Farming, Seed, Biotech, and Food News


The purpose of this page is to highlight news from the farming, seed, and food industries. Several of these pieces are featured in Friday Food Links, of Berkeley Food Institute.

2016

June

The Trans-Pacific Partnership Will Hurt Farmers and Make Seed Companies Richer

Here’s why experts say the trade deal is a “big win” for thebiotech seed industry.

Stop Trying To Solve Hunger With Corporate Food Waste

Posted:

It seems like a marriage made in heaven. Eliminate the vast amount of food waste in our society by giving it to the poor and hungry. No more hunger. No more waste. At least that’s what advocates for food-waste-to-the-poor schemes will have us believe. Here at home, MP Ruth-Ellen Brosseau’s private member’s bill, C-231, Fight Against Food Waste Act, will continue being debated in the House of Commons in the coming weeks.

But this is a relationship doomed before it even begins. That’s because this bill and other initiatives like it fail to address the real root causes of hunger and food waste. In fact, by conflating and confusing these issues, it makes it harder to develop meaningful and effective strategies to address both of these growing problems.

Simply put, food waste will never be able to address hunger because hunger isn’t about a lack of food. It’s about a lack of income. People are food insecure because they can’t afford to eat.

Food waste diversion strategies aimed at the poor don’t fix the food waste problem, either.

Waste isn’t about not having enough mouths to feed. It’s about inefficiencies and bureaucracy in the food system that see crops tilled under and lost in the production process; other crops that are overproduced as a result of antiquated agricultural policy and incentive programs; a retail system that has overabundance built into its operation model; and individual consumers who buy food with the best intentions, only to have it spoil in the back of the fridge. Read full article here…

May

The ethics of big data in big agriculture

Isabelle M. Carbonell, Film and Digital Media, University of California, Santa Cruz, United States of America
PUBLISHED ON: 31 Mar 2016 DOI: 10.14763/2016.1.405

Abstract

This paper examines the ethics of big data in agriculture, focusing on the power asymmetry between farmers and large agribusinesses like Monsanto. Following the recent purchase of Climate Corp., Monsanto is currently the most prominent biotech agribusiness to buy into big data. With wireless sensors on tractors monitoring or dictating every decision a farmer makes, Monsanto can now aggregate large quantities of previously proprietary farming data, enabling a privileged position with unique insights on a field-by-field basis into a third or more of the US farmland. This power asymmetry may be rebalanced through open-sourced data, and publicly-funded data analytic tools which rival Climate Corp. in complexity and innovation for use in the public domain. Read open access paper here…

65.000 x opposition against Syngenta patent on tomatoes

All-time record high for mass opposition filed at the European Patent Office

12 May 2016

A mass opposition will today be filed against a patent on tomatoes held by the Swiss company Syngenta. 65.000 individuals from 59 countries and 32 organisations are supporting the opposition. Never before have so many people been involved in an opposition at the European Patent Office (EPO). They are all opposing the Syngenta patent, which claims tomato seeds, plants and fruit as an invention, but which actually originate from crossings with tomato plants discovered in Peru and Chile.

“This is an all-time record number of opponents involved in a case at the European Patent Office. The huge support for this opposition will send a very strong signal to European politicians to take much stronger action against patents on plants and animals,” Iga Niznik says for Arche Noah in Austria, who will be a member of the delegation filing the opposition today.

“Our oppositions shows that European citizens no longer want to let the big corporations to take control of our food production through patent rights. We have to stop these patents now,” says Jörg Rohwedder from the European campaign network WeMove. Read more here…

Kids on the Frontline

Kids on the Frontline reflects a rigorous assessment of dozens of independent studies documenting links between pesticide exposure and children’s health harms. It builds on our extensive 2012 report, A Generation in Jeopardy.

The science linking agricultural pesticides to childhood health harms — particularly leukemia, brain tumors and developmental disorders — has grown increasingly strong. While children across the country are exposed in various ways, those living in rural, agricultural communities are on the frontlines of both pesticide exposure and the associated health risks. Download the PAN report here…

 

Monsanto, Dow, Syngenta: rush for mega-mergers puts food security at risk

Professor in global food security and sustainability at the University of Waterloo

The global agrochemical and seed industry is undergoing profound upheaval, with a spate of mergers and attempted mergers consolidating the sector and raising concerns about the future of the food system.

It began last year when Monsanto started looking for a partner, trying three times (unsuccessfully) to link up with Syngenta. By the end of 2015, Dow and DuPont announced they were teaming up. Subject to regulatory approval, the new $130bn company – DowDuPont – plans to split into three parts, one of which will focus exclusively on agricultural chemicals and seeds and is set to command a hefty market share. It is estimated DowDuPont could account for around 40% of the corn and soybean seed market in the US.

