"We need to wean the American food system off its heavy 20th-century diet of fossil fuel and put it back on a diet of contemporary sunshine."
- Michael Pollan
|MOFGA members receive our quarterly newspaper The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener as a benefit of membership. Become a member today! It can also be purchased at news stands.
|| Organic Matter - Summer 2009
A Compendium of Food and Agricultural News
The Good News
The New England Office of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) selected Citizens For a Green Camden to receive an Environmental Merit Award in recognition of its exceptional work and commitment to the environment in 2008. The annual award recognizes outstanding environmental advocates who have made significant contributions toward preserving and protecting natural resources. Citizens for a Green Camden encouraged citizens not to use toxic, synthetic chemicals on their lawns; and was instrumental in passing a no-pesticide policy for town-owned properties and all Bed and Breakfast establishments.
For the third consecutive year, the town of Skowhegan, with support from MOFGA, will host the Kneading Conference. From July 30 through Aug. 1, 2009, this farming community along the Kennebec River will be headquarters to serious home and professional bakers, millers, grain growers and people interested in ancient and modern methods of wood-fired oven construction. Some leading authorities on masonry oven construction, pre-fermented dough, bread shaping, oven management and local grain cultivation will speak and give hands-on workshops on Thursday and Friday. Throughout the conference, breads, pizzas and bagels fresh from the hearth and made from local ingredients will flavor meals. A new feature this year, the Bread Fair and Trade Show on Saturday, Aug. 1, from 10 to 5, will offer the public a free place buy traditional breads, enjoy a seed exchange, view and buy equipment, enjoy live music, and more. Children can enjoy a free pizza-making workshop.
Topics addressed at the conference will include:
For information on registration and costs, please see www.heartofmaine.org/kneading/.
- How to fashion your own portable oven;
- Maximizing the life of the fire;
- Basic techniques for artisan bread baking at home;
- Baking low cost simple flat breads;
- Organic wheat cultivation in Maine;
- Baking sourdough and yeasted breads with ancient spelt and kamut grains;
- The magic and mystery of working with slack dough;
- Running a successful baking business.
Also planned in Skowhegan is a gristmill in the former Somerset County Jail. Amber Lambke, who founded the Kneading Conference, bought the building and plans to convert it to a gristmill, bakery and other businesses. Heart of Maine Resource Conservation and Development in Bangor and the Kneading Conference received funding for various grain-related projects from the Maine Community Foundation. Lambke told the Bangor Daily News that in the mid-1800s, Somerset County fed more than 100,000 people with its wheat production; today, less than 1 percent of Maine’s wheat consumption is met by Maine farmers. (“$40,000 grant to benefit Skowhegan grain project,” by Sharon Kiley Mack, Bangor Daily News, Jan. 27, 2009; http://bangornews.com/detail/98098.html)
Washington, D.C., is supporting organic farming and gardening. Not only has First Lady Michelle Obama planted an organic garden at the White House, using organic seedlings produced there, but Tom Vilsack, the secretary of agriculture, dispatched pavement outside the USDA’s Whitten Building off the National Mall to create an organic “People’s Garden” (but he also told a meeting of the G8 countries in April that genetically engineered crops are needed to feed the world). And the Obama administration named Kathleen Merrigan of Tufts University, a longtime champion of sustainable agriculture and healthy food, as deputy secretary of agriculture. Merrigan helped craft the original federal organic guidelines when she worked for the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service. (“Is a Food Revolution Now in Season?” by Andrew Martin, The New York Times, March 22, 2009; “Obamas to Plant White House Vegetable Garden,” by Marian Burros, The New York Times, March 19, 2009; www.nytimes.com/2009/03/19/dining/19garden-web.html; Organic Bytes, Organic Consumers Assoc., March 6, 2009; www.organicconsumers.org; “Vilsack: biotech will solve our ag problems,” by Tom Philpott, Grist, April 21, 209; www.grist.org/article/2009-vilsack-biotech-will-solve-our-ag-probl/)
In 2008, the number of people growing vegetables increased 10 percent over previous years. The National Gardening Association (NGA) anticipates that number will increase by 20 percent in 2009. The average-sized home vegetable garden (600 square feet) can generate a mean of more than $600 of organic produce, the NGA estimates. Multiplied by the 36 million U.S. households with food gardens, home gardeners are producing more than $21.6 billion worth of produce a year. (National Gardening Assoc. press release, March 13, 2009; www.garden.org)
Scientists participating in a Feb.13, 2009, symposium on “Living Soil, Food Quality, and the Future of Food" at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) concluded that organic farming can benefit soil quality and the nutritional content of food. The scientists said that research over the past decade showed:
The symposium presentations and conclusions are posted on The Organic Center's Web site. (“Scientists Agree That Organic Farming Delivers Healthier, Richer Soil and Nutritionally Enhanced Food,” Press Release, March 3, 2009, The Organic Center, www.organic-center.org)
- increased biological diversity, greater soil organic matter and improved chemical and physical properties in organic apple orchards – which can lead to improved fruit nutritional quality, taste and storability
- more soluble solids and natural plant molecules, called secondary plant metabolites, including flavonoids, lycopene and vitamin C, in organic tomatoes. Most secondary plant metabolites are antioxidants, which are linked to improved human health in populations that consume relatively high levels of produce
- less dilution of beneficial compounds in organic tomatoes, compared with tomatoes grown with synthetic fertilizers, which grow large quickly and dilute these compounds
- more flavonoids and vitamin C and lower concentrations of nitrates in organic than conventional spinach.
