Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association

The Good News
Local Food
Organic Issues
Genetic Engineering (GE)
Animal ID
Antibiotic Resistance
Climate Change
Hormone Disruptors
Farm Bill
Microwave Weeds?
Priorities for Small Farms
Soil Loss
Food Safety

The Good News

A Cornell-led team of researchers is working to expand the availability of broccoli at East Coast farms, farmers’ markets and grocery stores. The popularity of broccoli has increased due to its anti-inflammatory properties, high fiber content, effects on vitamin D, ability to help prevent certain cancers, and concentration of phytonutrients that aid in detoxification. But 90 percent of broccoli sold in the East is produced in California and Mexico. Thomas Björkman, associate professor of horticulture based at the N.Y. State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, is leading a team that includes researchers from public broccoli-breeding programs and private seed companies, production specialists and economists in building a regional network that transforms broccoli from isolated production pockets to a year-round market worth $100 million a year. The plan involves three public breeders using existing germplasm to develop hybrids with improved disease resistance, ease of harvest, tolerance to heat, humidity and other stresses, and high phytonutrient content; three seed companies to scale up seed production and market new releases to eastern growers; five regional sites to demonstrate broccoli production; five eastern U.S. grower networks to produce a year-round supply; and one regional distribution network to source broccoli from different grower networks at different times of the year.

So far results show the additional expense involved in producing broccoli in the eastern U.S. can be offset by savings in transportation costs. According to one model, a 30 percent increase in eastern acreage can reduce costs by $5 million a year under current diesel fuel prices; and a year-round eastern broccoli industry would reduce the broccoli growing and transportation system’s CO2 emissions by 1.4 million pounds per year, roughly equal to taking 125 cars off the road. (“Study shows promise for East Coast broccoli industry,” by Kate Frazer, Chronicle Online, Jan. 8, 2013;


Dairy heifers raised on pasture in the Wisconsin Integrated Cropping Systems Trial performed as well as or better than similar heifers raised in confinement. In this study, heifers on managed pastures matched the weights and age at first calving of their confined counterparts and they outperformed confinement heifers in average daily gain during the pasture season and milk production in their first lactation. (“Pastured Heifers Grow Well and Have Productive First Lactations,” Univ. of Wisc. Madison, Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, CIAS Research Brief #89, Jan. 2013;


Chickens fed a diet including oregano oil and cinnamon appear to resist bacterial diseases without using antibiotics. The oregano product, By-O-Reg Plus, is made by Dutch company Ropapharm International. A USDA SARE-funded test of oregano oil on four small farms in Maine found that the material controlled parasites and worms of goats and sheep. Diane Schivera of MOFGA coordinated this work. ( And a Georgetown University study of mice infected with staph bacteria found that those given oregano oil survived longer than those given carvacrol (in olive oil), thought to be the antibacterial component of oregano, and much longer than controls. Sanitation is also important in controlling bacterial infections. (“In Hopes of Healthier Chickens, Farms Turn to Oregano,” By Stephanie Strom, The New York Times, Dec. 25, 2012;


The amount of land needed to grow crops worldwide has peaked, and an area more than twice the size of France can return to its natural state by 2060 as a result of rising yields due to farmers’ ingenuity and slower population growth, says Jesse Ausubel, director of the Program for the Human Environment at the Rockefeller University in New York. A June 2012 UN FAO report, however, said 70 million more hectares of land will have to be cultivated in 2050 to meet food needs. Ausubel assumed rising crop yields, slowing population growth, a slow rise in using crops for biofuels, moderate rises in meat consumption and no disruption from climate change. (“’Peak farmland’ is here, crop area to diminish: study,” by Alister Doyle, Reuters, Dec. 17, 2012;


The average human produces 2 liters of urine per day. An ecosan – ecological sanitation – toilet separates urine from feces so that the urine can be used to fertilize crops. The Dzi Foundation of Colorado and a Nepalese NGO are building more than 1,000 toilets in Sotang, a village in Nepal. One resident who chose an ecosan toilet used the urine as fertilizer and significantly increased his income from his vegetable plot. Urine poses negligible health risks, say UN experts. Separating urine at the source can prevent accidental contamination from fecal pathogens. Other safety measures include applying urine only to soils and not to leaves, and only on crops that will be cooked; and sanitary handling of food in the kitchen. Environmental contamination with traces of medicines and hormones is considered a minor concern – and soils may degrade these better than sewage treatment systems. Long-term effects on soil salinity are unknown in this area so far. (“Liquid gold: Farmers in Nepal find resourceful way to fertilize crops, by Smriti Mallapaty, Environmental Health News, Dec. 17, 2012;


More than $4.5 million in grants for 68 projects in 37 states and the District of Columbia will connect school cafeterias with local agricultural producers. Among the grantees are the Portland Public Schools and Maine School Administration District 12. (“USDA Farm to School 2012 Grant Awards,” USDA, Nov. 14, 2012;


Slow Food’s Sixth International Congress, held in October 2012 in Turin, Italy, committed to reaching more of the world, including Africa and China; to continuing to assert itself politically; and to working to protect biodiversity worldwide. Vital to this task will be the continuing cataloguing of endangered products with projects such as the Ark of Taste. (Slow Food International press release, Nov. 2, 2012;


Fellenz Family Farm and Mud Creek Farm are the first farms to qualify for the Food Justice Pledge, says NOFA-NY. The Agricultural Justice Project created this domestic fair trade label to reward in the marketplace sustainable and organic farms and food businesses where relationships are just and equitable. AJP standards emphasize fair pricing for farmers’ products that fully cover production costs, including fair wages and benefits for farmers and farm workers, genuine learning opportunities for interns, and safe working conditions for everyone on the farm. AJP helps farms establish clear employee policies and set fair prices. The standards appear at (“Two farms are the first to qualify for NOFA-NY’s Food Justice Pledge on Human Rights Day,” NOFA-NY press release, Dec. 10, 2012;


Farmer Mark Shepard of New Forest Farm in Wisconsin has planted perennials such as chestnuts, apples, hazelnuts, nut pines, berry shrubs and more to diversify his crops and protect his soil – an alternative to annual row corps that are labor intensive and degrade soils. He aims to mimic nature as much as possible and produce crops with his “restoration agriculture,” which includes the permaculture technique of establishing berms and swales to capture rainwater. Annual and perennial vegetables grow in alleys between tree rows and provide food until perennial crops start to produce. Cattle and pigs graze under some trees; eventually chickens, sheep and turkeys will join them. Shepard calculates that the system can yield 30 percent more calories per acre than corn, and much more nutrition. (“The giving tree: Agroforests can heal food systems and fight climate change,” by Jake Olzen, Grist, Dec. 11, 2012;


Since 1999, the global land area farmed organically has expanded more than threefold to 37 million hectares, according to Worldwatch Institute. Regions with the largest certified organic agricultural land in 2010 were Oceania (29.9 million acres), Europe (24.7 million acres) and Latin America (20.8 million acres).

Organic farming is now established in international standards, and 84 countries had implemented organic regulations by 2010, up from 74 in 2009. Definitions vary, but according to the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, organic agriculture is a production system that relies on ecological processes, such as waste recycling, rather than the use of synthetic inputs, such as chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

“Although organic agriculture often produces lower yields on land that has recently been farmed conventionally, it can outperform conventional practices – especially in times of drought – when the land has been farmed organically for a longer time,” says Laura Reynolds, a researcher with Worldwatch’s Food and Agriculture Program. “Conventional agricultural practices often degrade the environment over both the long and short term through soil erosion, excessive water extraction, and biodiversity loss.”

Organic farming can contribute to sustainable food security by improving nutrition intake and sustaining livelihoods in rural areas, while simultaneously reducing vulnerability to climate change and enhancing biodiversity. Sustainable practices associated with organic farming are relatively labor intensive. Organic agriculture uses up to 50 percent less fossil fuel energy than conventional, and common organic practices – including rotating crops, applying mulch to empty fields, and maintaining woody plants on farms – also stabilize soils and improve water retention, thus reducing vulnerability to harsh weather. On average, organic farms have 30 percent higher biodiversity, including birds, insects and plants, than conventional.