In February this year, ChemChina announced a $43bn purchase of Syngenta, bolstering ChemChina’s genetically engineered seed capacity and giving it thelargest slice of the agricultural chemical market. The remaining players – Monsanto, Bayer and BASF – are now under pressure to join the mega-merger dance, with talks on various potential permutations reportedly under way. Read full article here…

April

Highly Hazardous Pesticides

Highly Hazardous Pesticides (HHPs) are now addressed by new FAO/WHO Guidelines. These Guidelines form the basis of the work not just of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) but also of SAICM, the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management.

Several details of the PAN  recommendations did not make it into the final version of the Guidelines. However, very good news is that PAN succeeded in getting agro-ecologically based alternatives and the term organic into this document – for the first time in any of the documents relating to the International Code of Conduct on Pesticide Management.

From the perspective of replacing HHPs, section 3.2 of the Guidelines is the most important one as it clearly gives primacy to non-chemical alternatives.

You might be interested in using these new FAO/WHO Guidelines to ask your governmental representatives to take action.

http://www.fao.org/3/a-i5566e.pdf

http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/templates/agphome/documents/Pests_Pesticides/Code/CODE_2014Sep_ENG.pdf

US moves to sell gene-edited mushrooms fuel doubts over British ban on GM imports

American regulators have allowed the cultivation and sale of two crops modified with the gene-editing technique known as Crispr. The crops – a white button mushroom and a form of corn – are the first Crispr plants to be permitted for commercial use in the US.

The move is a boost for new technology in the creation of foodstuffs, but is expected to worsen the considerable confusion in Britain over the use of gene-editing in agriculture and the importing of crops created using such technology.

A committee of European commission regulators was expected to report last month on whether gene-edited crops should be classed as genetically-modified organisms or should be freed from the severe restrictions concerning GMOs in Europe. At the last minute it announced a delay in its verdict – to the dismay of many UK scientists.

“The committee knew it would be highly controversial, no matter what decision it made, so they have kicked the issue into the long grass, and that is very damaging,” said crop scientist Professor Huw Jones of Aberystwyth university.

“Researchers and plant breeders in the UK simply do not know whether it is worth investing time and money in creating novel foods using gene-editing, despite its enormous potential. At the same time the US has given clear signals of approval to its scientists.” Read full article here…

Monsanto GM Cotton Banned by Top African Producer of Crop

Acreage for Genetically Modified Crops Declined in 2015

Ground Shaking? Assessing the FAO’s 2015 International Year of Soils

Eric Holt-Giménez and Katherine Mott | 04.04.2016
“The multiple roles of soils often go unnoticed. Soils don’t have a voice, and few people speak out for them. They are our silent ally in food production [the] foundation of vegetation and agriculture. Forests need it to grow. We need it for food, feed, fiber, fuel and much more… We need healthy soils to achieve our food security and nutrition goals, to fight climate change and to ensure overall sustainable development… There are many ways to do this. Crop diversification which is used by most of the world’s family farmers is one of them…”

José Graziano da Silva, FAO Director-General

When the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations declared the International Year of Soils (IYS) in 2015, they took a position on the future of soil, water, the climate, the environment, farmers and global food security. An international campaign to attract resources and facilitate networking and awareness, the IYS 2015, resulted in a slew of informational materials and events, the inclusion of soil in the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, a revision of the 31-year old World Soil Charter,a Global Soil Partnership and a massive report on the Status of the World’s Soil Resources.

The report concluded,

“[While] there is cause for optimism in some regions, the majority of the world’s soil resources are in only fair, poor or very poor condition. Today, 33 percent of [cultivated] land is moderately to highly degraded due to the erosion, salinization, compaction, acidification and chemical pollution of soils.” Read more here…

More Evidence that Monarch Butterflies Should be Listed as Threatened

New research shows that the butterflies may be more vulnerable to extinction than we previously thought.

March

Monarchs Are Not on the Road to Recovery

By Bill Freese, Science Policy Analyst, Center for Food Safety
March 30th, 2016

Endangered Species Act protection essential to monarchs’ survival

Much as we’d like to believe this year’s upswing in monarch population numbers is the start of a recovery, it’s most likely a passing fluctuation due to unusually favorable weather conditions.  The long-term outlook remains bleak, as indicated by a recent study that predicts an 11 to 57% chance of extinction for the monarch migration over the next two decades.  Efforts to restore habitat are welcome, but they haven’t begun to reach the scale necessary for a true recovery.  The still small size of the monarch population makes it more vulnerable to severe weather events, such as the unusual winter storm in early March that has killed a substantial though yet unknown number of overwintering monarchs in Mexico.

