A Conversation with Dr. Jason Sandahl of the USDA’s Foreign Ag Service: An Aflatoxin Biocontrol Product for Africa, Maximum Residue Limit International Allies and Candid Professional Advice

 

On April 4th, 2016, our group had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Jason Sandahl of the United States Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agriculture Service (USDA-FAS). Jason has worked in the DC Office of Capacity Building and Development for the past 10 years and holds a PhD in toxicology and a BA in Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry from Oregon State. Jason came to us by way IAFE founder and former colleague, David Grist who worked in Food Safety and the Programs area at FAS prior to coming to Friedman.

Jason spoke to us regarding FAS’s Aflatoxin program and the international allies program for Maximum Residual Levels as well as toxicological capacity building in the developing world and practical quandaries facing professionals in his field. Not coincidentally, Jason’s past and values are reflected in these programs. Jason (and earlier David) served in the Peace Corps when he was sent to Swaziland. He recalls a defining moment of seeing farmers regularly dumping leftover toxic pesticides into a local river for lack of better option or education. This sort of failing was what motivated him to obtain a PhD in toxicology during which he spent 5 years studying pesticide run-off in agriculture and its effects on the environment and human health. Jason’s yen to serve humanity through technological innovation and science (note that Jason was a science policy fellow thru the American Association for the Advancement of Science[1]) later led him to protect those very farmers. He later taught Toxicology to college students in Swaziland on a Fulbright. At FAS, Jason carries this spirit of service through science.

The FAS Aflasafe Program

In case you didn’t get the memo, humans carry around more foreign cells than human cells[2]. Incredibly, these communities in many cases can be harnessed towards favorable outcomes in the food system. Conversely, they can be lethal.

Aflatoxin is a toxin lethal to humans and produced by a group of fungi known as Aspergillus Flavus which thrive on corn, peanuts and other crops, especially in post-harvest tropical Africa. Dr. Peter Cotty of the University of Arizona (this author’s alma mater) developed a product, Aflasafe, that is a collection of atoxigenic (non-toxin-producing) fungi from the same family that when spread on a farmer’s fields every two years, outcompete the aflatoxin-producing fungi. The process involves analyzing soils to identify atoxigenic strains and using a “growth matrix” such as sorghum to propagate atoxigenic fungi spores and disseminate them. Such methods are consistent with organic production. This green innovation translates into major social welfare gains as it saves lives and enhances commercial value of crops, sometimes for export and sometimes for subsistence. It reflects a more sophisticated understanding of the soil web and a gentle and non-toxic way of increasing yields and controlling pests while reducing death and illness due to aflatoxin ingestion. The product is an example of a biocontrol or the use of living organisms to depress the population of a pest.

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In terms of aflatoxin related deaths, the accurate numbers on related deaths were hard to find. Acute aflatoxicosis is easier to attribute deaths to aflatoxin, but chronic aflatoxin consumption at lower levels leads to cirrhosis and liver cancer, and is suspected to contribute to stunting in children. This summer Friedman’s own and IAFE co-founder Caroline Nathan will be conducting a study commissioned by Catholic Relief Services (CRS) for a USAID-funded program in Malawi called UBALE. The study will be looking at primary caregivers’ knowledge, attitude, and practices regarding mold growth on maize and groundnuts. CRS is also commissioning a study that ICRISAT (International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics; part of CGIAR) will be conducting in the same sample of households, where they will be looking at agricultural knowledge and practices of household heads with regard to mold growth. She’ll be following up with that sample of households and interviewing mothers with children under 5. This will be a key contribution to the current data gap that is holding back more effective policy.

There exist thousands of family member strains of fungi and each one produces a different level of aflatoxin according to Jason. In his work, Dr. Cotty isolates the strains that don’t produce substances toxic to humans, he grows them in a vat and puts them on some feed matrix and then applies them to the field. Amazingly the community structure flip-flops! The atoxigenic strains outcompete toxin-producing ones in the fields and on the crops.

Dr. Peter Cotty works for the USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) in thru the U of A. Years ago, he and Dr. Ranajit presented on this product. Jason got wind and loved it. He took the concept to the USDA and was able to get enough people excited where it became a priority for capacity building in Africa. Jason helped launch their efforts in Africa. Now donors from around the globe fund Aflasafe. It’s currently produced in labs in AZ or Nigeria but the goal is to expand the capacity in Africa.

