Tuesday, May 17, 2016
Academies of Science finds GMOs not harmful to human health
By Elizabeth Weise
SAN FRANCISCO — Genetically engineered crops are safe for humans and animals to eat and have not caused increases in cancer, obesity, gastrointestinal illnesses, kidney disease, autism or allergies, an exhaustive report from the National Academies of Science released Tuesday found.
Work on the 388-page report began two years ago and was conducted by a committee of more than 50 scientists, researchers and agricultural and industry experts convened by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. It reviewed more than 900 studies and data covering the 20 years since genetically modified crops were first introduced.
Overall, genetically engineered (GE) crops saved farmers in the United States money but didn’t appear to increase crop yields. They have lowered pest populations in some areas, especially in the Midwest but increased the number of herbicide-resistant weeds in others. There’s also no evidence that GE crops have affected the population of monarch butterflies, the report said.
The review was thorough and systemic, assessing many of the issues that have been raised about genetically engineered crops over the years, said Gregory Jaffe, director of biotechnology at the non-profit watchdog group the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington D.C. The group was not involved in the report’s creation.
The genetic material of GE plants is artificially manipulated to give them characteristics they would not otherwise have. The two most common are pest resistance and the ability to withstand certain herbicides. That allows farmers to spray fields with herbicide, killing weeds while not harming the crops. Drought tolerant traits are newer and also becoming popular.
The report, “Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects,” was meant to be an objective overview of current research into the safety and environmental and social effects of these increasingly popular crops and the foods made from them.
Safe for humans
To gauge whether foods made from genetically modified crops were safe for human consumption, the committee compared disease reports from the United States and Canada, where such crops have been consumed since the mid-1990s, and those in the United Kingdom and western Europe, where they are not widely eaten.
No long-term pattern of increase in specific health problems after the introduction of GE foods in the 1990s in the United States and Canada was found.
There was no correlation between obesity or Type II diabetes and the consumption of GE foods. Celiac disease, which makes humans intolerant of gluten, increased in both populations. Patterns in the increase in autism spectrum disorder in children were similar in both the United Kingdom and the United States, the committee reported.
Overall the report concluded that there were no differences in terms of a higher risk to human health between foods made from GE crops and those made from conventionally-bred crops.
Critics: too much industry influence
Groups opposed to genetically engineered crops criticized the report for arriving at watered-down scientific conclusions due to agricultural industry influence.
Food & Water Watch, a government accountability group in Washington D.C., said the committee’s ties to the biotech industry and other corporations create conflicts of interest and raise questions about the independence of its work.
“Critics have long been marginalized,” said Wenonah Hauter, the group’s executive director.
Economic and ecological effects
Overall, the report found that GE crops save farmers money in terms of time spent tilling and losses to weeds and insects, but can have both positive and negative effects on pests, farming practices and agricultural infrastructure.
Pest-resistant crops have resulted in lower pest populations overall in some areas of the midwest, especially European corn borer, the report found.
However the use of herbicides on GE crops in some areas has resulted in the evolution of herbicide-resistant weeds.
Despite claims by some proponents of GE crops, their adoption didn’t appear to increase yields overall among U.S. farmers, the report found.
The report specifically addressed a commonly cited link between GE crops and falling populations of monarch butterflies.
As of March 2016, there was no evidence that the suppression of milkweed (the only food of the insect in its caterpillar state) by the use of herbicides caused declines in the monarch population, the committee found. In fact, the monarch population has seen a moderate increase in the past two years. Still, the report called for continued monitoring of the situation.
Mostly cotton, soy and corn
The number of genetically modified (GM) crops grown commercially worldwide is low, below 15. The vast majority of GM acreage is concentrated in cotton, soybeans, corn, sugar beets and canola.
In the United States, the list of commercially grown GM crops includes cotton, soy beans, corn, sugar beets, canola, alfalfa and papaya, in addition to small amounts of zucchini and yellow summer squash, apples and potatoes.
