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07

Nov
2019

In Blog
Featured
Future of Ag

By Admin

Times Argus: High-tech chestnuts: US to consider genetically altered tree

On 07, Nov 2019 | In Blog, Featured, Future of Ag | By Admin

SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) — Chestnuts harvested from high branches on a chilly fall morning look typical: they’re marble sized, russet colored and nestled in prickly burs. But many are like no other nuts in nature.

In a feat of genetic engineering, about half the chestnuts collected at this college experiment station feature a gene that provides resistance to blight that virtually wiped out the American chestnut tree generations ago.

Researchers at New York state’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry will soon seek federal clearance to distribute thousands of modified trees as part of a restoration effort — a closely-watched move that could expand the frontier for genetically engineered plants beyond farms and into forests. The precedent-setting case adds urgency to a question scientists have already been grappling with:

Should genetic engineering be used in the wild to help save or restore trees?

Opponents warn of starting “a massive and irreversible experiment” in a highly complex ecosystem. Proponents see a technology already ubiquitous in the supermarket that could help save forests besieged by invasive pests.

“We have this technology, it’s a very powerful technology, and we can use that now to save a species,” said Professor William Powell, a molecular plant biologist who directs the American Chestnut Research and Restoration Project at the college.

The researchers will ask the U.S. Department of Agriculture to assess an American chestnut tree with a gene from wheat that helps it tolerate cryphonectria parasitica, a fungus unwittingly imported to the United States over 100 years ago.

The blight decimated a towering tree species once dominant in forests from Maine to Georgia. Nuts from up to 4 billion trees fattened hogs, and its sturdy wood was used to build cabins. Yet by the time Nat King Cole crooned about “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” after World War II, trees were doomed by the blight. Surviving trees today are typically shrubs sprouting from old roots, yet to be infected.

Long-running efforts to breed American chestnut trees with the blight tolerance of Chinese chestnut trees are more complicated than once appreciated. That’s because the Chinese tree’s tolerance comes from a suite of genes, instead of one or two.

Powell and his research partner Charles Maynard began working on a complementary track decades ago at the request of the New York chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation. The added wheat gene enables trees to produce an enzyme that breaks down harmful acid released by the fungus.

Right now, the trees are tightly regulated. Modified trees grow behind the fence of the college’s experiment station near trees without the added gene. Researchers breed the two types of trees for genetic diversity. But flowering branch tips are covered with bags that keep pollen from blowing away. Chestnuts grow and are harvested in the same bags.

About half the chestnuts will inherit the gene, the researchers say.

The researchers will ask the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to evaluate the risks of the modified tree. They want the agency to lift the regulations it now imposes.

“What we have to make clear is that it’s not going to be any different than the trees produced through conventional means,” Powell said.

The USDA commonly authorizes genetically engineered crops. The vast majority of commercial corn and soybean acreage in the United States is used to grow crops engineered to be tolerant to herbicides or insects. There are even some genetically engineered plantation trees, such as papayas resistant to ringspot virus.

But engineered trees are not intentionally planted in the forests for conservation. That could change as genetic manipulation becomes more common and trees are increasingly threatened by climate change and invasive pests.

“If the chestnut is approved … I think it’s accurate to say that it does help pave the way for other biotech trees,” said Jason Delborne, an associate professor of science, policy and society at North Carolina State University. Delborne served on a National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine committee that this year released a report that said biotechnology has a potential to help protect forests but recommended more study and investment.

Some scientists are concerned about the long-term effects of a re-introducing a tree into the woods that can live for more than 200 years. How will the new trees interact with the species that replaced the long-gone chestnuts? What if the trees die off again in 50 years?

Forest eco-systems are incredibly complex and the current regulatory framework is not up to the task of evaluating the environmental and societal risks, said biotechnology and sustainable agriculture expert Doug Gurian-Sherman.

“I think we have to step back and ask whether our ability to manipulate things is getting ahead of our ability to understand their impacts,” said Gurian-Sherman, a former senior scientist for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Rachel Smolker, a co-director of the advocacy group Biofuelwatch and co-author of a report critical of the tree’s release, is concerned that the chestnut tree — with its cozy public image — could be a “Trojan horse” for other trees engineered for commercial use instead of conservation.

Many scientists see biotech as a promising tool left on the shelf, partly due to opposition they say is grounded more in emotion than science.

Meanwhile, trees are dying from scourges such as the emerald ash borer and the spotted lantern fly, and some scientists say biotech could help where other efforts have failed.

“Compared to what’s happening in the world with pests and climate change, I think the risks of making a mistake due to tweaking a gene wrong are so small compared to the risks of doing nothing,” said Steven Strauss, a forest biotechnologist at Oregon State University in Corvallis. Strauss is prominent in efforts to overturn biotech tree bans on certified commercial forest land.

If the application clears the USDA, the tree still needs to be considered by the Food and Drug Administration and it may need to be reviewed by the Environmental Protection Agency. Powell believes the review could take two to four years.

A green light from the government would clear the way for distribution of the genetically engineered seedlings, pollen, or scions for grafting to volunteers around the chestnut’s traditional range.

In rural upstate New York, Allen Nichols is waiting.

Nichols, president of the New York chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation, has about 100 chestnut trees on a rise by his house. Thanks to his diligent care, some lived long enough to produce chestnuts this year. Other trees are dying while others sprout anew — a steady cycle of life, blight and renewal in a rural orchard.

The 69-year-old -retiree looks forward to the day he can graft the genetically engineered tree onto his stock, letting the pollen drift in the wind and bringing back a healthy tree his parents talked fondly about.