Certifications for organic agriculture are increasingly concentrated in wealthier countries. From 2009 to 2010, Europe increased its organic farmland by 9 percent, the largest growth in any region. The United States has lagged behind other countries in adopting sustainable farming methods. When national sales rather than production are considered, however, the U.S. organic industry is one of the fastest-growing industries in the nation, expanding by 9.5 percent in 2011 to reach $31.5 billion in sales.

Sustainable food production will become increasingly important in developing countries, as most population growth is concentrated in the world’s poorest countries. Agriculture in developing countries is often far more labor intensive than in industrial countries, so it is not surprising that approximately 80 percent of the 1.6 million global certified organic farmers live in the developing world. Countries with the most certified organic producers in 2010 were India (400,551 farmers), Uganda (188,625) and Mexico (128,826). Non-certified organic agriculture in developing countries is practiced by millions of indigenous people, peasants and small family farms involved in subsistence and local market-oriented production. (“Achieving a Sustainable Food System with Organic Farming,” Worldwatch Institute, Jan. 15, 2013;


Local Food

About 10 to 14 percent of the food eaten by the average Mainer comes from Maine, says Mark Lapping of the University of Southern Maine Muskie School of Public Policy and a member of the Maine Food Strategy Initiative. The Initiative, coordinated by University of Maine Cooperative Extension, seeks to increase this percentage. More information about the Maine Food Strategy is available at (“Natural Foodie: Maine Food Strategy reaching out to reap ideas,” by Avery Yale Kamila, Portland Press Herald, Jan. 23, 2013;


Organic Issues

Former Salinas Valley fertilizer maker Peter Townsley, who owned and ran California Liquid Fertilizer from 2000 to 2006, has been sentenced to 364 days in federal prison, fined $125,000, ordered to do 1,000 hours of community service, preferably related to organic farming, and ordered to three years of supervised release after he leaves prison, for selling some $6.5 million worth of Biolizer XN fertilizer to organic farmers. The fertilizer, made from organic materials and water, was amended with ammonium chloride and ammonium sulfate, both banned from use in organic production. Townsley was charged with mail fraud, as he mailed statements to the Organic Materials Review Institute claiming that Biolizer XN materials were allowed in organic operations. Another California fertilizer producer, Kenneth Noel Nelson Jr., who ran Port Organic Products Ltd., has been sentenced to 6 1/2 years in prison after selling as organic a product amended with aqueous ammonia. (“Salinas Valley organic fertilizer maker gets year in prison,” by Larry Parsons, The Herald, Nov. 8, 2012; “Organic fertilizer fraud nets 364-day prison term, plus fine,” The Grower, Nov. 9, 2012;; “Man who made fake organic fertilizer gets 6 1/2 years,” AP, San Jose Mercury News, Nov. 19, 2012)


As of January 1, 2013, organic certifying agents must test annually samples from at least 5 percent of the operations they certify to ensure they are not using materials prohibited in organic production. Testing can be done on soil, water, waste, seeds, plant tissue and processed product samples and can look for prohibited pesticides, hormones, antibiotics and genetically engineered products. In 2012, MOFGA Certification Services’ second year of testing, samples from 20 randomly selected Maine organic farms had no detectable residues of prohibited pesticides. Critics of the USDA requirement, including Charles Benbrook of Washington State University and Maine organic farmer Arthur Harvey, say limited testing without third-party involvement and without better recordkeeping by USDA is insufficient. (The NOP Organic Insider, USDA, Nov. 9, 2012;; “Organic program steps up testing,” The Grower, Nov. 13, 2012;; MOFGA Certification Services, LLC, 2012 Year in Review, report given at MOFGA’s annual meeting, Jan. 8, 2013; “Organic Holiday Fare to Face Pesticide Test Purists Call Flawed,” by Andrew Zajac, Bloomberg, Nov. 21, 2012;


Canadian organic farmer Sally Bernard, of Dunn Creek Organic Farm on Prince Edward Island, writes in her blog about confronting a farmer who claims to his customers and to news reporters to be organic, when, she alleges, he is not certified and feeds his animals non-organic, genetically engineered grain. She explains that his claim hurts the organic community, agriculture and the local food movement because he is reaping the price benefit of organic while paying lower prices for non-organic feed, and customers may lose trust in other farmers. Bernard suggests that customers ask for up-to-date organic certificates or ask farmers what they feed their animals. (“Why False Organic Claims Matter,” by Sally Bernard, Nov. 11, 2012;


The organic dairy sector provides more economic opportunity and generates more jobs in rural communities than conventional dairies, says the Union of Concerned Scientists’ (UCS) report “Cream of the Crop: The Economic Benefits of Organic Dairy Farms.” The report compares the economic value generated by conventional and organic farms in Vermont if those farms experienced a hypothetical increase in sales. Under this scenario, organic dairy farms would be expected to contribute 33 percent more to the state’s economy than conventional, and employ 83 percent more workers.

Nationally, consumer demand for organic milk has jumped dramatically over the last decade. Organic dairy farming is now a $750 million industry, and annual U.S. organic milk sales increased 12 percent in 2010, 13 percent in 2011, and 5 percent in the first seven months of 2012. In some regions, retail grocery chains have trouble keeping enough organic milk in stock.

Despite organic dairy farms’ benefits and rising consumer demand, UDSA farm programs and taxpayer subsidies favor big CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations). The Farm Bill currently provides relatively little (but vital) support for the organic dairy sector.

The UCS makes four recommendations to support organic dairy:
USDA should revise the federal milk marketing orders, which establish the minimum prices dairy processors must pay to farmers – The antiquated minimum-pricing order policies were written in the 1930s and fail to account for ways that organic milk production differs from conventional; Congress and USDA should offer a subsidized insurance program customized for organic dairy farmers – Insurance programs proposed in Farm Bill deliberations are designed only to support conventional dairies; Congress should increase funding for organic agriculture programs; and Congress should fund and the USDA should implement programs that support regional food system development, such as rural development grants. (Union of Concerned Scientists, Nov. 14, 2012;


Just a few companies dominate the market in each link of the food chain, says a report by Food & Water Watch called “The Economic Cost of Food Monopolies.” Data compiled by the University of Missouri-Columbia in 2012 show that the four largest agriculture and food companies controlled 82 percent of the beef packing industry, 85 percent of soybean processing, 63 percent of pork packing and 53 percent of broiler chicken processing.

This concentration of economic power means farmers may pay more for supplies when only a few firms sell equipment and supplies; the few firms bidding for crops and livestock can drive down prices farmers receive; consumers have fewer choices; and food processors and retailers quickly raise prices when farm prices rise but are slow to pass savings on to consumers when farm prices fall.

Agricultural consolidation also harms rural communities. Communities with more medium- and smaller-sized farms have more shared prosperity, including higher incomes, lower unemployment and lower income inequality, than communities with larger farms tied to often-distant agribusinesses.

The goal of agribusiness concentration is to move income from farmers and rural economies to Wall Street. The Food & Water Watch report examines five case studies of agribusiness concentration: Iowa’s hog industry; milk processing and dairy farming in upstate New York; poultry production on Maryland’s Eastern Shore; organic soybean farming and soymilk production; and California’s processed fruit and vegetable industry.

