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‘Unprecedented’ Turnaround For Nearly Two Dozen Fish Species Now Deemed Sustainable

September 3, 2014 Nick Visser 0

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – Nearly two dozen species of fish have been deemed sustainable seafood options once again after rampant overfishing left areas off the U.S. West Coast devastated, a marine watchdog group said on Tuesday. The Monte…

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GMO Labeling Foes Triple U.S. Spending In First Half Of The Year Over 2013

September 3, 2014 Nick Visser 0

By Carey Gillam Sept 3 (Reuters) – Opponents of mandatory labeling for foods made with genetically modified organisms spent more than $27 million in the first six months of this year on GMO-related lobbying, roughly three times their …

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Chefs, Breeders Pair Up To Create Tastier Vegetables

August 31, 2014 Nick Visser 0

VERONA, Wis. (AP) — There’s a good chance that many of the suddenly trendy vegetables that foodies latch on to in the next decade will benefit from research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

While plant breeders at many public universities focus on improving field corn, soybeans and other crops used in food manufacturing or livestock feed, those in Madison want to produce better-tasting vegetables.

The university has long had ties to the vegetable processing industry, as Wisconsin is among the top two or three states in producing canned or frozen sweet corn, green beans and peas. But vegetable breeders say the local food movement has created additional opportunities with a boom in organic farms, farmers markets and farm-to-table restaurants. The challenge is coming up with varieties consumers like, even if they can’t always articulate what makes one ear of corn better than another.

“Apples are almost the only fruit or vegetable that when you go to the grocery store, you see 30 different apples all by name,” said Bill Tracy, a sweet corn breeder who chairs the university’s Department of Agronomy. “We could do the same thing for corn, and I’m not saying we need 30, but we could have a corn that’s perfect for roasting, or soup use.”

Horticulture professor Julie Dawson is leading a project in which vegetable breeders work with local farmers and chefs to figure out what makes vegetables taste great and then produce easy-to-grow varieties with outstanding flavor. Participating chefs receive weekly deliveries of produce that they evaluate on a 5-point scale for qualities like sweetness and texture.

Dan Bonanno, the chef at A Pig in a Fur Coat, estimated he’s tasted 80 varieties of tomatoes — “I never knew there were so many different tomatoes” — since mid-July. For him, the big find has been a sweet corn bred to have a less sugary taste and firmer texture than most popular varieties.

“I ripped open the husk, took a bite, and it was like eating a pear,” Bonanno said. “It was so juicy … I’m like, wow, you can make a very nice sauce or gelato with it because it’s already naturally sweet and buttery and it had so much water.”

Very sweet corn, which most Americans have become accustomed to, becomes mushy when stirred into a dish like risotto, Tracy said, and the sugary taste may conflict with other ingredients.

“If we understand what chefs want, we can produce it,” he said. And, Tracy is confident chefs will be able to sell those new varieties to the public, given how they have popularized ramps, broccolini and other once-obscure fruits and vegetables.

On Wednesday, chefs, farmers and members of the public sampled and rated Tracy’s corn, along with multiple varieties of tomatoes, peppers and melon at a university farm in Verona. Dawson will use the information to see how closely the chefs’ opinions match that of regular eaters and develop an evaluation system that can be used early in the breeding process to select the best-tasting prospects from hundreds of cultivars.

“The flavor is much harder to fix at the end,” she said. “If you have the flavor, the other things are easier to fix.”

That’s where farmers come in.

Mark Voss has been testing five varieties of tomatoes at his urban farm, which supplies Madison restaurants. He looks for resistance to disease and good production, but taste and aesthetics are important, too.

The varieties include a few big tomatoes with bold flavor as well as some smaller, cocktail tomatoes that he’s “not so passionate about” because they “take a long time to pick.” He prefers bigger fruit with thin skins and a lot of flesh — characteristics that make tomatoes more likely to bruise during shipping but aren’t a problem when he’s selling locally.

“I think there’s an inverse relationship between bruise-ability and flavor,” Voss said.

That’s the kind of feedback Dawson is seeking. “Because really,” she said, “it has to work for farmers as well as chefs.”