Drs. Cotty and Ranajit

Drs. Cotty and Ranajit (far left and next)

FAS, USAID and other development agencies in trying to scale up this product and practice must consider what is required for business development in these countries. Fortunately, the Partnership for Aflatoxin Control in Africa (PACA) was created to steer the broader efforts in Africa, organizing donors efforts. More than just focusing on scaling up Aflasafe, it is taking holistic approaches to address the impact on food safety and public health by dealing with a variety of topics including regulatory environments, trade, etc.

The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) addresses the lack of awareness around fungi, which is oftentimes invisible and rarely understood. They develop TV and radio commercials and brochures to raise awareness. On average, the best-looking 40% goes for sale with the remainder 60% of the corn produced in Africa auto-consumed. Aflatoxin is more detrimental for mothers and children breastfeeding.

The following chart shows the processes and stages from identifying the threat posed by Aflatoxin by country, then identifying local atoxigenic (does not produce toxins) strains of the same fungi and developing a viable industry around it. Zambia, as you can (hopefully) see, is at the most advanced stage.

Aflasafe PACA

Some of the major concerns for Aflasafe are who pays for it. As you can see, there are many funders. If farmers are to pay for it themselves, how are they expected to pay for it when farmers are unaware of this invisible killer? How do you incentivize them to use it? How expensive is it? Along those lines, ICRISAT’s recent technological breakthrough brought the cost of detection down from $25 to $1 permitting thousands of Malawian farmers to regain lucrative trade with the EU.

Again, just who should flip the bill for this life-saving technology is in important question. Just because it’s a production issue does not mean this cost should fall on the farmer. Government is one funding stream Jason’s team has identified. Some private sector companies could emerge though these efforts. More data on cost effectiveness and lives saved could help policy-makers fund this work. It occurred to me that if the farmer sold corn produced with Aflasafe, that they deserve a premium as opposed to a conventional fungicide. Other incentives should be put in place. Those sourcing from Aflasafe users who care about transparency should invest in efforts to establish a certification scheme around aflatoxin and to reward those producers who use it.

A Brief Mycological Tangent

Enthused by fungi? I sure am. Scared? Me too. Fungi possess great powers. As a brief divergence, I want to mention the work of two really interesting scientists around mycology. Paul Stamuts, mycologist guru in his Ted Talk, presented research findings that speak to mycological solutions for major societal problems including environmental remediation (oils spills and E. Coli in soils and runoff), treating smallpox and flu viruses. They are as he says, “the grand molecular disassemblers of nature”. He holds the prestigious Alexander Graham Bell patent on mycelium extracts capable of steering insects in a direction of choice! Pesticides executives dubbed his discovery the single most disruptive innovation they knew of.

Jae Rhim Lee’s Ted Talk entitled Mushroom Death Suite offers an ecological death alternative to the toxic chemicals (formaldehyde) used in the preservation process for funerals. Her inoculated suit consumes the deceased in fungi as an eco-friendly gift to mother nature.

A Longer Side Bar on The Dual Between Organic and Conventional Ag

Jason’s work straddles conventional and organic production systems and it bears invoking the great debate to place Jason’s efforts in that context before we explore his broader efforts on Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs) and toxicological capacity building.

First, some basics on the main points of divergence. Pesticides – despite the misconceptions of many – are used in conventional and organic agriculture. Organic farming uses an approach to growing crops and raising livestock that avoids synthetic chemicals, hormones, antibiotic agents, genetic engineering, and irradiation. To qualify as organic, crops must be produced on farms that have not used most synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizer for 3 years before harvest and have a sufficient buffer zone to decrease contamination from adjacent lands. Soil fertility and nutrient content is managed primarily with cultivation practices, crop rotations, and cover crops supplemented with animal and crop waste fertilizers. Pests, weeds, and diseases are managed primarily by physical, mechanical, and biological controls instead of with synthetic pesticides and herbicides. Exceptions are allowed if substances are on a national approved list. Organic livestock must be reared without the routine use of antibiotic agents or growth hormones and must be provided with access to the outdoors. If an animal is treated for disease with antibiotic agents, it cannot be sold as organic. Preventive health practices include vaccination and vitamin and mineral supplementation.

