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Safety of GMOs debated online

Using genetic engineering, science has found a way to produce alfalfa with less lignin, a component of the plant that has no nutritional value.
A UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) genomics expert participated in an online debate about GMOs with a Canadian scientist who argued against the ubiquitous use of the technology. The debate can be viewed on The Real News.

Alison Van Eenennaam, UC ANR Cooperative Extension specialist in the Department of Animal Sciences at UC Davis, said research has shown that genetically engineered crops do not pose a risk to human health.

"There's a recent review paper where they summarized data from 1,700 different studies, and about half of those are publicly funded. And basically the results of those studies have been that there haven't been any unique risks or hazards associated with the use of this breeding method in the production of crops," she said.

The counter point was offered by Thierry Vrain, a soil biologist and genetic engineer with Agriculture Canada. He focused on the fact that more than 90 percent of the genetically engineered crops now in use were altered to be resistant to the herbicide glyphosate. He said this fact results in overuse of the herbicide.

"In terms of specific toxicity of the molecule glyphosate, which has very little acute toxicity - as it is advertised, it is safer than table salt. But in terms of chronic toxicity over time, over weeks and months, it will damage the microbiome and induce all kinds, all kinds of symptoms. In mice, and probably in humans," Vrain said.

Van Eenannaam tried to keep the discussion focused on the safety of GMOs.

"I think the most misunderstood thing is it's a breeding method that can be used to introduce all sorts of crop traits into crops and animals, and we always seem to get discussing the one particular application rather than looking at how it could be used to address many different problems that are associated with agriculture, including things like drought tolerance, disease resistance, biofortification of crops," she said.

Vrain agreed with most of Van Eenennaam's points.

"I agree with you, Alison, that GMOs are not necessarily toxic, et cetera, et cetera," he said. "There's all kinds of benefits, it's a very powerful technology. Used properly, it's probably very beneficial to humanity.

At the end of the debate Vrain reiterated his concern that the preponderance of GMOs are for glyphosate-resistant crops.

Posted on Friday, May 22, 2015 at 3:42 PM

Berkeley soda tax panel convenes

Berkeley's one-cent-per-ounce soda tax generated $116,000 its first month.
A nine-member panel of nutrition experts, including a long-time UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) nutrition specialist, convened for the first time this week to make recommendations to the Berkeley City Council about spending the funds raised by the city's soda tax, reported Emily Dugdale in NOSH.

"We're all in a fish bowl built out of a magnifying glass," a Berkeley City Councilmember told the panellists, referring to the national attention and strong community interest in the initiative.

Berkeley taxes sugar-sweetened beverages one cent per ounce. The tax generated $116,000 in its first month of operation.

The UC ANR panelist is Pat Crawford, the senior director of research for the Nutrition Policy Insititute, an organization of experts from throughout the University of California system brought together to share, synthesize, develop and collaborate on nutrition policy research.

In a recent Q&A with the UC Food Observer, Crawford commented on efforts to reduce consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages.

"We have strong evidence of sugar's contribution to diabetes, heart disease, obesity and dental caries," she said. "Hopefully educational materials for the public, including MyPlate, can begin to include water as the beverage that is first for thirst."

Posted on Wednesday, May 20, 2015 at 4:29 PM

UC ANR workshop inspires economic development

Sheep shearing is an art that can be learned at the UC Hopland Research and Extension Center.
UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) is helping get a new industry off the ground in Mendocino County, reported Justine Frederiksen in the Ukiah Daily Journal.

The UC Hopland Research and Extension Center, a UC ANR facility, hosts an annual Sheep Shearing School, thought to be the only one in  California. The students take a five-day hands-on course to learn how to maintain a quality wool clip and minimize stress to the sheep.

"It's like learning to square dance," said instructor Gary Vorderbruggen. "Except you're learning to dance with an unwilling partner."

UC ANR Cooperative Extension natural resources advisor John Harper facilitates the school in Mendocino County.

"I always say, you'll never be unemployed if you learn how to shear," Harper said. "There's never enough shearers."