If You Go …

Two more public tastings are scheduled from 3 to 5 p.m. on Sept. 22 and Oct. 24 at the UW West Madison Agricultural Research Station, 8502 Mineral Point Road, Verona, Wisconsin; 608-262-2257;


Follow M.L. Johnson on Twitter at

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If Your Fridge Dies, Should You Put Frogs In Your Milk?

August 18, 2014 Nick Visser 0

This story originally appeared on Mother Nature Network.

Milk can go bad four hours into a blackout, even if it’s kept in a closed refrigerator. But rather than letting a power outage make us feel powerless to store food, or otherwise live our lives, we can usually find inspiration among the timeless life hacks our ancestors passed down from simpler eras.

Some are obvious, like burning candles for light, burning wood for heat and wearing cotton to stay cool. Others, however, require a longer leap of faith. If you really need to preserve milk in a lengthy blackout, for example, you could try the old Russian and Finnish trick of dropping in a live frog.

People in Russia and Finland did this for centuries before modern refrigeration, and the technique reportedly survived into the 20th century in some rural areas. Yet iceboxes and electric refrigerators eventually made it obsolete, letting it fade from use and become seen as an old wives’ tale.

Thanks to modern science, we now know the frog-in-milk method works — and why. Of course, science has also taught us about zoonotic diseases, so preserving milk with frogs isn’t wise unless it’s somehow a matter of survival. But even if this trick is too extreme for most power outages, the things we learn by studying it might still end up providing a big boost for both humans and frogs.

Amphibian pharmacists
In 2010, researchers from the United Arab Emirates reported finding more than 100 antibiotic substances in frog skins from around the world. Called peptides, these compounds make up the majority of frogs’ skin secretions, providing a vital defense against bacteria in the wet habitats where frogs live. But some may also be able to protect people, and not just from rotten milk. One secretion the researchers tested, for instance, could fight the drug-resistant superbug Iraqibacter.

“Frog skin is an excellent potential source of such antibiotic agents,” lead author Michael Conlon said in a statement about the study. “They’ve been around 300 million years, so they’ve had plenty of time to learn how to defend themselves against disease-causing microbes in the environment. Their own environment includes polluted waterways where strong defenses against pathogens are a must.”

rana temporaria
Rana temporaria (Common Frog).

Different frogs make different peptides, though, and many also make toxins to repel predators. Combined with their ability to spread pathogens such as Salmonella and Mycobacteria to humans, that generally makes it too risky to drop a random frog in your milk. Nonetheless, a species with time-tested skills in milk preservation still hops all over a swath of Europe and northwestern Asia.

In 2012, researchers from Russia, Finland and Sweden focused on that species, Rana temporaria, due to its traditional use as a milk preservative. Earlier research had identified 21 antibiotics from this species, but Moscow State University chemist A.T. Lebedev and his co-authors found 76 more, some of which rivaled prescription drugs in fighting off Salmonella and Staphylococcus.

“These peptides could be potentially useful for the prevention of both pathogenic and antibiotic resistant bacterial strains,” the researchers wrote, “while their action may also explain the traditional experience of rural populations” who used the species to preserve milk.

Other frog species can probably also delay milk spoilage, but isolating their peptides to make human medicines is a different story. Scientists have tried for years to steal the secrets of frog secretions, but the compounds are often toxic to human cells and can be destroyed by chemicals in our blood. There is hope, however, as researchers continue to tweak the substances’ molecular makeup.

frog eggs
Most frog eggs hatch within 21 days, but the newborns must then spend several weeks as vulnerable tadpoles.

Swamp spawn
While such human attention often spells trouble for wildlife, scientists say the quest for amphibian antibiotics is sustainable. “We only actually use the frogs to get the chemical structure of the antibiotic, and then we make it in the lab,” Conlon says. “We take great care not to harm these delicate creatures, and scientists return them to the wild after swabbing their skin for the precious secretions.”

That doesn’t mean wild frogs are safe from people, though. Nearly a third of all known amphibian species are threatened with extinction, according to the IUCN Red List, ranking them among the most endangered animals on Earth. Frogs’ top problems include habitat loss, invasive species, infectious diseases, climate change, pesticides and pollution, as well as harvesting for food and the pet trade.