However four of them are extremely popular with farmers. In 2015, 99% of sugar beets, 94% of soybeans, 94% of cotton and 92% of feed corn grown in the United States were genetically engineered to either be herbicide or pest resistant, or in some cases both, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications.
Globally, 12% of all cropland is planted with genetically engineered plants, according to the report.
However there has been significant pushback against these crops, particularly in Europe.
GMO-free a selling point
A significant portion of American consumers are concerned about the safety or other effects of foods made with genetically modified crops, often called GMOs for genetically modified organisms.. A survey released last year by the NPD Group, a market research firm, found that 57% of Americans were concerned that genetically modified foods posed a health hazard.
The food industry has taken notice. In 2015, Progressive Grocer, a trade publication, reported that total U.S. sales of food and beverage products labeled “non-GMO” reached $10 billion during 2014.
Labeling foods as GMO-free has become a popular marketing and differentiation method for companies. The Non-GMO Project, a labeling program, has almost 35,000 verified products, according to its website.
Packaged Facts estimates that the global food and beverage market was worth more than $5 trillion in 2014 and that non-GMO products accounted for $550 billion of that. It projects that the global market for non-GMO foods and beverages will reach to $1 trillion by 2019.
The National Academies report will likely not sway these consumers, said Phil Lempert, a Los Angeles-based food industry analyst.
“It’s an emotional issue, it’s not a science issue,” he said.
HLB hearing in Sacramento planned for state’s citrus industry
By David Castellon
A hearing on the threat huanglongbing poses to California’s commercial and home citrus will be discussed Tuesday in Sacramento during state Senate Committee on Agriculture hearing.
The bacteria, more often referred to as “HLB,” is spread by Asian citrus psyllids when they feed on the leaves and stems of infected trees and spread to bacteria to other trees.
Once infected, orange, grapefruit, lemon and other citrus trees eventually produce bitter, mottled fruit and die, and there is no way to cure or inoculate trees from infection.
HLB has devastated citrus crops in countries around the world, including Brazil and China, and it has cost Florida citrus farmers billions of dollars.
The bacteria also has been detected Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina and Texas, and Asian citrus psyllids have been found in Southern California since 2008.
While only a handful of HLB-infected trees have been found in Southern California, psyllids have migrated across the lower part of the state and several have migrated into Central California — the state’s main commercial citrus-growing area — causing concerns that trees here could eventually be infected and threaten the state’s entire citrus industry.
“In the last two years, ACP has rapidly spread north into commercial citrus groves and residential trees, and quarantine boundaries have expanded to encompass one-third of the state,” according to a press release issued by the committee’s chairwoman, Sen. Cathleen Galgiani, D-Stockton.
“Meanwhile, in March 2012, HLB was detected in a residential, multi-grafted citrus tree in Los Angeles County. The tree was destroyed, however the disease was detected again in late 2015 in 17 trees located in the surrounding areas.”
As for the purpose of Tuesday’s hearing, Galgiani states in her press release that it will “focus on the crisis facing California citrus due to the rapid spread of ACP throughout the state and the additional finds of HLB in the Los Angeles Basin.”
Expert witnesses will discuss current state, federal and local actions to detect, control and prevent the spread of ACP and HLB; the economic threat the disease poses to California; efforts to mitigate the spread of psyllids and HLB; and discussion on seeking a cure for infected trees, the release continues.
The first discovery of the disease and the psyllids in the U.S. occurred in 1998 in Florida, and within a couple of years the insects and disease had spread to all the state’s citrus-producing counties and infected more than half of all the citrus trees in the state.
Losses stemming from those infected trees — most of which were uprooted and destroyed, along with numerous trees around them, in case they were infected, too — has resulted in $7.8 billion in financial losses and 7,513 jobs in Florida since 2007, Galgiani’s press release states.
“The new HLB finds and the rapid northern migration of ACP is a cause of serious concern. Not only would commercial citrus groves be devastated, but cherished residential citrus trees would also die,” as more than half of California’s citrus trees are in cityscapes and backyards, the release continues.