We’ve long been told that conventional outperforms organic in amount yielded, and while this may be the case in the short-run, at least one serious study conducted by the reputable Rodale Institute over 35 years demonstrated that “after an initial decline in yields during the first few years of transition, the organic system soon rebounded to match or surpass the conventional system”. This was found to be true for yield, adaptation to drought and price commanded. Organic, however, is most often more land-intensive than conventional, requiring more land-intensive inputs such as manure. In an increasingly crowded world this could be an issue though many other avenues exist to solve it like changing our eating habits to less resource-intense sources of protein such as plant-based ones or tackling food waste (40%!) or overweight to name a few.

In terms of nutrition, it depends on who you talk to. The research establishment has done a couple systematic reviews and one from 2012 concluded that: the published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods. [However]Consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria (which is enough for me if you’ve got the money and that’s an equity issue I don’t have an answer for sadly).

The findings organic does not contain more nutrients is disputed by, guess who? The Organic Center. They question the methodology of some of the reviews. Their own report touts an average of a 30% increase in nutrients in organics, except for nitrates (not desired) and protein. Systematic and Cochrane reviews are meta-analysis of data that can provide great insight into areas where research results across multiple studies are ambiguous. The Organic Center points out the selection-exclusion criteria for studies that neglected studies sufficiently to conclude no difference between organic and conventional. When the Organic center re-did the study with another exclusion criteria, they found the results much more favorable for organic production (which they are also mandated to represent). As such it’s always good to keep an eye out for who funded the systematic review.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) report on organic foods offered a great analysis of the threats to child health posed by pesticides. If it is not good enough for a baby, honestly, I don’t want it. Call me irrational. It should be noted that their resiliency to pesticides is lower than adults. Many of the reports cited that follow were initially found in that report. A large prospective birth cohort study that measured pesticide exposure in pregnant farm workers in California and followed their offspring found lower mental development index scores at 24 months of age[3] and attention problems at 3.5 and 5 years of age[4]. An analysis of cross-sectional data from NHANES has demonstrated that within the range of exposure in the general US population, the odds of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder for 8- to 15-year-old children were increased 55% with a 10-fold increase in urinary concentrations of the organophosphate metabolite dimethyl alkylphosphate (a pesticide).

A small longitudinal cohort of children who regularly consumed conventional produce demonstrated that urinary pesticide residues were reduced to almost non-detectable levels (below 0.3 μg/L for malathion dicarboxylic acid) when they were changed to an organic produce diet for 5 days[5]. Years ago, I looked into whether washing produce removed the pesticide residue and learned that it does not always. For those so inclined, Consumer Reports has a great report on Pesticides here and produced this great short video guide that explains when its best to buy organic. Interestingly, they mention avoiding conventional green beans in particular. Jason addresses this problem as we’ll see with his solution to the minor use problem for specialty crops whereby, he is pressing to develop pesticides that are more targeted and safer, where little incentives exist because of lower margins to manufacturers.

According to the AAP article, although chronic pesticide exposure and measurable pesticide metabolite concentrations seem undesirable and potentially unhealthy, no studies to date have experimentally examined the causal relationship between exposure to pesticides directly from conventionally grown foods and adverse neurodevelopmental health outcomes. Most of the research implicating pesticides in these adverse health outcomes is from case-control or cross-sectional studies. These studies are limited by a number of factors, including difficulties measuring past exposures and the lack of a positive temporal relationship between exposure and outcome. It is difficult to directly extrapolate from these studies and draw conclusions about potential toxicity at the levels of pesticide exposure documented from dietary in-take of conventional produce. Data derived from large prospective cohort studies may address some of these shortcomings. In short, we need more funding and data for pesticide research.

Despite popular belief, environmentally, organic is surprisingly not always more beneficial. Many studies have documented the increased land mass required for organic production. A really fun book, The Rational Optimist, initially draw this to my attention. A research study by a soon-to-be Tufts PhD student showed that, according to a Life Cycle Analysis, the ecological footprint of grass-fed beef was higher than conventional mainly due to its land-intensive nature and inferior efficiency. Also, and perhaps more importantly, organic ag cannot take advantage of the astonishing space-saving potential and no-tillage benefit (not to mention so many others that are in the pipeline) of GMOs. Take it from the horse’s mouth, this 30-part series on GMOs by grist.org dispels a ton of myths about GMOs and calls attention to the real threats (more socially constructed).