Research by the University of Exeter (UK), published in the journal Food Policy, says that storing, packing and transporting a box of vegetables creates lower carbon emissions than having each customer drive to a local farm shop, when homes are an average of 3.6 miles from the shop. The study authors say, "Rather than focus on food miles, it would be more meaningful to look at the carbon emissions behind each food item. While the concept of food miles was useful in getting people to think about the issues around carbon emissions and food transport, it's time for a more sophisticated approach." (“Buying local isn’t always better for the environment,” Press release, University of Exeter, Feb. 2, 2009; www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2009-02/uoe-bli020209.php#)
Stacy Brenner of Broadturn Farm in Scarborough and Penny Jordan of Jordan’s Farm in Cape Elizabeth, are leading efforts to develop an “online grocery store” where customers can order produce, fish, meat, dairy and other Maine agricultural products. The Maine Street Marketplace would warehouse and distribute the foods and may even have a retail store and commercial kitchen. The organizers, working with the Greater Portland Council of Governments, Cape Farm Alliance, Threshold to Maine Resource Conservation and Development, and the University of Maine Cooperative Extension in Cumberland County, hope to start distribution in 2010. (“Access to local food sprouting on Web,” by Beth Quimby, Portland Press Herald, http://pressherald.mainetoday.com/story.php?id=238121&ac=PHnw)
Animal behavior expert Dr. Temple Grandin has developed a "Dr. Temple Grandin Certified, Sustainable & Humane" program for processors, with 21 principles relating to proper animal husbandry and sustainable agriculture. Grandin wants animals to be treated with respect and to fulfill their instinctive behaviors without damaging the environment. (“Temple Grandin unveils new sustainability and humane handling certification program, by Andy Hanacek, The National Provisioner, Feb. 9, 2009, www.provisioneronline.com)
By a 7 to 1 vote, and after receiving 150 e-mails (the most ever received on any issue), Portland's City Council passed an ordinance allowing up to six hens to be raised in city yards for an annual fee of $25. Coops must at least 20 feet from neighboring houses and 5 feet from property lines. Hens must have rodent- and predator-proof pens providing both sun and shade; the pens must be covered with aviary netting or a solid roof. Manure must be stored in a 20-gallon, covered container. Fourteen-year-old Payson Robinson of Great Diamond Island started Portland’s chicken movement with his letter to the Council. (“VICTORY: Backyard Chickens Allowed in Portland,” e-mail, Feb. 19, 2009, Bob St. Peter, Food for Maine’s Future; “Portland rescinds chicken ban – but it's hens only, no roosters,” by Tom Bell, Portland Press Herald, Feb. 19, 2009)
|Heather Albert-Knopp is the new Sustainable Food Systems Program coordinator at College of the Atlantic. Photo courtesy of COA.
The College of the Atlantic has hired Heather Albert-Knopp (a MOFGA’s board member) to administer its new Sustainable Food Systems Program and Alyssa Mack to manager its organic Beech Hill Farm. Albert-Knopp, a 1999 COA graduate, will coordinate the Food Systems Program, which includes the Trans-Atlantic Partnership in Sustainable Food Systems. This partnership links COA with two premiere European institutions in organic agriculture, the University of Kassel in Germany and the Organic Research Center (ORC) at Elm Farm in the United Kingdom. Albert-Knopp has worked on several area farms and has a decade of experience as an organizer, most recently as the Farm to School coordinator in Hancock County.