The report says the U.S. Department of Justice and USDA must end their decades-long hands-off approach to this consolidation, must strengthen oversight of this highly consolidated sector and create new fair-market rules. They must collect and disseminate information about the concentration; coordinate competition and antitrust policy for the food and farm sector; the USDA should have a special counsel’s office on agricultural consolidation in the food and farm sector to coordinate agencies with jurisdiction over competition policy; prevent distortions in hog and cattle markets that currently allow meatpackers to avoid buying hogs and cattle on public markets, reducing competition and lowering the price farmers receive; and prevent unfair and deceptive “take-it-or-leave-it” practices in agricultural contracting. (Food & Water Watch, Nov. 2, 2012;


North Dakota voters have put the right to farm in their state constitution, guaranteeing that farmers can engage in “modern” agriculture and barring laws limiting use of “agricultural technology, modern livestock production and ranching practices.” The amendment is confusing state officials, who question whether it could survive court challenges. The state Farm Bureau collected signatures to get the amendment on the ballot so that special interest groups could not “tell us what to do and what not to do,” said North Dakota Farm Bureau president Doyle Johannes. Meanwhile, in 2011-2012, legislators in 10 states, including New Hampshire, introduced Ag-Gag laws aimed at preventing employees, journalists or activists from exposing illegal or unethical practices on factory farms. The laws passed in Missouri, Iowa and Utah, which join North Dakota, Montana and Kansas as having such laws. (“Amendment protecting farmers raises questions,” AP, The Bismark Tribune, Nov. 9, 2012; “Shocking: Reporting Factory Farm Abuses to be Considered “Act of Terrorism” If New Laws Pass, by Katherine Paul, Ronnie Cummins, Alternet, Jan. 24, 2013;


Genetic Engineering (GE)

In its fall 2012 partners in health newsletter, Kaiser Permanente – the largest U.S. managed healthcare organization – recommended that its members limit their exposure to GE crops. “Despite what the biotech industry might say,” reports Kaiser Permanente, “there is little research on the long-term effects of GMOs on human health. Independent research has found that several varieties of GMO corn caused organ damage in rats. Other studies have found that GMOs may lead to an inability in animals to reproduce.” The article recommends buying organic foods to avoid GE ingredients; avoiding foods made with non-organic corn, cottonseed, canola and soy oil; buying foods with the Non-GMO Project Verified seal; and asking at local markets if their foods are GE-free. (“Corporate Giant Comes Out Against GMOs,” Willamette Live, Nov. 15, 2012;


The Environmental Working Group (EWG) estimates that the average American adult, weighing 179 pounds, consumes 193 pounds of GE food per year. EWG used 2011 USDA data on per capita consumption of four foods commonly derived from GE crops: sugar, corn-based sweeteners, salad oil and “corn products.” It estimated the quantity of these foods likely to be GE, based on USDA data showing 95 percent of U.S.-grown sugar beets, 93 percent of soybeans and 88 percent of corn are GE; and federal data showing that 79 percent of the salad oil consumed in the United States is soybean oil, and 55 percent of our sugar comes from sugar beets. From these figures, EWG calculated that the average American annually consumes GE foods in these quantities: 68 pounds of beet sugar, 58 pounds of corn syrup, 38 pounds of soybean oil and 29 pounds of corn-based products. This is likely an underestimate, says EWG, since it does not include GE canola oil, cottonseed oil, papaya, yellow squash, soy products other than soybean oil, or animal feed that people may consume indirectly by eating meat raised on GE crops. (“Americans Eat Their Weight in Genetically Engineered Food,” Environmental Working Group, Oct. 15, 2012;

On Jan. 10, 2013, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington, D.C., heard the Appeal of Dismissal in Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association et al v. Monsanto. The lawsuit, originally filed in Federal District Court, Southern District of New York, in March 2011, challenges the validity of Monsanto’s transgenic seed patents and seeks preemptive court protection for farmers when Monsanto seed trespasses onto their farms and contaminates their crops. Should contamination occur, innocent farmers would be placed in legal jeopardy and could be held liable by Monsanto for patent infringement because of the farmers’ “possession” of Monsanto technology without having paid royalty on that “possession,” says Jim Gerritsen of Wood Prairie Farm and president of OSGATA. Plaintiffs, including MOFGA and Fedco Seeds, are represented by lawyers from the Public Patent Foundation, who are providing pro bono legal services. Plaintiff lawyer Dan Ravicher asked Monsanto for a binding legal covenant guaranteeing family farmers that they would not be pursued for patent infringement should their crops become contaminated by Monsanto seed. Monsanto refused to provide this assurance to the farmers.

Thirty-one family farmers, plaintiffs in the lawsuit, traveled to Washington from across North America to attend the Oral Argument in the Appeal of Dismissal in January.

Monsanto has sued, or settled in court with, more than 844 family farms since 1997 over patent infringement after its seeds spread to nearby farms.

The farmers’ Appeal brief, filed last summer, cites legal and factual errors by Federal District Court Judge Naomi Buchwald that caused her to erroneously conclude that the farmers lacked standing under the Declaratory Judgment Act to seek court protection. In addition, two powerful amicus briefs were filed in support of the farmers’ position – one by a group of 11 law professors and another by a group of 14 nonprofit agricultural and consumer organizations. The three-judge Appellate panel will study these briefs during its deliberations; if two of the judges vote favorably for the plaintiffs, the case will return to district court.

“American family farmers have gone to court seeking justice and protection from Monsanto. We are not seeking one penny from Monsanto,” said Gerritsen. “We satisfy the requirements of the Declaratory Judgment Act. We want our day in court so that our families can achieve protection from this perverse injustice. We are prepared to prove at trial that the U.S. Patent Office improperly granted Monsanto patents on their genetically engineered seed and that those patents are invalid.”

After the Jan. 10 hearing, nearly 300 family farmers, activists and members of Food Democracy Now!, gathered in front of the White House. Included were Maine organic farmer Jim Gerritsen; Holli Cederholm, general manager of OSGATA and owner of Proud Peasant Farm in Washington, Maine; Aimee Good from Good Dirt Farm in Monticello; and Meg Liebman from South Paw Farm in Unity. The farmers assembled to demand that Monsanto end its campaign of intimidation against America’s family farmers over GE crops, and that President Obama halt approval of GE food – including GE salmon – until independent, long-term safety tests are conducted.

As we went to press, the Appeals Court judges had not made a decision on the case. (Press release, Wood Prairie Farm, Nov. 23, 2012;; “Maine farmers get second chance in court against giant Monsanto,” by Whit Richardson, Bangor Daily News, Nov. 23, 2012;; Wood Prairie Farm Seed Piece Newsletter, Jan. 10, 2013; “Four Maine farmers head to D.C. to challenge Monsanto in court on patents,” by Whit Richardson, Bangor Daily News, Jan. 09, 2013;


In October 2012, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case involving Monsanto’s GE soy. Indiana soybean farmer Vernon Bowman plants two crops of soybeans each summer. He says that from 1999 to 2007, after planting his first crop using Monsanto-licensed Roundup Ready soybean seed, he bought less expensive commodity soybean seed from a grain elevator for his second, economically-riskier crop. Monsanto accused him of planting its licensed seed, sued Bowman for infringing on its patents, and Bowman was ordered to pay more than $84,000 in damages. The court explained that, “despite [Mr.] Bowman’s compelling policy arguments addressing the monopolizing effect of the introduction of patented genetic modifications to seed producing plants on an entire crop species, he has not overcome the patent law precedent which breaks in favor of Monsanto[.]” An appeals court upheld the decision, so the 74-year-old Bowman filed with the Supreme Court ( The Center for Food Safety filed an amicus brief supporting Bowman. It believes that patent protection for GE crops must be limited so that farmers can save their seeds and protect themselves against litigation. (“Food safety group calls for court to limit GMO seed patents,” by Carey Gillam, Reuters, Dec.10, 2012.


The U.S. Department of Justice in November 2012 ended its two-year antitrust investigation into possible anticompetitive practices in the U.S. seed market without taking any action and without explanation – despite, says reporter Tom Philpott, a “high degree of concentration, high and rising prices, limited choice, stagnant innovation … hallmarks of an uncompetitive industry.” (“DOJ Mysteriously Quits Monsanto Antitrust Investigation,” by Tom Philpott, Mother Jones, Dec. 1, 2012;


Several states, including Maine, are developing local legislative or initiative efforts to label GE crops. Ballot initiative 522, submitted in Washington state in January 2013, would require that food and seeds produced entirely or partly through GE and sold in-state be labeled as such, beginning July 1, 2015. Raw foods that are not packaged separately would have to be labeled on retail shelves. The state Legislature can vote on the initiative, take no action and send it to the November ballot, or recommend an alternative measure that will appear on the ballot with it. Meanwhile, citizens of Jackson County, Oregon, have filed signatures with the county clerk to put a measure on the county ballot for a ban on growing GE crops in the county, except for scientific research. The goal is to protect organic farmers’ crops from contamination by GE crops, such as sugar beets and alfalfa. And the nonprofit Non-GMO Project, a third-party certification program, has verified 764 products as GMO-free. (“30 States Pick Up Reigns on GMO Labeling Initiative After Prop 37 Defeat,” by Alex Pietrowski, Before It’s News, Nov. 13, 2012;; “Look Out Monsanto: Campaigns to Label Genetically Engineered Foods Are Heating Up,” by Ocean Robbins, AlterNet, Nov. 15, 2012;; “Determined Resistance Grows After Stolen Election,” Wood Prairie Farm Seedpiece newsletter, Nov. 21, 2012; “Proposal would require genetically modified label, by Shannon Dininny, The Seattle Times, Jan. 3, 2013;; “Organic farmers in southern Oregon seek ban on genetically modified crops,” AP, The Oregonian, Jan. 2, 2013;


Former GE crop critic Mark Lynas denounced that stand in a speech at the Oxford Farming Conference, where he apologized for tearing up GE crops and for his “anti-science environmentalism.” In his turnaround, Lynas said GE crops were good for biodiversity and necessary to feed the world. His stance was later was challenged by University of Michigan evolution professor John Vandermeer; Union of Concerned Scientists’ Doug Gurian-Sherman; Dr. Brian John of UK’s Durham University; and Earth Island Journal’s Jason Mark.