“If we can do it, we should do it,” Nichols said as he surveyed his trees. “We owe it to the forest to try to correct some of the damage that we’ve done.”

https://www.timesargus.com/news/national/high-tech-chestnuts-us-to-consider-genetically-altered-tree/article_1879cee2-9a14-5536-8026-1bead47bee78.html#utm_source=newsletter&utm_campaign=the-daily&utm_medium=email&utm_content=headline

01

Aug
2019

In Blog
Featured
Pollinator Health

By Admin

BDN: Local pesticide bans are a mistake

On 01, Aug 2019 | In Blog, Featured, Pollinator Health | By Admin

By Dean Cray, opinion guest column. • June 26, 2019 11:03 am

For centuries, physicians have been controlling human diseases using all the tools available to them: proper nutrition of patients, sanitation, early disease diagnosis and intervention through medicines, including those derived from natural sources, chemicals and with more recent innovations, such as gene editing.

Likewise, farmers also control plant and animal diseases using the same approaches — proper plant and animal nutrition, sanitation, early disease diagnosis and intervention through natural, chemical and genetic sources.

The terms vary, but the products used to control diseases are analogous. If the affected organism is a human, the common term is medicine. If it’s an animal, the term is veterinary medicine. If it’s a plant, the term is pesticide. The word pesticide doesn’t sound as soothing or healing, but pesticides are indeed plant medicines. And there are several kinds of pesticides.

Many of the stressors plaguing these different fields of work are the same — bacteria, insects, fungi, viruses, etc. And they all have an equivalent objective: effective human, plant and animal health management.

To achieve that, each relies on a known set of approaches: identify the problem, quarantine the impacted areas so that the disease doesn’t spread, and implement evidenced-based strategies to ensure a healthy result. In farming and land management, that includes techniques such as crop rotation, use of more tolerant varieties of plants, targeted soil nutrition and manipulation of harvest dates to avoid blight or insect infestations.

It’s only when other approaches don’t provide adequate control that other scientifically-proven interventions are brought into the picture such as chemical and gene editing treatments.

Indeed, these are the principles that form the basis of integrated pest management, where several approaches are incorporated into a holistic, comprehensive and sustainable treatment plan that is environmentally sound and cost effective.

Simply stated, integrated pest management is the most effective tool we have available to protect our health and that of crops and the environment. For the eight years that I served as a state representative on the Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, integrated pest management was by statute and I believe still is the policy of the state of Maine. But several towns and cities are attempting to take away a key element of integrated pest management by passing or voting on municipal ordinances that preclude the use of synthetic pesticide applications not just on town owned property, but also on privately owned residential lawns and lawns and gardens.

This is a misguided solution in search of a problem and an infringement on our private property rights. When used following the directions, these applications aren’t harmful. To quote the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, integrated pest management “is a comprehensive, decision-making process for solving pest problems in both agricultural and non-agricultural settings,” and by using it, “informed decisions can be implemented to achieve optimum results in ways that minimize economic, health, and environmental risks.” And the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest Pesticide Data Program annual survey corroborates that integrated pest management is working.

We can all relate to wanting our families to live in a non-toxic environment, but banning the use of synthetic pesticides will simply mean residents will lose the ability to choose how to protect their properties.

Often a treatment plan involves several strategies. The same goes for a healthy garden and backyard. Just as physicians cannot always effectively protect us from human maladies without chemical interventions, neither can farmers, foresters, landscapers nor passionate gardeners when disease or insect outbreaks strike. Think browntail moths, West Nile virus, avian flu, poison ivy or encephalitis.

These problems impact not just vegetation, but humans as well. That’s why integrated pest management is the most effective tool we have to protect our health, crops and environment. Towns and cities should not be precluding its use.

Dean Cray is a Somerset County commissioner and former state representative who served on the Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.

https://bangordailynews.com/2019/06/26/opinion/contributors/local-pesticide-bans-are-a-mistake/

Farm to Food Gene Editing: The Future of Agriculture

On 25, Apr 2019 | In Blog, Featured, Future of Ag, GMO’s and The Environment | By Admin

Curious about what gene editing is? Watch this video to learn how CRISPR is helping farmers grow better crops to feed our growing population.

27

Nov
2018

In Blog
Featured
Future of Ag

By Admin

Science makes bread taste better

On 27, Nov 2018 | In Blog, Featured, Future of Ag | By Admin

Renegade bakers and geneticists develop whole-wheat loaves you’ll want to eat

26

Nov
2018

In Blog
Featured
Future of Ag
GMO Labeling

By Admin

Boston Globe: 3 policies for the future

On 26, Nov 2018 | In Blog, Featured, Future of Ag, GMO Labeling | By Admin

Food is going high-tech — policy needs to catch up with it

20

Aug
2018

In Blog
water quality

By Admin

St. Albans Messenger: Carmi farmers make progress on runoff

On 20, Aug 2018 | In Blog, water quality | By Admin

Posted by  | Aug 17, 2018

St. Albans Messenger

FRANKLIN – The University of Vermont (UVM) Extension’s 2018 Summer Farm Meeting brought farmers and state officials to Franklin last Thursday with presentations highlighting some of the ways area farmers are stymieing the flow of phosphorous into their respective watersheds.

Organized by UVM Extension’s Northwest Crop and Soils Program in collaboration with watershed groups like the Friends of Northern Lake Champlain (FNLC), the Summer Farm Meeting is an annual gathering of farmers, researchers, environmental groups and state officials.

The meeting serves as a forum for some of those groups to present projects and research related to conservation-minded agricultural practices, as well as a way to connect farmers with resources that may help pursue some of those practices.

This year, farmers and officials collected at Bridgeman View Farm, where owners Tim and Martha Magnant had applied many of the best agricultural practices encouraged, and in some cases required, by the state.