Mack, who has worked on farms in the United States and in Europe, holds a B.S. in environmental science from Allegheny College in Pennsylvania.
As part of the Trans-Atlantic Partnership, COA faculty member Suzanne Morse and faculty from ORC and Kassel will teach "Our Daily Bread: Grains through the Food Systems," a field-based course in Europe.
Some fellowships are available for those seeking a master’s degree in International Organic Agriculture or International Food Business and Consumer Studies at the
University of Kassel. ORC also offers internships.
University of Kassel graduates may study at COA; the three institutions may exchange researchers and teachers among all three institutions; and they are planning a conference in sustainable food systems for this fall. (Press release, College of the Atlantic, Donna Gold, Director of Public Relations, firstname.lastname@example.org ; www.coa.edu)
The United States and Canada plan to have an equivalency agreement in place by June 30, 2009, the Canadian Organic Regime implementation date. (ATTRA Weekly Harvest Newsletter, April 8, 2009; http://attra.ncat.org)
Legumes are rich in antioxidants, biochemicals that can attack free radicals in the body and reduce the risk of cancer and other diseases. Researchers at Colorado State University found that consuming dry beans reduces the risk of mammary cancer. The scientists fed lab animals cooked dry bean powder made from six kinds of beans and looked for correlations between mammary cancer and seed coat pigments or concentrations of antioxidants in the beans. Consuming any of the beans reduced the number of animals with one tumor from 95 percent in the control group to 67 percent; and reduced the number of tumors per animal from 3.2 in the control group to 1.4. The phenolic and flavonoid contents and antioxidant capacity were not associated with the reductions, suggesting that the anticancer activity of dry beans is not related to those traits or to seed color. (“Dry Beans Inhibit Development Of Mammary Cancer,” ScienceDaily, Feb. 18, 2009; www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/02/090204131621.htm; Thompson et al., “Chemical Composition and Mammary Cancer Inhibitory Activity of Dry Bean,” Crop Science, 2009; 49 (1): 179 DOI: 10.2135/cropsci2008.04.0218)
Eggs from free-range hens have three to six times more vitamin D than typical supermarket eggs, according to a study conducted by Mother Earth News. Free-range eggs from farms were compared with USDA nutrient data on commercial eggs, which are produced indoors in factory farms. Two eggs from free-range/pastured hens could provide 63 to 126 percent of the recommended daily intake (RDI) of vitamin D. Humans can get vitamin D from certain foods or from exposing their skin to sunlight. Most people lack sufficient vitamin D, especially in winter. Insufficient vitamin D has been linked to an increased risk of osteoporosis, multiple sclerosis, high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer and other diseases. Some experts are recommending higher-than-RDI amounts. Free-range/pastured eggs also containing two-thirds more vitamin A, three times more vitamin E, seven times more beta carotene, two times more beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, one-third less cholesterol and one-fourth less saturated fat than factory farmed eggs, according to other studies by Mother Earth News. (“No yolk! Free-range eggs contain more vitamin D,” press release, Mother Earth News, March 6, 2009; www.motherearthnews.com)
Using historical data, University of Texas researcher Donald R. Davis found that vegetables are 5 to 40 percent lower in magnesium, iron, calcium and zinc than those harvested 50 years ago. Vitamins and protein have also declined; and fruits are less nutritious now, too. The reduction may be attributed to dilution of nutrients in vegetables that contain more water; to selection for carbohydrates over other nutrients; to faster growing crops that are harvested before they take up many nutrients; to competition for uptake from potassium in synthetic chemical fertilizers; or to depleted soils. Davis says that efforts to increase food production have actually produced food that is less nourishing. (“Declining Fruit and Vegetable Nutrient Composition: What Is the Evidence?” by Donald R. Davis, Journal of HortScience; Feb. 2009; http://hortsci.ashspublications.org/cgi/reprint/44/1/15?ijkey=RfqpDkPqP6D3rR (requires subscription); “Eating Your Veggies: Not As Good For You?” by M.J. Stephey, Time, Feb. 18, 2009;
www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1880145,00.html?xid=rss-fullhealthsci-yahoo; “Less tasty – and not as good for you,” by Tom Philpott, Grist, Jan. 28, 2009;
A study at Tufts University in Boston suggests that neutralizing an acid-producing diet by consuming more produce may help reduce bone breakdown, or "turnover," in aging people. Other studies suggest that consuming more-than-recommended amounts of calcium may not be the main way to protect bone. Fruits and vegetables are metabolized to bicarbonate, so are alkali-producing; but the typical American diet is rich in protein and cereal grains, which are metabolized to acid, and so are acid-producing. With aging, such diets lead to increasing metabolic "acidosis." For three months, a group of 78 healthy volunteers, age 50 or older, received either potassium or sodium bicarbonate in an amount equal to about nine servings of produce per day, along with their usual diet and exercise regimes. Intake of key bone mineral nutrients was controlled. These volunteers had significant reductions in biomarkers associated with bone loss and fracture than 84 volunteers in a no-bicarbonate control group. (“Neutralizing Acidosis and Bone Loss among Mature Adults," by Rosalie Marion Bliss, USDA Agricultural Research Service News Service, Jan. 30, 2009; www.ars.usda.gov/is/pr)
