Before I started writing about agriculture, I can honestly say that I didn’t have a favorite scientist. That changed rather quickly once I encountered the wonderful writings of Steve Savage. I find Steve’s writings about agriculture, pesticides, and science fascinating and so easy to understand. Early on, Steve and I paired up together on an article debunking a YouTube video about potato debudding chemicals. Just this year, I (finally) had the opportunity to meet Steve when we both participated on the Food and Fear panel. I have learned so much from Steve and am happy to report that he’s a charming wealth of knowledge both online and in “real” life. I was absolutely delighted when he agreed to participate in my Chat series!
You dedicate a lot of your writing and speaking to debunking myths about organic agriculture and chemical use generally. What is the biggest myth you encounter on this topic and how do you counter it?
I think that the biggest myth out there is what people imagine when they hear the word “pesticide.” They usually imagine some highly toxic, persistent material being applied in great quantities with little care. Since most people have no direct contact with agriculture they don’t have any perspective on what really goes on there, nor do they have any feeling for how much things have changed in the last several decades. A complimentary common feature of the myth is the belief that organic means no pesticides.
Sometimes just informing people that organic farmers do indeed use pesticides is enough to get them to re-evaluate their worldview. The other thing that helps is explaining the difference between hazard and risk. I like to use the analogy of electricity. It is something we all need and generally feel safe using, but electricity can be extremely hazardous. We keep that hazard from being a real risk (=danger) in two ways. For the hazardous forms of electricity we have lots of safeguards to prevent being directly exposed (insulation, child-proof outlets, power lines high in the air, transformers behind fences…). The same is true for the pesticides that have hazards associated with them. We prevent exposure by restricting what protective equipment the applicator must use, by saying how long before a worker can re-enter the field, by saying how close it can be used to water, and by saying how long it must be between the last spray and harvest. The last of those is very important for protecting the consumer.
Back to electricity, the other way we can enjoy its benefits safely is that we have figured out how to power a great many devices with very low hazard forms of electricity (low voltage direct current). That way the phone in our pocket or the blue tooth device on our ear presents no real risk. The same trend has been going on for pesticides. We have discovered a great many low hazard pesticides for which it is much easier to be sure that there is not real risk.
We recently both appeared on a panel discussion about Food and Fear. Why do you think it is so important to reassure consumers and the public that their food, organic or conventional, is safe to eat?
It is important to address the fears because there is so much subtle and not so subtle messaging out there telling people they should be worried when they really don’t need to be. The most destructive effect of this is that people are not eating the amount of fruits and vegetables that all the legitimate health authorities would recommend. This has been clearly documented for lower income shoppers, but I suspect it is a significant part of the problem for the population as a whole (combined with busy lifestyles etc). There is also a great deal of social shaming that goes on pressuring parents in particular into avoiding anything but organic even if they can’t really afford it. Finally I think it is important for consumers to realize that they are being manipulated for profit by certain highly irresponsible food marketers and their supporting non-profits.
I’m sure in all the years you’ve been involved in studying chemicals and agriculture, you’ve seen quite a few food trends come and go. Which one was the most strange to you, and which one has stuck around longer than you originally thought it would?
The strangest phenomenon is what I call “the marketing of non-existence.” It started years ago with the push for fat-free, low-fat, cholesterol-free and no saturated fat products. Even though most of the research behind those nutritional recommendations has since been called into question, such products are still heavily promoted. What is worse is that consumers seem to have bought into the absurd, only-possible-for-rich-society concept that we should select for food for what it is NOT. When new “x-free” options come along all too many consumers simply assume, “oh, that must be good for me.” We see all sorts of people who don’t need to avoid gluten jumping on the gluten-free bandwagon. The “non-GMO” label is immediately attractive to many people. I believe that most consumers think of organic as a “residue-free” label. If we want to eat a healthy diet and simply enjoy the remarkable food supply available, then people need to make the “radical” shift to buying food for what it IS! For instance since childhood I had bought into the idea that skinless, boneless chicken breast was what you should want. In cooking I struggled to make that interesting. Then a few years ago I discovered that I love thighs and drumsticks with skin and bones. They have so much more flavor and better texture! I have a killer dry rub recipe for those that I love to share with people.
