Flood Irrigation

Flood Irrigation All Rights: Wikipedia

planet with a population of 7 billion and growing, we just don’t give the earth a chance to rest. Planting and harvesting crops every year breaks up the soil, contributing to soil erosion (i.e. allowing the soil to wash away). Over the last 150 years, America has lost between 50% and 75% of its soil due to farming and erosion. As a result, in the US and around the world farmland is now becoming desert, while the soil that is swept into rivers and lakes, causes rapid bacterial and plant growth. The water soon runs out of oxygen, creating a killing zone for fish and native plants. Soil erosion is caused by many factors, but is observed when it rains and when the land is irrigated. Irrigation was the miracle of the Bronze age, greatly increasing crop yields, but also destroying the land over time. There are other methods of farming, but none that have yet matched the productivity of commercial farming and flood irrigation.

One of the problems with organic crops (and meat) is that they require more land than conventional farming. Organic farming generally requires 25% more land to grow the same amount of food as conventional farming. Think about it. The land mass of the US is 2.3 billon acres. Farmland is  442 million acres and pasture land is another 587 million acres. If all food was organic tomorrow, we’d need 260 million additional acres. There’s 300 million acres of parks, 650 million acres of forest, and another 375 million acres tied up in Alaska (which has very little good farmland). Take out another 50 million acres for cities and 73 million for rural towns, and we’re left with about 225 million acres of land, that includes deserts, swamps, military bases, open pit mines, etc. Not exactly choice farm land.

Even if we could convert to organics without the price of food skyrocketing, there just isn’t enough land for organic farming. Especially when you take into account the 100 million additional Americans that we need to feed by 2050. Are organics  important enough to convert our national parks into farmland? Another alternative is to make organic farming much more efficient, without using synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. That just leaves consolidation (merge small organic farms together into bigger farms), add more heavy machinery, and replace human farmers with a new generation of smart robots. Technically, this is still organic, but it doesn’t sound very much like what organic consumers want.

CARBON FOOTPRINT: Synthetic fertilizers are usually based on petroleum, which means a bigger carbon footprint. Organics require more land, which means more fuel for transportation and farm equipment. It’s difficult to say which is better or worse, since every farm has different requirements. However, we can say that organic, or natural, or family oriented farms are less efficient, and at big commercial farms have smaller carbon footprints per carrot, per head of lettuce, or what have you. It’s not just the farm, but what happens after the crops are harvested. Early one morning, go to a supermarket. See all of the trucks unloading food? That is just the last step in a complex transportation process that links the farm to your supermarket. Big farms are more efficient in loading trucks and trains full of food. The smaller the farm, the less efficient the process, and organic and family farms are usually smaller. If you rode an hour in your SUV to go to a small farm to pick your own produce, it can be a fun day, but that small bag of produce (with maybe a lemonade or cider donut) leaves a HUGE carbon footprint. The small farm just isn’t an efficient option for an increasingly urban population.

Earlier, we discussed the limits of land in the US (and elsewhere in the world). There is, however, an alternative to using US land to grow organic foods…imported organics. Increasingly, American’s are buying organics from overseas, especially from China. For example, any organic corn you find in your local market it undoubtedly imported (from Turkey or Romania). Imported organics avoids the land use problem in America, but moving food around the world increases the carbon footprint. Of course, the same applies to conventional foods, which is grown around the world for the US market. The only small advantage that conventionally grown food has is that since most food is conventional, there is a greater likelihood that you can buy local produce.

EXTINCT CROPS: Most consumers are unaware that common food crops have gone extinct. Bananas, which are all imported, were an early casualty of our global food system. Before the 1950’s, we ate a type of banana called the “Gros Michel”. Panama disease infects almost every variety of banana.  A particularly deadly strain of Panama disease showed up in the 1930s, and the Gros Michel was history. The banana we eat today, the Cavendish, survived the epidemic and the world’s #1 banana. The Cavendish is not immune to Panama Disease, it just wasn’t harmed by that one particular strain. Banana growers know that the constantly mutating Panama Disease will one day randomly mutate into something that wipes out the Cavendish. When that happens, we have no substitute, no “one last try” banana. Unless, of course, we use genetic modification to make one.

The banana is not the only threatened fruit. In the 1990’s Hawaiian papayas were wiped out by the ring spot virus. Other varieties of papaya were tried, but none would grow in the virus infected soil. Then they found a papaya that flourished, a new GMO papaya. Today, all Hawaiian papayas are GMOs. Soon, the Florida orange will suffer a similar fate. A small insect, the Asian Aphid, carries a virus that destroys the roots of the orange tree. First the oranges become inedible, and later the tree dies. Up to 80% of Florida’s orange trees are already infected, and are expected to die in a few years. Florida’s orange groves have between 3 and 10 years before they close. Worse yet, grapefruits, lemons and other citrus are also infected and will only outlast orange trees by a few years. Oranges groves in California are just as vulnerable, but have so far remained free of the Asian Aphid.

