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Natural or Synthetic

The natural synthetic dichotomy is not useful when it comes to what's good for us. There are countless examples of "natural" substances that can do one great harm, and that's also true of synthetic ones. The converse is also true, there are many synthetic substances that are totally innocuous, and even beneficial, and so it is with natural ones. So where does this natural is good and synthetic is bad paradigm come from, and why are otherwise, intelligent people so eager to get on the "natural" bandwagon.

I don't know the answers, but I do know that the sort of fuzzy thinking that leads people to believe it, causes harm. Nowhere is it more apparent than in the organic/conventional debate on food and how we produce it.

The question isn't natural or synthetic it's harm or no harm.

A recent study highlights the problem

Consumers shouldn't assume that, because a product is organic, it's also environmentally friendly.

A new University of Guelph study reveals some organic pesticides can have a higher environmental impact than conventional pesticides because the organic product may require larger doses. . .

The study, which is published in the journal PLoS ONE, involved testing six pesticides and comparing their environmental impact and effectiveness in killing soybean aphids -- the main pest of soybean crops across North America.

"In terms of making pest management decisions and trying to do what is best for the environment, it's important to look at every compound and make a selection based on the environmental impact quotient rather than if it's simply natural or synthetic. It's a simplification that just doesn't work when it comes to minimizing environmental impact."

Here is another link discussing the study.



The question isn't natural or synthetic it's harm or no harm.

One question that needs to be addressed is: How do we define the word, "natural"?

It is unnatural to grow acres and acres of soybeans with no other plants around. Even if the farmer uses organic pesticides, and even if those organic pesticides don't cause the environmental damage suggested in the article, this method of growing soy is still unnatural. The problem, once again, is that much of our soy crop is used for cattle feed, and much of that is paid for with government subsidies. Removing these subsidies, using the newly available land for something else, and reducing our meat production & consumption would lead to a less unnatural method of agriculture and would also probably reduce the impact of aphids.

The terms "natural" and "organic" are defined too narrowly, in my opinion. Simply avoiding chemicals does not necessarily render the crop "natural" or "organic." We need to embrace a more holistic* approach to "natural" farming, instead of the piecemeal approach we usually see.

*And by "holisic," I mean, "Emphasizing the importance of the whole and the interdependence of its parts," and not the hippy-dippy pseudo-scientific medicine definition.

The organic movement seems to define natural as no synthetic inputs. That's dogmatic, and it's the kind of fuzzy thinking I spoke of.

Would you like to offer a definition of natural, does it include synthetic?
I think we would be better off not using the term natural at all, it's a meaningless distinction.

The one crop distinction is also questionable. It's true sometimes but not always. What say you to a rice crop should you rotate that with something else. Each decision needs to be based on long term sustainability and to say that the organic dogma is the only way to reach that goal is stupid.

I think that is a great point Norm: "The question isn't natural or synthetic it's harm or no harm." And maybe just add to that "long-term harm or no harm." That is one reason I would prefer something organic (obviously not the two options they chose v. the four synthetics they chose - and, BTW, how does making these synthetics affect the environment? And, I also wonder, would anyone even have tried to make a reduced-risk synthetic pesticide if not for the demands for less environmental impact from our pesticides?) I agree a knee-jerk response to something being organic is as foolish as someone thinking a "natural" food product is good for them (I think even HFCS can be called natural if produced a certain way) but I'm still not sure if that translates into "synthetic is good."

I agree a knee-jerk response to something being organic is as foolish as someone thinking a "natural" food product is good for them (I think even HFCS can be called natural if produced a certain way) but I'm still not sure if that translates into "synthetic is good."

I'm certainly not claiming that synthetic is good, but simply that the natural/synthetic distinction is not what we should be looking at. Each substance has to be analyzed and the label of good or bad should be based on science not on the meaningless natural/synthetic dichotomy.

Each decision needs to be based on long term sustainability and to say that the organic dogma is the only way to reach that goal is stupid.

Did I say that? FWIW, I am not an organic dogmatist, and I have long viewed words like "organic" and "all natural" with suspicion. My only point is that reducing our impact on the environment, whether in farming or anything else, is a multi-pronged endeavor, and these piecemeal "solutions," as the article points out, tend to do more harm than good.

We need to overhaul the way we live and not simply tweak our current paradigm here and there.

Would you like to offer a definition of natural, does it include synthetic?

I guess it could be argued that since humans are "natural," then anything produced by humans is "natural." But just as beaver dams or buffalo herds sometimes negatively impact their surroundings, human activities do, too. Since unlike beavers and buffalo, humans possess a frontal lobe that enables us to recognize the impact of our actions, we have an additional responsibility that they lack, which is why the definition of "natural" is necessarily broad and difficult to clarify.

I think we would be better off not using the term natural at all, it's a meaningless distinction.

I completely agree, especially since it is used primarily as a deceptive advertising mechanism and not as an accurate description of the product.

