News bites, September 2008

This article was originally published in September 2008

Organics growing in Washington

Certified organic acreage in Washington state increased by about 27 percent between 2006 and 2007. The amount of certified acreage being farmed in the state since 2004 has increased by 86 percent. Two-thirds of the state’s organic land is devoted to three crop categories: forage crops (such as alfalfa) for feeding livestock, vegetables and tree fruit. (Washington State University)

GM alfalfa campaign

The Center for Food Safety is asking farmers across the United States to call 866-724-6408 to find out if genetically modified (GM) alfalfa is planted near their farms. The center also is asking farmers to pull seed samples from any alfalfa growing wild along the roads and from their fields for testing to see if they’re contaminated with GM traits.

GM alfalfa seed was planted in experimental trials a few years ago and contamination is likely, even though it’s not approved for planting commercially. The seed samples could provide critical information in a lawsuit to stop GM alfalfa. Alfalfa is a staple feedstock for organic dairymen and ranchers and is Washington state’s number one export crop by volume. (Center for Food Safety)

Dairy farmers switch to grazing

More dairy farmers are deciding to graze their cows instead of confining them. A report from the University of Wisconsin found that only 7 percent of the state’s dairy farmers pastured their cows in 1993, but ten years later, by 2003, 23 percent of the farmers reported putting the cows out to pasture.

Productivity drops slightly, but farmers’ costs and labor go down more significantly — they don’t have to bring feed to the cows and they don’t have to haul away the manure. (Capital Press)

Monsanto selling rBGH division

The Monsanto corporation is divesting itself of the division that makes its genetically modified growth hormones (rBGH) for dairy cows. Monsanto says it wants to concentrate on its genetically modified seed business. However, a significant number of companies are rejecting milk produced with rBGH.

The American Medical Association president and the American Nurses Association have stated public opposition to rBGH. (Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility)

Non-native salmon escape fish farm

An estimated 30,000 Atlantic salmon escaped from an open-ocean fish farming operation along the coast of British Columbia — the second large escape of non-native farmed fish from the same company in less than a year.

First Nation people, the New Democratic Party, and environmentalists are demanding an end to open-ocean aquaculture, saying the industry must move to closed containers to protect wild salmon. The farmed fish cause sea-lice infestations, compete for food, habitat and spawning opportunities, and eat wild baby salmon. (Courier Islander/

Use a car wash, save salmon

Before you wash your car in the driveway, know where the suds will go. Unlike household wastewater that goes into the sewer system for treatment, soap and grime from a dirty car enters storm drains and flows into Puget Sound.

Chemicals in soap — even biodegradable soap — destroy a fish’s mucus membranes and damage their gills. Fish are most vulnerable to detergent runoff during low-flow months, including September. Choosing a commercial car wash can help protect wild salmon. (Seattle Public Utilities)

GM crop yields lower than traditional crops

A three-year study from the University of Kansas shows that yields of genetically modified (GM) soy, corn, cotton and canola are lower now than before GM seeds were introduced. GM soy yields dropped as much as 10 percent. The study confirms a 2007 study by Nebraska University, which found GM soy produced six percent less than the same seed in its non-GM version and up to 11 percent less than the best strain of non-GM soy.

Other studies, including one in 2006 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, show similar results. Researchers say genetic modification changes a plant’s metabolism, inhibiting absorption of nutrients and requiring more energy to express unnatural characteristics, which inhibits the ability to develop fully. Monsanto responded, saying its GM seeds “are not designed to increase yields.” (The Independent)

Soy linked to low sperm count

Eating just half a serving of soy food a day lowers sperm concentrations and may play a role in male infertility, according to research from the Harvard School of Public Health.

The reason for the link isn’t clear but researchers believe soy increases estrogen activity and interferes with other hormonal signals. Researchers found the link between soy and sperm count was most pronounced in overweight and obese men, since they already produce more estrogen than thinner men. ( Reproduction)

Farm vote may go for Obama

Farm groups, such as the National Farmers’ Union and Corn Growers Association, say the crucial farm vote — which has tended to go Republican in recent years — may break for Democrat Barack Obama over his GOP rival, John McCain, in the November election. They cite McCain’s opposition to the new Farm Bill, while Obama has advocated cuts in support for corporate farms and transferring it to smaller, family farms. (Wall Street Journal)

Also in this issue

Pesticides and food

What pesticides are used on what food crops? What residues remain when the crops go to market and how risky are those residues? And what about the vulnerable amongst us — are we fully protecting pregnant women, infants and children, and the elderly? Worrisome evidence that even minute levels of pesticides in food can impair human development has driven demand for organic foods.

A sustainable agriculture label: coming to foods near you?

Scientific Certification Systems (SCS) of Emeryville, Calif., is pushing for the adoption of a sustainable agriculture label as a U.S. standard for food and other products. Some farmers, producers, certifiers and consumer advocacy groups fear this proposed label will confuse U.S. consumers as they drift through supermarkets.

Insights by Goldie: Natural sweeteners: Sweet enough!

When asked to recommend “the healthiest sweetener,” I always cringe because it sounds like a seeker looking for the Holy Grail. I hate to break it to them, but in my view a) it’s the wrong quest and b) there is no one “best” sweetener.