Asian Aphid - All rights: Wikipedia.

Asian Aphid – All rights: Wikipedia.

If you’re trying to read between the lines for a ray of hope, there isn’t one. This is a massive disaster, with very news little coverage. But you have seen the signs that something was wrong. Between 2004 (when trees started to die) and 2012 the wholesale price of juice oranges rose by 275%, and continues to rise. Look at a 64 ounce half gallon jug of juice. That jug is now 59 ounces (or less), a way for the industry to hide the price increase. Fewer acres being farmed (down 29%) and each acre is yielding less fruit (down 21%). Orange growers have pooled their resources to develop a solution, which they must have ready to apply in the next year or two if they expect to survive.

Growers already have several solutions, but they all require a strain of GMO orange. Farmers are convinced that all of the GMOs are safe, but they are afraid of the backlash from the pro-Organic camp, which could be even more destructive to their profits than the virus. For decades, orange juice advertising has made OJ synonymous with “natural”. It’s going to take a very good ad campaign to make us think that a laboratory developed orange, is “All Natural”.

In our global economy, pests are moving around the world and wiping out local species. It’s not just happening on farms, it’s happening around our homes, in lakes a streams and in our forests. Half of America’s Elm trees were lost to a fungus called Dutch Elm disease. Ash and Chestnut trees are being wiped out by other foreign insects and diseases. More foreign invaders are already be in the US, but have not yet made their presence known. Overall we’re losing ground against invasive species. If we want to keep local plants, and the environments they sustain, we may need to consider using farm GMO techniques to save our parks and forests. That’s not an idea solution, but it may be better than letting an extinct tree leave a whole in the environment. Even if another tree grows in its place, the birds, insects, mosses and other life the extinct species supported may not survive with the new trees.

All Rights: Sesibone

All Rights: Sesibone

SOIL: The soil on America’s farms, especially in the Great Plains states (or “America’s Breadbasket”) has been steadily deteriorating ever since we America’s earliest farms. The process of farming, organic or conventional, disturbs the soil. You need to plant, water, tend and harvest the crops, all of which loosen the soil and allow it to wash away. In the last 150 years, 75% of the soil in the Great Plains (i.e. “America’s Breadbasket”) has washed away. Other areas have lost only 50% of their top soil. When the soil runs out, there can be no farming. Topsoil is replenished, but it takes centuries to gain back one inch. The great plains have lost more than 100 feet of soil. When we had a great deal more soil than today, a combination of soil erosion and a persistent drought caused ca=used an ecological disaster that we called the Dust Bowl. This lasted through the 1920s and 1930s, when the land literally dried up and blew away… burying whole towns as dust storms swept the Great Plains. The largest recorded storm in 1934 had dust clouds 2 miles high. Farmers starved to death, and the choking dust led to lung diseases that killed hundreds.

Over tilling, over watering and bad weather combined to form the Dust Bowl, a decades long environmental disaster. Unlike Global Climate Change, once the US government was presented with evidence that human activity caused this disaster, the Department of Agriculture developed soil conservation and training programs, and the Dust Bowl was eventually tamed. Farmers learned from their mistakes, but soil erosion continues to be an issue. Farmers need to till or “turn over” the soil to disrupt the growth of weeds. Without tilling, weeds drain the soil of nutrients and crop productivity falls. However, tilling loosens the soil and makes it easier for soil to be washed away in the rain or during irrigation. Traditional herbicides helped to kill weeds but also killed crops. These herbicides had to be used carefully, since they were based on arsenic and other toxins that could poison consumers. Synthetic herbicides were introduced after World War II, and for the first time were specific. They would kill specific weeds, and leave other plants alone.

This new generation of pesticides was so effective, that it created a revolution in farming and ended hunger in many parts of the world. But as always, there is a cost. These products were seen as so safe, they were used indiscriminately. Suddenly we were dumping millions of tons of pesticides into the environment. Some of the “safe” pesticides had strange effects. DDT didn’t kill birds, but as DTT built up in the environment bird’s egg shells got thinner and broke under the weight of the brooding mother. Early pesticides were retired and replaced with safer alternatives. But greater safety meant still more use, and new types of use. Roundup (Glyphosate) worked so well that it allowed a no-till solution to be developed… IF it was used in conjunction with GMO crops. Spray roundup, and then plant without tilling. Tractors (and petroleum) use drops off, the leftovers from last year’s crops acts as a soil cover (less erosion), and less fertilizer and water is needed.