Pesticide Action Network summarizes those challenged. Lynas failed to note that GE crops do not increase yield and that focusing on productivity alone will not solve world hunger. Rather, people are hungry because they can’t afford food (for political, social, economic and environmental reasons). Numerous reports have concluded that increasing investment in agroecological and diversified farming systems is crucial to meeting our climate, water, energy and food challenges. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food said that agroecological farming can double food production within 10 years, while mitigating climate change and alleviating poverty. Also, cutting the 30 to 50 percent of food that goes to waste globally could go far in resolving hunger problems.

After 25 years of research, 14 years of commercialization and millions of dollars in public funding, GE has failed to deliver, says Pesticide Action Network. GE crops neither increase yield nor provide nutritional benefits. Also, use of herbicide-resistant GE seeds has escalated pesticide applications over the past 16 years.

Organic farming, by removing synthetic chemical pesticides from the environment, helps protect farmers, farmworkers and their families, rural communities and children (as well as workers at pesticide manufacturing facilities).

Regarding biodiversity, GE soy in Brazil and Argentina are deforesting the Amazon, threatening the region’s fauna and flora.

Lynas said organic farmers violate the rights and ability of GE farmers to produce their crops, when GE production actually threatens organic and conventional farms with chemical drift and genetic contamination.

Finally, a meta-study showed that organic farms in developing countries outperformed conventional practices by 57 percent and that organic agriculture could supply 2,640 to 4,380 calories per person per day — more than the suggested intake for healthy adults. Another UN study showed that organic farming is one of the most robust solutions to Africa’s food needs. And the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL), the Rodale Institute and the Organic Farming Research Foundation have demonstrated organic farming’s high levels of water and land use efficiency. (“Debunking Mark Lynas’ Myths,” by Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, Pesticide Action Network, Jan. 15, 2013;


A USDA advisory report has recommended that growers who want to protect their crops from contamination by neighboring GE crops should pay to insure themselves against such contamination, rather than be compensated for their losses. The advisory committee also said USDA should better determine economic losses related to GE contamination; that neighboring farmers should develop co-existence agreements; that USDA should establish and fund education and outreach programs related to co-existence; should fund and study ways to mitigate contamination; should evaluate availability of non-GE seed and support a diverse seed supply. “This proposal allows USDA and the agricultural biotechnology industry to abdicate responsibility for preventing GE contamination while making the victims of GE pollution pay for damages resulting from transgenic contamination,” says the National Organic Coalition. (“Organic farmers condemn U.S. report, claim it favors GMO,” by Carey Gillam, Reuters, Nov. 20, 2012;


Dow Chemical Co. no longer plans to market its GE 2,4-D corn for the 2013 planting season but does have plans for 2014. Opposition to the 2,4-D-resistant corn by farmers (including conventional farmers, who worry about 2,4-D drift), consumers and public health officials seems to have slowed approval of the product, and a USDA decision on 2,4-D corn appears to be on hold. The product is just one of the new herbicide-tolerant GE products designed to combat increasing resistance of weeds to glyphosate used with Monsanto’s Roundup Ready systems. A petition to USDA ( to reject Dow’s 2,4-D corn already has more than 400,000 signatures. (“On hold! Opposition slows Dow’s 2,4-D corn,” Ground Truth, Pesticide Action Network, Jan. 22, 2013;


Consumers Union (CU) says the FDA’s Environmental Assessment (EA) of GE Aquabounty salmon is flawed and inadequate. CU says only six engineered fish were tested for allergenicity, and those tests showed an increase in allergy-causing potential. Also, safety testing has not occurred on fish grown in Panama, where Aquabounty intends to raise the salmon, and the health and safety of the fish can be affected by growing conditions. Furthermore, the FDA indicates that only 95 percent of the salmon may be sterile, so some could escape and mix with wild salmon. And fish at the egg production facility in Prince Edward Island, Canada, would not be sterile. (“Consumers Union Says FDA Assessment of GE Salmon Is Flawed and Inadequate,” Dec. 21, 2012;


Researchers report that antibiotic resistance genes used in molecular biology and genetic engineering experiments may have reached the environment. In six Chinese rivers, researchers found bacterial DNA carrying these synthetic genes (“Labs Could Contaminate Rivers With Antibiotic Resistance Genes,” by Deirdre Lockwood, Chemical & Engineering News, Dec. 17, 2012; A Survey of Drug Resistance bla Genes Originating from Synthetic Plasmid Vectors in Six Chinese Rivers, by J. Chen et al., Environ. Sci. Technol., Dec. 18, 2012;


Researchers with the European Food Safety Authority have found that 54 of 86 GE events (unique insertions of foreign DNA into plants) approved for commercial growing and food in the United States contain parts of a viral gene called Gene VI that comes from cauliflower mosaic virus 35S promoter genes. Such viral genes are engineered into plants such as corn and soy to promote the expression of other inserted genes. The researchers say that segments of Gene VI “might result in unintended phenotypic changes” in plants. Such changes may make plants more susceptible to pests, for example. The researchers downplay effects on human consumers, but Jonathan Latham, Ph.D., and Allison Wilson, Ph.D., of the Bioscience Resource Project ( say, “Since the known targets of Gene VI activity (ribosomes and gene silencing) are also found in human cells, a reasonable concern is that the protein produced by Gene VI might be a human toxin. This is a question that can only be answered by future experiments.” They add, “The discovery will also strengthen the argument for GMO labeling: if regulators and industry cannot protect the public then why should they not be allowed to protect themselves?” (“Uncovered, the ‘toxic’ gene hiding in GM crops: Revelation throws new doubt over safety of foods,” by Sean Poulter, Daily Mail, Jan. 21, 2013.; Possible consequences of the overlap between the CaMV 35S promoter regions in plant transformation vectors used and the viral gene VI in transgenic plants, By Nancy Podevin and Patrick du Jardin, GM Crops and Food: Biotechnology in Agriculture and the Food Chain, Oct.-Dec. 2012.; “Regulators Discover a Hidden Viral Gene in Commercial GMO Crops,” by Jonathan Latham and Allison Wilson, Independent Science News, Jan. 21, 2013;


Three officials who approved and conducted a 2008 test of GE Golden Rice on school children in China were fired in December 2012 for “violating relevant regulations, scientific ethics and academic integrity,” says a statement by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Zhejiang Academy of Medical Sciences, and Hunan provincial CDC. The children, their parents and school authorities were not told that the rice was engineered. Greenpeace learned about and publicized the research when The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a paper saying that the rice effectively provided vitamin A to children. The research was a joint US-China project, approved by the National Institutes of Health and led by Tang Guangwen, director of the Carotenoid and Health Laboratory of Tufts University. (“China sacks officials involved in GM rice test,” by Tian Ying, Cheng Zhuo and Yan Hao,, Dec. 6, 2012;