FNLC led the morning’s presentations with a report on a two-tier ditch system that was discussed in a Messenger article last Friday. By carving flat benches into the banks of a ditch that cut through the Bouchard Family Dairy, the system essentially created an artificial flood plane between the ditch and abutting fields, creating a safety valve that, FNLC hypothesized, should reduce the threats of erosion and runoff during periods of high flooding.

Discussion about the ditch would bookend Thursday’s meeting, with an opening presentation from FNLC and Agrilab’s Brian Jerose in the morning and a closing visit to the pilot ditch at the Bouchard farm in the afternoon.

Jerose and FNLC’s chair Kent Henderson encouraged farmers to consider similar installations on their own farms, with Jerose asking that farmers “be thinking about your own fields” when presenting information about the ditch during last week’s meeting.

The stream cutting across the Bouchard farm eventually drains into the Rock River, where, according to Department of Environmental Conservation biologist Angela Shambaugh, phosphorous levels had remained steady since at least 2011.

The Rock River Watershed was recently declared by the Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) as an “impaired watershed,” meaning the watershed was identified for “accelerated and targeted agricultural practices” to address its water quality.

The river weaves between Franklin, Highgate and Quebec before ultimately draining into Lake Champlain, meaning that many of the farmers present during Thursday’s meeting have farms within the river’s watershed.

Shambaugh, who followed FNLC’s presentation on the ditch with a more stats-minded depiction of that watershed, reported to those farmers that phosphorous levels held steady in the watershed, something that didn’t really reflect “all the hard work you’ve done.”

That the phosphorous levels were steady rather than spiking, however, was reportedly good news for the watershed, as it meant that some of the watershed’s excessive runoff was being managed.

“There’s been a lot of work done in the watershed,” Shambaugh told the farmers at Thursday’s meeting. “We’ve been seeing that.”

Meanwhile, she reported that they were tracking other sources of phosphorous more closely now, such as roadways and forestry, meaning their phosphorous tracking “was no longer solely dedicated to agriculture.”

Carmi farmers make progress on runoff

VT Digger: Marie Audet: Farmers onboard with climate solutions

On 17, Aug 2018 | In Blog, Featured, GMO’s and The Environment, water quality | By Admin

  

VT Digger

As a lifelong dairy farmer, I bring a unique perspective to my work with the Governor’s Climate Action Commission. My family and I work with the land each and every day, and we value Vermont for its natural beauty and resources. We could not do what we do without clean water and healthy soil. Other members of the Climate Action Commission bring vital perspectives, too. This diverse group of 21 Vermonters is comprised of leaders in commerce, transportation, construction, energy and forestry.

On Aug. 20, we will present our year’s work to Gov. Phil Scott, highlighting our findings and outlining recommendations to meet Vermont’s climate goals of using 90 percent renewable energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 75 percent by 2050.

Overall, our recommendations constitute a multi-pronged approach for reducing carbon and greenhouse gas emissions from homes, businesses, transportation, communities and industries, such as forestry and agriculture.

Notably, some of our recommendations also focus on “negative” emissions – removing existing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Scientists estimate that agriculture can reduce carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere by storing it in plant biomass and soils, contributing to a climate change solution.

Here in Vermont, farmers are at the forefront of understanding and meeting these challenges. Many of us are adopting practices and investing in technology to improve both water quality and soil health. Throughout the agricultural sector – whether dairy, beef, berries or vegetables – farmers are finding the critical balance of producing high-quality products and being good stewards of the environment.

How are we doing this? Farmers have increased planting of cover crops by over 60 percent since 2015 and have reduced tilling of the land. By keeping fields covered with plants all year long, farmers not only reduce soil erosion and prevent nutrient runoff, but also increase the amount of carbon the soil can hold. Combined with manure injection, such practices enhance the role that agriculture can play in helping Vermont to achieve its climate goals. Modeling estimates from the EPA Lake Champlain Phosphorus Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) project a 40-50 percent increase in agricultural practices that protect water quality and sequester carbon over the next 10 years.

Vermonters understand that global climate change is a fundamental threat to the sustainability of natural systems and species diversity, and to the peace and safety of humanity. Given the magnitude of this challenge, we must all be a part of the solution. As a member of Vermont’s agricultural community, I believe all farmers are up to the challenge of continuing our efforts towards a clean, green Vermont.

Marie Audet: Farmers onboard with climate solutions

16

Aug
2018

In Featured
Pollinator Health

By Admin

Rethinking the pesticides–neonicotinoids–bee health crisis narrative: Why the media get it wrong

On 16, Aug 2018 | In Featured, Pollinator Health | By Admin

 | 

Are bees endangered because of the use of insecticides, and in particular the class of chemicals known as neonicotinoids, which are used on many crops?

It’s a debate that’s played out in research laboratories and in the media over the past decade since the phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder roiled the bee industry in California and elsewhere in North American and Europe beginning in 2006-7.

Needless to point out to those who have followed the neonics controversy, this is a highly politicized issue. Most people with a stake in this debate, including entomologists, farmers and beekeepers, are genuinely struggling to understand the complex factors behind why bees face a host of problems, from attacks from the killer varroa destructor mite to the overuse of insecticides to kill them and the pervasive use of agricultural pesticides. But in the media and in cyberspace, hyperbole and ideology have come to eclipse rational discussion and the sometimes plodding pace of science. The highly-charged debate now pits activists, including some advocacy-minded scientists, against the agro-chemical industry and many scientists who view neonics as a relatively minor driving force in the health issues confronting honeybees and bumble bees.

One resource that has often been looked upon by the media as an objective source is the Bee Informed Partnership (BIP)—a US Department of Agriculture project developed in cooperation with University of Maryland entomologist  Dennis vanEngelsdorp. Each year in the spring it releases an annual U.S. ‘bee hive loss estimate’. Each year, it seems, the report frames the debate over whether the ‘bee crisis’ is accelerating or abating.

Media v Science?