Given the massive quantity of Roundup that is America uses, there is a lot of attention and testing to see if Roundup could be causing more subtle health and environmental problems. To date there is little evidence that Round up or other pesticides are a danger, but new chemicals always mean new risk. However, there was already risk. New pesticides do seem to be less risky (less toxic) than the products they replaced. If these products weren’t toxic in some way, they wouldn’t kill pests. Even if the newest pesticides are the least toxic of all (especially to people), it takes a long time to collect enough data to find out if it does harm. The combination of low toxicity and “specific” types of pesticides (leaves “good” insects and plants alone).

One of the newest class of pesticides, Neo-Nicotinoids, may be linked to Colony Collapse Disorder, which is killing honey bees around the world. Ironically, this class of chemicals was intended to mimic a commonly used organic pesticide… nicotine (as in tobacco). Which raises a question. Does natural nicotine also harm bees? Should nicotine be studied and possibly banned from farming, before organic farming grows any larger?

WATER: America barely has enough water to meet our needs today. By 2050 America’s

All Rights: Dwigt Sipler

Drip Irrigation – All Rights: Dwigt Sipler

population will grow by another 100 million. Can our farms produce 35% more food, and reduce our use of water? Home owners can expect to see new homes without lawns, fewer private pools and fountains, and toilets and showers twill require even higher water efficiency. Likewise, farms must get better with water conservation.  No-till farming can conserve water. In 2009 only 88 million acres of land were no-till, so there’s still a lot of room for expansion. California, with hot and arid farms, would greatly benefit from drip watering systems, which allow the soil to hold onto moisture and dramatically reduce the water crops use. Still more radical are “dry farming” techniques, which does away with irrigation. This vastly reduces the cost of farming and, for some crops, produces premium foods for a premium price. With less water, crop yield does fall, by half or more. The “golden triangle” of farming… good for the environment, good for the farmer and good for the consumer… is a tricky proposition. While farming in California is not the same as the rest of the nation, they are dealing with problems that other states will be facing soon, so I’m going to use a lot of examples from California in the sections that follow.

For example, most of the almonds grow in the US come from California. Almonds production has skyrocketed, largely due to the popularity t of Almond Milk. That’s a great personal good (less cholesterol, fat, etc.), but it’s not a very helpful public good. Did you know that every individual almond consumes a gallon of water? Worse still, now that the rivers and lake have dried up, Almond farmers are relying on wells for water. Underground water picks up salts and minerals which may be perfectly safe for human consumption, but over time build up in the soil. Different plants have very different tolerances for salt. As that tolerance is reached, plants start to show salt burn (yellowing and browning of the leave), then yields drop dramatically. Eventually crops stop growing. Almond trees throughout California are showing salt burn, and yields are falling. In the old days you could just irrigate a bit more and it would make up for some of the damage. But farming already uses 80% of California’s water. Around the world 45 million acres of land are now too heavily salted to grow crops, and another 5,000 acres are lost every day. Salt may be the most dangerous chemical in farming today.

You might ask yourself, “Why don’t farmers just use the most efficient farming methods?” The answer is that farming is risky, making farmers slow to accept change. Profits from this year are needed to buy fuel, seeds, equipment and labor today in hopes of a good crop next year. Too little rain, too much rain, a too hot or too cool growing season, a sudden drop in prices, the arrival of a new pest, and a host of other issues could bankrupt a farm. California became one of the largest fruits and vegetables producers due to cheap and plentiful water. Naturally, farming was built around “flood irrigation”. Now that water is expensive and hard to find, they need very different “best practices”, but a small mistake in technique could cause crop yields to plummet. You could convert to organics, but that means no synthetic pesticides for 5 years (how do you make money before you get your organic certification)? No-till is well understood, but nervous farmers may choose “sort of till” instead of no-till, blending the worst of both practices. Farmers know they must speed up water conservation, but there is no easy and obvious roadmap for them to follow.

CONCLUSION: As you can see, questions like “Is this pesticide harmless?”, aren’t very useful. A better question might be, “Will a new pesticide be better than the old one?” Farming has always had negative consequences for the earth.  The mechanical process of planting and harvesting disrupts the soil. All farming, organic or not, with irrigation or without, require chemical and techniques that consume resources and can cause soil erosion. Farming is about balancing the golden triangle: good for consumer, good for the land and good for the farmer. New chemicals and technology are constantly being developed, but we only know how safe a product is after it is used.

Organic farming lowers the risk of the unknown, but raises risks in other areas (more land use, more water use, continued use of older less effective pesticides, etc.). There is no single correct farming technique, but a careful assessment of new and old techniques may give us options on how to better use the farmlands we have. At least, that’s my Niccolls worth for today! Join us for the third and last part of this three part series on farming… and learn if our food is still safe to eat!

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