Toxic Legacy: Pesticides in the Family Tree

We know that mass pesticide use is reshaping our environment, but is it also transforming the genes we pass to future generations?

Vastly improved understanding of the human genome has led to the discovery of a fateful new concept: Environmental Epigenetic Trans-generational Inheritance. More commonly referred to as disease inheritance, it describes a genetic time bomb that carries the collateral damage of insecticides, herbicides and other chemical compounds far into the future.

“The concept is pretty simple,” explains a report by the Washington DC-based nonprofit The Organic Center. “Coming into contact with toxic chemicals could lead to negative health effects in your children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren. This means that if you are exposed to pollutants, you could be creating a cascade effect of health problems for your descendants. …

“One of the main mechanisms responsible for the inheritance of effects caused by environmental pollutants is called epigenetics. While some toxins may not mutate the actual sequences of our DNA, they can turn different genes on and off. These chemical changes in gene expression are called epigenetic effects, and can be heritable. When epigenetic effects are caused by environmental pollutants such as pesticides, the negative effects of exposure can be passed on to future generations. …

“An example of this was recently described in a study that showed DDT exposure could increase rates of obesity several generations down the line. Researchers in the study exposed rats to DDT, and found that it caused an increase in dramatic fat accumulation and weight gain three generations later.”

In that 2013 study (Skinner et al.) the Washington State University research team noted: “A number of environmental factors such as toxicants and nutrition have been shown to promote the epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of adult onset disease and phenotypic variation. Examples of environmental compounds include the fungicide vinclozolin, plasticizers bisphenol-A (BPA) and phthalates, dioxin, hydrocarbons, and pesticides. … Therefore, your ancestors’ environmental exposures may influence your disease development, even though you have never had a direct exposure.”

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Consumers Reject Plastic Bread

The campaign to pressure industrial bakers and restaurants to remove Azodicarbonamide (ADA) from bread is showing results, but with hundreds of food products using this “chemical foaming agent” in their recipes, there’s still a long way to go.

Subway and Wonder Bread are the most notable brands to begin phasing out the compound, which has become infamous for its use in the manufacture of products ranging from yoga mats to flip-flops. The large bakers refer to ADA as a “dough conditioner” and laud its ability to make bread “puffier” and easier to ship.

As the Environmental Working Group’s David Andrews and Elaine Shannon explain: “In centuries past, flour fresh from the mill had to age several months before it could be kneaded into dough and popped into the oven. But in 1956, a New Jersey chemical, pharmaceuticals and engineering firm called Wallace & Tiernana, best known for inventing a mass water chlorination process, discovered that ADA caused flour to ‘achiev[e] maturing action without long storage.’ The result, the firm’s patent application stated, was commercial bread that was ‘light, soft and suitably moist, yet suitably firm or resilient, and that [had] crusts and internal properties of a pleasing and palatable nature.’ The FDA approved ADA as a food additive in 1962.  It is not approved for use in either Australia or the European Union.

“In the early 1990s, ADA became the preferred dough conditioner of many American commercial bakers as a result of California’s Proposition 65, which went into effect in 1987. This law require California authorities to list certain chemicals in food as ‘possibly dangerous to human health.’ Potassium bromate, then a common dough conditioner, was found to be carcinogenic in test animals and made the Prop 65 list in 1991. ADA was widely adopted as a safer substitute.”

Apart from its use in some breads, ADA “is mixed into polymer plastic gel to generate tiny gas bubbles, something like champagne for plastics. The results are materials that are strong, light, spongy and malleable,” the Environmental Working Group reports.

While compiling a comprehensive food database planned for the fall, the nonprofit found: “ADA turns up in nearly 500 items and in more than 130 brands of bread, bread stuffing and snacks, including many advertised as ‘healthy.’” The list features “many well-known brands of bread, croutons, pre-made sandwiches and snacks, including Ball Park, Butternut, Country Hearth, Fleischman’s, Food Club, Harvest Pride, Healthy Life, Jimmy Dean, Joseph Campione, Kroger, Little Debbie, Mariano’s, Marie Callendar’s, Martin’s, Mother’s, Pillsbury, Roman Meal, Sara Lee, Schmidt, Shoprite, Safeway, Smucker’s, Sunbeam, Turano, Tyson [and] Village Hearth.”

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The Storied Grain: Honey Edition

This month, readers of our popular e-newsletter, The Storied Grain, are learning a lot about honey. The April issue follows the sweetly golden treasure from the honeybee colonies of far northern Canada to the Khorasan of our new sprouted cereal.

Along the way, we explore the desperate plight of bees worldwide, and what some very concerned people are doing to help.