SIDE NOTE: Norm, you seem to have a tendency to automatically take exception to anything I post here. I wasn't exactly disagreeing with the article; I was simply discussing the points it made.

I am not an organic dogmatist

In what sense. Where do you differ from the organic position, GMO's, synthetic fertilizers, synthetic pesticides, is there any principle of organic farming you think they get wrong. Do you think organic farming can feed the world?

I wasn't exactly disagreeing with the article

What does that mean, could you list the points from the article that you disagree with?

Norm, stop being petulant.

farming in general is unnatural let alone farming soybeans with no other crops in rotation or co-cultivation.

I agree, more or less. See my reply to Norm above.

yeah but i disagree with you completely. farming is artificial. GMOs are artificial. once something is deemed artificial it can't be "more artificial" or "less artificial". if you want to argue that GMOs are "more artificial" and substantiate your argument by defining how "artificiality is not binary" then you'll lose the argument based on scientific reasoning.

what we're finding is that very few things we make are actually synthetic. it's like us discovering the New World, we weren't the first to "discover" it.

Did you read my reply to Norm as I sugessted? For example, the part where I said, "I guess it could be argued that since humans are "natural," then anything produced by humans is "natural." But just as beaver dams or buffalo herds sometimes negatively impact their surroundings, human activities do, too. Since unlike beavers and buffalo, humans possess a frontal lobe that enables us to recognize the impact of our actions, we have an additional responsibility that they lack, which is why the definition of "natural" is necessarily broad and difficult to clarify."

Humans have been farming for thousands of years. Farming has only become an environmental issue within the last 70 or so. It therefore stands to reason that farming itself isn't unnatural (using the broad definition of "natural" I proffer above), but that our mechanized, chemical-infused, assembly line approact to farming is unnatural.

And maybe that's the definition of "natural" that we're looking for: whether or not something throws things out of whack, which of course, gets back to Norm's axiom, "The question isn't natural or synthetic it's harm or no harm."

Does EIQ include some assessment of biodegradeability? That would be my primary thinking that would make a articifially created chemical vs, some sort of plant derived "natural" insecticide.

Does EIQ include some assessment of biodegradeability?

Of course it does, it wouldn't really be a very good measure of environmental impact if it didn't. You can read all about it here:

It is really difficult for some to get past their bias of what natural really means when comparing it with synthetic. It is a useless distinction in this context and one we should get away from.

True, in part because people hear synthetic and think petrochemical and hear natural and think ladybugs.

There may be some meaningful lines to draw but obviously the terms are confused, in large part to bennifit those trying to sell things.

There was a time, many years ago, when synthetic was all the rage. People thought that synthetic fibers in their clothes were the cat's meow. Now it's all natural this and natural that. You simply have to analyze each on it's merits and not get caught up in the hype. You're right then synthetic was a great selling point and now natural is.

people hear synthetic and think petrochemical and hear natural and think ladybugs

When will they think cyanide and hear natural.

I have a simple answer that will probably appear too stupid to scientific, intellectual folks. Organic tastes better. If that's "fuzzy thought," count me guilty as charged and punish me accordingly. Organic fruits and vegs taste exponentially better than supermarket stuff. I swear you could blindfold me, put an Ecuadoran organic banana and a piece of Dole shit banana in front of me and I'll point out the difference accurately 10 times out of 10. Granted, it's also good to know that I'm not eating insecticides and chem-laden fertilizers, but the thing that wins with organic for me is the taste. Here in NYC, you pay a premium for that difference, which is unfortunate, but as long as I can pay it, I'll pay and not whine or ask, "is it scientific for me to eat this stuff?" If that makes me a fuzzy thinker, fine: every summer I guess I'll be "warm and fuzzy."

I have a simple answer that will probably appear too stupid to scientific, intellectual folks. Organic tastes better.

Which really has nothing at all to do with whether organic pesticides are sometime more harmful that conventional ones, which is what the article is about. Do you have anything to say about the article or did you just want to tell us how much you like organic food, which is interesting but off topic.

To your claim that organic tastes better. I don't think the claim stands up to scrutiny, if you'd said fresher food tastes better I'd be in agreement with you. It's the freshness more than whether it's organic or conventional that matters. But hey it's your money spend it however you'd like.

I think the flavor you experience has little or nothing to do with the chemicals used or not used in the food's production and a lot to do with the variety of plant. Huge fruit plantations choose a variety (Cavendish in this case) that are the least likely to be affected by disease, can be picked, shipped and sold before spoiling, and look pretty. I'm not saying that's good or bad, just that 'organic' likely has nothing to do with the superior flavor you value.

Do pesticides(organic or syn)affect taste, I don't know in general or in particular, though my impression is that tomatoes that I by at my outdoor bio market seem to taste better than the shrinkwrapped stuff from the supermarket, tomatoes that are designed to have a longer shelf-life.