Wall Street Journal
A Cheese Glut is Overtaking America
By Kelsey Gee
America has built up a glut of cheese so big that every person in the country would need to eat an extra 3 pounds this year to work it off.
And it isn’t just cheese. The growing stacks of cheddar, which can be kept frozen for years, and other cheeses such as feta, which can be stored for only a couple of months, are just the tip of a surplus of U.S. agricultural products that is swamping markets for grains, meat and milk.
Supplies of cheese, meat and poultry started building as farmers decided to expand their herds and flocks two years ago when prices were high and export markets were hot. Abundant stockpiles of grain made it less risky by pushing down feed costs. But the steady climb in the dollar has deterred major foreign buyers, causing supplies to back up in the U.S. just as production is surging to records. That is sending prices for many goods to their lowest levels in years.
“Farmers have had every reason to expand because of strong global demand,” said Shayle Shagam, livestock analyst with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “But now we have a lot of products looking for a home in a smaller number of places.”
The USDA said last week that stockpiles of soybeans could fall by almost a quarter this year as export demand picks up. Its outlook for other commodity markets wasn’t as bright. Stockpiles of wheat and corn are expected to grow further. Output of red meat and poultry are forecast to climb 3.1% from last year to 97.6 billion pounds, as farmers continue to expand their operations and grow animals to heavier weights, thanks to the cheap grain prices.
The glut of cheese starts with farmers such as Carla Wardin, a 38-year-old who owns the Evergreen Dairy in St. John, Mich., with her husband, Kris. They expanded from 250 to 400 cows and bought a new barn in 2014 when milk prices were soaring. Nobody is making any money now, she said, but producers respond the same way whether prices are low or high.
“You do the exact same thing,” she said. “You milk more cows.”
America’s dairy farmers are expected to produce 212.4 billion pounds of milk this year, the most in history. Much of it is being sold to cheesemakers who are socking away their output, waiting for demand and prices to rise.
Commercial cold-storage freezers held a record-breaking 1.19 billion pounds of cheese at the end of March, the latest month for which data is available, up 11% from the same time last year.
Americans eat an average of 36 pounds of cheese a year apiece, but it isn’t enough to keep up. Prices for block cheddar cheese fell to a six-year low of $1.27 a pound Thursday at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange; they have since risen one cent in the spot market.
Scott Meister, a third-generation cheesemaker who owns Meister Cheese Company LLC in Muscoda, Wis., said his company invested millions of dollars to expand its cheese plant in 2014, when prices were above $2 a pound and the company couldn’t keep up with demand. He had planned to dedicate the extra capacity for the production of specialty cheeses such as habanero jack, but is now using that space to boost output of standard cheddar in a bid to soften the blow of lower prices by selling more.
The glut of cheese and other products marks a dramatic turnaround for the animal agricultural sector, which just a few years ago was battling drought and disease that pinched supplies and sent prices at grocery stores to record highs.
Commodities markets frequently swing from boom to bust because of the long lead time for ramping up new supply. Decisions to expand herds of beef and dairy cattle have to be made far in advance, reflecting a cow’s nine-month pregnancy and the year or more it takes for a calf to mature.
“In all commodities, the pendulum swings hard in both directions,” said Justin Reiter, who operates a farm with his dad and brother in Bernard, Iowa, where they grow corn and feed cattle. His family invested $800,000 in a new barn for cattle in 2013, when supplies were tight and the market was starting to pick up steam.
“Now that the chickens have come home to roost, prices have gotten pretty bad,” he said.
C.J. Morton, who handles business development for Iowa-based Des Moines Cold Storage, said the company is preparing by investing $16 million in a new warehouse in the region to store commodities such as pig feet, beef and other proteins.
“If we were more full, it would be impossible to move around” the existing storage space, he said.
The excess supply should mean relief for shoppers. Retail prices for cheese were down 4.3% in April from a year earlier, according to market-research firm IRI. USDA projects consumer beef prices will fall as much as 2% this year, while pork prices could decline by 0.5%.
The industry needs consumers to take advantage of that.
