IPM, Antibiotics, and Fire Blight- is there a happy medium?

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Applpy over at Thought + Food recently published an interesting article talking about increased antibiotic use in organic pear and apple orchards.  These antibiotics—Streptomycin and Oxytetracycline—are used to combat fire blight, a contagious disease that can destroy an entire orchard in a season.  It’s spread primarily by pollen-bearing insects such as bees, and although it’s indigenous to North America it has since spread to the rest of the world.[1]  It’s extraordinarily damaging, especially to organic farmers whose orchards tend to contain more pollen-bearing insects thanks to decreased pesticide use.  That’s why organic farmers received an exemption to allow them to use these antibiotics on their fruit—but applpy pointed out that organic labels don’t require disclosure of antibiotic use anyway.

So where do we draw the line between antibiotic use and orchard health?  Fire blight is devastating, but antibiotic use in food has proven to be problematic;[2] is there a way to mitigate or eliminate the effects of fire blight without the use of antibiotics?  Applpy raised this question, and I had commented on the potential of Integrated Pest Management/Control (IPM/IPC) to do exactly that.

But what is IPM?  Well, it’s integrated pest management—so just as pesticides won’t be effective, IPM can’t control this bacteria-born blight entirely.  However, IPM is a series of practices that dovetails perfectly with fire blight prevention.   Rather than dousing orchards in fertilizers, pesticides, and antibiotics, IPM advocates a more sensible, measured approach.  From the EPA’s website:

Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is an effective and environmentally sensitive approach to pest management that relies on a combination of common-sense practices.  IPM programs use current, comprehensive information on the life cycles of pests and their interaction with the environment. This information, in combination with available pest control methods, is used to manage pest damage by the most economical means, and with the least possible hazard to people, property, and the environment.

So what does that mean for fire blight prevention?  Rather than spraying affected trees and fruit with antibiotics, farmers would instead scan for early signs of infection and plan new orchards based on existing knowledge.  For example, nitrogen containing fertilizer and heavy pruning increases susceptibility; farmers would know keep that in mind when selecting fertilizers and pruning.  Infected shoots can be pruned during the dormant season to contain spread; IPM involves year-round orchard maintenance and supervision.

Essentially, IPM is a low-chemical, common-sense approach to pest management that has the potential to cut down on fire blight without excessive use of antibiotics or pesticides.  It’s not so advanced yet as to make pesticide and antibiotic use obsolete in fire blight cases, but it can drastically reduce the amount of chemicals needed.  So what do you think?  Do you know much about IPM or exemptions for organic farmers?  What are your thoughts?

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It’s done!

So I finally turned my thesis in!  Several all-nighters and an inappropriate amount of animal crackers and coffee later (getting the economy-sized animal crackers jar from BJ’s was a very unhealthy choice) I turned in 55 pages of food policy glory.

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I’m proud and relieved- now all I have to do is wait to see if they call me in for an oral presentation.  I’m not going to stop blogging though- if anything, now I have more time for it!  The past couple weeks have been insanely hectic, but I’m glad to finally have this turned in and finished with.  Thanks to all of you who have been reading and following me through this journey- the thesis may be done with, but the food policy wonking is far from over!

the writing on the wall?

Earl Butz, US Secretary of Agriculture 1971-1976

I came across something really striking in my research today—I’m reading an old paper written by Earl Butz, Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture.  This is the guy who promoted ‘fencerow-to-fencerow’ planting, opened up US markets to foreign trade (which is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself—except that it opened them up to the volatility of the global market and lead to a mild depression in the 80s) and promoted a ‘get big or get out’ policy that was good for industry and bad for most farmers.  He was a controversial figure who came to represent the first of the ‘revolving door’ agriculture politicians—lawmakers and bureaucrats within the government who had extremely close ties to industry.  He would eventually leave his post in disgrace, but he left an enormous legacy in terms of business-oriented (and partisan) farm policy.

He was already an accomplished agricultural economist and the head of the Purdue Agricultural Economics Department in 1952 when he gave a speech on the politics of agricultural subsidies[1].  In it, he offers a comprehensive critique of US domestic agricultural policy and analyzes the political climate leading up to the ’52 presidential elections.  I’m surprised by how much I like the guy—he’s concise and funny, and we agree on a lot of things when it comes to farm policy (chief among them that farm subsidies are out of hand).