Are pesticides even necessary in many cases?

Syngas has a point, industrial food are made to "look pretty", little to do with taste or health.

Another film on "The Future of Food"(unfortunately there a several with that title. This one you can order from Lily films.

Buying it is cheap and even cheaper as a download.,ProductName

I don't generally use pesticides on my tomatoes, but my garden is small enough I can just pick off the hornworms when they invade. If I were growing enough to sell on a significant scale, pesticides would probably be necessary. Malathion in the early evening (no bees then) would probably work well, and be long gone by the time the tomatoes are ready for harvest.

I do use malathion in the fall on my asparagus to kill off the asparagus beetles. They don't really do that much damage to the plant, but if you let them overwinter, they'll lay eggs all over the spears in the spring - exactly when you don't want to be using pesticides.

i have not read the article, but i wanted to point of something:

the big argument for organic vs. synthetic - in almost all aspects (not solely talking about fertilizers or pesticides here) is, that the ecosystem and to some part - we - are evolutionary adapted to them, because of a long history of exposure.

now a pesticide is a pesticide and probably wont be good for you whether you are a human or a bug - but for most biological pesticides there is a way they get degraded in nature. there probably is no chance that it will wind up somewhere in the food-chain, still in its original molecule, but now being at a position (biologically and chemically speaking) that it never was intended to be at.

of course, one also always has to remember that it's the dosage that makes the poison and if you simply saturate an ecosystem, even an originally biological agent will have negative effects that originally weren't accounted for. the same argument applies to a lot of the "natural over synthetic" attitude - and it is reasonable one too imo.

Quick note to mention our Asian ladybug problem. Unlike the native ladybug, the iconic cute red beetle with black dots I remember from my youth, the Asian ladybug is more orange with black dots. Also, it stinks if you crush it, Also, you can't help crushing them at certain times of the year around here. They've no natural predators so their population rolls along in all its Malthusian splendor, a sine wave of propagation and death.

We have the soybean farmers to thank for this organic solution to their aphid problem. I'd be less grumpy if we had fewer mutant amphibians caused by their love of chemicals to sterilize the weedscape.

Did I mention that the Asian ladybug bites? A painful little pinch, doesn't break the skin, but annoying as hell. Creates a situation where you reflexively swat 'em and then of course they stink.

With all respect, sometimes what you might see as fuzzy thinking, may instead be fuzzy vision. Perhaps the F-stop on the lens is too tightly focused on these straw dogs in the "Organic is silly" pack you spend too much time with. :)

The NOP (National Organic Program) does allow some synthetics, and some non-synthetic pest products under certain conditions.

"As stated in the rule, pest problems may be controlled through mechanical or physical methods including but not limited to: * Augmentation or introduction of predators or parasites of the pest species * Development of habitat for natural enemies of pests * Non-synthetic controls such as lures, traps, and repellents.

Only when these practices are insufficient to prevent or control crop pests may an organic farm manager apply either 1), a biological or botanical material not on the National List of nonsynthetic substances prohibited for use in organic crop production

(§205.602), or 2) a substance included on the National List of synthetic substances allowed for use in organic crop production (§205.601(e)–(f), to prevent, suppress, or control pests. However, the conditions for using the substance must be anticipated and documented in the organic system plan."

Use of ANY such products are the last resort not the first. Non chemical interventions are always preferred and must be documented in the farm's OSP (Organic System Plan).

With reference to the "Organic" pest control measures in your study,

Beauveria spp. is only allowed with restrictions. Mineral Oil is only allowed as a topical application on LIVESTOCK.

The NOP prefers to avoid synthetic products. Unlike conventional agriculture, the life cycle, production cycle, waste cycle of materials used must be considered. Unlike conventional agriculture, we cannot just pollute and not account for it. One fact of life regarding synthetic product is that there are environmental costs associated with manufacture that must be considered.

For example, production of DL Methionine (a synthetic amino acid currently allowed with restriction in poultry feed, but recently sunsetted) use a number of toxic source chemicals and intermediates. Each of the manufacturing processes used to produce it are rated as extremely toxic.

The Electronic Code of Federal Regulations Title 7: Agriculture Part 205-National Organic Program is available here:

Section 205.206 describes Crop pest, weed, and disease management practice standard, wherein synthetic and nonsynthetic materials are listed with any restrictions on their use.

It's not related to this post or this thread specifically, but I've been expecting you (Norm) to post a link to this article and yet so far you haven't:

Genetically Altered Salmon Get Closer to the Table

once you posted it I was going to comment that, while I've been pretty much in BigDaddyMalcontent's camp for this whole GMO debate, I was surprised to find myself agreeing that perhaps it should be allowed in this case. There seem to be very few legitimate downsides, and the only risk I can envision is that it seems like it could give such a big advantage to farmers who produce salmon this way, that it would put anyone who didn't want to use the GE eggs out of business as they might not be able to compete.