Yet despite this bleak context, broader public awareness of frogs’ disease-fighting skin secretions might actually encourage more conservation. “The research also is important because it underscores the importance of preserving biodiversity,” Conlon explains. “Some frog species — including those that may contain potentially valuable medicinal substances — are in jeopardy worldwide.”

Saving frogs would take on new urgency if they can really help us battle superbugs, but until then, it couldn’t hurt to make your own backyard more frog-friendly. Frogs eat mosquitoes and other insect pests, so they’ll probably return the favor — even if you never add one to a glass of warm milk.

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Huge Swaths Of Farmland Idle In California As Drought Threatens To Dry Up Wells

July 15, 2014 Nick Visser 0

FRESNO, Calif. (AP) — Hundreds of thousands of acres of rich California farmland has gone unplanted this year because of drought, and researchers said Tuesday that next year could be even worse, with some farmers possibly losing their last source of water as wells run dry.

The University of California, Davis, Center for Watershed Sciences released a study finding that farmers struggling with drought left nearly 430,000 acres unplanted this year, costing the California economy $2.2 billion and 17,000 jobs.

Researchers say chances are high for yet another dry year in 2015, which would force farmers to rely even more heavily on groundwater for irrigation.

“It’s tougher than we thought,” Richard Howitt, a University of California, Davis professor emeritus of agriculture and resource economics.

The study used computer modeling, NASA satellite data and estimates provided by state and federal water agencies to examine the impact on California under continued dry conditions. The research was presented at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

California, which leads the nation in production of more than a dozen crops with a $44.7 billion agriculture industry, is now in its third dry year. The drought has hit the Central Valley the hardest.

The drought has not driven up food prices because crops such as corn and grain can be grown in other areas of the country, and farmers in California can use their more expensive water on specialty crops such as almonds that already fetch a high price from consumers, Howitt said.

To nourish those crops, farmers have been pumping more groundwater as the mountain snowpack sends less water to state reservoirs and canals. Howitt urged farmers to take the lead in managing their scarce groundwater.

The groundwater is not being replenished, and Howitt said continuing pumping will cause up to 10 percent of wells in the southern Central Valley to dry up.

“My message to farmers is treat groundwater like you treat your retirement account,” Howitt said in an interview. “Know how much water’s in it and how fast it’s being used.”

California is the only western state that doesn’t measure groundwater use, and Howitt said demanding more of wells is a short-term solution with long-term costs.

“It’s very simple economics, but it’s such an emotional topic,” said Howitt. “Farmers have to sit down and ask themselves… do they want their children and grandchildren to be farming?”

The California Department of Food and Agriculture requested the research.

Karen Ross, the department’s secretary, said she recognizes the critical state of California’s groundwater and the need for local officials to manage it. If that does not happen, Ross said the state will intervene.

Millions of Californians depend on ground supplies for drinking water, she said, adding that farmers have a large role to play.

“It’s not if there will be future droughts,” Ross said in an interview. “There will be future droughts, and we need to take our lessons and prepare ourselves as much as possible.”

Jay Lund, director of the Center for Watershed Sciences, said he doesn’t anticipate a rainy El Niño next year to rescue California. As a result, the state needs to implement a variety of measures, such as conservation and managing groundwater and reservoirs, he said.

Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau, said losses attributed to the drought could have been avoided if state leaders had added more reservoirs rather than focusing on conservation for decades.

He also said the Farm Bureau has long supported groundwater management at a local level.

“Statewide regulation certainly won’t fix our groundwater needs, just as it has failed to provide solutions to surface water needs,” he said.