Determining environmental impact is complex – simply consuming organic isn’t a seal that means you’re doing the right thing. You may need to recalibrate your heuristics. Consider this study of food miles: compared to lamb imported from New Zealand (the study was conducted in the UK), locally produced lamb had a higher ecological footprint given inputs and out of season storage and refrigeration cost.

Many amongst us have been pondering just whether we can feed the world without pesticides. While for many it is a forgone conclusion that they prop up humanity’s 7 billion, there is undeniably an interplay between those 7 billion and the pesticide use that underpins the population explosion. The Haber-Bosch dyad was identified by Nature magazine as the single most influential person in the 20th century and yet so few could identify their invention, the synthetic creation of ammonia from thin air the has enabled massive increases in yields.

What does this all have to do with Jason Sandahl? In Aflasafe, he provides an alternative to the externalities discussed above that are associated with conventional agriculture (which deeply and truly has its pros and cons) all while empowering impoverished farmers and boosting foreign markets. Environmentally, he’s reducing the need for pesticides. Nutritionally, he’s reducing mal-absorptive illnesses that can reduce human capacity to benefit from the (increasingly scarce?[6],[7]) nutrients in harvests. Less money spent on ill-health means more spent improving production.

Consumer reports absolutely enlightening look at pesticides in produce encapsulated the trade-off nicely when asking ‘Should I skip conventionally grown produce?’ They answered: No. The risks of pesticides are real, but the myriad health benefits of fruits and vegetables are, too.

In the end, I (think I?) hope for a world free from pesticides. For now, I’ll embrace F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous quote as a mantra: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Either side of the debate you fall on you can appreciate this quote for reconciling the contradictory-nature of information in today’s polarized world. Food systems is a field full of complexity and oftentimes contradictions. Even “evidence-based” has major flaws through regulatory capture, industry laws, and industry-funded research. Thanks for your encouragement F. Scott…

Jason’s 2nd program – Pesticide Residues in Agricultural Trade

Jason was part of a group that led a presentation at a conference at the FAO HQ in Rome in 2012 talking about getting new chemicals and safer products registered around world. He spoke about some new biological control products such as Aflasafe, which were usually much safer for human health than chemical pesticides. African governments were (and still are) having a difficult time registering newer types of products because they lack the technical know-how to understand them. Conventional pesticides get registered by government officials with stacks of papers, Jason lamented. They’re overloaded with risk assessments on how chemicals behave in the lab with wildlife such as fish and rabbits. Risk assessments include residue data, data on how pesticides behave in the environment, how they break down, what the molecules disintegrate into, and how long that process takes. It includes info on worker safety exposure. Lots of info goes into the registration packet so an official can make an evidence-based decision on whether it will be safe to use. Efficacy data is included as well, helping answer the question of whether the pesticide will be effective.

Some person sitting at a desk has to make this decision. In the US we have the Office of Pesticide Program (OPP) at the EPA comprised of ~800 people spread around country. In developing countries you have a person or max 5 in offices or a committee and they have to make the same decision we allocate 800 people to do… On top of this they don’t have higher education in risk assessment. Therein lies a problem.

In Africa, for example, they are dealing with lots of chemicals that they’ve never heard of – many are not in the US or European databases yet. What do you do as that official? You have to make a serious decision with very limited info. Understandably they are hesitant about registering something they don’t understand. The implications of a wrong decision could be devastating. These challenges and constraints were conveyed at the FAO in Rome during the same conference Jason presented at. Remember Jason’s background and abilities? Well here is where they kicked in for what we’ll call the creating of shared value.

Jason obtained funding from USAID and USDA to put on a series of workshops where he gathered registration officials from developing countries to provide capacity building. They talked about what a biopesticide is, biocontrol products and more. How one can have confidence in their decisions to register new pesticides. At the workshops were Dr. Peter Cotty and Dr. Ranajit of IITA in Nigeria, together working on Aflasafe (which actually arose and was developed as a product 20 years ago for cotton growers in the US). One of the technical experts was from IR-4 based out of Rutgers – Michael Braverman who’s worked to provide safe and effective pest management solutions for specialty crop growers. He conducted research for registering minor-use (specialty crops) pesticides. These efforts made a big difference in the lives of pesticide regulators, the farmers applying them, communities who saw an infusion of revenue and consumers who could consume produce within appropriate bounds. Empowered regulators free up time and resources for other public expenditures as well.