In 2014, monarch advocates led by Center for Food Safety filed a petition to list the monarch as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) agreed in December 2014 that ESA protection may be warranted, but then failed to make a final decision by the ESA-prescribed 12-month deadline.  Accordingly, advocates were compelled recently to seek a court-imposed deadline for the Service to make its determination.  Protection under the ESA is essential to ensure the monarch’s survival.

Monarch lovers across North America know that this is the season for counting their favorite insect.  Come winter, monarchs east of the Rockies gather together in oyamel fir forests in the mountains west of Mexico City.  Impossible to count when flitting about in the summer, monarch numbers can be estimated quite well based on the area of forest they occupy in winter. Read full blog here…

Merge-Santo: New Threat to Food Sovereignty

If we act, we can stop the Big Six from becoming the Titanic Three.

As ETC first warned in May[i] last year and again in February[ii] this year, the pressure of two mergers among the Big Six Gene Giants would make a third merger inevitable. In the last few days the business media have reported that Monsanto is in separate talks with Bayer and BASF – the two German giants among agricultural input companies. While anti-competition regulators are fussing about the hook up of DuPont with Dow and of Syngenta with Chem China, Monsanto urgently needs to make a match. They hope that if regulators let the other two deals go through, they won’t be able to deny Monsanto a chance to even the score.

If the companies get their way, the first links in the industrial food chain (seeds, pesticides) will be in the hands of just three companies. If the marriages of DuPont-Dow and Syngenta–Chem China go through and Monsanto merges with Bayer’s Agricultural division, the three will control more than 65% of global pesticide sales and almost 61% of commercial seed sales. If Monsanto and BASF strike a deal instead, the Titanic Three will still have almost 61% of pesticides and more than 57% of seeds (see chart below).

Either way, a fourth move will be inevitable. Whichever company is left at the altar (Bayer or BASF) will have to buy or sell since it won’t have the clout to take on the Three. Either could prove irresistible for Deere & Co. or one of the other huge farm machinery companies that are in the best position to ultimately dominate all on-farm related agricultural inputs from seeds and pesticides to fertilizers, machinery, data and insurance.

So What?  Some industry watchers wonder if this latest spate of mergers will really make a difference to an industry which is already tightly-concentrated and where the six Gene Giants that have dominated seed and pesticide markets for the last decade already have so many joint ventures and cross-licensing arrangements that they have a de facto monopoly. Read full briefing here…

Quasi-extinction risk and population targets for the Eastern, migratory population of monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus)

Abstract

The Eastern, migratory population of monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus), an iconic North American insect, has declined by ~80% over the last decade. The monarch’s multi-generational migration between overwintering grounds in central Mexico and the summer breeding grounds in the northern U.S. and southern Canada is celebrated in all three countries and creates shared management responsibilities across North America. Here we present a novel Bayesian multivariate auto-regressive state-space model to assess quasi-extinction risk and aid in the establishment of a target population size for monarch conservation planning. We find that, given a range of plausible quasi-extinction thresholds, the population has a substantial probability of quasi-extinction, from 11–57% over 20 years, although uncertainty in these estimates is large. Exceptionally high population stochasticity, declining numbers, and a small current population size act in concert to drive this risk. An approximately 5-fold increase of the monarch population size (relative to the winter of 2014–15) is necessary to halve the current risk of quasi-extinction across all thresholds considered. Conserving the monarch migration thus requires active management to reverse population declines, and the establishment of an ambitious target population size goal to buffer against future environmentally driven variability. Read open access article here…

The Battle Over the Most Used Herbicide Heats Up as Nearly 100 Scientists Weigh In

By on March 10, 2016

One year ago, an agency of the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Cancer Research (IARC) declared that glyphosate (or Roundup), the world’s most widely used herbicide, probably causes cancer. Then, in the fall, the European Food Safety Agency’s (EFSA) responded with an assessment that disagreed with the WHO’s findings.

In response, 94 scientists came out in support of the IARC’s original findings. This week, the group—which includes scientists from around the world—released their article in the peer-reviewed Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health saying:

The most appropriate and scientifically based evaluation of the cancers reported in humans and laboratory animals as well as supportive mechanistic data is that glyphosate is a probable human carcinogen. On the basis of this conclusion and in the absence of evidence to the contrary, it is reasonable to conclude that glyphosate formulations should also be considered likely human carcinogens.