Monsanto may receive $40 million in U.S. dollars worth of financial support from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. The bank is considering supporting Monsanto in “unfunded risk participation in Monsanto Company’s portfolio of deferred payment sales contracts for the pre-financing of seeds and crop protection products to medium-large farmers and a small selection of key distributors in a number of the EBRD’s countries of operation (Bulgaria, Hungary, Russia, Serbia, Turkey, Ukraine). Through the Project, Monsanto would be able to increase its limits for this type of lending, thus enabling greater numbers of farmers to benefit from product characteristics such as higher disease and pest resistance and higher yields, thereby improving their profitability and assisting to fulfill the potential of the project countries to alleviate some food security concerns.” The bank’s board is scheduled to review the project on April 9, 2013. (“Monsanto Should Not Expand Relying on Public Money,” CEE Bankwatch Network, Nov. 19, 2012;; European Bank for Reconstruction and Development;


Publisher Reed Elsevier came under pressure to retract a paper published in September 2012 in its journal Food and Chemical Toxicology. The paper suggesting that GE corn caused tumors and organ failure in rats was written by French researcher Gilles-Eric Seralini of the University of Caen. Hundreds of scientists and entities, including The European Food Safety Authority, said the study had design and methodology defects. Elsevier responded that the paper had been peer reviewed and revised before publication. (“Science journal urged to retract Monsanto GM study,” by Kate Kelland, Reuters, Nov. 30, 2012;; “Journal responds to firestorm over study of Monsanto GM corn,” by E.B. Solomont, St. Louis Business Journal, Nov. 30, 2012;; “EU rejects French report linking GM corn to cancer,” AFP, Nov. 29, 2012;


The British company Oxitec is genetically engineering insects to kill plant pests, such as the diamondback moth. The company inserts a lethal gene into male insects, which mate with wild females and pass on the gene so that resulting offspring die before they attack crops. Critics say the technique has not been tested sufficiently and that larvae with the lethal genes could get into human food. The company previously trialed GE mosquitoes in the Cayman Islands, Brazil and Malaysia to try to reduce the spread Dengue fever. (“Could millions of GM insects be released into British crop fields without safety checks?” by Sean Poulter, Daily Mail, Nov. 8, 2012;



Maine fruit, vegetable and grain growers who sell more than $1,000 worth of edible produce to consumers or to processors to be made into products for human consumption and who use only general-use (over-the-counter) pesticides must now be licensed by the Maine Board of Pesticides Control. A pesticide is any naturally or synthetically derived substance used to kill, control or repel undesired insects, weeds, fungi, bacteria, mammals, birds, rodents or other organisms and may include insecticides or bug sprays; herbicides, including weed killers and top killer products; fungicides or disease controls; rodenticides; deer repellents; defoliants; growth regulators; and disinfectants. To obtain a license, growers must pass the BPC core exam. Exam candidates should review the Pesticide Education (Core) Manual before taking the exam. The manual is available from UMaine Cooperative Extension,, 1-800-287-0279 in Maine, 207-581-3880 outside Maine. The BPC plans to hold many training sessions before the requirement becomes fully enforceable on April 1, 2015. The exam can be taken at the BPC office in Augusta (207-287-2731) or at County Cooperative Extension offices. Contact the BPC office to have the exam mailed to the Extension office, and then make arrangements with Extension for taking the exam. The three-year license will cost $15. One hour of continuing education per year will be required to maintain a license.


The Toxics Action Center report “A Call for Safer School Grounds: A Survey of Pesticide Use on K-12 Public School Grounds in Maine” surveyed 209 Maine public schools, representing less than 10 percent of Maine school districts, regarding their pesticide use. Of those, 51 percent spray pesticides, including Weed and Feed and Roundup. The report says the state’s Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Policy is inadequate at regulating pesticide applications and informing the public on pesticide practices. Although schools are required by state law to keep IPM policies and records of pesticide applications, 32 percent of schools surveyed reported that they do not keep records. IPM records were received from 9 percent of schools surveyed. The report recommends that the Maine legislature ban use of pesticides on public school grounds; ban use of pesticides for solely aesthetic reasons; that the Maine Legislature and the Maine Department of Education ban use of broad-based pesticides such as Weed and Feed and Roundup – the two most commonly used pesticides on school grounds in Maine – on public school grounds; that schools must prepare more-specific IPM policies to alert parents about pesticide applications when necessary; and that the Maine Department of Education promote organic turf management practices. Nine schools reported using organic methods. (“New Report Says Children Across Maine at Risk from Toxic Pesticide Spraying,”; “Concern over pesticide use at schools rises,” by North Cairn, Portland Press Herald, Jan. 2, 2013;


A session sponsored by the Maine Board of Pesticides Control (BPC) at the Maine Agricultural Trades Show in January 2013 addressed “Talking About Pesticides with Customers and Neighbors.” It featured Dr. Vincent Covello of the Center for Risk Communication ( and was intended to teach Maine pesticide applicators how to effectively communicate “nightmare scenarios.” Covello was paid $6,000 for his two-day, approximately four-hour presentation. Henry Jennings, director of the BPC, told MPBN News that Covello was hired because “it’s so difficult for producers and other people who use pesticides to effectively communicate with their customers, their neighbors and the public in general about pesticide risks.” Covello has worked as a Columbia University faculty member. Among clients listed on the Center for Risk Communication website are Nestlé, DuPont and Novartis. (“Organic Farmers Criticize Presentation Endorsed By State Pesticides Board,” by Susan Sharon, MPBN, Jan. 9, 2013;


A new in vitro study shows that glyphosate may alter the gut flora in poultry. Pathogenic bacteria, such as Salmonella and Clostridium spp., are highly resistant to glyphosate, but most beneficial bacteria, such as Enterococcus faecalis, Enterococcus faecium, Bacillus badius, Bifidobacterium adolescentis and Lactobacillus spp., are moderately to highly susceptible, while Campylobacter spp. are susceptible. Hence, ingesting glyphosate could reduce beneficial bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract and disturb the normal gut bacterial community. Also, the toxicity of glyphosate to the most prevalent Enterococcus spp. could be a predisposing factor associated with increased C. botulinum-mediated diseases by suppressing the antagonistic effect of these bacteria on clostridia. (The Effect of Glyphosate on Potential Pathogens and Beneficial Members of Poultry Microbiota In Vitro, by A. A. Shehata et al., Curr Microbiol, Dec. 9, 2012;


Chlorine in tap water and in pesticides has been linked to the rising number of people developing food allergies. Of 2,211 people ages 6 and over, those with the highest concentrations of dichlorophenols in their urine were most likely to show allergic reactions to one or more food allergens. Dichlorophenols are widely used as pesticides and to chlorinate water. U.K. professor Jeni Colbourne says the likeliest sources of chlorine for British consumers are products impregnated with the antibacterial triclosan, including lipsticks, face washes, toothpaste and kitchen utensils. (Dichlorophenol-containing pesticides and allergies: results from the US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2005-2006, by Elina Jerschow, M.D., et al., Annals of Asthma, Allergies & Immunology, Sept. 9, 2012;; “Chlorine in tap water linked to increase in number of people developing food allergies,” by Nick McDermott, Dec. 3, 2012;


Neurologists at UCLA have suggested links between the pesticides paraquat, maneb and ziram and Parkinson’s disease in farmworkers and those who lived or worked near treated fields. Now the researchers have added the pesticide benomyl to the list. Banned 10 years ago, its toxicological effects still linger. Benomyl prevents the enzyme ALDH (aldehyde dehydrogenase) from limiting DOPAL, a toxin that occurs naturally in the brain. When DOPAL accumulates, it damages neurons and increases the risk of developing Parkinson’s. (“Pesticides & Parkinson’s: UCLA researchers uncover further proof of a link,” UC Health, Jan. 3, 2013;


A study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology reports that workers in Iowa and North Carolina exposed to certain organophosphate and organochlorine pesticides had significantly higher prostate cancer risk. The organophosphate pesticides fonofos, terbufos and malathion, one of the most commonly used organophosphate insecticides in the United States, was linked to increased prostate cancer risk; and a family history of prostate cancer combined with exposure to organochlorine pesticides (such as aldrin and lindane) was significantly associated with an increased risk of prostate cancer. (“Pesticides & prostate cancer. Again.” Pesticide Action Network, Jan. 23, 2013;