One Degree’s Sprouted Khorasan Honey O’s cereal made its debut just last month at Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim. Creating this new product required an ingredient expedition like no other. Ultimately we discovered the highest quality honey we could find in the pristine clover fields of Guy, Alberta. Just as important, it’s the most bee-friendly source too.

The Wolfe Honey Company markets a world-famous raw light honey that is produced using safe organic techniques. Founder Gilbert Wolfe’s estimated half billion honeybees are never exposed to chemicals of any kind during the production process. The honey is raw, with no heat treatment, and pure, with nothing added to dilute or sweeten.

As much as it is possible with such carefree creatures, Gilbert efficiently controls the whole process, from coronation of the queen to final packaging of the rare light nectar. When it’s time to remove honey from the hives, he uses a forced air technique, rather than the chemicals that are widely used by other producers. By rotating equipment and taking extraordinary measures to keep the hives clean, he’s also able to avoid another industry standard: antibiotics.

One of the most rewarding things about creating a new honey cereal was the opportunity to meet people like Gilbert and also the folks at the nonprofit Pollinator Partnership, who are working in effective and innovative ways to help protect bees. Their BeeSmart™ School Garden Kit program is a fun initiative that connects kids with the natural world around them, inspiring young minds to plant habitat gardens that attract and sustain honeybees. The kit is a rich resource for teachers and parents to use for kids in grades 3 to 6.

The Garden Kit program is a small step, but in the hands of a determined parent or teacher has the potential to change the future by instilling new generations with respect for the natural world and all of the intricate parts that make it vibrant and whole.

Read more in The Storied Grain. If you haven’t yet signed up to receive our newsletter, we invite you to subscribe at Meanwhile, unwrap the April issue here:

March to Extinction

“How does a perfectly delicious food begin the march toward extinction?” asks science journalist Rachel Nuwer, writing for the BBC.

Not surprisingly, the answer has less to do with natural changes than with man’s tastes and technology, avarice and voracity.

“Compared to historic records, 86% of apple varieties grown in the U.S. alone are gone,” she notes. “Old Cornish cauliflowers are extinct, as is the Ansault pear, which pear experts back in the 19th Century described as having a deliciously buttery flavour. … We tend to think that a tomato is a tomato, a carrot a carrot, but over the years, farmers have introduced new genetic iterations of both crop and livestock. The wheat used to make bread today, for example, is different than the wheat used 20 years ago in that same recipe. …

“Many endangered varieties are unique to a single local region, having never expanded beyond that community’s confines. When small farms or backyard operations shutter or decide to switch to conventional breeds, the local varieties disappear. As a result, compared to pre-1900, about 75% of global farmed plant diversity is gone. …

“The arguments for preserving food diversity overlap with those for preserving ecological diversity in the wild. The planet is constantly in a state of flux — now, more so than ever. The climate is warming and weather patterns are shifting. Plants, too, will need to change in order to keep up. But domesticated crops are at an exceptional disadvantage. Their evolution is largely in our selective hands, and we’ve tailored them toward profit-favouring traits such as high yield and durability rather than adaptability.”

Cary Fowler, designer of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway, told the author: “When a new pest, disease or drought comes, do you want a crop that is pest and disease resistant and drought tolerant, or do you want to just put more chemicals on crops and increase irrigation? The choice seems pretty clear to me. Diversity is the most effective, easiest, cheapest and most sustainable way to help agriculture adapt to change.”

Another source cited in the piece, Richard McCarthy of Slow Food USA, redirects the argument for preservation from statistics to the subjective realm, the place where we most clearly feel the ineffable losses:

“Louisiana strawberries — Klondykes and Tangis, ‘sweet and delicious, and highly coveted’ — were forced out of production several decades ago because they didn’t travel well and were too small. ‘Now, we can get strawberries year round, which look beautiful and taste of nothing,’ he says. The older generation notices the difference. ‘They say things like, ‘I remember how much more I enjoyed life because strawberries tasted of strawberries. I could only get them during a certain time of year, but it was worth waiting for.’”

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Defining Veganic, Applying Our Principles

Winston Churchill once described America and Britain as “two countries separated by a common language.” It’s a wry perspective that often seems to apply to the vocabulary of vegans, vegetarians and other health-conscious consumers.

At One Degree, we’re very familiar with the importance of clarity of meaning in describing the products we create and the lifestyle we promote. After all, we’re the company that has popularized the term “veganic” and is using it to revolutionize agriculture in North America and beyond. Now that we’ve added raw light organic honey to our newest cereal, it’s a good time to revisit some of the fine shades of distinction between vegan and veganic, as well as the substantial common ground:

As for similarities, vegans and consumers who love veganic products are pursuing the same goal — a diet that is healthy for the body and the planet.

