Organic Food Not Understood By Consumers

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By J.P. Kelsey

Over the past decade, organic foods have become quite popular and a movement for things like less pesticides and more efficient farming have been at the forefront of many debates. Most people that have bought anything organic are used to seeing the green and white “USDA Organic” seal somewhere on the product, but what does that really mean? It turns out, many people don’t really seem to know. These concerned, but confused consumers have yet to slow down their purchasing of organic products, however.

A 2014 study by BFG, a marketing/consulting firm, surveyed 300 shoppers that consume organic goods and found the vast majority (70%) didn’t feel knowledgable enough to say what organic means. “What I think we’re seeing in grocery stores is that consumers are ultimately idealists. They desire honesty. They want to believe,” BFG president Kevin Meany told Fast Company. “ They trust the label, and they’re willing to pay more based on that for something like ‘all-natural’ even though they’re not totally sure what it means.” Even though the sample size was small, the phenomenon of shoppers consuming “organic” foods and not knowing exactly what that means suggests that this is may be more than anecdotal evidence. Sure, not everyone can be an expert on agriculture and farming practices, but trusting food companies based on a label can be a slippery slope. This is mainly because food companies see that the organic/natural food industry is growing and that proper marketing can be beneficial, even if it’s slightly misleading.

The National Organic Program (NOP), the federal regulatory agency established in order to create guidelines for labeling foods as “organic,” has defined the term as such: “Organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.” This is just a jumping off point and a blanket definition. The actual guidelines are much more dense, bordering on convoluted. This can be good thing just as much as a bad thing. Since 2000, when the NOP finalized its requirements for labeling foods organic, the industry has quadrupled its sales.

When the program first started and foods began carrying the familiar “USDA Organic” seal, around $7.8 billion was centered around the organic food industry. As of 2012, though, that number has grown to $28 billion and is expected to keep growing. With this exponential growth, more and more companies want to make their products look healthier, which can also increase the price tag for no apparent reason. Too, the term organic, even when it is used in the bona fide sense, can get lost in the mix of other labeling. Things like “all natural,” “no sugar added,” “no preservatives,” and other popular things to put on food labels can be confusing to the consumer. Not all buyers of these products are that gullible, however, the same BFG study indicated. About 75 percent of those they surveyed thought the term “organic” has become more of a marketing tool than anything else and 63 percent thought the same of the term “all natural.”

Most people, however, still think organic is “healthier.” This may or may not be the case as some research has indicated no greater nutritional value in organic foods. This “no greater benefit” of organic foods didn’t really look at the longitudinal effects of exposure to pesticides and the like, though. It mostly looked at the vitamin/mineral content of organic/ non-organic foods and their bioavailability. Even with studies like this, organic and natural foods are more popular than ever and, overall, the increased consumption of these foods can be a good thing. Yes, things can get messy when you look at how heavily agriculture, advertising, and corporate interest are tied, but consumers are becoming more savvy and expect healthier options. Many consumers may not know the fine details of what makes something organic, but they are aware that consuming pesticide drenched food grown in overarmed land from genetically modified seeds may not be the best place for current agricultural practices to stay.

Oil Dispersant “Corexit” Can Make Matters Worse For Marine Life

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By J.P. Kelsey

It seems that since the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, not much attention has been given to exactly how the spill was “cleaned” or how the estimated 14,000 oil spills are cleaned each year. One measure that is often taken to control the amount of oil that reaches coastline is using the chemical dispersant,”Corexit 9500A.” Much is still being discovered about the combination of such dispersants and crude oil, however, increasing the debate over their safety and effectiveness.