A Milky Situation
HP Hood won’t renew contracts for 10 Maine organic dairy farms and told several other Maine organic milk producers to cut production by 15 percent. Hood blamed the declining economy and increased transportation costs for the decision, but many dairy farmers blame the dairy pricing system, influenced by the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, and huge imports – including imports of milk protein concentrate (processed milk powder with minerals and other components removed). Proposed cuts in Maine’s price support system for dairy farmers were adding to producers’ woes as we went to press.
The Maine Farm Bureau, MOFGA, some affected farms and other businesses and farm experts were seeking funding to plan a processing and distribution system for Maine-labeled milk in the state. The organizations say that the national milk marketing system, which trucks Maine milk out-of-state for processing and then ships some back to Maine retailers, “is often not operating in the best interests of the Maine dairy industry.” Major Maine retailers would be asked to purchase less out-of-state milk to ensure that all the Maine-label milk has a market. The group’s efforts are posted at MaineOrganicMilk.com. (“Organic milk boom in Maine going bust, Hood drops northern, Down East dairy farms,” by Sharon Kiley Mack, Bangor Daily News, March 1, 2001; www.bangornews.com/detail/100620.html; “Hood drops two more organic farms,” Mainebiz, April 9, 2009; www.mainebiz.biz/news44422.html; “Root cause of milk price crash studied,” by Sharon Kiley Mack, Bangor Daily News, March 30, 2009; “Organic Family Dairy Farm Support Project,” Press release, Maine Farm Bureau/Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Assoc., March 12, 2009)
Germany scientists have developed tests to distinguish organic from conventional milk in order to detect fraud. Ratios of stable isotopes of carbon can determine whether milk came from cows fed higher concentrations of corn versus pasture. Also, organic milk usually has more of the healthful alpha-linolenic acid than conventional. ("New Test For Detecting Fake Organic Milk,” Medical News Today, March 2, 2009; www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/140759.php)
Water Woes Out West
A third year of severe drought has hit California’s Central Valley, devastating environments, economies, communities and families there, and the availability of fresh produce elsewhere. The Central Valley produces over half the produce and nuts grown in the United States. (“Drought Adds to Hardships in California,” by Jesse McKinley, The New York Times, Feb. 22, 2009; www.nytimes.com/2009/02/22/us/22mendota.html?_r=1&hp; “California farms lose main water source to drought,” by Steve Gorman, Reuters, Feb. 20, 2009,
Sludge produced by U.S. sewage treatment plants contains a wide variety of toxic metals, pharmaceuticals, flame retardants, antibiotics and other compounds, according to a new EPA study. Some 7 million metric tons of these “biosolids” are applied to farm fields annually for their nutrient and organic matter content. Data on contaminants, released in January, will allow the EPA to begin assessing the risks of those applications. (EPA Report: www.epa.gov/waterscience/biosolids/tnsss-overview.html; “The Dirt on Sewage Sludge,” by Erik Stokstad, Science, Jan. 22, 2009; sciencenow.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/2009/122/3; Organic Consumers Assoc., Jan. 26, 2009; www.organicconsumers.org/articles/article_16623.cfm)
After discovery of widespread sales in California of organic fertilizers spiked with synthetic nitrogen (prohibited on organic farms), the Organic Trade Association convened a task force to develop an industry standard to verify fertilizers and other products used in organic farming. The task force is expected to forward its standards in June to the National Organic Program. The California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) will require, as of August 15, third-party site inspection of liquid fertilizer manufacturers; and CCOF itself will test liquid fertilizers. (“USDA toughens oversight of organic fertilizer,” by Jim Downing, The Sacramento Bee, Feb. 21, 2009; California faces organic "Fertilizergate,” by Vicky Uhland, nauralfoods merchandiser, Feb. 19, 2009; http://naturalfoodsmerchandiser.com/tabId/119/itemId/3615/California-faces-organic-Fertilizergate.aspx)
As the federal government reviewed bills on food safety, the Internet was flooded with e-mails claiming that those bills would end organic farming and gardening and farmers’ markets. Russell Libby, executive director of MOFGA, says those claims are not accurate. Federal regulations do need to address mounting food safety issues, and proposed changes are drafted with large, industrial-scale farming operations in mind and do not meet the needs of (and could be onerous to) small, diversified farms, he says. The bills and Libby’s responses are posted at www.mofga.org. As we went to press, Congress was expected to vote on the bills, with rule-making occurring after passage.