The popular narrative among journalists and on the Internet in recent years has been that honey bees and wild bees face impending doom—it’s been dubbed a beepocalypse or beemageddon, with most of the ire focused on a class of pesticides, applied mostly as a seed coating, known as neonicotinoids. The insecticide was introduced in the 1990s in large part to replace chemicals that were demonstrably hurting bees and posed human health dangers as well.

Bee health is a genuine concern. After all they are trucked around from farm to farm as insect livestock. And entomologists and the USDA say that varroa mites have been infesting bee hives at an accelerating rate over the past few decades, and present a serious and on-going threat. Pesticides rank low as a likely cause of bee health problems, contend most entomologists, but that’s not the way the issue has played out in the media and online.

Anti-pesticide campaigners  have long rejected the conclusions of government agencies and scientists, deciding that bee health issues could not be driven by something as prosaic as a well-known parasite, and have focused instead on neonics.

The question of the relative role of neonics in bee health is fascinating because of the split in the science—some lab studies point to potential serious problems linked to one or more of the neonics but field researchmeta-studies and the hard numbers worldwide—bee hives are at record numbers globally—tell a much different story.

The release of BIP’s death count has become a spring ritual followed closely by those invested in beepocalypse narrative; in years when the BIP loss numbers have been high, the media has generally taken them as confirmation that the disaster has finally arrived. Activists fill the social media echo chamber with scare blogs, which they often use as an anchor issue for fund raising or campaigns.

But the most recent year’s survey results didn’t exactly support that narrative. Over-winter losses, which is when bees face severe threats from cold weather, were 21.1%, the lowest in the 10 years the survey has been in existence. Taken together with previous years’ findings, the 2016-17 number continues a downward trend of over-winter losses that, on the current path, will reach the 15% goal set in the 2015 National Pollinator Strategy by 2024.Seven years ago, however, BIP began collecting survey responses on in-season (summertime) honeybee losses as well. However, combining in-season and over-winter losses can result in an alarming and spectacularly misleading loss number. For example, in 2016, it was 44%, making it appear that nearly half of all US honeybees had died, which is exactly how most of the media reported it.

In the latest reporting year, 2016-17, the combined result was lower: 33.2%. This was the second lowest in the seven years of reporting combined statistics, but it was still an occasion for apocalyptic headlines: “A third of the nation’s honeybee colonies died last year,” headlined USA TodayTime, which ran a scare cover story years ago pondering “A World Without Bees”—an article criticized by numerous scientists—stayed true to form, headlining: “Honeybee Deaths Are Down, But the Beepocalypse Continues.”

No beepocalypse

That’s shallow journalism. While the Bee Informed Partnership’s combined loss numbers generate media attention, they provide a very thin sliver of the picture bee health, and the numbers themselves are easily manipulated to fit a narrative. There are three major reasons why:

The first reason is that the macro statistics of the total bee population tell a different story than the BIP numbers. The previous year, when it was reported that “a third of the nation’s honeybee colonies died”, the US honeybee population actually reached a 22-year high. The untold story in the popular media, although reported on science-based websites like the GLP and on university and bee expert sites, is that despite some ups and downs, the number of honeybee colonies has remained remarkably stable since the mid-1990s, when neonicotinoids were introduced.

They’ve hovered around 2.5 million hives in the US, even through the challenges of Colony Collapse Disorder from 2006-2010, with the last five years seeing significant growth in bee numbers. There was indeed a sharp dive in US bee numbers in the eighties and early nineties, when the Varroa mite invaded the US, but those declines leveled off and eventually reversed in the years neonics have been on the market. Overall numbers are steady or increasing in Canada, Europe and on every continent except Antarctica (where there are no honeybees), over the last 20 years—the entire period that neonicotinoid pesticides have been on the market.

USDA annual report on honey-producing colonies in the U.S. (USDA publishes its final statistics one year after preliminary estimates); Canada; Global/FAO 1/FAO 2

Based on government statistics, bee population worldwide trend has been positive for over half a century. Between 1995 and 2014, we have seen the following increases in honeybee populations:

  • North America: +8%
  • Europe: +10%
  • Africa: +19%
  • South America: +43%
  • Asia: +43%
  • Ocenia: +30%

Despite these rising trends, inflammatory media stories and the NGO social media echo chamber have won the day in Europe, where politicians have put aside the findings of entomologists and appear to be preparing to not only extend their “temporary” 2013 ban, but expand it to almost all uses, even on crops bees never visit. The same activist groups – and of course the media – continue to exert enormous political pressure in the US to follow suit. So far, EPA appears to be resisting, as their recent draft assessments of the three largest selling neonics suggests, but many close observers of the agency believe the process has been touch and go for some time.

How and why bees naturally die off and beekeepers replenish hives

A new Bee Informed Partnership report will be out in a few months. It will be interesting to see if reporters make the distinction between the normal seasonal bee colony losses experienced by beekeepers, which have been a factor in beekeeping since time immemorial, and overall population trends.

Bees reproduce very rapidly—the normal life-span of a worker bee in the summer months is only 6 weeks—and so beekeepers can rebuild their hives very rapidly as well.  Not long ago, many beekeepers in northern latitudes, particularly in Canada, where intense cold makes keeping bees over winter a challenge, would empty their hives of bees, harvest all the honey in them, and start over with new queens and purchased ‘packaged bees’ the next spring. They had a self-inflicted 100% loss rate. But they had healthy, thriving bee populations throughout the summer and a stable, thriving beekeeping industry as well.

Colony losses, whether overwinter or in the spring, represent an economic cost to beekeepers, and they can provide clues to overall hive health. But the numbers we see in recent years do not portend calamity. In fact, they can, and do, rise and fall with little effect on the total number of beehives in the country, or in the world—which is almost entirely determined by how many bee colonies beekeepers decide to “grow.” This, in turn, is largely determined by economic considerations—the price of honey or the going rate for pollination services.