“Someone is going to eat all of this meat and dairy,” said Mr. Shagam, with the USDA. “How much room do you have in your stomach?”
Write to Kelsey Gee at email@example.com and Julie Wernau at Julie.Wernau@wsj.com
San Jose Mercury News
America’s vanishing West: California losing most land to development
By Paul Rogers
The natural landscape of the American West is gradually disappearing under a relentless march of new subdivisions, roads, oil and gas production, agricultural operations and other human development, according to a detailed mapping study released Tuesday.
From 2001 to 2011, an area totaling 4,321 square miles — or 15 times the size of San Jose, Oakland and San Francisco combined — was modified by development in the 11 Western states, the report found, with California losing the most natural land, and Wyoming and Utah changing at the fastest rate.
“We are nibbling away at our wild places at a fairly rapid clip,” said Mike Dombeck, former chief of the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in the 1990s.
The report — at www.disappearingwest.org — was produced by scientists at Conservation Science Partners, a non-profit research organization based in Truckee, , who spent a year analyzing more than 30 large databases and a decade of satellite images over Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.
Their conclusion: Every 2.5 minutes the West loses an area of natural land the size of a football field to human development. And each year, on average it loses 432 square miles, an area nearly the size of Los Angeles.
“Protecting wild places is a very conservative thing to do because it keeps options available for the future,” said Dombeck, now a board member at Conservation Science Partners. “Once you have a subdivision put in or roads built into a wild place, it’s almost impossible to turn back the clock.”
To be sure, vast areas of the West, from the Sierra Nevada to Utah’s Red Rock Canyons, the Olympic Peninsula and the Greater Yellowstone Area, are preserved in national parks, wilderness areas and other designations.
But only 12 percent of all the land in the 11 Western states enjoys such protections, the report found. The most is in California, where 24 percent of the state is protected, followed by Nevada at 14 percent and Utah at 13 percent. The least: New Mexico with 6 percent and Montana with 7 percent.
Careless development — whether it is sprawling new subdivisions outside Denver or Phoenix, or vast new oil and gas fields near towns like Pinedale, Wyoming –fragment the landscape, the report’s authors said, blocking corridors for wildlife, polluting water and changing the West’s singular sense of place.
“There are large landscapes that are still pretty healthy and somewhat protected because of years of conservation work in the past,” said Matt Lee-Ashley, public lands director for Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank in Washington, D.C. that funded the study. “But with continued rates of loss, we can’t think of that work being finished yet.”
In California, Inland Empire counties lost the most open land. At the top of the list was San Bernardino County, which lost 60,013 acres of natural land from 2001-2011, followed by Riverside, Kern, Los Angeles and San Diego. In the Bay Area, Solano County lost the most, at 10,883 acres, followed by Contra Costa at 10,610 and Sonoma County at 9,193. San Francisco, Marin and San Mateo counties lost the least, all below 1,600 acres, while Santa Clara lost 6,225 acres and Alameda lost 5,085.
The study did not account for new parklands created over the decade. Private land trusts and parks agencies around the Bay Area have preserved tens of thousands of acres in the past 15 years, from the Santa Cruz Mountains to wetlands ringing San Francisco Bay and the rangelands of the East Bay.
Lee-Ashley, a former deputy chief of staff to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, said that the solution to preserve the broader West is for cities and states to pass zoning rules keeping development off sensitive areas, along with more funding from Congress to expand national parks and wilderness areas.
Over the past decade or so, Republican leaders in Congress, particularly members of the Tea Party movement, have blocked efforts to expand funding for parks and opposed President Obama’s use of executive power to establish new national monuments.
Some Western observers say the solution isn’t more federal money from Washington, D.C.
Private initiatives, like a long-standing program in which the Nature Conservancy pays rice farmers in California’s Central Valley to flood their fields in the winter to provide habitat for ducks and geese, are just as important if not more so, said Shawn Regan, a spokesman for PERC, the Property and Environmental Research Center, a free-market advocacy group in Bozeman, Montana.
“There’s a $12 billion maintenance backlog in our national parks,” said Regan. “We have all these public lands in the West, but we aren’t doing a very good job of taking care of what we have.”