According to Libby, these bills will likely address which federal agency is responsibility for food safety; give the federal government recall authority when a food is contaminated (currently, the FDA and USDA can only request that processors recall suspect food); and push for better tracking of ingredients that processors use – which could involve a National Animal Identification System.
Libby says the government needs to recognize the many ways to produce safe food. Food safety issues associated with products sold at farmers’ markets differ from those of thousand-acre vegetable producers wholesaling all their product; and the tracking system used for a CSA should differ from that of a nationwide poultry processor.
Also, large farms – confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), large wholesale producers – and large processors have different potential impacts on the food system than small family farms and food businesses. Solutions should work for farmers, fishermen and local food processors of all sizes.
The proposed bills focus almost exclusively on potential microbial contamination and ignore other issues, such as potential health impacts of pesticides or genetically engineered products; and off-farm environmental and health impacts of CAFOs or corn monocultures.
Nine of 20 samples of commercial high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) contained mercury, according to an article in Environmental Health, and a study by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) detected mercury in nearly one-third of 55 popular foods and beverages where HFCS is the first or second label ingredient. Sweetened beverages, processed foods, lunch meats, yogurts, soups and condiments may all contain HFCS. Americans consume a mean of about 12 teaspoons of HFCS per day. Mercury contaminates some (but not all) caustic soda, made in industrial chlorine plants, used to make HFCS. (“Mercury from chlor-alkali plants: measured concentrations in food product sugar,” Renee Dufault et al., Environmental Health, Jan. 26, 2009; www.ehjournal.net; “Much High Fructose Corn Syrup Contaminated With Mercury, New Study Finds,” Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) press release, Jan. 26, 2009; "Not So Sweet: Missing Mercury and High Fructose Corn Syrup," by David Wallinga, M.D., Janelle Sorensen, Pooja Mottl and Brian Yablon, M.D.; www.iatp.org.)
California Senate Bill (SB) 550 would require California grocery stores using programmable checkout scanners to ensure that employees and customers at the check-out stand are notified when the product being purchased is subject to a recall by the FDA or USDA. (Food & Water Watch and Consumers Union press release, March 3, 2009; www.foodandwaterwatch.org; www.consumersunion.org)
Cattle consuming distillers grain, a byproduct of ethanol production, have elevated rates of pathogenic E. coli, and the grain often contains antibiotics. Penicillin, virginiamycin, erythromycin and tylosin are used during ethanol production to prevent lactic acid bacteria from interfering with fermenting corn into ethanol. Researchers have found some antibiotic-resistant bacteria associated with ethanol production and are concerned that the antibiotics will enter the human food chain through cattle. (“Antibiotics pose concern for MN ethanol producers,” by Mark Steil, April 4, 2009; Forbes; www.forbes.com/feeds/ap/2009/04/04/ap6255845.html)
Pesticides in the News
When UCLA researchers studied 25 years worth of public records of pesticide applications in California's Central Valley, they found that people living next to fields where the fungicide maneb or the herbicide paraquat had been sprayed were 75 percent more likely to develop Parkinson’s disease than a control group that lived farther from the fields. Previous studies with animals reached the same conclusion. (“Pesticides linked to Parkinson's, UCLA researchers find, Chicago Tribune, April 20, 2009; www.chicagotribune.com/health/chi-parkinsonsapr20,0,594513.story)
The EPA will for the first time require that pesticide manufacturers test 67 chemicals in their products for effects on hormone systems. (“EPA Will Mandate Tests On Pesticide Chemicals,” by Juliet Eilperin, Washington Post, April 16, 2009; www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/04/15/AR2009041501960.html)