But anyway, it just seemed like something you would likely post a link to, and to me it seemed like an instance where, based on what is said in the piece, I think I'd agree.

Oh, also, even if this farmed salmon is a-ok, isn't farmed salmon a bad idea in general? Like isn't salmon one of the fish you're only supposed to eat when it was wild and sustainably fished? I can't keep track, but I think there's an app for that.

Thanks for posting the link, I'd missed it.

Oh, also, even if this farmed salmon is a-ok, isn't farmed salmon a bad idea in general? Like isn't salmon one of the fish you're only supposed to eat when it was wild and sustainably fished?

Like anything else the test is not one of how it's done but whether it's sustainable and what the environmental impacts are. There are some real problems with some types of fish farming and I'm opposed to them. This sounds like the right way to do it, Aquaponics

The scientific approach applies to organic farming as much as it does to chemical farming. This study simply highlights a new challenge for organic farmers.

organic farming as much as it does to chemical farming.

The implication of your statement above is that organic farms don't use chemicals. Both organic farmers and conventional farmers use chemicals.

It's true that organic farmers use science, the problem is that they arbitrarily restrict the scope of their science, excluding for example GMOs, not based on science but on dogma. There are GMOs that are transgenic and there are GMOs that are not. I sort of understand their point on transgenic, though it think it misguided, but though I ask and ask I never get an answer to why they are opposed to GMOs that are non-transgenic, other than a dogmatic one. I think we all make a mistake when we label ourselves as being in one category or another. Liberal or conservative, organic or conventional, religious not religious . . . Few of us fit comfortably in one category or another. I may be considered liberal but being generally in favor of GMOs is decidedly not a liberal position. Isn't it better it better to say I hold some liberal positions and so it's fair to categorize me as a liberal, rather than I'm a liberal and so I hold liberal positions. It's easy to see how the problem plays out in the organic/conventional farming debate. Someone believes they are in the organic camp/category and so they feel an obligation to abide by all the dogma inherent in that category. Wouldn't they be better off viewing it the other way round, not as a member of the group, but an individual who agrees with the some or even most of the principles of organic farming.

Just a couple of more documents on the supposed safety of GMO's.

"Monsanto Whistleblower"

One of the few published independent studies I know of, "In vivo study on possible health consequences..." by Ian Pryme.

May, possibly, might, some indication, possible health consequences etc. A little weak on evidence and pretty strong on speculation. If there are potential dangers true of all kinds of food they should be studied and the studies confirmed by peer review.

So how about it, are you up to taking the challenge? Tell me what's wrong with non-transgenic GMOs. Show me a single study from anywhere that even hints at a problem of safety with a non-transgenic GMO plant, that isn't also true of one obtained by traditional breeding.

Betty, Frank, Bigdaddy, anyone?

The questions should always be: How will (it) effect the survival of life? How will (it) effect the survival of human life? How will (it) effect the suffering (happiness?) of humans?

The whole 'natural' love fest comes from the assumption that 'natural', (that is; living in a way where we adapt to our environment, instead of modifying our environment to adapt to us,) is the best option to answer the above questions in a positive way. I think most people I knew in the Green Party movement felt that way. They felt that we've gotten away from Mother Earth and that we'd all be better off if we just went along on her ride.

Personally, I don't buy it. We modify our environments. It's what we do. Like ants, beavers and other forms of life that play that game, we are just doing what we do. We play it the best and we've prospered because of it. Eventually the 'natural' world is going to destroy us... unless we do something about it.

I would wager most people think 'natural'=not putting crap in your body. Or 'natural'=not modified by humans. Either way, it's not a very useful label when so many can define it in different ways.

When the meteor came, the T-rex said; "Well at least it's a natural meteor."

I did a quick check on non-transgenic technology, but didn't find anything yet.

As to the transgenic, see the documentary from the Franco-German tv station ARTE, "Controlling Our Food".

It also discusses other questionable activities by the famous Monsanto.

It was a simple question. Tell me what you find wrong with non-transgenic genetically engineered crops, or like the others I've asked the question just ignore it.

Possibly questionable activities of Monsanto have nothing to do with the question I asked.

"cisgenic" seems to be a made up,semi- arbitrary term for the use of the same technology as transgenic, but with a vague line drawn at "what might naturally be crossbred but would take a lot longer". the only other option is good ol' fashioned selective breeding. the use of the term "transgenic" seems to me to be a corporate-driven attempt to make some forms of ge "kosher". i wonder who is deciding which is which?

First it's not one technology it's several some that arguably safer than methods used in "traditional plant breeding.

Is your argument nothing more than an attempt at some sort of slippery slope argument.

I asked the question about non-transgenic not because I think there is any problem with transgenic, but because I don't think many of those who oppose GE crops don't have a clue what they're talking about. They're liberal, they're green, they're organic, and that means they have to be opposed to GMOs.