Related article:  Bias at The New York Times? Stephanie Strom botches report on bees and neonicotinoid pesticides

Predictably, however, every time the Bee Informed Partnership releases its headline-grabbing annual loss number, the media prophesizes doom. A rough analogy might be if a stock market survey only reported those stocks that had experienced losses at some point during the year, without bothering to mention that overall the market was steady or rising.

One might argue that it’s not BIP’s responsibility to ensure that the media doesn’t misinterpret or misuse its statistics. Fair enough. There’s also no question that Dennis vanEngelsdorp, who initiated the BIP, is someone dedicated to the welfare of honeybees and beekeepers. It was vanEngelsdorp and a co-author who conducted the first research into the mysterious disappearance of worker bees from the hive, a phenomenon they dubbed Colony collapse Disorder”, and he has been one of the nation’s foremost investigators of the many diseases afflicting bees today.

All of this, however, simply casts the problems with the bee loss survey into starker relief. Any scientist—or indeed any competent science reporter—taking a close look at the BIP’s methodology would have to acknowledge that it suffers from numerous limitations, and some of them are so severe that they make its results practically meaningless as a guide to the true state of bee populations.

Not all bee health data are created equal

This brings us to the second big problem: the BIP’s numbers are drawn from a voluntary survey, to which most beekeepers don’t bother to respond. In fact, BIP data typically represent only a small fraction of all beekeepers in the US—about 13% for 2016-17. That would be a large enough sample for a scientifically randomized poll, as we’ve grown accustomed to in politics. But BIP simply mails its questionnaire to beekeepers and tallies up the results of those who send it back. As the respondents are self-selected, one would intuitively assume that the results would be biased toward beekeepers with serious loss problems.

And indeed, this appears to be the case. The vast majority of respondents are small or hobby beekeepers, with only a vanishingly small fraction of commercial beekeepers—1.4%—participating. There are in fact many more hobby beekeepers in the US than commercial bee keepers, but they represent a small fraction of the overall bee colonies.

Why does this matter? It’s well known that many small and hobby beekeepers have the worst bee problems, most likely because of inexperience. They often neglect to treat for varroa and other diseases and can have much higher losses. BIP’s survey, however, has no mechanism for adjusting for these biases and it performs no analysis of the data to make its conclusions more representative.

One sees this clearly as well in the enormous regional disparities. Twice as many honeybee colonies are located west of the Mississippi as east of it, but twice as many beekeepers are located east of the Mississippi. In other words, larger beekeeping operations in the west; smaller and backyard/hobbyist beekeepers in the east.  But the over-concentration of BIP respondents in one region —or even in certain states within regions—can easily skew the results. In the 2015-16 BIP survey, for instance, Ohio and Pennsylvania were heavily over-represented (with some colonies from those states being double-counted for Florida as well).

And the spotty, inconsistent nature of the survey can create huge distortions. In one case, a single queen breeder in California reportedly engaged the BIP investigators to survey his operations in California and Montana – yielding more than 10 times the number of BIP data points from his operations alone than for the entire remainder of California. In another instance in Montana, a single large operator who experienced devastating losses (due to error, carelessness or bad luck) caused the state to be depicted by BIP as a ‘heavy loss’ state even though none of the other beekeepers in the state experienced abnormal losses.

Given the BIP survey’s limitations, and particularly its skewed representation of the size and geography of the beekeeping operations responding, perhaps its findings would be more useful if they were portrayed not as national honey bee colony loss statistics, which they are not, but rather as the losses experienced by those sectors of the beekeeping industry that actually respond to the BIP survey.

Do other US bee hive data present a similar, problematic picture?

A third reason to be skeptical of the value of the BIP survey is that we have a more comprehensive survey conducted by USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. Not surprisingly, it paints a very different picture of honeybees, and yields a much more dynamic picture of beekeepers’ operations over the course of the year. Unlike BIP, the NASS constructed a stratified sample of honey operations with which the Department has regular contact, backed up by telephone calls and, when necessary, enumeration for non-respondents. USDA charted colony losses, colonies added or renovated and total honeybee colonies in the U.S. by quarter, January 1, 2015 through March 1, 2016.

Over the course of those 15 months, the total number of U.S. honeybee colonies fluctuated dramatically from a high of 3.1 million to a low, in the survey’s last quarter, of 2.6 million, with most quarters registering more than 2.8 million colonies. Along with losses, the NASS also charts additions. For examples, a total of 662 thousand colonies were added and 693 thousand colonies were “renovated” in just the one quarter of April-June 2015.

In other words, normal beekeeping operations, in which operators decide to add or shed colonies in response to market conditions (demand and price, domestically and abroad, for different types and grades of honey, and/or anticipated commercial pollination needs and opportunities) can easily cause the total number of U.S. honey bee colonies to fluctuate by almost 20% within a 15-month period—even while populations compared year to year are steady or growing.

This underscores the mistake of imagining U.S. honeybee colonies as a sort of natural population subject only to declines caused by environmental factors (e.g., pesticides). Rather, state-by-state and nationally, farmers and beekeepers are constantly adding to, fine-tuning and sometimes deliberately reducing their numbers of honey bee colonies in response to economic incentives. BIP’s self-selected and less-inclusive survey data needs to be compared with more comprehensive USDA data to be seen in proper perspective.

Varroa challenge

One fortunate upshot of all of these survey efforts to assess honeybee losses of recent years is that they have thrown into relief the real, critical problem facing honeybees. It’s varroa mites—not pesticides, and particularly not neonicotinoiod pesticides that consistently rank among the least detected residues in honeybee colonies. Recent years’ Bee Informed Partnership surveys have correctly highlighted parasitic varroa and the dozen or more viruses and diseases that they vector into honey beehives as the #1 threat to honey bees.