Children living where their parents used pesticides, including lawn and garden pesticides and especially herbicides, were twice as likely to develop brain cancer as those living where pesticides were not used. Researchers asked more than 1,300 parents about their exposure to pesticides at home and work over two years before their child was born. They found that "parental exposures may act before the child’s conception, during gestation, or after birth to increase the risk of cancer." Children’s cancer risk decreased significantly if fathers wore protective clothes or washed immediately after exposure to pesticides. (“Pesticides blamed for some childhood brain cancers,” by Heather Hamlin, Environmental Health News, April 7, 2009; www.environmentalhealthnews.org/ehs; Original article: Shim Y., S.P. Mlynarek and E. van Wijngaarden, “Parental exposure to pesticides and childhood brain cancer: United States Atlantic Coast Childhood Brain Cancer Study,” Environmental Health Perspectives, Feb. 8, 2009)
The Ontario government has banned 85 lawn and garden pesticides, including 2,4-D in its concentrated form – despite a NAFTA challenge from 2,4-D manufacturer Dow AgroSciences. Retailers must now store and display pesticides behind the counter, and by 2011 they will have to notify customers of new limitations on use. The ban does not apply to golf courses, farms or managed forests. In December 2008, Beyond Pesticides and the Natural Resources Defense Council petitioned the EPA to cancel registration of 2,4-D, found in "weed and feed" products across North America. (Pesticide Action Network North America, March 5, 2009; www.panna.org)
Michigan State University researchers have found that prenatal exposure to a breakdown product of DDT may contribute to obesity in women. The study tracked 20- to 50-year-old daughters of 250 western Michigan mothers who, in the 1970s, ate fish contaminated with DDT and its breakdown products. Daughters with intermediate levels of the breakdown product DDE in their bodies gained a mean of 13 pounds of excess weight. Women with more DDE gained more than 20 excess pounds. (Pesticide Action Network North America news update, March 26, 2009; www.panna.org)
Four Monsanto Roundup formulations of the herbicide glyphosate are highly toxic to human cells at concentrations far below recommended agricultural use levels, according to researchers at the Institute of Biology in Caen, France. The mixtures use different adjuvants – chemicals that boost the effects of glyphosate. Roundup formulations are the top non-selective herbicides worldwide and are used increasingly, as more than 75 percent of genetically engineered crops are Roundup tolerant. The predominant adjuvant is polyethoxylated tallow amine (POEA), a surfactant that improves solubility and penetration of glyphosate into plants. The researchers found that the presence of adjuvants amplified the toxic effects of glyphosate. The toxicities of the Roundup formulations were not proportional to their concentration of glyphosate and are most likely due to adjuvants or other, undisclosed ingredients. All cells from three human cell lines died within 24 hours of exposure to the Roundup formulations. The formulations were tested at concentrations from10 parts per million to 2 percent (the recommended agricultural usage level). (“Death by Multiple Poisoning, Glyphosate and Roundup,” by Dr. Mae-Wan Ho and Brett Cherry, ISIS Press Release, Feb. 11, 2009; Original study: Benachour, N. and Séralini G-E., “Glyphosate formulations Induce Apoptosis and Necrosis in Human Umbilical, Embryonic, and Placental Cells,” Chem. Res. Toxicol., 2009, 22 (1), pp 97-105)
Genetic Engineering (GE) in the News
Roundup Ready crops have simplified weed control for farmers – in the short term. Bill Johnson, a Purdue University associate professor of weed science, says farmers who plant Roundup Ready crops and spray Roundup or glyphosate-based herbicides almost exclusively are finding that weeds have developed resistance. "We have weeds that have developed resistance, including giant ragweed, which is one of the weeds that drove the adoption of Roundup," Johnson says. "It's a pretty major issue in the Eastern Corn Belt. That weed can cause up to 100 percent yield loss." (“Farmers relying on Roundup lose some of its benefit,” by Brian Wallheimer; Purdue Univ., April 14, 2009; http://news.uns.purdue.edu/x/2009a/090414JohnsonSurvey.html)
According to “Failure to Yield,” a report by Union of Concerned Scientists expert Doug Gurian-Sherman, genetic engineering has failed to significantly increase U.S. crop yields. Gurian-Sherman reviewed two dozen academic studies and concluded that engineering herbicide-tolerant soybeans and corn had not increased yields, while insect-resistant corn improved yields only marginally. The increase in yields for both crops over the last 13 years was largely due to traditional breeding or improvements in agricultural practices. The report found that Bt corn likely provides a marginal operational yield advantage of 3 to 4 percent over typical conventional practices. Since Bt corn became commercially available in 1996, its annual yield advantage averages 0.2 to 0.3 percent, while overall U.S. corn