News bites, February 2006

This article was originally published in February 2006

Water fight

Officially, the United States government says it’s not interested in importing Canada’s fresh water. But some Canadian leaders say U.S. pressure to demand water from Canada will grow as shortages in the United States increase. Water levels in the Great Lakes have dropped to record lows and flow in the Colorado River, which feeds the Las Vegas Valley, has dropped almost by half since 2000. The former premier of Alberta, Peter Lougheed, is calling for an all-party declaration in the House of Commons that Canada will not allow large-scale water transfers south of the border. (The Canadian Press)

Not all donuts are equal

Restaurants and bakeries are exempt from new labeling laws requiring trans-fats to be listed, but Seattle’s Mighty O donut company is raising the bar. Conventional donuts are fried in partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, a key source of harmful trans-fats, but Mighty O donuts are trans-fat free. Mighty-O donuts also are certified organic and cholesterol and dairy free. (Mighty O)

Wine world in ferment

Plastic corks offended some traditional oenophiles. Now genetically modified (GM) wine yeast is being used in U.S. wines and may cause more than a splutter over the claret. There’s no requirement for companies to label yeast as GM, so winemakers may not know they’re working with GM yeast. GM grapes also are undergoing experimental field tests. Institutions applying for permits to release GM grapes reportedly include Cornell, California and New York State universities (New Scientist)

Last chance seed bank

Norway is planning to build a “doomsday vault” inside a mountain to hold a seed bank of all known varieties of the world’s crops. It’s being designed to withstand nuclear war or natural disasters that would destroy the planet’s sources of food.

The Global Crop Diversity Trust will organize storing copies of seeds now in collections around the world. There are about 1,400 seed banks, but many are in politically unstable countries or face threats from the natural environment. The Norwegian government will start work on the seed vault next year by drilling into a sandstone mountain 600 miles from the North Pole. (British Broadcasting Company)

Colorful spuds healthy

Purple, pink, orange or lavender potatoes may give pause to conventional shoppers who think of white russets as the standard. But the color is an indicator of potential health benefits. The pigments that produce the colored flesh contain a lot of anthocyanin, which reportedly removes damaging free radicals from the body. (Capital Press)

Failed oversight at USDA

The U. S. Department of Agriculture’s own auditor has issued a stinging report on genetically modified crops. The USDA’s Office of Inspector General found regulators didn’t always notice violations of its own rules, did not inspect experimental test sites as expected, and did not ensure GM plants were destroyed when the experiment ended. Regulators did not even know where experimental fields were for which they’d granted permits. The report said such failures increase the risk of environmental contamination. (New York Times)

Salmon buffer zones

The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a case involving pesticide buffer zones around salmon streams. The chemical industry and some growers had challenged a Seattle federal court ruling that bans 36 pesticides from being applied near salmon streams. The Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the case means that buffer zones for salmon protection will remain in place: 300 feet for pesticides applied as aerial sprays, 60 feet if applied to the ground. The pesticides include 2,4-D, found in weed-and-feeds, and slug and insect baits. (Washington Toxics Coalition)

Organic dairy a tough go

Making an organic dairy profitable can be very tough. Researchers at the universities of Vermont and Maine studied 30 organic dairy farms and found the average rate of return was minus 2.9 percent. Feed costs are higher and production is lower, often wiping out the premium that farmers earn. Two-thirds of the organic dairies failed to turn a profit. One farmer says, however, that he’s “no worse off than before going organic and the potential to be better off is there.” Demand for organic dairy exceeds the supply by at least 10 percent. (Capital Press)

Kraft to phase out GM ingredients in China

Kraft Foods has announced it will remove all genetically modified ingredients from its products in China, including additives and flavors, by January 1, 2007. Surveys show that 57 percent of Chinese consumers prefer non-GM foods. Kraft’s announcement followed criticism by several Chinese newspapers that Nestle, the world’s largest food company, has not adopted a non-GM policy. (Shanghai Daily/

A matter of taste

After a five-year showdown in a small Italian town, McDonald’s has been run out of town by a small bakery. The town of Altamura dates back to the 5th century B.C. and is famous for a unique, golden bread. When McDonald’s opened shop in the central piazza, a local baker countered with tasty, filled panini. The lines outside the bakery got longer, while McDonald’s gradually became empty, despite the best efforts of Ronald McDonald, new management, kids’ parties and special deals. (The Times, U.K.)

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