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GMO sugar beets get the green light

Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) ruled once and for all to allow unrestricted planting of Monsanto’s GMO sugar beets. This announcement puts an end to a long court battle to force the USDA to uphold the law -- a battle that some anti-GMO advocates might call Pyrrhic.

We covered the GMO sugar fracas extensively last month, but here’s a quickie review: The USDA was forced to perform a court-ordered environmental review of the GMO sugar beet seed and to restrict planting by farmers until the review was finished. As it happens, this was a review that the USDA had failed to complete back in 2008 when it had allowed farmers to begin using the seed. This failure was in violation of law and was the grounds for the court’s intervention after several consumer groups filed suit. And though the agency flouted a court-ordered halt to planting out of concern about a sugar shortage, they did ultimately comply with the judge’s order to finish a full review.

The ruling came out of the agency’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), the division in charge of regulating genetically modified food. And, as if to stress the fact that the process is complete and GMO sugar beets are totally in the clear, the USDA declared in the announcement that “this is APHIS’ final regulatory determination in this matter.” So back off, people!

The review was released last month so there was little that was surprising in the final announcement. But the language that APHIS used this week explains a lot about federal policy on GMOs. As the agency put it:

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The lesser of two evils: Why food advocates are pushing for a farm bill they don’t love

What’s that sound? It’s the clock ticking as the timeline for this year’s farm bill process begins to run out. The current bill expires Sept. 30, and we now have less than two weeks before Congress’ month-long recess begins on August 3.

So what's the holdup? Now that both the Senate and House Agriculture committees have passed their versions of the bill, you’d think they’d get to work hashing it out, right? Wrong. Instead the Republican-controlled House is stalling.

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Sudden desert: Midwest drought is bad news for farmers and eaters

Photo by Claire-Marie Harris.

What do you say to a corn stalk ravaged by a heat wave?

Nothing. Its ears are stunted.

Corn growers throughout the Midwest this summer are facing an extraordinary ordeal that climate scientists have predicted could become the new ordinary. This year’s growing season has been consistently dry and warm, leading to stunted stalk growth, and many of the corn-growing states are now sweltering through record-breaking heat during a critical stage of kernel development with nary a storm in sight.

As The New York Times reported this week, “the sweltering temperatures and a lack of rain are threatening what had been expected to be the nation’s largest corn crop in generations.” The business journalists -- whose audience is those who gamble on corn’s futures -- have also been reporting the story.

“About 50 percent of the corn-producing area of the Midwest is running significant moisture shortages,” says David Streit, an agricultural meteorologist and founder of Commodity Weather Group, which advises clients in the farming and energy sectors.

That’s a problem, because the plants have entered their pollination phase. That’s the “very critical time,” Streit says, when corn silks are pollinated and begin to grow into juicy kernels. But without water, growers are left with little more on their stalks than withering husks.

“When you have that kind of heat at this critical pollination period,” he adds, “you can lose several bushels an acre per day.”

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Parched Midwest could mean smaller Gulf dead zone

Here's last year's Gulf dead zone. How big will this year's be? (Photo courtesy of NOAA.)

If you’re an underwater creature living in the Gulf of Mexico, summer is not your friend. All spring long, rain falls on America’s farmland and floods the waterways around factory animal farms, creating a steady stream of nitrogen from excess fertilizer and animal waste that heads down the Mississippi River and out to the Gulf. These nutrients create algae that sinks, decomposes, and eats oxygen. The result is an oxygen-free area or underwater desert -- a dead zone.

This year, one study from the University of Michigan estimates the Gulf dead zone might be a lot smaller than it has been in recent years -- a mere 1,200 square miles, compared to 6,765 square miles in 2011.

If this turns out to be the case, it won’t be the result of improved agricultural practices, but rather the result of what Reuters calls the Corn Belt’s “driest season in 24 years.” The article continues:

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‘Monsanto Protection Act’ would keep GMO crops in the ground during legal battles

It's that exciting time of the year again when the Senate and House Appropriations Committees get together to hash out the annual agriculture budget. I know, right? Really fun stuff.

This year, in addition to the usual underfunding of legislation that could make the food system more sustainable, the appropriations process has become especially charged, thanks to a one-paragraph addition called the “farmer assurance provision.” The provision -- which the agriculture committee approved last week, but has yet to go to the full House -- would allow farmers to plant and grow GMO crops before they’ve been deemed safe. Or, more accurately, if it passes, farmers will be able to plant these crops while legal battles ensue over their safety.

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After the Rio Earth Summit: Will agriculture really get any greener?

If last week’s Rio+20 Earth Summit made anything clear to those of us at home, it's the degree to which the world’s developed nations have been sitting on their hands since the original Earth Summit 20 years ago. As Grist's Greg Hanscom reported from the summit, the "outcome document" was negotiated before the week started, and “the overwhelming feeling [there], even as world leaders and celebrities rolled in for the official pomp and circumstance, was that the summit was over even before it began.”