GE is a method, in fact many methods, not a product.

re: "Tell me what's wrong with non-transgenic GMOs."


Did I not already give you "science based" concerns regarding GMO methodology such as: Herbicide/Pesticide loads in GE herbicide/pesticide resistant plants, Antibiotic resistance bacterial strains used for gene transfer, loss of bio diversity, allergic responses to unlabeled novel food components.

However, I must ask, who died and made the GE advocates God such that they may assert that ONLY Science Based objections to GMO food are valid and worthy of consideration? I don't like Beets. I don't like them cuz of the sloppy red stuff they spread on the plate. Reminds me of that joke about the cowhand at the diner, who gets a too rare steak so calls the waitress over to say "Hey Miss, bring me a band-aid, I think I can save this one!" Science has nuthin' to do with that. Freedom to choose has everything to do about it.

None have risen in defense of the Salmon, but do you really want a GE soy fed hyper-fast grown fish/eel hog like critter labled as "Salmon"?

Oh BTW, how is it that having carefully ensured that GE ANIMALS are regulated under FDA Drug rules, and hence all the "studies" under review by FDA are corporate confidential, anyone can claim, with a straight face, that only "science based" objections are allowed when nobody but the FDA and the developer can see the data? They say "Trust the FDA". Well sure, Michael R. Taylor, late of Monsanto as special assistant to the FDA head sure makes me warm and cozy. We've seen what "Trust the MMA to review deep well safety plans" is working...

Tell me what's wrong with non-transgenic GMOs." Huh? Did I not already give you "science based" concerns regarding GMO methodology such as: Herbicide/Pesticide loads in GE herbicide/pesticide resistant plants.

The question was what's wrong with non-transgenic GMOs and the first example you give me is one of transgenic GMOs.

I must ask, who died and made the GE advocates God such that they may assert that ONLY Science Based objections to GMO food are valid and worthy of consideration?

I don't know of anyone who is making that claim.

The reason I asked the question the way I did was to see if there was some common ground to base a discussion on. It appears that for some there is not.

i'm not making a slippery slope argument, i don't really know enough about the subject to make any kind of argument. i don't even have much of a position, except i hate corporations and their government enablers/flunkys. i think i understand your concerns that anti-corporationism should not lead to anti-scienceism or anti-progressism.

i do think that one of the best ways to understand any kind of argument is to learn about the terminology involved and try to see how it is used and twisted by one or both sides, and that's what i'm trying to do.

my dad actually did some original research back in the 70's on hybrid corn. as the "rebellious son" i considered it my sacred duty to be completely ignorant on the matter and now it's coming back to haunt me. i'm trying to catch up a little by reading your posts on gmo's but i'm still pretty far behind. i'm mostly interested in the moral/ethical issues, which bring us back to corporatism and away from science.

here's a story not scientifically related but ethically related, about how giant corporations are ripping off and damaging the poor of the world while claiming to be helping them: sorry i have to post the whole thing, there's no link unless you subscribe to the wsj. a friend sent me this yesterday: By CHRISTINA PASSARIELLO

Christina Passariello/The Wall Street Journal Franck Riboud, chief executive of Danone, is feted by villagers in Casamance, southern Senegal, for his company's program to replant the mangrove forest. RICHARD TOLL, Senegal—Twice a week after work, Senegalese webmaster Demba Gueye treats himself to a snack: a 10-cent tube of Dolima drinkable yogurt. It's a splurge considering his two-dollar-a-day food budget, and the 50-gram sachets are "teeny." But the 25 year-old says they're delicious. "I'm crazy about it," he says. The yogurt is an attempt by French food company Danone SA to fill a worrying gap in its business. Danone has become one of the world's fastest-growing food companies thanks to its high-end healthy products, such as Dannon yogurt, Badoit and Evian water and Bledina baby food. But momentum is slowing in the company's traditional, rich-world markets in North America and Western Europe. So, Danone is among a vanguard of Western multinationals staking much of their future on the world's poor. Last year, 42% of its sales were from emerging markets—up from just 6% 10 years ago. Danone aims to reach one billion customers a month by 2013, up from 700 million today. Digging deeper, the company is now trying to target customers who live on dollar-a-day food budgets. Dolima, launched last November, sells at a rate of more than 30,000 tubes per month, with sales rising at an average monthly rate of 10%. In Indonesia, Danone is targeting 10-cent drinkable yogurts at the poor; in Mexico, it has 15-cent cups of water. French food giant Danone is trying to expand its market by selling it's products to low-income consumers worldwide. In Senegal it's taken a minority stake in a small dairy that employes local Senegalese and produces a yogurt snack called Dolima. WSJ/s Christina Passariello reports. "The objective is to do business, not just with the top of the pyramid," says chief executive Franck Riboud. Other giants of consumer goods, from cell phones to shampoo, are pursuing variations of this strategy. German sportswear maker Adidas AG is experimenting with a one-Euro sneaker for barefoot Bangladeshis. L'Oréal SA sells sample-sized sachets of shampoo and face cream in India for a few cents. Unilever developed Cubitos, small cubes of flavoring that cost as little as two cents apiece, for developing markets in particular. These companies tread on delicate territory. They must grapple with the fact that their potential customers, while legion, have extremely limited budgets. A decision to sell goods that consumers can't easily afford can yield duds. "The biggest problem is that prices are too high," says Aneel Karnani, associate professor at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business. "Companies overestimate the size of the market and end up selling to the middle class, not the poor." Other challenges include shaky distribution networks and the difficulty of containing costs. Adidas, for instance, isn't sure it can meet its price target after paying for its shoes' rubber and canvas.