Maryland has become the first state to ban the use of additives containing arsenic in chicken feed, a practice already prohibited by Canada and the European Union. Pfizer, which made the arsenic-containing drug Roxarsone to combat parasites, had suspended sales of the drug after the FDA found arsenic in chicken livers, but some Maryland growers were still using stockpiles of Roxarsone-treated feed. Because chicken waste is often used as a soil amendment, it can add arsenic to soils and waters. (“New laws in Md. and Va. take effect Jan. 1, by John Wagner and Errin Haines, The Washington Post, Dec. 21, 2012;


A study of 501 couples in Michigan and Texas who were trying to conceive associated higher exposure to PCBs, perfluorinated compounds and organochlorine pesticides with a longer time to get pregnant. Men’s chemical exposures were are as important as or more important than women’s in determining fertility issues. (“Persistent pollutants slow the time to pregnancy in couples,” by Jennifer Wolstenholme and Wendy Hessler, Environmental Health News, Dec. 20, 2012;


A mother’s exposure to pesticides before, during and after pregnancy may increase the risk of infant leukemia diagnosed before the age of 2, says a Brazilian study. Children were twice as likely to develop the rare cancers if their mothers were exposed three months before conception when compared to mothers who reported no exposures. A mother’s exposure at any time to the insecticide permethrin also raised the cancer risk for infants. (“Mom’s pesticide exposure raises risk of infant leukemia,” by Lesliam Quirós-Alcalá, Environmental Health News, Jan. 30, 2013;


A review by researchers at University College London and the Open University of 14 studies shows that low-level exposure to organophosphates, used in some pesticides, aviation fuel and flame retardants, can harm memory, information processing speed, and the ability to plan and have abstract thoughts. These effects affect job performance, say the researchers, as farmers struggle to keep up at auctions and air traffic controllers have difficulty retaining information on the job. (“Pesticide exposure harms memory,” The Telegraph, Dec. 2, 2012;


A Canadian study of more than 2,000 women found that those in occupations with potentially high exposure to carcinogens and endocrine disruptors, including agriculture, bars-gambling, automotive plastics manufacturing, food canning and metal working, had a greater risk of breast cancer than those in other occupations. Those on farms tend to begin work at a younger age than those in other occupations, possibly exposing prepubescent girls to hormone disruptors. Those working in canning may be exposed to more pesticides as they wash and prepare food, and to bisphenol A (BPA) by inhalation from heated can liners. (“Breast cancer risk in relation to occupations with exposure to carcinogens and endocrine disruptors: a Canadian case-control study,” by James T. Brophy et al., Environmental Health, Nov. 19, 2012;


Brain injury and pesticide exposure alone are each associated with Parkinson’s disease; a combination of the two is associated with a greater risk than that obtained by adding the two factors together, according to a study of people with traumatic brain injury living in farming areas where the insecticide was used. (“Brain injury and pesticide exposure combo may triple Parkinson’s risk,” by Ryan Jaslow, CBS News, Nov. 13, 2012;


Researchers at UC Davis and UCLA measured people’s food-borne toxicant exposure by pinpointing foods with high levels of toxic compounds and determining amounts of these foods consumed. The researchers found that family members in the study, particularly preschool children, are at high risk for exposure to arsenic, dieldrin, DDE (a DDT metabolite), dioxins and acrylamide – compounds linked to cancer, developmental disabilities, birth defects and other conditions.

All 364 children in the study exceeded cancer benchmarks for arsenic, dieldrin, DDE and dioxins. More than 95 percent of preschool children exceeded non-cancer risk levels for acrylamide, a cooking byproduct often found in processed foods such as potato and tortilla chips. Pesticide exposure was particularly high in tomatoes, peaches, apples, peppers, grapes, lettuce, broccoli, strawberries, spinach, dairy, pears, green beans and celery.

Rainbow Vogt, lead author of the study, said, “Currently, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency only measures risk based on exposures of individual contaminants. We wanted to understand the cumulative risk from dietary contaminants. The results of this study demonstrate a need to prevent exposure to multiple toxins in young children to lower their cancer risk.”

The researchers used data from the 2007 Study of Use of Products and Exposure-Related Behavior (SUPERB), which surveyed households in California with children between two and five to determine how their diets and other factors contribute to toxicant exposure. SUPERB honed in on 44 foods known to have high concentrations of toxic compounds: metals, arsenic, lead and mercury; pesticides chlorpyrifos, permethrin and endosulfan; persistent organic pollutants dioxin, DDT, dieldrin and chlordane; and the food processing byproduct acrylamide. Toxicant levels in specific foods were determined through the Total Diet Study and other databases.

The researchers note that organic produce has lower pesticide levels, and toxicant types vary in different foods, so varying diets could help reduce exposure to any one toxicant. They suggest reducing consumption of animal meat and fats, which may contain high levels of DDE and other persistent organic pollutants, and switching to organic milk. While mercury is most often found in fish, accumulation varies greatly by species. Smaller fish, lower on the food chain, generally have lower mercury levels. In addition, acrylamides are relatively easy to remove from the diet by avoiding chips and other processed grains. (Study Finds High Exposure to Food-Borne toxins, UC Davis Health System, Nov. 13, 2012;


The American Academy of Pediatrics says, “Epidemiologic evidence demonstrates associations between early life exposure to pesticides and pediatric cancers, decreased cognitive function, and behavioral problems.” The AAP makes several recommendations for pediatricians’ and governmental actions, including promoting pesticide use reduction and use of less-toxic pesticides. (“Pesticide Exposure in Children Pediatrics,” Council on Environmental Health, Pediatrics, Nov. 26, 2012;


Children living near conventional banana and plantain plantations in Costa Rica are exposed to twice as much of the insecticide chlorpyrifos than those living near organic plantations. More than half the 140 children studied had higher daily exposures than U.S. standards consider safe. Residential use of the pesticide, linked to neurological effects in children, is banned in the United States, but the pesticide is still permitted on some crops. Costa Rica exports bananas and plantains to U.S. and European markets. (“Indigenous children living nearby plantations with chlorpyrifos-treated bags have elevated 3,5,6-trichloro-2-pyridinol (TCPy) urinary concentrations,” by Berna van Wendel de Joode et al., Environmental Research, Aug. 2012;


Chronic exposure of bumblebees to neonicotinoid and pyrethroid insecticides at concentrations approximating field-level exposure impairs natural foraging behavior and increases worker mortality, leading to significantly reduced brood development and colony success. Worker foraging performance, particularly pollen collecting efficiency, was significantly reduced with resultant effects for forager recruitment, worker losses and overall worker productivity. Exposure to combinations of pesticides increases the likelihood of colonies to fail. (“Combined pesticide exposure severely affects individual- and colony-level traits in bees, by R.J. Gill et al., Nature, Nov. 1, 2012;


A U.K. Parliamentary inquiry questions the safety for pollinators of the systemic insecticide imidacloprid used on crops. The inquiry found that the insecticide can build up in soil to levels likely to be lethal to most insects, including bees that overwinter in soil. U.K. trials on winter barley fields showed a half-life for the insecticide in the soil of 1,333 and 1,268 days. Bayer, the manufacturer, says other studies show a half-life of 182 to 288 days, which is at odds with Australian pesticide authorities’ number of up to 1,400 days. Then, in January 2013, scientists at the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and experts from across Europe concluded that Bayer’s systemic insecticide imidacloprid should be used only on crops that don’t attract honeybees and that Syngenta’s neonicotinoid thiamethoxam was an “acute risk” to bees through droplets of sap that corn seedlings exude. (“Insecticide regulators ignoring risk to bees, say MPs,” by Damian Carrington, The Guardian, Dec. 12, 2012;; “Insecticide ‘unacceptable’ danger to bees, report finds,” by Damian Carrington, The Guardian, Jan. 16, 2013;


Animal ID

On Dec. 20, 2012, USDA released its final Animal Disease Traceability rule. Among changes are exclusion of chicks sold by hatcheries across state lines from identification requirements; recognition of brands and tattoos as official forms of identification; continued use of back tags as an alternative to ear tags for cattle going to slaughter; and exclusion of beef feeder cattle from the rule, except for rodeo and show cattle. The rule was published in the Federal Register on December 28, 2012, to be become effective 60 days later. For years corporate agribusiness pushed for an ID law allegedly giving feedlots an advantage over family farmers. Grassroots groups suggested the initiative was more about export promotion than preventing disease. Concerns of family farmers seem to have been heard. (“After Years of Livestock Industry Wrangling USDA Issues Final ‘Animal ID Rule’” Cornucopia Institute, Dec. 20, 2012;