One local resident who attended Sheep Shearing School twice, Matthew Gilbert, was inspired to open a local wool processing enterprise.

"It's the perfect fit for this county, because it will provide jobs for this rural economy," Harper said.

Many wineries are using sheep to clip cover crops because the sheep can't get up on their hind legs like goats to reach the foliage. Even as more sheep are working local vineyards, "we're losing the infrastructure to support the (sheep) industry," Harper said.

Last week, the Ukiah Planning Commission unanimously approved permits for Gilbert to operate a wool mill and food truck on his property, said another article in the Ukiah Daily Journal. The food truck will help supplement the family's income for the first couple of years until the mill becomes established.

Further enhancing local interest in the Mendocino County sheep industry, the Hopland REC hosts a Barn to Yarn event from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. May 23. Visitors will see shearing, spinning and weaving demonstrations and learn how to class wool and dye it using Kool-Aid. Admission is $5 per person, and children under 12 are free. The Hopland REC is at 4070 University Rd., Hopland. For more information, call Hannah Bird at (707) 744-1424, ext. 105.

Posted on Tuesday, May 19, 2015 at 1:29 PM

Trees dying due to drought are prone to wildfire

Fire trees dying from bark beetle infestations.
Across California, pine trees that have been weakened by the drought are having trouble defending themselves from bark beetles, causing widespread tree death. The dead trees won't cause fires, but when ignited they will be hotter and be more difficult to control, according to articles that ran over the weekend in the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat and the Desert Sun.

“Statewide, it's horrific,” said Greg Giusti, UC ANR Cooperative Extension advisor.

Max Moritz, UC ANR Cooperative Extension specialist in fire ecology, described the combination of exceptionally low vegetation moisture and widespread plant deaths as "a double-barreled threat."

"On top of the dry conditions, it's been unusually hot in many, many parts of the state," Moritz said. "We do have a pretty exceptional fire season stacking up, or the potential for one."

The Los Angeles Times also covered the story earlier this month.

Scott Stephens, fire science professor at UC Berkeley, said fire suppression and harvesting have made forests more dense over the last 100 years. The increased density has made trees more vulnerable as they compete for limited amounts of water, with the weaker trees more susceptible to bark beetle infestations, he said.

“If the drought continues for another two years or longer, I expect this mortality to move throughout the state,” Stephens said. “Forests that once burned frequently with low-moderate intensity fire regimes are the most susceptible.”

Posted on Monday, May 18, 2015 at 9:28 AM

California's great Central Valley isn't homogeneous

It takes more water to grow crops in the southern San Joaquin Valley than the northern Sacramento Valley.
The great Central Valley of California, which stretches from Bakersfield to Redding, has striking differences in rainfall - with the south much drier than the north, wrote George Skelton in his Los Angeles Times column Capitol Journal. The fact is important, he says, because crops growing in the hot dry south take more water than those in the northern reaches.

"You and I are going to drink more water in Bakersfield than in Colusa," said Daniel Sumner, director of the Agricultural Issues Center, a UC Agriculture and Natural Resources statewide program. "Plants can store up more water in the north."

A senior researcher at the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, Josue Medellin-Azuara, calculated that it takes 4 acre-feet of irrigation water to grow an acre of almonds or pistachios in the Tulare Basin, where nut orchards have expanded the most in the last decade. In the rest of the San Joaquin Valley, it requires 3.4 acre-feet. But in the Sacramento Valley, these nuts need only 2.4 acre-feet. That's a difference of roughly one acre-foot, or nearly 326,000 gallons, enough to supply two households for a year.

Skelton said that in past columns he has suggested that the state consider regulating crops based on their water demands and location, but Gov. Jerry Brown flatly rejects that notion, preferring to allow farmers to decide what they want to grow.

The regulating will happen indirectly anyway within the next generation when new groundwater controls are implemented, said Jeffrey Mount, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California and former director of the UC Davis watershed center.

"That can't happen soon enough," Skelton wrote.

Posted on Friday, May 15, 2015 at 2:47 PM

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