yields over the last several decades increased approximately 1 percent annually – considerably more than the contribution from Bt traits. The report suggests that it makes little sense to support GE at the expense of technologies proven to increase yields substantially, especially in many developing countries. In addition, recent studies have shown that organic and similar farming methods that minimize the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers can more than double crop yields at little cost to poor farmers in some developing regions. “Traditional breeding outperforms genetic engineering hands down,” says Gurian-Sherman. (“Failure to Yield – Evaluating the Performance of Genetically Engineered Crops,” Union of Concerned Scientists, April 14, 2009, www.ucsusa.org/food_and_agriculture/science_and_impacts/science/failure-to-yield.html)
South African farmers lost 80,000 to150,000 tons of GE corn when plots of three varieties of the product suffered little or no pollination, reports The Times in Johannesburg. According to Marian Mayet of the Africa Centre for Biosecurity in Johannesburg, some farms had up to 80 percent crop failures. (Pesticide Action Network North America News, April 9, 2009; www.panna.org)
Monsanto's Bt Cotton is harming soil life. A study by the Indian research foundation Navdanya found that soil from fields in India where Monsanto’s Bt-cotton had been planted for three years had a 17 percent smaller actinomycete bacteria population than adjoining fields with non-GE cotton or other crops. Actinomycetes are vital for breaking down cellulose and creating humus. Bacteria in the GE fields were reduced by 14 percent; and the total microbial biomass was reduced by 8.9 percent. Soil enzymes that make nutrients available to plants were also reduced. Acid phosphatase, which contributes to phosphate uptake, was reduced by 26.6 percent; and nitrogenase enzymes, which help fix nitrogen, were reduced by 22.6 percent. (Press release, Institute of Science in Society, Feb. 23, 2009; www.i-sis.org.uk/BtCottonKillsSoilandFarmers.php. See also www.navdanya.org)
The Organic Consumers Association has collected several quotes promoting gene mapping to help with traditional plant breeding – a process that may make gene splicing and GE crops obsolete, say some. This new era of genomics uses genetic markers, genomics (studying an organism’s genes) and proteomics (studying an oganism’s proteins) to complement and enhance conventional breeding through marker-assisted selection (MAS), in which molecular markers and other high-tech tools help enhance traditional crop breeding. Because novel genes aren’t actually engineered into crops, the process is also called nontransformational biotech. (Organic Consumers Assoc., Jan. 29, 2009; www.organicconsumers.org/articles/article_16650.cfm)
In March, European Union environment ministers voted to allow Austria and Hungary to maintain national bans on growing genetically engineered (GE) crops from Monsanto. The only GE crop currently grown in Europe is MON 810 corn, produced by Monsanto and other companies. (“Europe to Allow Two Bans on Genetically Altered Crops,” by James Kanter, The New York Times, March 2, 2009; www.nytimes.com/2009/03/03/business/worldbusiness/03biotech.html?_r=3&ref=worldbusiness) And in April, Germany banned Monsanto's MON810 GE corn, concerned that it could be dangerous for the environment. (Pesticide Action Network North America, April 16, 2009; www.panna.org)
USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) gave preliminary approval to the first of a new generation of pesticide-promoting GE crops designed to survive spraying with multiple herbicides. This GE corn variety was developed by DuPont’s Pioneer Hi-Bred International to tolerate glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup) and acetolactate synthase-inhibiting herbicides (ALS inhibitors). The Center for Food Safety says that APHIS did not adequately address a range of health and environmental risks in its draft environmental assessment (EA), including novel food safety concerns, increased pesticide use and increased prevalence of weeds resistant to glyphosate, ALS inhibitors and to both herbicides. (Center for Food Safety press release, Feb. 2, 2009; www.centerforfoodsafety.org)
Are supermarket plums genetically engineered? If they are labeled with a five-digit number beginning with 8, they are. If the number begins with 9, they’re organic. If the label has four numbers, the fruits are conventionally grown but not genetically engineered. (Ideal Bite, Jan. 30, 2009; on http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2009/02/21/Are-Your-Supermarket-Plums-Genetically-Modified – Heres-How-to-Find-Out.aspx)
