October 2014

Organic Center Board of Trustees Retreat

Trustees briefed on research projects at Harvard University
The Organic Center hosted its annual Board Retreat at Harvard University this week where members from the Board of Trustees were briefed on the latest results from collaborative research projects with scientists from Harvard and Northeastern University.  Dr. Chensheng (Alex) Lu, a Professor at Harvard, presented results from his latest research investigating the impacts that daily exposure to pesticides in food and the environment have on children’s health. The Board also took time to tour the lab of Drs. Geoff Davies and Elham Ghabbour at Northeastern University in Boston where research examining how organic and conventional farming methods influence soil health is conducted. Preliminary results from their soil study suggest that soils farmed using organic methods are significantly healthier than those farmed using conventional methods. The Board of Trustees was excited about all of the research presentations that support the health and environmental benefits of organic, and remains committed to facilitating and disseminating credible findings on the benefits of organic food and farming. 

Latest Research Studies and Reports

GM crops responsible for decline in monarch butterflies
A study published this summer by researchers at the University of Guelph in the Journal of Animal Ecology reports that the use of herbicide-resistant genetically modified (GM) crops are largely responsible for declining monarch butterfly populations. Monarch butterflies rely exclusively on the milkweed plant to lay their eggs and as a food for monarch caterpillars. The increased use of GM corn and soybean crops across the Midwest means that herbicides are applied more liberally, killing milkweed plants and leaving monarchs with few egg-laying sites and food sources. The study found that almost 70 percent of milkweed plants used by monarch butterflies are found in agricultural landscapes, and that the increased use of GM crops over the past two decades has led to a 21 percent decline in the number of milkweed plants. This decline has had a greater negative impact on monarch butterfly populations than either deforestation or climate change. The authors concluded that reducing the use of intensive agricultural methods and GM crops should be the highest priority for monarch butterfly conservation.
Neonicotinoid residues found in commonly consumed produce
According to a study conducted by scientists from Harvard University and published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, neonicotinoid residues are often found in many of the most commonly consumed fruits and vegetables. Neonicotinoids are the most common class of insecticide used in conventional agriculture, and are applied directly to the plant or the soil where they can be taken up by roots and stored in plant tissues. Results from the study suggest that exposure to neonicotinoid insecticides in produce sold for human consumption may be more common than previously thought. “All fruit and vegetable samples, with the exception of nectarine and tomato, tested positive for at least one neonicotinoid,” and most fruits and almost half of all vegetables tested had residues of at least two different neonicotinoids, the study found. Neonicotinoids have been implicated as a cause for honeybee die-offs, and recent studies suggest they may also have negative health effects on mammals. The authors have called for an assessment of dietary neonicotinoid intakes and the potential effects they may have on human health.
Chronic exposure to pyrethroid pesticide negatively affects bees.
When bees forage in agricultural areas, they are exposed to a variety of different pesticides. Neonicotinoid pesticides are known to cause bee death, but now a study in the Journal of Applied Ecology has found that pyrethroid pesticides are also detrimental to bees. Scientists from Royal Holloway University of London examined the effect of chronic exposure to pyrethroid pesticides on bumblebees, and looked for additional negative effects when exposed bees were also infected with a common parasite. They found that after colonies were treated with pesticides, worker bees were significantly smaller than bees not exposed to the pesticide. While the results didn’t support any additional negative effect when pesticide-exposed bees were infected with parasites, the authors suggest that this may not be the case in nature. In natural settings, bees are often subjected to additional stresses such as food shortages. As a result, the compounded effects of environmental stressors and parasite infestation may be more detrimental to bees already affected by pesticides. 

Latest Updates from The Organic Center

Save Organic Citrus Campaign a success!
The Organic Center completed its Save Organic Citrus crowdfunding campaign with 137% funding. The Center’s crowdfunding efforts focused on raising consumer support for research to find organic solutions to citrus greening. Citrus greening is a disease that has been decimating the citrus industry, and current control mechanisms focus on toxic pesticide sprays and GMOs. To address this issue, The Organic Center has initiated a collaboration with professors at the University of Florida to find holistic organic solutions to controlling citrus greening organically. This project will determine the efficacy of labeled organic pesticides for controlling the Asian citrus psyllid, develop protocols for organic growers struggling with citrus greening, and examine naturally occurring organic trees resistant to citrus greening that can be bred to create non-GMO citrus greening-resistant varieties of citrus. Our crowdfunding success is a step in the right direction, but we will continue to raise funds through other means because the campaign will only fund a small piece of the larger-scale research The Center is focusing on.
National Academy of Sciences Committee Meeting on GE crops
The Organic Center attended the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Genetically Engineered (GE) Crops meeting about past experience and future prospects in September. The committee is conducting a broad review of available information on GE crops in the context of the contemporary global food and agricultural system, and is tasked with building on and updating the concepts and questions raised by GE crops. The meeting covered topics such as the scientific, sociological, and political issues surrounding GE crop use. One of the speakers was Dr. Chuck Benbrook, research professor at Washington State University, who is on The Organic Center’s Science Advisory Council and received The Center’s Award of Excellence for his contributions to the industry, including research on GE crops. One of his research papers demonstrated that the use of GE crops has increased the application of pesticides over time. In his comments, he mentioned other issues regarding the increased use of GM crops, including weed resistance, the higher cost of seed, and rejection of the products by domestic and foreign consumers.
The Center briefs FDA on organic rice research
The Organic Center met with scientists at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in September to brief them on research investigating methods for decreasing arsenic uptake in organic rice systems. FDA is currently considering developing a recommendation for maximum arsenic levels in rice, and the organic industry is teaming up with leading scientists to proactively address this issue.
Hosting a science panel on pollinator and human health
The Organic Center hosted a science discussion panel on Pollinator and Human Health at Natural Products Expo East. Panelists included Dr. Jessica Shade (Director of Science Programs at The Organic Center), Alex Lu (Professor at the Harvard University), Rebecca Hamilton (Director of Product Development at Badger), and Errol Schweizer (Senior Global Grocery Coordinator for Whole Foods Market). The panel presented a review of the most recent research supporting organic’s role in maintaining healthy humans and ecosystems. Dr. Lu updated the audience on results from a Harvard study supporting the role of neonicotinoids in causing honey bee colony collapse disorder, while Errol Schweizer discussed the latest initiatives from Whole Foods to raise awareness about the plight of pollinators, and educate farmers and the public on how they can contribute to a solution. The panel established that current scientific research demonstrates the negative impacts of pesticides on human and pollinator health, and that by choosing organic, we can reduce unnecessary exposure.
Another science panel addresses global climate change
At Expo East, The Organic Center also hosted a science discussion panel on Climate Change. Panelists included Dr. Jessica Shade (Director of Science Programs at The Organic Center), Jake Schmitz (Southern Pool Coordinator at Organic Valley), Mark “Coach” Smallwood (Executive Director at the Rodale Institute), and Marni Karlin (OTA’s Vice-President of Government Affairs and General Counsel), The panel reviewed the current research supporting the role of organic agriculture in global climate change mitigation, and updated the audience on current efforts to get the message out to our policymakers. One particularly notable action will be made by Mark Smallwood who will walk in October from the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania to Washington, D.C, talking to local farmers along the way before he arrives to meet with policymakers in D.C., about how organic farming can help reverse climate change.

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