USDA’s NASS survey points to the same conclusion. So, does the practical experience of beekeepers in Australia, where there are no varroa mites, and Alberta, Canada, where authorities have made varroa control the overwhelming priority for beekeepers. This conclusion has been further reinforced by the 2016 multi-year study of disease incidence in honeybees co-authored by none other than vanEngelsdorp.  It found varroa prevalence (as well as the bee gut fungus/parasite Nosema ceranae) among U.S. bee colonies far more extensive than previously thought and identified these, along with Deformed Wing Virus, as the principal scourges of honeybees today.

So, why aren’t we concentrating on addressing the acknowledged parasite threat? One reason is that the varroa mite problem is very hard to address—trying to ‘kill a bug on a bug’, keeping one of them safe, is incredibly challenging. That’s especially true since varroa have shown a remarkably rapid ability to develop resistance to different treatment methods as they’re developed. For another, pesticides, and the large corporations that manufacture them, make a convenient and tempting target.

One other thing is very clear from all these surveys—whether from the BIP, NASS, or various European efforts: bees are not facing an apocalypse or serious endangerment as the result of pesticide poisoning.

Jon Entine is the Executive Director of the Genetic Literacy Project. His biography is here. Twitter: @jonentine.

Rethinking the pesticides–neonicotinoids–bee health crisis narrative: Why the media get it wrong

04

May
2018

In Blog
Featured
Future of Ag

By Admin

60 Minutes: CRISPR: The gene-editing tool revolutionizing biomedical research

On 04, May 2018 | In Blog, Featured, Future of Ag | By Admin

A new tool could be the key to treating genetic diseases and may be the most consequential discovery in biomedicine this century.

It’s challenging to tell a story about something that’s invisible to the naked eye and tricky to explain. But it’s one we undertook, because rarely does a discovery come along that could revolutionize medicine.  It’s called CRISPR and it stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. CRISPR sounds more like a refrigerator compartment than a gene-editing tool, but it’s giving scientists power they could only imagine before – to easily edit DNA – allowing them to reprogram the genetic code of living things. That’s opening up the possibility of curing genetic diseases. Some researchers are even using it to try to prevent disease entirely by correcting defective genes in human embryos. We wanted to see for ourselves, so we went to meet a scientist at the center of the CRISPR craze.

“There are about 6,000 or more diseases that are caused by faulty genes. The hope is that we will be able to address most if not all of them.”

Bill Whitaker: This is CRISPR?

Feng Zhang: This has CRISPR in it.

Bill Whitaker: So– this is what’s revolutionizing science and biomedicine?

Feng Zhang: This is what many people are using– in research — and trying to develop treatments.

Bill Whitaker: That’s wild.

Feng Zhang: Yeah.

That little vial is igniting a big revolution that is likely to change the way doctors treat disease in the future. One of the brains behind it, is baby-faced Feng Zhang.

crisprpreview.jpg

Feng Zhang speaks with correspondent Bill Whitaker

 CBS NEWS

At 36, he’s already a tenured professor at MIT and a scientific celebrity because he figured out a way to override human genetic instructions using CRISPR.

Bill Whitaker: So, the CRISPR is not the liquid, the CRISPR is in the–

Feng Zhang: It’s dissolved in the liquid. There are probably billions of molecules of CRISPR…

Bill Whitaker: Billions?

BOTH: In here.

Feng Zhang: That’s right. And the way we use it is we take the liquid and apply it to cells.

For the last seven years, Zhang has been working on CRISPR at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It’s a research mecca brimming with some of the brightest scientific minds from Harvard and MIT on a mission to fight disease. CRISPR is making medical research faster, cheaper, easier. Zhang’s colleagues predict it will help them tackle diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s.  

Bill Whitaker: How many diseases are we talking about that this could be used to treat?

Feng Zhang: There are about 6,000 or more diseases that are caused by faulty genes. The hope is that we will be able to address most if not all of them.

Bill Whitaker: Most if not all of them?

Feng Zhang: That’s the long-term hope.

Bill Whitaker: So we’re talking diseases like Huntington’s—

Feng Zhang: Uh-huh.

Bill Whitaker: Sickle Cell.

Feng Zhang: Yup. ALS—hemophilia.

Eric Lander: I think CRISPR, it’s fair to say, is perhaps the most surprising discovery and maybe most consequential discovery in this century so far.

lander-walk-talk-2.jpg

Eric Lander, director of the Broad Institute, speaks with correspondent Bill Whitaker

 CBS NEWS

To understand exactly what CRISPR is, we went to Eric Lander for a quick science lesson. He’s director of the Broad and Zhang’s mentor. He’s best known for being a leader of the Human Genome Project that mapped out all of our DNA, which is like a recurring sequence of letters.

Eric Lander: During the Human Genome Project, we could read out all the human DNA, and then, in the years afterwards, find the misspellings that caused human diseases. But we had no way to think about how to fix ’em. And then, pretty much on schedule, this mind-blowing discovery that bacteria have a way to fix those misspellings, appears.

Bill Whitaker: This comes from bacteria?

Eric Lander: This comes from bacteria.  Bacteria, you know, they have a problem. And they came up with a real clever solution. When they get infected by viruses, they keep a little bit of DNA, and they use it as a reminder. And they have this system called CRISPR that grabs those reminders and searches around and says, “If I ever see that again, I am gonna cut it.”

Zhang used that same bacterial system to edit DNA in human cells. Our DNA is made up of chemical bases abbreviated by the letters A, T, C, and G. As you can see in this animation from Zhang’s lab at MIT, a mutation that causes disease reads like a typo in those genetic instructions. If scientists can identify the typo, they can program CRISPR to find it and try to correct it.