Regan said private solutions include paying landowners to lease their water rights, buying development rights from landowners, and encouraging new agricultural technology, like genetically engineered crops, to allow farmers to produce more food per acre.
“We need more ways to work with private landowners, not against them,” he said. “And environmentalists often discourage ways to work with private landowners to encourage conservation.”
Paul Rogers covers resources and environmental issues. Contact him at 408-920-5045. Follow him at Twitter.com/PaulRogersSJMN
Agrihoods take root: a housing trend rooted in agriculture
By Michelle Locke
DAVIS, CALIF. – “How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm?” asks the old song. The answer may be: Build them an agrihood.
Feeding off the continuing interest in eating fresh, local food, developers are ditching golf courses and designing communities around farms, offering residents a taste of the pastoral life — and tasty produce, too.
The latest incarnation of harvest homes is The Cannery, a community designed around a small farm in Davis, about 20 miles west of California’s capital, Sacramento.
Master developer The New Home Co. was looking to build a neighborhood, not just homes, and market research showed that people wanted to connect to community. So “it made lots of sense to take this 7.5-acre piece of property and turn it into an urban farm, have that be the focus point,” says Kevin Carson, New Home president.
Residents can sign up for a weekly box of produce from the farm, and no matter what their level of participation they get to feel part of something, says Carson. “They can see the pumpkins being harvested or the tomatoes being planted or the different seasons that happen on a farm.”
Building homes close to food sources isn’t new. Back before refrigerated trucks and sophisticated delivery systems, it was the norm. But modern housing design took a different tack as suburbs sprouted around cities.
Developers looking to distinguish their offerings began designing golf course communities. But it turned out many buyers weren’t into golf so much as the view, says Ed McMahon, senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C. Since golf courses are big and expensive, developers moved to open spaces, then orchards and pastures, and now gardens and/or urban farms.
It’s still a niche; McMahon is tracking almost 200 projects of various sizes, a fraction of the overall market. Some agrihoods are big, some small. A few involve residents actually working on farms. Most, like The Cannery, have professionals handling the agricultural side of things. But the trend “is growing quite rapidly and there seems to be some interest in it,” says McMahon. “I get a call literally almost once a day from some developer who wants to talk about this.”
Nationwide, examples of agrihoods include Willowsford in Ashburn, Virginia; Agritopia near Phoenix, and Prairie Crossing in Grayslake, Illinois. In California, The Cannery opened in August 2015 and is planned to be a 547-home community, with prices starting in the $400,000s for town homes. The farm has produced tomatoes, sunflower and corn, which were harvested by volunteers and donated to a food bank.
Among those moving into The Cannery are Samrina and Mylon Marshall, who were attracted by the farm as well as the energy efficiency of their new home, which is equipped with solar panels. Mylon Marshall’s grandfather was a farmer in California’s Central Valley and he spent a little time in the fields. But he doesn’t have much of a green thumb, so the idea of having fresh, local produce without having to actually work the land appealed.
Living in an area where the farm-to-fork movement is particularly strong, “we really have come to appreciate what it means to eat locally and to eat seasonally,” says Samrina Marshall. “Just the concept of being more connected with how food is grown and produced — that’s important to us.”
Figuring out how the farm will work and who will own it is crucial to success in an agrihood. “Everybody likes the outcome — fresh fruit, flowers, beehives — but you really need somebody who knows what they’re doing to do the growing and the harvesting,” says McMahon.
The plan at The Cannery is for New Home to deed the land to the City of Davis, which will then lease it to the Center for Land-Based Learning, which helps beginning farmers get their start. There are two farming businesses and three farmers at Cannery Farm who already have signed up customers for produce boxes and sold some food to area restaurants, says Mary Kimball, executive director of the center.
Although professionals will do the heavy lifting, there may be opportunities for residents to volunteer on the farm. And even if their participation is limited to talking to farmers and visiting the farm stand, “that’s still going to be a lot more engagement at their local community level than they’ve probably ever had,” says Kimball. “It’s just a very different level of ability to be engaged when it’s in your backyard or it’s down the street and you drive by it every day.”