Twenty-six researchers have filed a complaint with the EPA stating that they cannot fully research GE crops because biotech companies prohibit growing those crops for research without their permission – which is sometimes denied, or the companies insist on reviewing research findings before they’re published. (“Crop Scientists Say Biotechnology Seed Companies Are Thwarting Research,” by Andrew Pollack, The New York Times, Feb. 20, 2009)
According to WorldWatch Institute, in 2007, GE crops accounted for 9 percent of total land used for global primary crops, including soybean (51 percent), corn (31 percent), cotton (13 percent) and canola (5 percent). The United States accounts for half of all GE crop area. Beyond the four standard GE crops, U.S. farmers also grew small (and declining) amounts of GE papaya in Hawaii, and GE alfalfa, which court rulings have suspended until further environmental review. Two GE traits dominate: herbicide tolerance (63 percent) and insect resistance (18 percent); a combination of the two traits (called “stacked”) accounts for the rest. Most herbicide-tolerant crops have been engineered to tolerate glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup). In the United States, GE crop production increased pesticide use by more than 4 percent between 1996 and 2004, and reports of glyphosate-resistant “super weeds” now total 15 species. Some studies have shown that GE crops reduce yield, including a 5- to 10-percent yield drag in GE soy. Monsanto’s GE crop traits are in more than 85 percent of global GE crop hectares, and the company controls 23 percent of the global proprietary seed market. (“Genetically Modified Crops Only a Fraction of Primary Global Crop Production,” by Alice McKeown, WorldWatch Institute, Dec. 4, 2008; www.worldwatch.org/node/5950)
While 95 percent of U.S. soybean production is GE Roundup-Ready, some 5 percent will be non-GE this year. That percentage is expected to increase because of the lower cost of non-GE seed and the higher premium for the non-GE product. Combined, those factors can bring an extra $50 per acre. The increase will be slowed by the lack of non-GE seed available this year, although seed companies are expected to increase production for 2010. In addition to getting the non-GE premium, grower may be able to save their own seed from the non-GE crop, using 1 acre of seed to plant up to 30 acres the following year. (“Interest in Non-Genetically Modified Soybeans Growing,” USAgNet, April 7, 2009; www.usagnet.com/story-national.php?Id=771&yr=2009)
Oregon farmer Don Tipping has suggested one way to increase non-GE seed production: regional seed producing hubs that network with one another, sharing experience, resources, tools (for printing labels, for instance), seed cleaning equipment and training. The Family Farmers Seed Cooperative is doing this in the West and the Northwest. (“Germination & the Forces of Spring,” by Don Tipping, April 1, 2009; http://biodynamicseeds.blogspot.com/2009/04/germination-forces-of-spring.html)
By February 2009, 73 companies had pledged not to use sugar from Monsanto’s GE, Roundup Ready sugar beets. Companies have rejected GE sugar beets not only because they have not been proven safe but also because the EPA had increased allowable levels of herbicide residues on the roots by up to 5,000 percent when USDA approved the crop for planting. GE sugar beet farms also threaten the economic viability of non-GE and organic beet and chard farmers through cross pollination. (“Companies Vow to Reject Genetically Modified Beet Sugar,” The True Food Network, Feb. 12, 2009;
In February, the FDA approved the first pharmaceutical product made in milk of GE animals. A Massachusetts farm is raising goats engineered by GTC Biotherapeutics of Framingham, Mass., to contain a human gene that produces the human blood protein antithrombin in their milk. The protein – otherwise obtained from human plasma, which is sometimes in short supply – can be extracted from the goat milk. The resultant drug, called ATryn, is intended for use during surgery or in childbirth by people who cannot produce antithrombin, which prevents blood clots. (“F.D.A. Approves Drug Made From Goat’s Milk,” by Andrew Pollack, The New York Times, Feb. 7, 2009;
Due to pressure from consumers and retailers, Agri-Mark, owner of Cabot cheeses, will stop accepting milk from rBGH-treated cows at its Middlebury and Cabot, Vermont, cheese plants and at its W. Springfield, Mass., butter plant on Aug. 1, 2009. For at least two years, most milk in New England has come from cows that were not treated with rBGH. With Agri-Mark abandoning the GE product, most New England dairy products will come from cows that did not receive rBGH. (“Bye Bye rbST?” by Steve Taylor, Lancaster Farming, Jan. 23, 2009; http://lancasterfarming.com/node/1700)