Meanwhile, Bill McKibben called the event a “formulaic bureaucracy-fest” wherein the only real excitement was a walkout staged by young activists.

So where was food and agriculture in all this? Food was one of seven “critical issues” identified by the U.N. before Rio+20 began, as population growth (we’ll have another 2 billion people on the planet by 2050) and climate change have put the question of food access into sharp focus. But a quick look at the “issue brief” prepared before the summit will tell you most of what you need to know about the vast chasm that exists between the kinds of goals articulated in meetings like this and the level of real change occurring on the ground. “Global delivery of the food security and sustainable agriculture-related commitments has been disappointing,” the brief reads. And it’s easy to see why; a table reporting on target goals set as early as 1995 is filled with stalled progress, lack of funding, and a general dearth of political will. Here are a few examples:

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No, genetically modified grass isn’t killing cows with cyanide

Cows eating something besides cyanide. (Photo courtesy of the University of Missouri Extension.)

Perhaps you heard the story going around today. A genetically modified grass started pumping out cyanide gas, killing a herd of cattle. CBS News had the scoop, as seen at WTVR.com in Richmond: "Genetically modified grass linked to cattle deaths." It's basically a story custom-built for rapid spread around the internet.

And it is basically completely wrong. The grass at issue, Tifton 85, was not genetically modified at all, but rather is a hybrid. Confusion between hybridized crops (which is a process that is basically as old as the idea of "crops") and GMOs is not uncommon.

Nor did the plants suddenly start pumping out cyanide. Examiner.com was one of the first sites with a refutation of the story from which we excerpt this explanation:

According to local station KEYE, Abel first knew something was wrong when the cows started bellowing. He thought he was about to witness a calving but instead saw his unfortunate animals staggering around, obviously dying. Others in the area have also since tested their grass and found the same results—the grass has started venting cyanide.

True: Cattle died after eating grass that suddenly started venting cyanide [Update: the animals died of prussic acid or hydrogen cyanide poisoning.]

False: The grass was genetically modified

Reports indicate that the culprit was indeed prussic acid poisoning, a well-documented, if uncommon, threat to cattle.

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Line ‘em up, knock ‘em down: Senate plans 73 farm bill votes today

To farm bill or not to farm bill, that is the question. Or that's been the question occupying the Senate for the last week. The problem, as the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition explains, is that while there is a complete farm bill draft awaiting a final vote in the Senate, senators have filed almost 300 amendments, several of them unrelated to the bill itself.

There isn’t enough time to consider all these amendments, so farm-state senators have worked furiously to pull off a deal involving votes on a package of amendments followed by a vote on the complete bill. It will all culminate today, in what's called a vote-o-rama: votes on 73 amendments in quick succession. (Here’s the guide to amendments to watch we published last week on Grist -- although several of the most reform-minded did not make the cut, nor did the amendment to ban battery cages in egg production. The GMO labeling amendment led by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) will get a vote, however.) While this process will only get the bill through the Senate (the House is another story completely), it looks like it’s the best hope we have this year.

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Climate change could cause ‘zombie weeds’

This rice might look like the type farmers cultivate for food, but it's a weed. And as CO2 levels in the air rise, it might just take over. (Photo courtesy of The International Rice Research Institute.)

Climate change may be wreaking havoc on ecosystems and food supplies around the world, but there are also some things it's really great for -- like weeds.

According to research published last month in the journal PLoS ONE, weeds love carbon dioxide. Or, more precisely, they're learning to love CO2 because they can adapt quickly to most conditions. Crops grown for food, on the other hand, don't adapt because they're designed not to -- you want things like rice or wheat to have the same reliable taste, right? That's why farmers take great care when they're choosing the kinds of seeds they want to grow.

Now, thanks to climate change, that consistency is also a huge risk. The study in PLoS ONE, conducted by some forward-thinking researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), found that as CO2 levels rise, weeds fare better than their domesticated crop counterparts. That’s because the weeds adapted. But that’s not all: It turns out exposure to CO2 also makes them behave a little like zombies. In other words their weed-like qualities were also contagious (via gene transfer), and the actual crops began behaving more like weeds.

There's already concern about genetic contamination from GMO food crops to weeds. Now there's evidence that weeds could compromise food crops. (And we're not even talking about "superweeds," which are pretty scary in their own right because of their rapid growth and resistance to herbicides.)

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Halliburton gets tripped up by Indian bean farmers*

Economics 101: supply and demand. The more supply in the market, the price of a product drops. The more demand, prices rise. Demand leads to sales, which reduces supply and forces prices higher and higher until either 1) supply runs out or 2) prices drop demand.

This isn't a theoretical or arcane concept. Here's how that process played out just this week.