As a result, both perspectives have important ethical components. Another key overlap is that veganic breads, cereals, flour and other foods are a perfect fit for vegans, who exclude meat and dairy products from their diets.

Now for the differences: Vegan choices center on personal decisions about what types of food to eat. Veganic methods are choices farmers make in cultivating their fields. Essentially, veganic agriculture is a principled way farmers grow crops without the use of chemicals, compounds or animal inputs of any kind.

Veganic foods also have a wider appeal beyond a vegan diet, such as for mothers with young children, those who have been told by a doctor to fundamentally change their diet and anyone looking for food sources that are grown safely and sustainably.

Veganic farming promises good food grown safely. This wider definition allows consumers options that some very committed vegans may not always agree with. For example, One Degree uses a pure organic variety of honey in our Sprouted Khorasan Honey O’s cereal. Many vegans exclude honey from their diets because it comes from a non-plant source, namely honeybees. Although we make sure that our tiny honey suppliers have the freedom to roam the pristine clover fields of northern Alberta, Canada, we understand and respect this choice. (More on this, below.)

Another difference sometimes involves the presence of animals on farms. One of the key tenets of veganic agriculture is to reject animal-based fertilizer of any kind. The reason for this is to keep pathogens and contaminants away from crops. Even many organic farms use animal waste on fields, including blood meal and bone meal. These sources may carry an array of hormones, antibiotics, pesticides and other chemicals.

Veganic farms use only plant-based fertilizers and favor nature’s own time-tested methods to build nutrients in the soil, such as rotating crop varieties and allowing fields to lie fallow. As a result, they produce healthier, safer food. But although veganic is a step beyond organic, it doesn’t always meet the strictest definitions of some vegans who may believe farmers should not be raising livestock anywhere on their land, even if the animals are kept far from agricultural fields. Again, we respect this philosophy, even as we focus our efforts on ensuring that the crops we use are grown in the safest possible way for our customers.

Honey is a food that helps clarify the differences between veganic and vegan. As noted above, many vegans choose not to consume honey. Although bees are essential to many plants, they are not plants themselves of course, and so don’t qualify as a true vegan source.

The veganic perspective is more complex. Veganic farming centers on cultivating crops in the field without chemicals, compounds or animal-based fertilizer. Honeybees don’t fit into that definition either. But there are organic standards that apply to the production of honey, such as rules prohibiting the use of chemicals and mandating natural forage areas. And so when we began looking for a honey source for our new cereal, we considered only pure, raw, organic honey — the best quality and most bee-friendly available.

Organic honey to sweeten veganic grains: It may take a moment for the meanings to crystalize, but in the end you’re left with some pretty delicious food for thought.

Our Grandparents’ Oranges

It’s not your imagination that grocery store produce isn’t as nutritious as it once was. Beyond the processing of food, the genetic modification of plants and a mass-market supply chain that values short growing times and long shelf lives, the prime cause of anemic fruits and vegetables is something basic: soil depletion.

“Modern intensive agricultural methods have stripped increasing amounts of nutrients from the soil in which the food we eat grows,” EarthTalk column writers Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss explain in Scientific American. “Sadly, each successive generation of fast-growing, pest-resistant carrot is truly less good for you than the one before.

“A landmark study on the topic by Donald Davis and his team of researchers from the University of Texas at Austin’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry was published in December 2004 in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition. They studied U.S. Department of Agriculture nutritional data from both 1950 and 1999 for 43 different vegetables and fruits, finding ‘reliable declines’ in the amount of protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin (vitamin B2) and vitamin C over the past half century. …

“The Organic Consumers Association cites several other studies with similar findings: A Kushi Institute analysis of nutrient data from 1975 to 1997 found that average calcium levels in 12 fresh vegetables dropped 27 percent; iron levels 37 percent; vitamin A levels 21 percent, and vitamin C levels 30 percent. A similar study of British nutrient data from 1930 to 1980, published in the British Food Journal, found that in 20 vegetables the average calcium content had declined 19 percent; iron 22 percent; and potassium 14 percent. Yet another study concluded that one would have to eat eight oranges today to derive the same amount of Vitamin A as our grandparents would have gotten from one.”

Surveying the damage, the authors arrive at a familiar solution: “The key to healthier produce is healthier soil. Alternating fields between growing seasons to give land time to restore would be one important step. Also, foregoing pesticides and fertilizers in favor of organic growing methods is good for the soil, the produce and its consumers. Those who want to get the most nutritious fruits and vegetables should buy regularly from local organic farmers.”