The Minor Use Problem…Solved

A lot of chemical companies have little financial interest in specialty crops that only constitute a few acres per farm. If sufficient demand doesn’t exist, companies won’t develop pesticides – it’s simply not profitable. Chemical companies not registering small-acreage crop pesticides is part of the minor use problem. Because specialty crops are produced on smaller plots and overall constitute smaller acreage specialty crops like mangos, passion fruit, dragon fruit, lychees and papaya (protein enzymes!) don’t command sufficient attention for pesticides that are expensive to research and develop. There simply is not enough sale of the product to recoup the cost. As there is almost no incentive for manufacturers, it is a huge problem in all developing countries where a bulk of the cheap manufacturing of chemicals thus comes from chemical companies in China, and Eastern Europe filling that void with older chemicals being used in volume which are worse for the environment, wildlife, workers, consumers.

So FAS funded the IR-4 project[8]. Based out of Rutgers University where they do research and get registration for new products for specialty crops. Other countries do not have this system. The IR-4 program gets growers access to newer safer chemicals because the US government is paying for it. So Jason re-phrased minor use crops to USDA as a low acreage but high value crops with current low pesticide use constituting a burden of $37m to American farmers. FAS’ collaboration with Rutgers aims to close the gap left behind by corporations who have little incentive by themselves to develop specialty-crop specific pesticides. It certainly seems to be an appropriate role of government to incentivize development of specialty crop pesticides where it is not profitable for companies alone. Jason says there’s no other way to get safer pesticides into those countries.

International Collaboration around Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs)

It seemed key that Jason strives to have other countries partner with us so that they can shoulder cost burden and MRLs can be more robust for all. The US will never submit data for those products, as we don’t have the growing conditions. However, acceptance for the American standards for MRLs is a rather geopolitical issue it seems. Thus USDA-FAS with Jason started up a project to train third world regulators on methods and collaborating with them on real projects where they establish MRLs for passion fruit, mangos, lychees, etc. Field trials are currently taking place around the world. They are accompanied by the necessary laboratory trainings. They learn how to package the data and submit it to Codex[9]. It cannot be done in isolation according to Jason. He takes somewhat of a value chain approach. FAS helps build a network of countries and experts to tackle the problem.

US farmers benefit from an the enhanced institutional, technical and intellectual capacity in foreign countries which are better equipped to handle the science of risk assessments for proposed US pesticides for entry into their countries as well as US exports with those very residues. This establishes foreign markets for American growers thru the acceptance of US, evidence-based MRLs. The project overcomes the limitations of economies of small scale through government intervention. Foreign growers obtain better yields and can better commercialize their products under the assurance of Codex MRLs. This stimulates economic growth. American consumers benefit from less wide spectrum pesticides of Chinese and Eastern European origin.

Any initiative must fall within the mandate of FAS. The foreign policy and geopolitical element of these programs appears to be to steer Africa towards the science-based risk approach (versus the EU hazard-based approach). This was fleshed out for us around the MRL allies’ program and collaboration projects tackling the minor use problem by building capacity and a network for 3rd world users of pesticides. Allies for the US-based approach seem to receive a carrot from the FAS capacity building and biocontrol products and US pesticides developed by Dr. Braverman as alternatives to the cheap, relatively more dangerous, broad spectrum and poor quality pesticides produced in China. According to Jason, modern American pesticides are more targeted (think cancer research) at pests that hinder yields of specialty crops.

In the US we get chemicals from Dow, Syngenta, DuPont, Bayer. They are extremely regulated according to Jason. They have so many hoops and hurdles and have everyone looking over their shoulders. But they also have a relatively low bar compared to Europe’s stricter stance towards hazards/harm. In this environment in the US it is hard to mislabel or exaggerate a claim. One false claim and you are sued immediately and might go bankrupt. 

As mentioned, the risk assessment approach in US differs from the European Union approach. The USDA is trying to win people over to our approach because it opens up markets to American producers and exporters. Europeans when evaluating a risk use a hazard based approach – if a chemical has a hazardous risk then it receives a red flag and it becomes hard to register. In the US we say, so you have a hazard, but if there is little to no exposure then we should be able to use it, and it’s not going to be a problem in the end – it’ll be safe.