I know you work with wine grapes in California. Do you have any recommendations for a new fan of wine that wants to broaden my palate?
The wine industry is very progressive in some ways, but also extremely traditional. We still use the venerated varieties that were chosen hundreds of years ago (and have been cloning ever since). Even so, as grape production has moved around the world winemakers have tended to start featuring varieties that were minor in Europe or just a small part of a traditional blend. Malbec is an example of the later and the South Americans really have brought it to for forefront as a stand-alone. Malbecs from Chile and Argentina and now Washington state are very interesting, and I think more accessible to many (much about wine is an acquired taste). Another example is Vigoiner. Even Merlot was not normally the main variety in Bordeaux blends, but it can make a nice product. California really “made” Zinfandel as a variety as did Australia with “Shiraz” (which is really Syrah). I like to buy the relatively inexpensive wines at Trader Joes because it is a much lower pressure way to explore all these interesting flavors without having to get into the snobby side. Honestly there are some expensive wines that are worth it, but maybe not for a while of figuring out what you like. For more of a dessert wine it is worth trying Muscat types. People either really love or don’t love the distinct flavors there which are the same chemical in Lychee fruit.
What question do people never ask that you wished they did ask, and what is your answer to that question?
Almost no one ever asks me if there are foods that I avoid based on my perspective as an agricultural scientist. There are some. Since the early 1980s my wife and I avoided any products based on “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.” She was in a masters program in nutrition and we both sat down and looked at models of cis- and trans-fats (she had heard about the fact that they were present in those hydrogenated oils). We decided that since they looked like they would clearly have different properties and since trans-fats are rare in normal foods, we decided to avoid them. That meant that we got to enjoy butter instead of margarine and half-and-half instead of non-dairy creamer for the 20+ years it took for the actual dangers of trans-fats to get broad attention.
There are some foods that I definitely want to get from the US. I’m not at all anti-imports when it makes sense. For instance in the winter I love the table grapes from Chile because we don’t have them from California yet. But for some foods in some parts of the world there are risk factors that we don’t need to take and for which our more local supplies are better. Take for instance peanuts and nut crops like Almonds or pistachios. These nuts and products from them can be contaminated with aflatoxin which is really something you don’t want to consume. Here we have some very good systems in place to insure that we keep that toxin out of our food supply. If you get those products from some other parts of the world you don’t have that assurance (e.g. Western Asia for the tree nuts). Why not just buy the excellent US options and be careful about processed foods that might have the imports. That is one of the reasons I avoid organic processed foods because there is a great temptation for food manufacturers to source from outside the US to get cheaper organic ingredients. There is another reason to avoid foods that might be made with imported organic ingredients. Sometimes those come from places like India or China where they don’t have the same legacy of good environmental regulation. They have soils contaminated with heavy metals and there can be use of old nasty pesticides that we haven’t used for decades. I do avoid even fresh produce items (usually exotic things) from China because when tested those do tend to show some things you don’t want. I guess my rule is that if we can get things from trusted sources (which can include many imports), then do that.
About Steve: Steve Savage is an agricultural scientist who has been working in that field for 40 years. Originally trained in biology at Stanford University he did his graduate work at the University of California, Davis in the field of Plant Pathology. Steve has worked for Colorado State University, the agricultural chemical company DuPont, the bio-control start-up Mycogen, and since 1996 as an independent consultant to ag technology companies large and small, to venture capital firms and to grower organizations. He has been blogging about food and agriculture topics since 2009 and speaks regularly to a variety of audiences. Since 2016 he has been working part time as the coordinator of the crop protection product benefits communication for the non-profit, CropLife Foundation. Steve and his wife live near San Diego and have three children and two grand children. You can follow him on twitter @grapedoc.