Antibiotic Resistance

Seven cases of MRSA ST398 (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) have been found from 1,500 samples of bulk milk from five farms in England, Scotland and Wales. MRSA can infect and sometimes kill people and cause udder infections in dairy cows. Pasteurization should kill the bacterium. Overuse of antibiotics in livestock is believed to contribute to antibiotic-resistant bacteria. (“MRSA found in our milk: Superbug strain can cause serious infections in humans and is resistant to antibiotics,” by Sean Poulter, Dec. 21, 2012; Daily Mail,


Two children injured in a Joplin, Missouri, tornado in 2011 developed antibiotic-resistant infections from dirt and debris that blew into their wounds. Doctors suspect overuse of antibiotics in livestock as the root cause. Eighty percent of U.S. antibiotic use is for meat animals – often to bulk up cattle (a practice banned in the EU), not to treat infections; and often to treat problems associate with acid conditions in the cows’ stomachs due to consuming corn instead of grass. (“Building bigger cattle: An industry overdose,” by Mike McGraw, The Kansas City Star, Dec. 10, 2012;


Yale University professor of ecology and evolutionary biology Nancy Moran found that beneficial bacteria in honeybee guts have acquired genes that make bees resistant to the antibiotic tetracycline. The antibiotic-resistant genes were absent in honeybees where such antibiotic treatment is banned, while U.S. bees, where tetracycline has been used in beehives longest, had the most resistant genes. Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) began in 2006, when tetracycline was first introduced, said Moran. Scientists are still trying to understand the many possible causes of CCD. (“Antibiotic resistance killing off bees,” by Emma Goldberg, Yale Daily News, Nov. 6, 2012;



Biochar, a byproduct of burning organic material under high-temperature/low-oxygen conditions (pyrolysis), may benefit plant growth and sequester carbon in soils where it is applied. In a preliminary greenhouse study, Iowa State researchers found that biochar applications seemed to reduce prairie biodiversity, especially in below-ground microbial communities. In subsequent field trials, however, using 1 or 3 percent additions of biochar to prairie soils, plant and soil biodiversity increased. Plants thrived with 3 percent biochar, but mycorrhizae (soil fungi that are symbiotic with plant roots) declined. (“Research looks at effects of biochar on prairies,” Leopold Center, Nov. 27, 2012;


Fumes from traditional open-fire cookstoves kill 3.5 million people a year – more than malaria and HIV/AIDS combined. Biochar cookstoves help counter this problem and create a soil amendment that holds carbon in the soil, improves water-holding capacity and adds nutrients. They also use less wood to cook a given amount of food. One researcher is even drying an invasive plant – water hyacinth – and burning it in biochar cookstoves. (“Biochar Cookstoves Boost Health for People and Crops,” by StaceySchultz, National Geographic, Jan. 29, 2013;



Expanded growth of corn for biofuels (40 percent of the U.S. corn crop) is increasing food prices worldwide and creating a shortage of land for growing food in many countries. Central America is being hit especially hard due to its corn-based diet and closeness to the United States. Guatemala, for example, imports almost half its corn – and much of its best land is being used to grow export crops, such as sugar cane and African palm, both used in cooking and for biofuels. Guatemala increased its dependence on U.S. corn in the ‘90s when surplus, subsidized U.S. corn flooded its markets, prices dropped and Guatemalan farmers could not compete. (“As Biofuel Demand Grows, So Do Guatemala’s Hunger Pangs,” by Elisabeth Rosenthal, The New York Times, Jan. 5, 2013)


Climate Change

Agriculture contributes some 25 to 30 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, but done right can help mitigate climate change. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that agriculture could remove 80 to 88 percent of the CO2 it emits. Its report, Innovations in Sustainable Agriculture: Supporting Climate-Friendly Food Production, suggests that farmers can mitigate and adapt to climate change by building soil fertility, practicing agroforestry, promoting urban agriculture, using cover crops and green manures, improving water conservation and recycling water, and preserving biodiversity and indigenous breeds. (“Supporting Climate-Friendly Food Production,” WorldWatch Institute press release, Dec. 4, 2012;


A study coordinated by Switzerland’s Research Institute of Organic Agriculture FiBL shows that on organic farms, soil organic carbon stocks were 1.6 U.S. tons per acre higher than on non-organic farms, so organic agriculture could play an important role in reducing the level of atmospheric CO2. (Enhanced top soil carbon stocks under organic farming, Andreas Gattinger et al., PNAS, Oct. 10, 2012;


A study released by 21 scientists says climate change can change the northern hardwood forest, harming the maple syrup industry, spreading wildlife diseases and tree pests and changing timber resources. At Hubbard Brook Forest in New Hampshire’s White Mountains over the past 50 years, spring has come earlier and fall has lasted longer; rainfall has increased and snowfall decreased; winters are shorter and milder and snowpack melts some two weeks sooner. Soils thaw before plants grow, leading to nutrient loss from soils. Increased soil freezing without snow cover exposes tree roots to freezing damage. Some sugar maples die as a result, and remaining trees produce less sap because of warmer winters. Deer forage more with less snow, also damaging trees and spreading parasites. These weather conditions also affect logging and ski resorts. (“Maple Syrup, Moose, and the Impacts of Climate Change in the North,” ScienceDaily, Nov. 20, 2012;; “Complex and Surprising Effects of Climate Change in the Northern Hardwood Forest,” by Peter Groffman et al., BioScience, Dec. 2012;


Warming temperatures have already made the USDA’s 2012 Plant Hardiness Zone Map obsolete, says Dr. Nir Krakauer of The City College of New York. When USDA released its new map in January 2012, temperature boundaries had shifted north relative to its 1990 map, based on average annual minimum temperatures over the 30 years from 1976 to 2005; but zones now average about 2 degrees F warmer than that 30-year average, so true zones have moved even farther, says Krakauer.

“Over one-third of the country has already shifted half-zones compared to the current release, and over one-fifth has shifted full zones,” Krakauer reported in Advances in Meteorology. The winter is warming faster than the summer, he adds. His hardiness temperatures are based on minimum temperatures each year, which, he says, warmed roughly two and a half times faster than 30-year average temperatures. Krakauer’s technique allows gardeners and farmers to update the zone map annually instead of waiting for the official map – “just keep adding new data and recalculate,” he says.

His analysis also showed more warming over the eastern interior and less in the Southwest. Meanwhile, a U.N. conference in Doha, Qatar, yielded no progress on curbing greenhouse emissions. (“Warmer Temperatures Make New USDA Plant Zone Map Obsolete,” The City College of New York news release, Sept. 12, 2012;; “Despair after climate conference, but U.N. still offers hope,” by Barbara Lewis and Alister Doyle, Reuters, Dec. 9, 2012;


Hormone Disruptors

The EPA is examining whether low doses of hormone-mimicking chemicals in food, cosmetics, pesticides and plastics are harming human health and whether chemical testing should be overhauled. It will complete a “state of the science” paper by the end of 2013. The investigation follows scientists’ March 2012 criticism in Endocrine Reviews that the federal government’s strategy for testing chemicals – exposing lab rodents to high doses and extrapolating to human exposures – fails to address hormone-like chemicals that can affect health at low doses but not at high doses, e.g., “non-monotonic dose response.” The EPA also says it is investigating whether nanomaterials are harming human health or the environment. (“EPA responds to scientists’ concerns, initiates new effort for low-dose, hormone-like chemicals,” by Brian Bienkowski, Environmental Health News, Dec. 13, 2012;


Farm Bill

On Dec. 31, 2012, Congress failed to pass a new five-year Farm Bill and instead extended for nine months the existing (2008) bill as part of a “fiscal cliff” bargain. That means discontinued funding for socially disadvantaged and beginning farmers, organic programs, and some 37 “orphan programs” helping to build a new food system. The deal continues $5 billion worth of direct subsidies for commodity crops, regardless of price and income conditions – payments that would have been discontinued in the proposed 2012 farm now on hold. It continues the 2008 Farm Bill dairy policy that benefits large dairy processors but weakens the safety net for dairy farmers, and it discontinues funding for the Conservation Stewardship Program that enables farmers to improve soil and water conservation practices. Several proposed riders to the 2012 Farm Bill, including the “Monsanto Rider” that would have granted biotech firms immunity from federal law, are now on hold for at least nine months. The House and Senate agriculture committees are expected to present new bills this spring. (“Good News, Bad News: Farm Bill Extended Under Fiscal Cliff Deal,” Organic Bytes, Jan. 3, 2013;



Humans and marine ecosystems worldwide are contaminated with mercury, and mercury levels in humans and fish regularly exceed health advisory guidelines. So says a report by IPEN, a global network of public interest organizations, and the Gorham, Maine-based Biodiversity Research Institute (BRI), which urge an overall reduction in mercury emissions.