And their endorsement is no small matter. In fact, as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reassesses the safety of glyphosate, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) plans to begin testing food for its residue, this volley has important implications. Read full article here…

 

How ‘Ugly’ Fruits and Vegetables Can Help Solve World Hunger

By Elizabeth Royte

Tristram Stuart has 24 hours to produce a restaurant meal for 50 people—to plan a menu, gather food, then welcome guests to a venue in a city not his own. Complicating what sounds like a reality-show contest is a singular rule: Nearly all the ingredients must be sourced from farms and vendors intending to throw them out.

After racing back to New York City from a New Jersey farm where he gleaned 75 pounds of crookneck squash deemed by the farmers too crooked to sell, Stuart bolts from a car creeping through traffic and darts into a Greenwich Village bakery. Tall and blond, with a posh English accent, he launches into his ten-second spiel: “I run an organization that campaigns against food waste, and I’m pulling together a feast tomorrow made with food that won’t be sold or donated to charity. Do you have any bread that we could use?” The bakery doesn’t, but the clerk hands him two broken chocolate-chip cookies as consolation.

Stuart flings himself into the car. His next stop: the Union Square farmers market, where he spies a chef wrapping fish in squares of brioche dough, then trimming them into half circles. “Can I have your corners?” Stuart asks, with a meant-to-be-charming smile. The chef, uncharmed, declines. He’s going to make use of this dough himself. Undaunted, Stuart sails on through the market, delivering his pitch and eventually procuring discarded beet greens, wheatgrass, and apples. Read full article here…

February

The most interesting supermarket in the world

By Roberto A. Ferdman

Food waste has met its most innovative opponent yet, a new supermarket in Denmark, where the vegetables are dirt cheap—and too ugly or old to sell elsewhere.

WeFood, which opened in Copenhagen this week, stocks only food that is past its official expiration date or unworthy of other supermarket shelves because of aesthetic imperfections and damaged packaging. The grocer, opened by Danish NGO Folkekirkens Nødhjælp, is hoping to lure shoppers of all socioeconomic backgrounds by selling its food at steep discounts — somewhere between 30 to 50 percent cheaper than other standard supermarkets.

The new supermarket is a not-so-subtle swing at the modern food system, which often prioritizes food safety at the expense of waste. Roughly one-third of all food produced worldwide ends up in the garbage, complicating efforts to alleviate hunger around the globe. But the problem is especially pronounced in developed countries, thanks in large part to stigmas attached to unappealing fruit and vegetables and overly conservative expiration dates. Read full article here…

 

Decline of Pollinators Poses Threat to World Food Supply, Report Says

2015

December

Silent but Deadly – Estimating the real climate impact of agribusiness corporations

December 2015

The agribusiness industry presents itself as part of the solution to climate change. The major firms spend significant sums to promote the message that corporate, industrial agriculture is compatible with fighting climate change. But they are wrong. This report demonstrates that multinational agribusiness companies are part of the problem, not the solution, by revealing the true extent of their overall contribution to dangerous climate change. So far, most agribusiness companies have got away with underestimating their true impact because they only declare their direct emissions. Many emissions are not direct, but arise from the end use of their products or from their supply chains.

These hidden emissions tend not to be disclosed in company reports but it is possible to estimate them by extrapolating from existing public data. In Silent but Deadly, we have used this information to estimate the real climate impact of three companies: Cargill, Yara and Tyson, which are amongst the world’s biggest firms in the cattle feed, nitrous fertiliser and beef industries respectively. Access full report here…

October

To Grow More Crops, Cultivate the Birds and Bees

There’s a point of view about raising crops that you hear a lot: if we’re going to feed the nine billion people who are expected to be inhabiting this planet in the year 2050, we will need to expand and intensify the farming we do now. That means producing at least twice as much food, at a time when the yields of major food crops are falling.

And doubling down on production is a problem, because there is not much land left. Most of what could be cultivated to grow food is already being worked; more than a third of the world’s ice-free surface is devoted to crops. Finding new spaces to farm could mean carving workable land out of forests and prairies, habitats that are essential for animal, bird and insect species to survive. Yet doing that sacrifices biodiversity—which could harm farming yields in turn as populations of pollinators and pest-eaters shrink.Read the full article here…

 September

Dirty Money, Dirty Science

by Doug Gurian-Sherman

The biotech industry’s web of attempts to buy credibility, by laundering its messages through supposedly independent academic scientists, is unraveling and beginning to reveal the influence of a huge amount of industry money on the independence of academic agricultural science. Some of this process was revealed recently in The New York Times. Many of these efforts to influence policy or public opinion start with industry staff emails, including suggested topics, points, and themes, which are then laundered through the credibility of academic scientists. It is a matter of academic scientists promoting positions and arguments of the industry, not merely a sharing of positions that each party already held and were acting on.