As Jason explained about the various levels of toxicity and danger expressed in the labels of pesticides, my mind wander to the trade-offs: longer lives thru more food access (though the problem is also one of distribution, access and equity issue) and yet we’re surrounded by Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) such as cancers which seem to be on the rise[10]. I refocused just in time to hear him tell us that several of the chemicals once sprayed by his father on their farm are now considered rather dangerous …Jason (and earlier David) explained to me that pesticide regulation had really improved in the US over the years and in terms of what we allowed to be exported. I recalled my case studies looking at the unspeakable Bhopal incident and was thankful. I wonder if farmer’s knew their true/real cost, whether they would chose to use pesticides with as much frequency and how this would change if we really approached biocontrol alternatives with the same vigor as some other things.

IAFE’s cofounder Julie Kurtz questioned the unjust low prices paid to developing world producers and objected to the volatility (and undercutting) of changing US agricultural policy every 5 years that the 3rd world is subjected to. In a subsequent class with Tim Wise we learned of some of the most basic needs of farmers and how they can be helped:

  • Secure access to land and water
  • Technical assistance
  • Low-input technological improvements
  • Affordable credit and crop insurance
  • Stable and fair prices for their goods
  • Access to markets for their surpluses

In response to Julie’s query regarding skimming off value along the supply chain, Jason responded that he’d been in touch with Dole and Del Monte and Supermarkets that drive imports to see if they’ll be partners on his projects. He was in the process of visiting chemical companies, grower associations, Del Monte and Dole and talking about everybody taking a piece of responsibility – a networked and collaborative effort.

Jason’s Thought Starters – Real Life Professional Questions faced by Technical Experts

Prior to his seminar, Jason conveyed to our group a set of questions to marinade and ponder. Each of these questions dealt with real-world practical quandaries he felt professionals face and he either explicitly or implicitly drew out each quandary in his own work.

Jason really obliged us by invoking these themes as we were explicit in requesting that IAFE guest lecturers address practical, real-world work considerations in the international food systems space. The first I would like to focus on is how to handle a potential gap between your personal and institutional mission, vision or mandate. FAS’ mission statement reads:

Linking U.S. agriculture to the world to enhance export opportunities and global food security” thru the following programs: market development, international trade agreements and negotiations, and the collection of statistics and market information. It also administers the USDA’s export credit guarantee and food aid programs and helps increase income and food availability in developing nations by mobilizing expertise for agriculturally led economic growth.

As mentioned, Jason also has a major focus on global food security. In my opinion this is consistent with FAS’ mandate. Jason feels positive that he is also able to work on Aflasafe and helping people in Kenya and across Africa have better lives, better nutrition and safer food supply but admits that not everyone in the agency has the same perspective on his interpretation of FAS’s mandate.

Jason was open about a common critique (that he also engages in) of whether the international work FAS does in agricultural development and building regulatory and technical capacity in other countries actually hurts opportunities for US farmers. One justification is that his office’s work helps other economies to establish new markets and thus facilitates trade. Jason’s Office of Capacity Building and Development also builds support for US standards around pesticides residue limits, which enhances US farmer’s ability to export.

David argued that this divergence and many other conundrums of Jason’s work, could be addressed by a robust M&E program, an area which David is building expertise with Friedman’s Jennie Coates. Another professional quandary whose personal opinions Jason solicited from us was, when to admit you’ve thrown money down a hole and cut your losses. It felt eerily cryptic almost and sadly was never really addressed due to time constraints after his lecture.

Interestingly, and as a rebuttal to the concern over institutional vision, Jason clued us in to the commonplace occurrence that over-arching agendas are often the result of the initiative of a few creative and well-positioned people working at desks in their corners. It’s often not the case that a systematic broader vision and road map is put in place by discerning and representative leadership. According to Jason, “larger programs with more attention and players are more susceptible to being diluted, taken down other paths, and hijacked.” The low profile nature of Dr. Sandahl’s project has allowed him to perhaps achieve more, paradoxically. What if the large pesticide companies knew about aflatoxin?

Other thought-starters included: What role should the US government play in building regulatory or technical capacity in other countries? Does supporting agricultural development in other countries actually hurt opportunities for American farmers (increased competition)? With limited resources, how to prioritize needs? There is just way too much to do. Different offices within an institution often have different objectives and goals: Is it better to have a unified vision/position, or is it better to have multiple perspectives and approaches to a problem?