However, what struck me the most was his analysis of the political climate under which farm policy was forced to operate.  Butz is harsh in his condemnation of Truman’s Agriculture Secretary Charles Brannan’s partisan and anti-farmer endeavors but adds an interesting caveat:

I am not being critical of Mr. Brannan, the person, when I say that. I am convinced that, given time, a new Secretary of Agriculture, under a Republican administration, would be subject to identically the same temptations and the same pressures to use the system just at [sic] it is now being used… the temptation to use this set-up for political purposes is, I think, almost beyond the power of human resistance for anyone who operates in the political environment in which cabinet members must function.

Makes you wonder- this is the same guy who came to popularize unwise farming purposes that benefited his administration in its political goals (i.e., through food diplomacy, especially in regards to the Soviet Union) while arguably helping orchestrate the demise of the small-scale farmer.  What do you make of this?


[1] The Politics of Agricultural Subsidies

Earl L. Butz

Proceedings of the Academy of Political Science
Vol. 25, No. 1, The Election Issues of 1952 (May, 1952), pp. 54-68

Published by: The Academy of Political Science

Mutatoes

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I wrote a post last week on using imperfect fruit in supermarkets, and I’ve just stumbled upon this wonderful (if extreme) example of nature’s creativity. This is a mutated eggplant photographed as part of Uli Westphal’s series on unusual produce, but the artist’s statement puts it best:

The Mutato-Archive is a collection of non-standard fruits, roots and vegetables, displaying a dazzling variety of forms, colors and textures, that only reveal themselves when commercial standards cease to exist. The complete absence of botanical anomalies in our supermarkets has caused us to regard the consistency of produce presented there as natural. Produce has become a highly designed, monotonous product. We have forgotten, and in many cases never experienced, the way fruits, roots, and vegetables can actually look (and taste). The Mutato-Project serves to document, preserve and promote the last remainders of agricultural plasticity.

Would you buy ugly fruit?

There’s a cool article on the Grist today talking about selling ‘sub-standard’ apples for cheaper- this is an excellent way to both cut down on food waste and to make good, fresh produce more affordable.  Food waste in America is embarrassing- one 2004 study estimates that we waste 40-50% of our food.  One of the many reasons for this lies in grocery stores’ reluctance to sell ‘imperfect’ produce– not spoiled or old produce, but imperfect produce- for example, peaches that are too small or apples that have a smaller than desirable proportion of red to green coloring.  Seriously.

A consequence of this perfectionist view, though, is that we’re drastically reducing the amount of food that we consider fit for grocery store consumption, where most of the country gets its fruit.  And by doing that, we’re driving up produce prices.  The company in this article works with suppliers and grocery stores to create a supply of cheaper, imperfect produce– food that’s still fit for consumption, of course, but that’s not as pretty as the standard we’ve set.

So what do you think?  Would you buy imperfect produce if it was cheaper?  I know that I always loved it when the grocery store I worked at over the summer put out it’s 6-for-$1 bags of funny looking but incredibly fresh apples and peaches (cobbler, anyone?)- but do you think that this is a viable model?

WPI sustainability projects

I saw a couple of great presentations from Worcester Polytechnic students at the NOFA-Mass conference- they were from WPI’s Center for Sustainable Food Systems, and their projects revolved around using practical engineering knowledge to solve social problems.  It seems to me to be an excellent way to apply learned knowledge while benefiting the local community- and the students definitely didn’t disappoint!  The groups had a number of different ideas, but one that especially stuck out to me was a project that focused on the whys and hows of youth eating habits.

Specifically, this group was looking at why high school students eat unhealthy food, and applied techniques borrowed from anti-smoking campaigns to help them combat this.  Chief among these techniques is peer-led introspection, a process by which one member of the student group leads the others in keeping and subsequently discussion ‘food journals.’

There are two phases to the journaling process:  the first week, students write down everything they eat and discuss it.  The second week, the students are asked to make note of the food advertisements around them.  The peer leaders again lead the students in discussion about the advertisements, this time looking at overlaps between the food journals and the advertisement journals.

This is an excellent exercise in mindful eating, for lack of a better term- why do we eat the things we eat?  What influences us to make those choices?  I’ve pointed out earlier that knowledge is power- the more you know, the less likely you are to fall prey to misleading advertising or unhealthy foods.  By directly confronting both their eating habits and their food environments, the students are facing that interconnectedness head on.  Hopefully this kind of exercise will help them become engaged, savvy eaters- this is the kind of activity that’s beneficial regardless of age.