Danone believes its yogurt is a good match in Senegal because it is meant as an on-the-go snack—well adapted for Senegalese consumers who have three or four snacks during a day and only one main meal. Danone says its emerging-market bottled-water business is already more lucrative than its water operations in developed markets, which includes the pricey Evian brand. The company strives for "satisfactory and durable profits, but not to maximize profits," says Danone deputy general manager Emmanuel Faber. In his first decade in charge, after taking the helm of Danone in 1996, Mr. Riboud marketed to the rich. In particular, he cultivated two highly-profitable innovations: digestive-health yogurt Activia and Actimel, a yogurt drink that claims to strengthen the immune system. Each sells for twice the price of basic yogurt. By 2006, both were pulling in more than 1 billion euros in sales. Last year, Activia sales were more than $3.6 billion. Danone as a whole posted revenues of $20.9 billion. This small Dakar corner shop is the kind of store where most Senegalese buy groceries, including Dolima yogurt. Mr. Riboud began to see he was missing out on the huge untapped market of products for the poor. In 2004 in Indonesia, Danone's local managers presented Mr. Riboud with a pyramid diagram showing that out of the country's population of 240 million, just the 20 million at the tip of the pyramid could afford Danone's food. So he decided to develop a cheap, on-the-go drinkable yogurt for poor consumers and children. "Why shouldn't I be doing business with them, too?" Mr. Riboud recalls thinking. The first such yogurt debuted in Indonesia at the end of 2004, selling at 10 cents for a 70-gram plastic bottle. The yogurt was an instant hit with lower-income consumers and children in particular, selling 10 million bottles in its first three months on the market. It is still one of Danone's most popular products in Indonesia, where the average per-capita income is about $11 a day. Two-and-a-half years later, Danone teamed up with Muhammad Yunus, the Bangladeshi who later won the Nobel Peace Prize for his microcredit program that lends money to poor entrepreneurs. Mr. Riboud and Mr. Yunus, having met over lunch, set up a joint venture called Grameen Danone Foods Ltd. The idea was to sell an affordable seven-cent yogurt product called Shokti Doi—which means "strong yogurt." Fortified with vitamins and minerals, it was to be sold through local women who would peddle it door to door on commission. For the 54-year old Danone boss, who eschews ties and gets around by scooter, the Shokti Doi initiative was something of a personal mission. His father Antoine, who preceded him as chief executive, had instilled in him an interest in ventures that had a chance to both make money and give a lift to the poor—the "double project", as he called it. Within a year, though, Grameen Danone hit a wall: Milk prices soared, factory openings were delayed, and the saleswomen couldn't earn a living selling yogurt alone. Today, a significant portion of sales of Shokti Doi come from urban stores, not rural villages as planned. Danone stresses that none of its low-income consumer efforts are charity. "Danone is not an NGO," Mr. Riboud says. "Learning to make a nutritious product that can be sold for eight cents without a loss helps us when we put in place a volume strategy, even in mature markets." Danone stuck with the project in Bangladesh, which it says provided valuable lessons for other parts of its business. In January it built a new factory in Thailand modeled off the Bangladesh facility, at a fraction of the cost of a new site. Profit Potential

