News bites, December 2013

This article was originally published in December 2013

LA considers banning GE

Los Angeles is considering banning the growth, sale and distribution of genetically engineered (GE) seeds and plants. Two LA city councilmen introduced a motion for the ban as a measure to protect local gardens and homegrown food from contamination by GE seeds, but it would not affect the sale of food containing GE ingredients.

If it passes, the second-largest U.S. city would become the country’s largest GE-free zone. (The Huffington Post)

Nut thefts continue

A brazen crime wave is threatening to push nut farmers in California out of business. The latest in a series of walnut thefts is the largest yet — thieves took more than 140,000 pounds of walnuts from Gold River Orchard, worth nearly half a million dollars. Police say the thieves snuck onto the property after hours before taking off with three full large containers of the nuts. (

Modern wheat different?

New research calls into question the theory that the increase in celiac disease and other wheat intolerances is caused by modern wheat’s higher gluten content. A research chemist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture has published a study in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry showing he found no significant differences in gluten levels in wheat from the early part of the 20th century, compared with gluten levels from the latter half of the century. (NPR)

“Camel of crops” gains popularity

Much of the world is turning hotter and dryer, and it’s opening new doors for a water-saving cereal that’s been called “the camel of crops”: sorghum. This crop is catching on among consumers who are looking for gluten-free “ancient grains” that have been relatively untouched by modern agriculture. The lack of water on the high plains — from Nebraska to western Texas — has led the drought-resistant crop to be attractive to farmers. (NPR)

B.C. sardine fishery collapses

The $32-million commercial sardine fishery has “inexplicably and completely collapsed” this year on the B.C. coast. The sardine seine fleet went home after failing to catch a single fish — and the commercial disappearance of the small schooling fish is having repercussions all the way up the food chain to threatened humpback whales. Overfishing had long been blamed for the disappearance of sardines from B.C. waters, but scientists today attribute the overriding cause to changes in ocean conditions that proved unfavorable to sardines. (Vancouver Sun)

DDT and obesity

Even if you haven’t been exposed to the insecticide DDT in your lifetime, researchers from WSU say it still could have an effect on you — and your weight. They found that three generations after rats were exposed to DDT, more than 50 percent of the females and more than 60 percent of the males were considered obese. DDT exposure may be turning off and on gene sequences, which leads to a higher likelihood of obesity, passed from generation to generation. DDT has been banned in the United States for more than 40 years. (KUOW)

GE sweet corn in Canada

Unlabelled GE fresh sweet corn was found in grocery stores, roadside stands and farmers markets across Canada. GE sweet corn is the only whole GE food that’s grown in Canada. Farmers may be planting GE sweet corn without knowing that it is genetically engineered because seed catalogues do not label GE varieties. (Canadian Biotechnology Action Network)

Nitrogen pollution lingers

A 30-year study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reveals nitrogen could linger in soil for nearly a century after fertilizer is applied. Three decades after scientists applied fertilizer to sugar beet and winter wheat in France, they found just 61 to 65 percent of its nitrogen had been absorbed by the crops — the rest was still in the soil or had leached into groundwater. Nitrogen from fertilizer helps crops grow, but it can be poisonous for humans and animals and when nitrates leach from farmed soil into groundwater, they can make it undrinkable. (Grist)

Climate change threatens ag

Climate change will pose sharp risks to the world’s food supply in coming decades, potentially undermining crop production and driving up prices, according to a leaked UN report.

In a departure from an earlier assessment, scientists conclude that rising temperatures will have some beneficial effects on crops in some places, but that globally they will make it harder for crops to thrive — perhaps reducing production overall by as much as 2 percent each decade for the rest of this century, compared with what it would be without climate change. (The New York Times)

Diesel disorients honeybees

Diesel pollution snuffs out floral odors, interfering with honeybees’ ability to find and pollinate flowers, new research suggests. According to a report in the journal Scientific Reports, nitrogen oxides — a group of highly reactive gases released by diesel combustion — are capable of altering floral odors to an extent that would dampen a bee’s ability to recognize flowers desirable for pollination.

The finding could have implications for the global food supply, since honeybees pollinate about 70 percent of crop foods around the world. (

Also in this issue

Hard ciders for winter nights

We Northwesterners sure are lucky. Not only do we live in a place abundant with organic, heirloom apples, but it's also a hotspot for turning those apples into delicious, artisan hard ciders.

GE labeling: what's next

Now that I-522, the state initiative to label genetically engineered foods, failed to pass, what's next? Certainly, efforts for national labeling continue, as do other state legislative and initiative efforts.

Soil & sea: reports from our producers

There's a spotlight is on Washington's bounty: A Christmas tree from our state is all lit up at the U.S. Capitol building this month, and our apple production climbed 16 percent in 2012. Other news: cooperatives are breaking sales records and a campaign aims to protect the ecosystems where more than half of U.S. wild seafood is caught.