Jason explained that because his funding sources were not coordinated, his team was applying to different donors which each had different goals, but whose goals needed to overlap with FAS’ mandate. Each source has a different mission. Also, some of the money has to be spent in within specific time frames (oftentimes 6 months) imposing the need for reports and results. This resonates with Aaron Ebner’s lament-critique in an earlier IAFE lecture with AASD. Jason explained “sometimes these organizations just need to get money off their books, to check off a box”. Something to watch out for.

Professional Etiquette, Morals, and Values

Jason obliged our request for practical professional advice in this area of expertise and thusly shared with us some words of wisdom from the chief of Oregon Fish and Wildlife Department in a grad school class on being an effective professional.

Be respectful. As someone trying to implement policy changes, respect both sides of argument. For the seminar he always had divergent viewpoints, Jason explain, especially diverging from his, but he always gave them space to speak and engaged them respectfully. Be honest. Whenever he gave us his position, he talked about his biases. I have this angle because this is the perspective I bring. This is my passion. Consider other opinions. Don’t bullshit about what you don’t know. Be acceptable. Answer messages. Answer phone. Contact people back. Be sincere. Be passionate about what you do. Be creative. People who are the most effective think outside the box. Strive to understand things from different perspectives for problem-solving. Communication. If you want to influence people you need to talk like people. Don’t try to be clever. Be an effective communicator.

So, what? The Future from 30, 000 feet

A couple years ago while working on organic farms in the Southern Cone and Peru, I was given and read Teaming With Microbes, an entire book on the soil food web. Armed with the remnants of that understanding, this led me to ask Jason about other biocontrol applications for pests. I’d learned about compost tea first hand on a massive organic blueberry farm in Chile and dabbled myself on Paz Peru’s farm I helped build. So I thought Jason might have some insight into just how many other crops could benefit from biocontrols.

Though I may not have phrased it clearly for him, screening of beneficial varieties was too labor intensive at this point to be cost-competitive with other initiatives according to Jason (reminiscent of wind or geothermal – not there yet). So, rather unfortunately, it remained unclear for us the potential application of biocontrol products beyond the mycological kingdom to the bacterial kingdom. Fortunately, there’s plenty of information on the Internet on biocontrols. A quick search turned up the International organisation for Biological Control (IOBC), which promotes environmentally safe methods of pest and disease control. It is a voluntary organisation of biological-control workers.

This type of innovation we felt could render obsolete so many pesticides and associated suffering while maintaining production levels. It seems a more enlightened reflection of a savvier technological understanding and harnessing of the soil food web.

While we may dream of a world where we exercise sufficient control over microbes, climate control and beneficial bugs so as to render our food production systems free from toxic pesticides, such a reality is beyond our current reach. Could we ever attain such a society?

The author retains all responsibility for views and errors expressed in this blog.

Dylan Anderson-Berens

dylanandersonberens@gmail.com

Footnotes

[1] The fellowships aim is to get more science involved in the policy of government. Tangentially, this author has long felt pulled to the advantages of a technocracy in which educated government officials (not mere politicians) determine government policy more directly. Technicians if you will. Come to think of it, this smacks of China where — at least in theory — the academic elite are funneled up the education system to positions of leadership in the government (suspend other conceptions of the Chinese you may harbor).

[2] http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/strange-but-true-humans-carry-more-bacterial-cells-than-human-ones/

[3] Eskenazi B, Marks AR, Bradman A, et al. Organophosphate pesticide exposure and neurodevelopment in young Mexican-American children. Environ Health Persp

[4] Marks AR, Harley K, Bradman A, et al. Organophosphate pesticide exposure and attention in young Mexican-American children: the CHAMACOS study. Environ Health Perspect. 2010;118(12):1768–1774

[5] Lu C, Toepel K, Irish R, Fenske RA, Barr DB, Bravo R. Organic diets significantly lower children’s dietary exposure to organophosphorus pesticides. Environ Health Perspect. 2006;114(2):260–263

[6] http://hortsci.ashspublications.org/content/44/1/15.full

[7] https://organic-center.org/reportfiles/Yield_Nutrient_Density_Two-pager.pdf

[8] Jason explained IR-4 was making better avocados and pesticides through innovation but that there was a need to get Codex MRLs established for them. If not, American farmers can’t export.

[9] A striking 25% of standards developed by Codex came from US data and the US has funded 25% of cost burden for member/signatory countries.

[10] Many argue the point that cancer rates have actually been on the decline and that measurement has been enhanced.