Bill Whitaker: You program it? You say–

Feng Zhang: That’s right.

Bill Whitaker:  “I’m looking for this string of letters.”

Feng Zhang: Uh-huh.

Bill Whitaker: And the CRISPR will go in, and out of all of the billions and billions and billions of– of letters on your DNA, find the exact ones that you have programmed?

Feng Zhang: That’s right. CRISPR will allow you to– do many different things. You can cut it– to edit it.

Bill Whitaker: So you can snip out the bad part and you can add something that you want as well?

Feng Zhang: That’s right. You can give the cell a new piece of DNA that carries the sequence you want to incorporate into the genome.

Bill Whitaker: You say this so matter of factly. This is amazing.

Feng Zhang: It is pretty cool.

Bill Whitaker: How many other labs around the world are working with CRISPR like this?

Feng Zhang: Many. One of the things that we have been doing is to make the tool available to researchers. To date I think we have gotten it out over– 45,000 times, to 2,200 labs, in 61 countries.

Bill Whitaker: What are they doing with it?

Feng Zhang: They are using it to do everything.  A lot of applications of CRISPR. It’s really a Swiss army knife.

Cue the worldwide CRISPR frenzy. At the University of California, scientists used a form of CRISPR to edit mosquitos so they can’t transmit malaria. Their colleagues are modifying rice to better withstand floods and drought. In China, scientists tweaked a gene in beagles to make them more muscular.

crispr-full.jpg

A CRISPR vial from Zhang’s lab made its way to Dr. Kang Zhang. He is an ophthalmologist and a professor at the University of California, San Diego and wanted to see what all the hype was about.

Bill Whitaker: What did you think when you first heard of CRISPR?

Kang Zhang: I was a little bit skeptical.

Bill Whitaker: Why skeptical?

Kang Zhang: It worked so well. Too well to be believable.

He decided to experiment on mice with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic form of blindness. He conducted a vision test using a mouse with the disease.

Bill Whitaker: This is the blind mouse?

Kang Zhang: This is the blind mouse. And– obviously, you can see that he is ignoring the rotating stripes.

His researchers injected CRISPR into the eye of another blind mouse. The CRISPR was programmed to find the main gene associated with the disease and turn it off. It takes three months to see the results.

Kang Zhang: Now, let’s see how he’s responding to the light.

Bill Whitaker: He’s following it around.

Kang Zhang: Yes.

Bill Whitaker: Look at that. You’re sure that he is seeing these lights?

Kang Zhang: This is actually a very commonly used test for vision.

Bill Whitaker: How much of their sight do they recover?

Kang Zhang: About 30, sometimes even 50% of the sight for– for mice.

The next phase of Dr. Zhang’s research is to see how CRISPR works on one of our closer relatives. He sent us this video from his lab in China where he’s studying monkeys with retinitis pigmentosa. The blind monkey ignores the food. He says this monkey was treated with CRISPR and it’s easy to see the difference. Dr. Zhang hopes to try this on humans soon.

If CRISPR is used to treat disease or make a drug it could mean big bucks. The Broad and Feng Zhang hold a primary patent for CRISPR’s use in human cells in the United States. But no technology is developed in a vacuum. Biochemist Jennifer Doudna at the University of California, Berkeley and her team made landmark CRISPR discoveries.

This week, they are challenging Zhang and the Broad in court for the rights arguing in part that Zhang’s advance was derived from her team’s breakthrough. It’s a high stakes battle. CRISPR is projected to be a multi-billion dollar market in a decade.

Bill Whitaker: Does that mean big business for you?

Feng Zhang: I think we’re– we’re still– quite a ways away from developing– CRISPR into a real therapeutic.

Bill Whitaker: I think you’re being a little bit modest. I mean this is sparking an incredible boom in biomedicine. And you’re in the center of it.

Feng Zhang: I think there is still really a lot of work that still needs to be done,  developing the systems so that they are efficient enough, making sure that they are safe enough, but these are things that– that we’re working hard to– to make possible.

“While it’s not gonna affect somebody who might be dying of a disease today, this is gonna have a real effect over the course of the next decade and couple of decades.”

But, what if it were possible to stop disease from even occurring? That sounds like science fiction, but a team of researchers in Portland, Oregon say with CRISPR, it’s now a reality.

Bill Whitaker: You correct it at the very, very earliest stages of life.

Shoukhrat Mitalipov: Right.

Bill Whitaker: In the womb.

Shoukhrat Mitalipov: Even before the womb.

Manipulating embryos has been the focus of Shoukhrat Mitalipov’s career. He runs the Center for Embryonic Cell and Gene Therapy at Oregon Health and Science University. Mitalipov is a maverick. He regularly makes headlines with his innovative, sometimes controversial methods to prevent genetic disease.

Shoukhrat Mitalipov: Preventing is always more effective– so there would be no– no recurrence of new disease. Particularly when we’re talking about heritable– diseases that parents pass to children.

So Mitalipov and an international team of scientists decided to use CRISPR on human embryos to correct a single genetic mutation that causes a deadly heart disease called hypertropic cardiomyopathy.

They got healthy eggs from donors and sperm from a man who carries the disease. At the same time the eggs are fertilized, they also get an injection of CRISPR. Mitalipov enlarged the microscopic procedure over three hundred times so we could see it.

Shoukhrat Mitalipov: Here we have our pipette with sperm inside, which has been already exposed to CRISPR.  And this is a egg. And so what we need to do is pierce through, and then we break membrane. And now –

Bill Whitaker: Release the sperm into the egg.

Shoukhrat Mitalipov: Yeah. And now this is the sperm coming in.

Bill Whitaker: Wow.

Shoukhrat Mitalipov: Now it’s inside there.

Bill Whitaker: Just like that, that egg has been CRISPRed?