"These are labs for us to learn from," says Bernard Giraud, Danone's vice-president for sustainability. "We couldn't make a classic investment in a business like this because the return isn't immediate and the risk is high." In 2008, Mr. Giraud suggested the company try a second such initiative. A Danone unit acquired a 26% stake in a Senegalese dairy startup called La Laiterie du Berger, French for The Herder's Dairy. Almost all dairy product in Senegal is made with inexpensive imported powdered milk. La Laiterie uses fresh milk bought from dairy farmers in northern Senegal, near the sugar-plantation city of Richard Toll. Bagoré Bathily, a 36-year-old Senegalese entrepreneur who studied in Europe, launched the company in 2006 to give nomadic cowherds a market for their milk. Mr. Bathily's yogurt, made in a local factory, appealed to better-off Senegalese and expats in the capital of Dakar, as did his cartons of fresh milk. Yet fresh milk is costly in Senegal—30 cents a kilo, the same price Danone pays farmers in France—because the country's bony, white cows yield a maximum of just three liters a day, compared with as much as 50 liters for French cows. By last July, sales at La Laiterie had leveled off and the venture was failing to live up to Mr. Riboud's expectations. During an outdoor briefing in January by the river in Richard Toll, Mr. Riboud teased Mr. Bathily about La Laiterie's 826,000 euros in sales ($1.15 million) last year. "You have to add another zero to your sales," he said. "At Danone, our accounting is in millions." The only way to do this, said Mr. Bathily, was to sell to Senegalese who spend as little as a dollar a day on food. "Fifty grams of yogurt isn't as filling as 50 grams of rice, which is cheaper." In fall 2008, Mr. Riboud had dispatched Danone senior product manager Isabelle Sultan to Senegal to help Mr. Bathily put La Laiterie's products within reach of low-income Senegalese. Ms. Sultan, who worked on the marketing team for the premium Activia line, had been involved in the Bangladesh yogurt project. Ms. Sultan proposed selling yogurt in a new way: a small 50-gram pouch that consumers could tear open to squeeze out the yogurt. Mr. Bathily set the price at 50 CFA, or 10 cents, a common coin denomination. A coin logo advertises the price on the bright green pouch, which bears no Danone branding. Next, they gave La Laiterie's yogurts a local image, naming them "Dolima," or "Give me more" in Wolof, the local language. They splashed the red, yellow and green of Senegal's flag on the packaging to help illiterate customers identify it. Finally, Dolima got a new recipe. Consumers had said La Laiterie's old formula was too acidic, too liquid and not sweet enough. So La Laterie added vanilla flavor to the existing "plain" and "sugar" lineup and thickened the yogurt for a creamier consistency. With the smaller packages, Mr. Bathily was able to get his yogurt into corner shops for the first time. These cramped stores are often no bigger than a closet and stock the yogurt in a cooler behind the counter. He expanded his distribution from 500 stores in June 2009 to 3,500 stores by the end of the year. Every morning, dozens of women stop by La Laiterie's Dakar office to fill their portable coolers with yogurts to sell in school yards during morning recess. Sales of La Laiterie's yogurts and milk doubled to more than 105 tons in December from 47 tons in July. Mr. Bathily and Danone expect the company to break even within two years. Mr. Riboud believes the Dolima concept can become a significant business. He has discussed deploying yogurt sachets with the heads of Danone's dairy businesses in other countries, and says it is possible it could become a "land" product at Danone, one that is sold worldwide. With the recession crunching grocery budgets in Danone's home market of France, Mr. Riboud suspects there might be a market for cheap yogurt sachets at home. "I think one day we'll put the Danone name on [Dolima]," Mr. Riboud says, sipping a glass of vanilla yogurt, "once the product has taken off." Write to Christina Passariello at

You'll get no argument from me on corporate ethical lapses, my objection is the argument that genetic engineering is some special case.

re: transgenic. Well, maybe I am confused about this. I was under the impression that Roundup Ready Soy was not transgenic. Of course, the engineered Atlantic salmon, with it's promoter from the eels is. It's not clear to me whether the fact that it gets it's hormone genes from a Chinook would necessarily classify it as transgenic in and of itself.

Question 1: What would you consider to be acceptable scientific reasons for disliking even non-transgenic GE food crops? I'm puzzled, since, among others, higher herbicide and pesticide residues in food when correlations to increases in ADHD in our kids doesn't seem to qualify as sufficiently scientific for ya.

Question 2: what is inherently wrong with a slippery slope argument? I worked with a guy once, who built a big fancy McMansion way up atop a steep hill. Made him feel all powerful and better than the rest of us. 2nd big rain and darn if that hill didn't slip and slide away. House ended up in the road. Can we say Hubris? Though it's not one of the 7 deadly sins, it is perhaps at the core of so much of the wrong we do to the planet.

Much of what we do in the modern world creates pollution. Seems to me we can't avoid creating some, but we can sure recognize and acknowledge the costs, avoid those that might be avoided through using nonpolluting alternatives wherever possible, and be very careful not to waste the products from polluting manufacturing processes. The tractor and other farm equipment we use are made of steel. Sure the production of such things is a polluting process. But old farm equipment was built to last. The tractor's 40 years old, the hay rake closer to 50. When we swapped out the really old baler for a slightly less old baler, the scrap guy was happy to come haul away the metal for recycling. The pollution inherent to that steel's creation is qualified by virtue of extended use. That's quite a different model than our E-waste filled toys we must upgrade every 18 months just cuz the newer version is cooler.