Dispersant Use in Gulf of Mexico. Credit: NOAA

Dispersant Use in Gulf of Mexico. Credit: NOAA

Over the past few years, some research has begun to shed light on the effects of such popular cleaning methods and agents.  A bath of “Dawn” dish detergent can only be used on a small scale, sadly. Nearly two million gallons of dispersants were estimated to have been used in the DWH spill. Even with the media covering some of the concerns over chemical dispersant use in the case of DWH, the issue took a back seat to lawsuits BP had incurred and their monetary compensation woes. A 2014 study by the University of Texas at Austin ( UT Austin) Marine institute attempted to determine what the effects of crude oil and dispersants are upon marine organisms; Some of their findings have suggested that, when combined, crude oil and dispersants are even more toxic. ”Our results indicate that Corexit 9500A is highly toxic to microzooplankton, particularly to small ciliates, and that the combination of dispersant with crude oil significantly increases the toxicity of crude oil to microzooplankton,” the study concluded. The UT Austin study focused on microzooplankton due to the important role such organisms play in marine ecosystems. These organisms are key players in food webs and their health can be detrimental to the health of larger organisms and ocean health in general. The line of Corexit dispersants work due to their ability to emulsify oil slicks into smaller droplets, thus, increasing the rate at which the oil can be biodegraded and dispersed throughout water columns. Various forms of this cleaner have been used over the past few decades for many oil spills, but unprecedented amounts were used in DWH’s case. It was also used at underwater depths it had not been previously approved, adding to the questions surrounding its effects.

Underwater use of Dispersant. Credit: BP

Underwater use of Dispersant. Credit: BP

The use of such dispersants is banned in many countries, including the UK. BP has made claims, however, that the dispersant is relatively harmless and becomes too dilute to harm marine life to any significance. More and more research, though, is suggesting to the contrary and that the emulsification of oil that takes place due to the introduction of Corexit can make the oil more bioavailable to organisms. In a study associated with the Gulf Oil Disaster Recovery Group, a legal consortium representing environmental groups and individuals affected by the Deepwater Horizon spill, Corexit was implicated to increase toxicity to a wide range of organisms. Dr. William Sawyer, a Louisiana Toxicologist, said the study “shows that the absorption [of the oil] was enhanced by the Corexit.” Humans and many species of wildlife can be susceptible to this increased absorption, resulting in ill effects. A 2012 study by Louisiana State University’s Department of Oceanography and Coastal Sciences noticed many deformities in organisms like shrimp and fish that had not been seen before, indicating some recent change in the water may be responsible; Researches have suggested the deformities are related to the DWH spill, but BP and the US media, largely, ignored the study. Aljazeera ran an in depth story on the matter that explains why scientists made their conclusions. Other, more recent, studies have made similar findings

Image shows a normal yellowfin tuna larva not long after hatching (top), and a larva exposed to Deepwater Horizon crude oil during embryonic development (bottom). The oil-exposed larva shows a suite of morphological abnormalities including fluid accumulation from heart failure and poor growth of fins and eyes. (Credit: John Incardona/NOAA.)

Image shows a normal yellowfin tuna larva not long after hatching (top), and a larva exposed to Deepwater Horizon crude oil during embryonic development (bottom). The oil-exposed larva shows a suite of morphological abnormalities including fluid accumulation from heart failure and poor growth of fins and eyes. (Credit: John Incardona/NOAA.)

 2014 study by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and North Dakota State University has shown preliminary results indicating that BP oil and Corexit have been found in the shells of white pelican eggs.

White Pelican. Credit: National Geographic

White Pelican. Credit: National Geographic

To an extent, the public has contested the use of such chemicals in any scenario and the EPA suggests using them when only extremely necessary, but not much has been done by big business to research more innocuous means to clean oil spills. According to a 2010 New York Times report, Corexit is one of the more toxic dispersants on the market and some may actually have worked better on the type of oil from the DWH spill. Dispersants, other than being toxic, can also increase the activity of bacteria in the water and deplete much needed oxygen. It can also cause oil to settle at the ocean floor, which may damage things like coral. A recent study funded by the National Science Foundation has shown there to be a large accumulation of oil in the Gulf of Mexico near DWH. (See Article Below). Even though some dispersants are slightly less toxic, for now, it seems this EPA “approved” method is the best thing out there that is ready for use. There is some hope, however, when it comes to cleaning oils spills. According to the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, some more eco-friendly dispersants are being developed, but implementation on a mass scale is likely years away.

Where Did the Oil from the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon Spill Go?