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Pesticides Promise Higher Yields, Lower IQs

When it comes to pesticides and other toxins in our environment, the stakes are very high. That’s according to a cascade of new research that suggests dangerous chemicals are causing a range of developmental problems in young children and infants, and may even be lowering IQs.

Writing in The Atlantic, James Hamblin describes the magnitude of the damage: “Forty-one million IQ points. That’s what Dr. David Bellinger determined Americans have collectively forfeited as a result of exposure to lead, mercury, and organophosphate pesticides. In a 2012 paper published by the National Institutes of Health, Bellinger, a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, compared intelligence quotients among children whose mothers had been exposed to these neurotoxins while pregnant to those who had not. Bellinger calculates a total loss of 16.9 million IQ points due to exposure to organophosphates, the most common pesticides used in agriculture.

“Last month, more research brought concerns about chemical exposure and brain health to a heightened pitch. Philippe Grandjean, Bellinger’s Harvard colleague, and Philip Landrigan, dean for global health at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in Manhattan, announced to some controversy in the pages of a prestigious medical journal that a ‘silent pandemic’ of toxins has been damaging the brains of unborn children. The experts named 12 chemicals — substances found in both the environment and everyday items like furniture and clothing — that they believed to be causing not just lower IQs but ADHD and autism spectrum disorder. Pesticides were among the toxins they identified.”

Significantly, Landrigan told the author: “I advise pregnant women to try to eat organic because it reduces their [pesticide] exposure by 80 or 90 percent. These are the chemicals I really worry about in terms of American kids, the organophosphate pesticides like chlorpyrifos.”

Chlorpyrifos evades accountability and effective regulation despite the known dangers. Hamblin explains: “For decades, chlorpyrifos, marketed by Dow Chemical beginning in 1965, was the most widely used insect killer in American homes. Then, in 1995, Dow was fined $732,000 by the EPA for concealing more than 200 reports of poisoning related to chlorpyrifos. It paid the fine and, in 2000, withdrew chlorpyrifos from household products. Today, chlorpyrifos is classified as ‘very highly toxic’ to birds and freshwater fish, and ‘moderately toxic’ to mammals, but it is still used widely in agriculture on food and non-food crops, in greenhouses and plant nurseries, on wood products and golf courses.”

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Raw Honey: Rich, Golden and Rare

“A day without a friend is like a pot without a single drop of honey left inside,” a round yellow philosopher once told his Panglossian friend, Piglet.

That famous bear, the sauntering sage of A. A. Milne’s children’s books, probably meant genuine raw honey, the only kind you would find hanging from a tree in a storybook land. In the real world of the modern American grocery store, however, honey is far from that ideal. On the outside, the packaging may present the image of a squeezable plastic bear. On the inside, the treacly syrup advertised as honey likely lacks the pollen, nutrients and natural flavors that make the original one of nature’s most irresistible nectars.

“More than three-fourths of the honey sold in U.S. grocery stores isn’t exactly what the bees produce,” Food Safety News reported after its wide-ranging test of common honey products found that most contained zero pollen.

“The food safety divisions of the World Health Organization, the European Commission and dozens of others also have ruled that without pollen there is no way to determine whether the honey came from legitimate and safe sources. In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration says that any product that’s been ultra-filtered and no longer contains pollen isn’t honey. However, the FDA isn’t checking honey sold here to see if it contains pollen.

“Ultra-filtering is a high-tech procedure where honey is heated, sometimes watered down and then forced at high pressure through extremely small filters to remove pollen, which is the only foolproof sign identifying the source of the honey. It is a spin-off of a technique refined by the Chinese, who have illegally dumped tons of their honey — some containing illegal antibiotics — on the U.S. market for years. …

“Removal of all pollen from honey ‘makes no sense’ and is completely contrary to marketing the highest quality product possible, Mark Jensen, president of the American Honey Producers Association, told Food Safety News. ‘I don’t know of any U.S. producer that would want to do that. Elimination of all pollen can only be achieved by ultra-filtering and this filtration process does nothing but cost money and diminish the quality of the honey.’”

Beekeeper Richard Adee noted: “It’s no secret to anyone in the business that the only reason all the pollen is filtered out is to hide where it initially came from and the fact is that in almost all cases, that is China.”