The report, “Global Mercury Hotspots,” based on new data on mercury concentrations in fish and human hair samples, identifies places where mercury levels are high enough to seriously threaten ecosystems and human health. The report states that mercury contamination is ubiquitous in marine and freshwater systems around the world; that biological mercury hotspots are globally common and are related to chlor-alkali facilities, contaminated sites, coal-fired power plants, artisanal small-scale gold mining, mixed-used chemical industry sites and other sources.

When mercury falls into oceans and waterways, microorganisms transform it into especially toxic methylmercury, which then enters the food chain. Methylmercury is readily absorbed by the body; people are exposed primarily by eating fish. Fish samples from around the world regularly have mercury concentrations above EPA human health advisory guidelines. In the study, 43 to 100 percent of fish samples from nine countries exceeded a safe consumption level of one 6-ounce fish meal per month. Mercury concentrations in fish from sites in Japan and Uruguay were so high that no consumption is recommended.

More than 82 percent of human hair samples from eight countries exceeded EPA reference dose levels of 1 ppm.

Exposure to high levels of mercury can permanently damage the brain and kidneys. Harmful effects are passed from mother to fetus and can result in brain damage, mental retardation, blindness, seizures and an inability to speak. The organizations call for reductions of mercury emissions to air, land and water. (“Mercury Levels in Humans and Fish Around the World Regularly Exceed Health Advisory Levels,” Biodiversity Research Institute, Jan. 9, 2013;


Microwave Weeds?

Dr. Graham Brodie of the University of Melbourne believes that microwave technology used to heat emergent weeds or steam seeds underground could be an alternative to herbicides. He is developing a prototype for field trials. Preliminary tests using a small microwave system in an 8-inch pot showed that a target plant can be killed while adjacent plants remain healthy. Targeting weed seeds in the soil is more difficult, mainly due to the time and energy needed to heat the soil sufficiently to kill the seeds. Brodie says microwaving kills soil biota in addition to weed seeds down to about 2.4 inches, but microbial activity is reestablished from below. (“Microwave energy a potential new weed killer,” by Melissa Marino, Australian Government Grains Research and Development Corporation, Jan. 6, 2012;


Priorities for Small Farms

The Cornell Small Farms Program’s “2012 Recommendations for Strategic Investments in New York’s Small Farms” details priorities for enhancing the viability of small farms in New York. It is based on a survey of 500 state farmers, educators and advocates and 150 attendees to a Feb. 2012 Small Farms Summit. The report generated specific goals for advancing these opportunities over the next five years – goals that apply to most Northeastern states.

Recommendations included research and extension around agroforestry, including silvopasturing, forest products and alley cropping; enhancing online communities for farmers to exchange ideas, equipment and land; consumer education around small-scale, locally produced food; and liasons/educators to convey state regulations to farmers.

Survey respondents also listed these topics of interest:

Develop food distribution strategies – e.g., collaborative marketing, product pooling and trucking, food hubs – to expand small farm access to local and regional markets

Document economic impact of small farms on their communities to increase investment in and support of small farms

Develop new and/or expand existing livestock processing facilities

Evaluate livestock processing regulations and policy for impact on small farms

Advocate for greater investment in small farm services, i.e., research, extension and education

Identify alternative financing strategies for small farms Develop and promote affordable energy conservation and renewable energy sources for small farms

Conduct trainings on alternative livestock production and marketing strategies to overcome processing bottlenecks

Evaluate and promote profitable value-added processing of milk (e.g., yogurt, cheese) to expand market opportunities for small dairies

Expand grazing education and research

Develop strategies to expand agricultural land access

Expand support for small farms producing in urban areas

Expand production and processing of local biomass and biofuels for small farms

Recruit youth, minorities and military veterans into farming

Conduct research and education on food safety risks of small farms

Identify novel technologies/practices to improve viability of small dairy milk production

(“2012 Recommendations for Strategic Investments in New York’s Small Farms,”


Soil Loss

University of Sydney professor John Crawford says a rough calculation of current rates of soil degradation suggests we have about 60 years of topsoil left. Soil degradation leads to lost productivity. At current rates of soil loss, we will produce 30 percent less food over the next 20 to 50 years, he says. Also, degraded soil holds less water, and conflicts over water are already occurring in some areas. Crawford says we have to return carbon to the soil by reducing tillage, managing nutrients better, not over-grazing, using manure and considering using human waste. Plant breeding should focus on human nutrition, productivity, and soil-improving traits. Prices should include environmental, health and other costs. Farmers should be rewarded for regenerating the environment and producing food that supports a healthier society. “I find it quite ironic that while the Mars Curiosity Rover is poking around looking for life in Martian soil, we’re in the process of extinguishing life in our own,” said Crawford. (“What If the World’s Soil Runs Out?” by World Economic Forum, Dec. 14, 2012;


Food Safety

The Kansas City Star, in a yearlong investigation, found that the beef industry is increasingly relying on a mechanical process to tenderize meat, exposing Americans to higher risk of E. coli poisoning. The industry then resists labeling such products, leaving consumers in the dark. (“Beef’s Raw Edges,” by Mike McGraw, The Kansas City Star, Dec. 6, 2012;


The Marcellus Shale, a geologic formation under much of West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York state, holds vast quantities of natural gas below productive agricultural land. Accessing this gas through fracking (hydraulic fracturing) involves forcing millions of gallons of chemically-treated water into the shale to release the gas. In an investigative report, Elizabeth Royte discusses health problems faced by farmers and livestock in some fracked areas, including damage to nervous, respiratory, gastrointestinal and reproductive systems. Livestock that don’t die on the farm enter the food chain – legally. “Federal loopholes crafted under former Vice President Dick Cheney have exempted energy companies from key provisions of the Clean Air, Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water Acts, the Toxics Release Inventory, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act,” writes Royte. Also, fracking has led to the loss of thousands of acres of agricultural land, and some farmers are moving away from Marcellus shale areas. (“Fracking our food supply,” by Elizabeth Royte, The Nation, Nov. 28, 2012;


In November, the FDA halted operations at Sunland Inc. in New Mexico, the largest U.S. organic peanut butter processor, due to salmonella poisoning. Forty-one people in 20 states were sickened by salmonella after eating Sunland peanut butter sold at Trader Joe’s grocery chain. Sunland also sold peanut products to Whole Foods, Safeway, Target and other outlets. Sunland products have been the source of other outbreaks in the past. (“Largest organic peanut-butter plant ordered closed,” by Mary Clare Jalonick, Associated Press, Nov. 26, 2012;


The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention looked at 4,589 food-related disease outbreaks from 1998 to 2008, in 17 food categories, and found that 46 percent originated from leafy greens. Norovirus, causing diarrhea and stomach cramping, was responsible for many of these outbreaks. More than half the norovirus-related outbreaks were caused by sick food handlers, and more than 80 percent were due to food prepared in restaurants and other commercial settings. Meat and poultry were responsible for 29 percent of deaths due to foodborne diseases – many due to listeria on sliced deli turkey; some due to salmonella. (“Leafy greens responsible for 46% of food-borne infections, CDC says,” by Ricardo Lopez, Jan. 29, 2013;,0,5126816.story)