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By J.P. Kelsey

A recent study has shown that there is a large accumulation of crude oil located on the ocean floor of the Gulf of Mexico. Findings have shown that the oil has formed a “ring” of sorts in locations close to where the BP Deepwater Horizon explosion took place in 2010. Since then, citizens and scientists alike have been concerned with where all of the leaked oil went. The research has begun to answer this inquiry, but its findings are likely to raise even more questions.

Deepwater Horizon (Image by the guardian.com)

Deepwater Horizon (Image by theguardian.com)

The National Science Foundation (NSF) funded study was headed by University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) Biogeochemist David Valentine, with UC Irvine and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) aiding in the research. “This analysis provides us with, for the first time, some closure on the question, ‘Where did the oil go and how did it get there?” said Don Rice in a statement released by the NSF. Rice is program director of NSF’s Ocean Sciences Division. Most of this newly discovered oil is within 25 miles of the well, but the environmental impact and source is yet to be fully agreed upon.

Even though evidence seems to suggest the oil is what is partially left over from the, approximately, 172 million gallons that were leaked between April and July 2010, BP has not taken responsibility and has contested implications made by the authors of the study. “The authors failed to identify the source of the oil, leading them to grossly overstate the amount of residual Macondo oil on the sea floor and the geographic area in which it is found,” BP said in a statement. The NSF research included 12 expeditions and over 3,000 samples collected from 534 locations.

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Locations of Sample Sites ( Credit: David Valentine et al)

The oil, which covers about 1,250 square miles and is about the size of Rhode Island, accounts for only 2 to 16 percent of all the oil leaked,however. The study focused on establishing amounts of Hopane in their samples. Hopane is a chemical component found in most all crude oil and deposits of such can be found throughout the Gulf of Mexico due to natural “seepage.” This is one reason BP has met the NSF findings with resistance, saying the samples contain Hopane that has deposited naturally. Valentine and his colleagues, though, say they stand by their findings and believe these deposits are a direct result of the 2010 oil spill. “First, the Hopane was concentrated in the top half-inch of the seafloor, indicating that it was deposited recently, and not from a long-term process like natural seepage,” said Valentine in a release. “Second, we found that hopane concentrations were much higher in the vicinity of the Macondo well, compared to areas further away.”

Hydrocarbons from the Deepwater Horizon spill overlaid on sea floor bathymetry of the study area.

Hydrocarbons from the Deepwater Horizon spill overlaid on sea floor bathymetry of the study area. (Credit: David Valentine et al)

Although it may be hard to convince everyone that the oil is from the BP spill and only a small amount of this oil has said to’ve been found, the research was not in vain. “These findings should be useful for assessing the damage caused by the Deepwater Horizon spill, as well as planning future studies to further define the extent and nature of the contamination,” added Valentine. “Our work can also help assess the fate of reactive hydrocarbons, test models of oil’s behavior in the ocean, and plan for future spills.” The research was published in an Oct. edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Ocean Dead Zones Complex Issue

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By J.P. Kelsey

When the term “dead zone” is heard in reference to the ocean, many things can come to mind, but what are they really and why do they matter? The scientific term for a dead zone is “hypoxia,” which basically means low oxygen levels and that is exactly why they are important to marine ecosystems. It is these low oxygen levels, and the many things that can influence their growth, that can be detrimental to the survival of a wide range of marine life. Although the term can be alarming, a dead zone in the ocean is a normal part of marine ecology and they occur all throughout the world.

World Hypoxic Zones

Dead Zones Around the World

It is when these hypoxic zones occur more frequently, are influenced by human activity, and form where marine life typically inhabit that scientists become concerned. These areas are more observable in the Spring/Summer months due to the warmer weather and outside nutrients being introduced more frequently during this time.”My concern falls more with the processes that are creating that [hypoxia] and sustaining it,” said Dr. Jeffrey Krause. “We are dealing with a pretty large and expansive man made hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico.” Krause is an Assistant Professor of Marine Sciences at the University of South Alabama and Senior Research Scientist at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab. There are around 400-500 hypoxic zones in the world, but not all are immediate threats and some are larger than others. The Northern Gulf of Mexico is home to the second largest dead zone in the world and according to NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association), the 2014 dead zone size estimate was around 5,052 square miles.

Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone

Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone

NOAA and the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCOM) have been monitoring gulf hypoxic areas for about 30 years now. It was in 1972 when lower than normal oxygen levels were first observed and researchers began investigating causes. This year’s gulf dead zone was slightly smaller than in previous years, but it is still roughly the size of Connecticut and there are a few, key factors as to why it remains quite robust. One of the main reasons is that the Mississippi Watershed is home to extensive farmland and this land, which accounts for about 33 percent of the continental U.S., drains from the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico.

Mississippi River Watershed

Mississipi River Watershed

Having a lot of farmland in this area isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but starting in the 1950s and ‘60s, the industrialized production and use of soil amendments increased and that has been very influential. Specifically, high concentrations of Nitrogen and Phosphorous in fertilizers are the elements that act as catalysts for many biological processes that contribute to the formation of dead zones. “It’s not that the fertilizer itself is causing it [hypoxia],” said Krause. “The fertilizer is stimulating the production of organic matter. That organic matter, instead of sinking to the sediments and staying there, is being consumed because it’s food and this active consumption depletes oxygen.” Krause went on to explain that it is mostly bacteria that consumes this excess organic matter and is an essential part to the biological phenomenon of hypoxia. But a few other things can come into play to form theses areas. “The stratification of water is already present in the ocean and that makes the exchange of oxygen from one column to the next difficult. Then you have your nutrients and that is where the fertilizer comes into play because it’s fuel. The top layer of water that is warmer and already has phytoplankton becomes more nutrient rich, resulting in a large biomass of organic matter that sinks and is consumed. This process causes the lower layer of water to become more dense and the oxygen that is present in the top layer has an even more difficult time reaching the lower, cooler columns of water.”

The issue of hypoxic zones and their contributing factors becomes even become more complex when you consider the socioeconomic implications that are directly tied to the ocean. “The Northern Gulf of Mexico is a very productive ecosystem. A lot of organisms call this area of the gulf home and use it and, in turn, there are a lot of economic services tied up with that,” Krause added. This could mean anything from large scale fisheries that depend on fish like Red Snapper to independent shrimping being effected. These two industries alone are worth millions of dollars to gulf residents and both could substantially effect the businesses and families that have spent decades depending on a healthy ocean for their livelihood.

The gulf dead zone is only one piece of a larger, environmental problem with U.S. agriculture and watershed issues, however. The gulf just happens to be one of the areas where effects of agricultural practices and pollution are more visible. These kind of problems, though, are far reaching, effect the whole country and are heavily tied to government and industry. “When you start getting into those type of issues, it’s a little more tricky to regulate. Regulation of Nitrogen use and fertilizer, these are some of the things on the table. They have set benchmarks, the National Academy of Sciences have made recommendations; Ultimately, science will recommend the course of action, but it’s going to be policy makers and politicians that will decide how to move forward. This is a complex issue, though, and it’s not a simple regulatory solution where you get rid of one thing and fix another. The pragmatic approach is to take measures to reduce the dead zone size, not eliminate it. And regulating things like nitrogen use can help.”

There are still many obstacles faced when it comes to the relationship between policy, big business, and the environment, though. Science and scientists are largely underrepresented in congress and that can hinder the way in which decisions get made and how quickly action is taken. Some steps have been taken to reduce things like pollution and increase more efficient forms of energy, but there has always been a lag. Until the gravity of the environmental situation becomes more apparent to world leaders, science may only be able to lobby the people.

About this blog and myself

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My name is John Kelsey and I am a graduate student at the University of South Alabama . The creation of this blog is part of my graduate training in communication/journalism. Specifically, this blog is going to be dedicated to environmental issues related to the Alabama Gulf Coast and surrounding areas; I will be focusing on anything that has an impact upon the environment. This could mean anything from the construction of bridges and roadways to the health of marine life. This post is just to give an idea of what I will be doing and why. In my next post, I will discuss why these issues are important and put them into a local context as well as a global context.