According to a review of the data by, processed mass-market honey is missing the key benefits of raw honey, including: anti-viral, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-carcinogenic properties; vital enzymes and vitamins; blood sugar stabilization, wound healing and cholesterol-lowering benefits; flavonoids, anti-inflammatories and compounds that fortify blood pressure, immunity, digestion and heart health. What the grocery store varieties may contain instead are antibiotics, high fructose corn syrup and even heavy metals.

At the end of the day, the most forlorn part of the Food Safety News study was the discovery that a Michigan company named HoneyTree Inc. had used ultra-filtration on its product. For Wal-Mart, it squeezes its sugary syrup into a familiar plump shape and blithely calls its brand … alas, Winnie the Pooh.

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Honey Stings Bugs, Study Reveals

Honeybees have been under attack by man’s chemical inventions, habitat destruction and industrial agricultural practices. Now, in an ironic twist, honey itself may become part of the solution to another man-made calamity: antibiotic resistant bacteria.

That prediction was made in research presented this month at a national gathering of the American Chemical Society (ACS). According to an ACS news release, research leader Dr. Susan M. Meschwitz provided new evidence that honey is a powerful infection-fighting agent. It blocks bacteria’s ability to develop antibiotic resistance by deploying “a combination of weapons, including hydrogen peroxide, acidity, osmotic effect, high sugar concentration and polyphenols — all of which actively kill bacterial cells. … The osmotic effect, which is the result of the high sugar concentration in honey, draws water from the bacterial cells, dehydrating and killing them.

“In addition, several studies have shown that honey inhibits the formation of biofilms, or communities of slimy disease-causing bacteria, she said. ‘Honey may also disrupt quorum sensing, which weakens bacterial virulence, rendering the bacteria more susceptible to conventional antibiotics,’ Meschwitz said. Quorum sensing is the way bacteria communicate with one another, and may be involved in the formation of biofilms. In certain bacteria, this communication system also controls the release of toxins, which affects the bacteria’s pathogenicity, or their ability to cause disease. …

“Honey is effective because it is filled with healthful polyphenols, or antioxidants, she said. These include the phenolic acids, caffeic acid, p-coumaric acid and ellagic acid, as well as many flavonoids.”

The team’s findings suggest honey’s antioxidants may be effective at combating a wide range of bacterial villains, including E. coli, Staphylococcus aureus and Pseudomonas aeruginosa. Honey may also turn out to have “antifungal and antiviral properties,” according to Dr. Meschwitz.

The results to date are intriguing, although not entirely surprising to home remedy devotees. Many moms have long used honey to dress cuts and prevent infection. A 2005 study (Staunton, Halliday et al.) noted: “Anecdotal reports on the use of honey to treat wounds date back to 2000 B.C. Recently, scientific inquiries have found merit to these reports. Honey accelerates healing because of its direct effects on tissue and antibacterial properties.”

GMO Tides, Organic Islands

When it comes to GMO crops and organic fields, coexistence may be futile, according to a new report.

Food & Water Watch surveyed a cross-section of organic grain producers, and found that many of them are taking extraordinary measures to ensure the purity of their harvests. But on the other side of the fence, their GMO-planting neighbors don’t seem to feel any pressure from regulators or the law to prevent cross-pollination and chemical drift.

The frustration level is high. As the IPS News Agency reports: “In the new study, nearly half of the farmers polled said they did not believe that GM and non-GM crops could ever ‘coexist,’ while more than two-thirds said that ‘good stewardship’ is insufficient to address contamination.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s approach to the issue “has been to encourage ‘good stewardship’ practices and communication between neighboring farmers,” notes IPS. “Yet non-GM farmers say that, in practice, this has meant substantial outlays of both time and money in order to safeguard their crops—and virtually no corresponding responsibility on the part of farmers using genetically modified crops.

“Beyond regular testing and certification requirements, U.S. [organic] farmers are required to set aside a substantial buffer zone around their fields to guard against GM contamination. Averaging around five acres, this buffer zone alone costs farmers anywhere from 2,500 to 20,000 dollars a year in lost income, according to the new survey.

“Other farmers resort to waiting to plant their crops until after their neighbors’ GM crops have pollinated. Yet this delay, too, imposes a financial burden of several thousand dollars per year.”

One organic farmer surveyed by the group voiced a common grievance: “I’m getting tired of maintaining these miles of buffers. How about the guy that sprays up to the fence be liable for the damage that is done?”

A North Dakota farmer told the survey team: “All this is subject to change if our neighbors grow GM alfalfa or GM wheat is approved or wider wheat seed contamination is detected. One can only go so far eliminating crops with GM varieties. … We cannot, for example, grow organic canola as we are surrounded by hundreds of acres of GM canola—pollinated by insects—no buffer is big enough to contain cross-pollination.”

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