Shoukhrat Mitalipov: CRISPRed, fertilized.

Bill Whitaker: And you have changed the genetic destiny of that embryo.

Shoukhrat Mitalipov: Yes, we believe so.

These embryos will never be implanted, but they are grown in an incubator for three days and then checked to see if they carry the disease mutation.

Normally, 50 percent would. Mitalipov says with CRISPR, 72 percent were free of the mutation that would cause the heart disease.

Bill Whitaker: This is a huge– advance in science and medicine.

Shoukhrat Mitalipov: We hope so. I think we– we’re still kind of in the early stages. I wouldn’t say that we are ready to– to go to clinics now.

He knows his results have to be replicated by an outside lab before they’re accepted by the scientific community. But if they hold up, one day CRISPR could be used to help families that have been plagued by inherited disease for generations.

Bill Whitaker: Is that what drives you?

Shoukhrat Mitalipov: Yes. Of course, it’s a suffering of children, but also the guilt the parents have at saying, “I passed it to my child.” So it’s like, “I caused this disease.” And I think now, we have a tool where we could help these families.

Mitalipov wants to use CRISPR to eliminate disease, but the concern is his research has created a blueprint for less scrupulous doctors to design human beings – to edit embryos to make babies that are smarter, taller, stronger. Mitalipov says that’s not even possible right now.

Bill Whitaker: Your critics say that you’re playing God.

Shoukhrat Mitalipov: I think– you could say to– to every treatment that they– humans and doctors develop that– we– we’re playing God. God gave us brains so we could find a way to eliminate suffering of human beings. And if that’s– you know, playing God, I guess that’s the way it is.

Bill Whitaker: So what do you think about editing an embryo to prevent disease?

Feng Zhang: We don’t really understand how complicated biology is. There’s a gene called PCSK9. If you remove PCSK9, you can reduce cardiovascular disease, heart attack– risks significantly. But it also has been shown recently to increase risk for diabetes. So how do you make the judgment call between these tradeoffs? And there will likely be other—impacts we haven’t yet identified. So I think we need to wait and be more cautious.

Eric Lander: I don’t think we’re close to ready to use it to go edit the human population. I think we’ve gotta use it for medicine for a while. I think those are the urgent questions. That’s what people want right now, is they want cures for disease.

Those urgent questions might soon be answered. A small clinical trial, the first in the U.S. using CRISPR to target certain types of cancer, is now enrolling patients.

Eric Lander: I wanna always balance hope versus hype here. While it’s not gonna affect somebody who might be dying of a disease today, this is gonna have a real effect over the course of the next decade and couple of decades. And for the next generation, I think it’ll be transformative.

Produced by Nichole Marks. Associate producers, Kate Morris and Jaime Woods.

01

May
2018

In Blog
Featured
Pollinator Health

By Admin

VT Digger: Art Whitman: Judicious use of neonics appropriate

On 01, May 2018 | In Blog, Featured, Pollinator Health | By Admin

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Art Whitman, who is president of the Vermont Feed Dealers & Manufacturing Association.

Bees are an important part of Vermont’s ecosystem and protecting them is a high priority for all of us both for pollinating purposes and production of honey.

In an effort to protect and promote a healthy pollinator population, a few years ago the Legislature passed a bill to create the Pollinator Protection Committee which was charged with coming up with recommendations to maintain bee health.

Recommendations from this group included an apiary inspection program, promotion of more diverse forage availability, education around pesticide use, and beekeeper education on disease threats and hive location.

One of the findings of the Pollinator Protection Committee was that Vermont is one of the few states in the U.S. that has not experienced colony collapse disorder. There is no clear understanding what causes colony collapse disorder but it is a very troubling disorder and finding that it has not occurred here was welcome news.

Science has shown that the five main threats to pollinators are the parasitic Varroa mite, a lack of quality forage, poor genetics, pesticide use and inconsistent bee management practices.

Vermont is working to reduce all of these threats in order to strengthen our pollinator population. Increasing the availability of quality forage can be achieved by working with farmers to add flowering plants to their buffer zones and by helping solar farms incorporate flowers into their fields.

Vermont will be instituting a bee hive inventory and inspection program that will be designed to improve management and education of hive owners.

In order to reduce the possible risk of pesticide exposure to bees, Vermont will continue to do water testing, develop educational ads that remind homeowners to follow label instructions when using pesticides and work with farmers to be sure that the use of neonicotinoids does not threaten Vermont’s bees.

The reality is, these pesticides are beneficial when used properly. They allow farmers to get higher yields while planting less land, which means less overall pesticide use. That’s good for the environment. And let’s not forget that bees’ exposure to neonicotinoids (or neonics as they’re called) in fields is limited as the field crops grown in Vermont that use neonics are not pollinated by bees so exposure is accidental.

Our farmers have implemented several best practices that are conducive to bee health, such as no till cropping, the use of cover crops, and planting flowering buffer zones. Some Vermont farmers rely on bees to pollinate their crops. It’s in their best interests to protect them.

Vermonters are doing a good job protecting our pollinators and we should look to improve and enhance these practices. Several beekeepers in Vermont have testified that their losses are as low as they have ever been, around 4 percent even though their bees forage in the middle of high density conventional agricultural land.

One of the many non-farm uses of neonics is to protect public health by preventing ticks and the Powassan virus, which can lead to meningitis, encephalitis and/or death. In addition, they protect the health of our trees by fighting against pests such as the ash borer which has now been found in Vermont and threatens our forest ecology and rural economy.

Every new pesticide introduced is designed either to eliminate a new threat or to reduce the risk of currently used products. Neonicotinoids are much safer than their pesticide predecessors, and as research continues, there’s no doubt they’ll continue to improve. But Vermonters should rest assured. There is no bee-apocalypse.

Art Whitman: Judicious use of neonics appropriate