Here's another example. I'd feel a bit differently about nuclear power were it not for the fact that fully 99% of the Uranium processed ends up as 10,000 year radioactive waste. How bout putting some of that scientific power to rendering the processes a wee bit more efficient? We lose like 70% of the electrical power we generate just moving it across the transmission grid. After ALL THESE YEARS! If we cared about the pollution generated by coal and natural gas production methods, then we'd put some talent to reducing the transmission losses and wasting less. Like the 'end justifying the eans', 'tis a slippery slope from choosing to pollute, to wasting the products created at such cost.

Undocumented unlabeled GE food products, transgenic or no, are just such an slippery slope. If we accept the notion that we shouldn't have a right to review the scientific data used to justify FDA and EPA approvals because it is proprietary company confidential, then we are at the mercy of GE special interests and their backdoor influence on the agencies intended to supervise them. If we accept the notion that then such novel food products need not be labeled, we give up self-determination with nary a whimper. Why? Why should we accept a world where tomatoes are all bred for herbicide resistance, storage, shipping and blemish free appearance instead of flavor? Why should we accept a world where the mighty salmon is reduced to a fast growing freak just cuz it's cheaper to produce? Will our kids even know how Salmon used to taste?

Now I don't happen to be one who believes that God gave us dominion over all the creatures on the Earth. I do think that when we raise them for our food, we take dominion and with it an ethical responsibility for their welfare.

With respect to the GE salmon, my broiler chicken experience represents a cautionary tale. I know you've already heard it Norm, but perhaps you might indulge a repetition.

The NOSB (National Organic Standards Board) has been tightening animal welfare restrictions the last few years, particularly with regard to confinement operations. New rules mandate access to pasture for cattle and at least an outdoor run for chickens. My cattle are never confined and the birds free range in the pastures so I don't actually have a dog in this fight, but I was bemused by some of the objections to the new rulings. Broiler meat operations swore that their birds never used the run provided, they PREFERRED to sit next to the food bin. As I watched my chickens forage far and wide, playful, alert and curious, I couldn't understand why these meat operations would say such a thing. So I purchased a half dozen Cornish Rock cross Super growth chicks. This conventionally bred bird represents something like 80% of all the chicken in US markets.

These birds grew as promised, dressing out to 4 1/2 lbs at but 6 weeks of age. But OMG, what pitiful creatures these are! The poor things have their growth rates cranked up so high they can do nothing but eat and poop. What's more, they've had their "chickenness" bred out of them!

Within a few days of adding these chicks to the flock, even the old biddies stopped trying to bully them, for it was clear to everyone that not only were they incapable of either "fleeing or fighting", they were incapable of even imagining the possibility of doing so. Only one of these crosses had enough curiosity to try to leave the roost house. And it was truly heart wrenching watching her struggle up and down steps that the other chicks flew and leaped off with such joyful abandon. The rest of the Cornish crosses didn't even try. They just rested next to the feeder, eating and pooping, for they've been bred with such big breasts and large size that their legs can barely support them. They poop so much that I was placing new litter in the house every single day to keep them relatively clean.

Goes to show you, Genetic Engineering folks aren't the only ones wrongheaded about animal breeding. I'm not sure what to call these pitiful creatures, but chicken isn't it. Maybe abomination is closer to the truth.

Of course the high efficiency of super growth has created an economic imperative to use these animals. If the competition grows birds to dress weight in 6 weeks, instead of 16 weeks as a more reasonable bird might be expected to do, then most farmers are forced to tolerate the poor health and undeveloped flavor of these sad little feathered critters. I understand that some EU countries have placed a lower age limit on commercial poultry harvest. That's probably the only way to back out of the disaster these super birds represent.

I expect that the GE salmon will prove to be just the same. That noble, vigorous, flavor filled active fighting fish will become just another soy fed hog. It's not right. It may be scientific, but it's not right.

Question 1: What would you consider to be acceptable scientific reasons for disliking even non-transgenic GE food crops? I'm puzzled, since, among others, higher herbicide and pesticide residues in food when correlations to increases in ADHD in our kids doesn't seem to qualify as sufficiently scientific for ya.

Question 2: what is inherently wrong with a slippery slope argument?

Question 1 response: You are conflating two different things. Pesticide residues in food have nothing to do with many transgenic and as far as I know nothing at all to do with non-transgenic plants. You can't treat conventionally bred plants with pesticides or not and so too can you treat genetically modified plants with pesticides or not. Does that make sense?

Question 2 response: No there is nothing inherently wrong with a slippery slope argument, but not all slippery slope arguments are created equal. There are good ones and there are bad ones. The one offered against GE crops is not unique to GE crops. It's not the GE aspect of it that is necessarily relevant. Corporations try to gain advantages in all kinds of ways, and to argue as many do that GE is some special case distorts the real issue. Corporatism and all the bad things that go with it have nothing to do with GE per se. So it's a dishonest argument in that sense.

What does GMO really mean

It is very effective article. It is well written and has fun. Also, it is very informative. I really enjoyed the part where you say that

Animal Repellers: Get Rid of Unwelcome Animals, animal repellent, animal repellents


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