That’s something McMahon has observed at Prairie Crossing, a pioneering agrihood started 20 years ago.
“It’s a place that I would say has fundamentally changed the relationship of the residents with the land, particularly children,” he says. “It’s about a lot more than growing vegetables; it’s really about growing community.”
Michelle Locke tweets at https://twitter.com/Locke-Michelle
California needs strong, fair and effective groundwater agencies
By Michael Kiparsky and Holly Doremus
California’s groundwater is threatened – unsustainable use is causing impacts around the state. Pumping during the drought has been so rapid that changes in groundwater levels can be observed from space. In some areas, the land surface has collapsed almost two inches per month. Deep new wells take water from neighbors in a race to the bottom.
There is reason for hope. A historic new state law provides new impetus toward sustainable groundwater management. The law, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, seeks to put groundwater management in California on a sustainable path. But passing the law was only the beginning. Effective implementation will be crucial to its success.
But the law leaves crucial questions unanswered.
The law does not specify how the Groundwater Sustainability Agencies should be structured, what exactly they must do, or how they must do it. That leaves room for creativity and adjustment to local context. But it also raises the possibility of creating paper tigers that go through the motions but ultimately fail, leaving future generations to live with the impacts of a depleted resource.
Over the next few years, the act requires the formation of dozens of new Groundwater Sustainability Agencies, which will have the unenviable task of achieving local groundwater sustainability by 2040. Local governments are scrambling to understand what these agencies should look like to manage this vital resource.
Although not as visible as California’s rivers, groundwater provides about one-third to half of the state’s water supply and an essential lifeline when rivers run low during drought. Groundwater mismanagement is distressingly common; with lack of regulation and heavy pumping, overuse has destroyed infrastructure and put farms, communities and ecosystems at risk.
To reduce the risk of permanently degrading groundwater supply, stakeholders and decision makers need to think carefully about what factors contribute to good governance and how to incorporate those factors to build GSAs right from the start – that is, now.
With colleagues across California, we conducted a new study on design of agencies. A number of key elements stood out:
▪ Even a perfect plan is not worth the paper it is printed on if an agency is not designed well enough to actually implement it. The state needs to pay closer attention to the design of GSAs. The California Water Commission should pay careful attention to this issue in its oversight role. On Wednesday, it will need to decide whether the Department of Water Resources’ proposed regulations provide sufficient guidelines for governance, among other issues.
▪ The new agencies must avoid the fragmentation that vexes California’s water management. Groundwater does not respect political boundaries. GSAs should take groundwater basins, rather than existing political jurisdictions, as their basis.
▪ GSAs need the technical ability to understand and address groundwater management. They must develop expertise, including for sophisticated modeling and data analysis, or obtain outside assistance.
▪ Many GSAs will need to impose unwelcome restrictions on groundwater extraction, arousing political opposition. Yet they will also need to generate funding to support their work. Success will require strong agencies with adequate legal, regulatory and financing tools.
▪ To develop effective and fair decisions, the new agencies will need to consider carefully the interests of a range of stakeholders. GSAs will need to actively support broad participation and representation so as to avoid being dominated by a narrow range of interests.
Many localities are committed to developing excellent groundwater agencies, but even the best intentioned may need help – or a gentle push in the right direction. Damage to groundwater unfolds over decades. By the time management problems come to light, it may be too late to change course. Achieving groundwater sustainability is too important, and too challenging, to leave in the hands of haphazardly designed agencies.
Dr. Michael Kiparsky is director of the Wheeler Water Institute at UC Berkeley Law’s Center for Law, Energy and the Environment (CLEE). Professor Holly Doremus is faculty co-director of the center, and teaches water law and environmental law. Both are members of the UC Water Security and Sustainability Research Initiative, and co-authors, along with six other national experts, of the report, “Designing Effective Groundwater Sustainability Agencies: Criteria for Evaluation of Local Governance Options.”