The emails from several academic scientists linked in the NYT article show numerous instances of industry personnel, such as Eric Sachs of Monsanto, in ongoing dialogue with academic scientists, including strategizing about how to influence policy and how academic scientists can carry out industry desires.

A deeper dive into the emails coming forward through this article and from U.S. Right to Know public disclosure efforts shows a broader and more troubling picture of influence peddling in the agricultural sciences. Read full article here…

 

The U.S. Doesn’t Have Enough Of The Vegetables We’re Supposed To Eat

Is Millet the Next Super Grain?

A group of researchers hopes to bring this nutritious, drought-tolerant grain to the mainstream.

When scientists Amrita Hazra and Patricia Bubner arrived in Berkeley, California a few years back to do post-doctoral science at the University of California, they bonded over what they saw as an alarming lack of diversity in the American diet.

For one, Hazra, from India, and Bubner, from Austria, had both grown up eating many more diverse grains than they could find in the States. And they both had a fondness for millet; Hazra likes to add it to soups, to give texture, while Bubner makes patties with it, or cooks it in milk like porridge and adds apples and honey. But, Hazra was disappointed to learn that the variety of millets consumed in India are not available here, and they found that most Americans hardly ate it at all. Read the full article here…

 

What Renaissance art can teach us about the history of vegetable domestication

 Hosted by Lynne Rossetto Kasper

James Nienhuis is a professor in the Department of Horticulture at the University of Wisconsin.

Why is a watermelon red on the inside or a carrot orange? Why are they a color at all?

It could be involved with pollination, attraction of herbivores or dissuasion of herbivores. But really the carotenoids — the yellows, the oranges and the reds — are there for light, for photosynthesis.

Think about this for a moment: If the carotenoids are there for light absorption, I think most carrots grow underground. So what the heck are they doing there becoming orange when they can’t even see the light? The watermelon, if I’m not mistaken, it’s probably pretty dark inside there. Why would they become a bright red?

The answer to both of those questions is because human beings domesticated, selected and bred these crops. Those were the colors that were pleasing to us. That’s why the watermelon — those wonderful curlicues on the inside of that placental tissue — that redness is all about us. Read more and listen here…

 

Eat: The Story of Food

Eat: The Story of Food. A six-part series that premiered last year on the National Geographic Channel, Eat combines high-gloss production quality, more than 70 talking heads, and archival footage to create something that is part pedagogy, part food spectacle. The first episode, Food Revolutionaries, examines contributions made by Julia Child, Christopher Columbus, Auguste Escoffier, chef Hector Boiardi and others in changing food history. Later episodes investigate meat (“Carnivores”), sweets (“Sugar Rushes”), seafood (“Hooked on Seafood”), and grains (“Baked & Buzzed”). While folks will rightly note some editorial exclusions (the Revolutionaries are mostly white and European), the series is worth checking out. My favorite is “Guilty Pleasures,” which documents the post-war rise of processed food: from mass spectrometry that enabled reverse engineering of flavor to US interstates that spurred the drive-thru restaurant; from microwave ovens that ‘set women free’ to Betty Crocker boxed mixes that urged them back to the kitchen, at least to crack an egg. The fierce competition for “stomach share” — just watch how a Dorito gets crunch-tested — has never looked so savory. See more here…

2014

August

Counter crop patents by freeing seeds to feed the world

  • Today, just three companies – Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta – account for about half of all commercial seed sales. More and more, agricultural patents are used to increase the control these and similar companies wield over access to the seeds with which farmers feed the world and – especially in the Global South – themselves and their families.

    But it was not always this way. Improving crops through plant breeding has always been a core part of farming and gardening. Farmers would freely exchange their seed with others in order to identify characteristics that could be beneficial in their particular soil or climate conditions. Grow them, cross-breed them, pick the best, then grow and cross-breed them again. Scientific plant breeders do essentially the same thing, and free exchange of seeds and the freedom to use them for the breeding of additional varieties has been a key component of agricultural progress.

    Over the past 20 years the growth of the free and open source software movement, whose poster child is the operating system Linux, has provided an alternative to proprietary software from megacorps such as Microsoft, Apple and IBM, and a means to protect against software patents. Taking inspiration from this, we have created a similar organisation, the Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI), whose aim is to free the seed – that is, to make sure that the genes in at least some plant seeds can never be locked away from use by intellectual property rights. Read full article here…

    2013

    February

    The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food

    © Backyard Seed Savers 2013-2016. All rights reserved.