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Fear Of ‘Chlorine Chicken’ Complicates Trade Talks Between U.S. And Germany

July 14, 2014 Nick Visser 0

By Robin Emmott and Tom Körkemeier
BRUSSELS, July 14 (Reuters) – Chancellor Angela Merkel once said she wished “for nothing more than a free-trade agreement between the USA and the EU”.
To the dismay of many in Brussels and Washington, Germans are now taking a very different view. That is putting Europe’s biggest exporter in the unusual situation of becoming one of the most vocal opponents of the world’s biggest trade deal.
A transatlantic pact would create a market of 800 million people and allow Germany to sell more of its luxury cars, trains and chemicals in the United States, an attractive proposition for an economy that has faltered in recent months.
But in a twist that few officials expected, European concerns about the threat to food and the environment have found their strongest voice in Germany, amplified by the country’s influential Green party and anger at reports of U.S. spying.
The difficulty of selling the benefits of a deal, which could generate $100 billion a year in economic growth for both the EU and the United States, is a sign of the challenge for governments seeking to contain a growing hostility to the talks.
“We do not want this sort of agreement,” said Ska Keller, a 32-year-old German Green who gained prominence at home during European elections in May by putting the trade deal at the center of her campaign. “I don’t expect anything positive to come out of the negotiations,” she told Reuters.
Even before the latest reports of U.S. spying in Germany, the idea that the U.S. technique of disinfecting chicken with chlorine might be introduced in Europe has alarmed Germans and highlights their wider suspicions about an EU-U.S. accord.
The phrase “Chlorhuehnchen”, or chlorine chicken, has entered the parlance of everyone from taxi drivers to housewives since trade negotiations began a year ago.
An Internet search for the term generates thousands of results, bringing up cartoons of animals dumped in vats of chemicals and stabbed with needles.
A majority of Germans believe chlorine-washed chicken is a danger to human health despite its successful use in the United States to kill bacteria, according to survey by pollster Forsa.
In the European Union, antibiotics are used. Brussels says there will be no change in policy even with a U.S. deal.

Chancellor Merkel was instrumental in getting EU leaders to agree to negotiations with the United States towards the so-called Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP.
A deal would strengthen a transatlantic trade relationship already worth $3 billion a day, remove barriers to business and strengthen the West’s power over China to shape world trade.
Negotiators meeting in Brussels for a sixth round of talks this week hope to reach an agreement sometime next year. But they are struggling to raise awareness beyond vocal labor and consumer groups who largely oppose an accord.
The EU’s trade chief, Karel De Gucht, has warned that many Europeans think the TTIP “is an extraterrestrial.”
Public support is crucial because the U.S. Congress and the European Parliament must ratify the pact. Germany has the largest contingent of lawmakers in the parliament.
Unlike some of their EU counterparts, Germans are aware of the negotiations. Barely a week goes by without the topic being raised on TV talk shows, in magazines, newspapers and on the radio. Unfortunately for proponents of a deal, much of the commentary is negative.
“It is easier to win an argument with fear than with facts,” said a German businessman in the chemical industry. “Chlorine chicken … genetically modified foods – these are out of the agreement, but it is hard to get the message across.”

And it’s not just about food.
Plans to allow companies to bring claims against a country if it breaches the trade treaty have created a furore in Germany, even though Berlin uses the dispute mechanism in other trade accords and is credited with having invented it in the 1950s.
“Payday For Vultures” ran a headline about the issue in German weekly Der Spiegel on March 10.
German Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel has said he sees the mechanism as unnecessary, as both the EU and the United States have strong enough legal systems to protect investors.
The United States is unlikely to accept a trade agreement without the dispute mechanism. But to make matters worse, the new chairman of the European Parliament’s influential trade committee, Germany’s Bernd Lange, is strongly against it.
The U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Anthony Gardner, has expressed concern.
“I have never met Mr. Lange, but perhaps is important to explain to him the history of this mechanism,” Gardner told reporters this month. “It was indeed invented in Germany.”
For now, EU and U.S. officials say they are on the front foot in their campaign to sell the benefits of the deal.
The EU’s De Gucht is one of the most active, visiting German universities and giving speeches to Germany’s upper house of parliament. But there no sign yet that Germany is convinced.
“There’s a delusion that somehow Germany has the same attitude to free trade that Britain does, and that is just not true,” said Phillippe Legrain, a former advisor to the president of the European Commission.
“Being a big exporter doesn’t mean that you like opening your markets,” he said. (Additional reporting by Annika Breidthardt in Berlin and Francesco Guarascio in Brussels; Editing by Larry King and John Stonestreet)