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Featured | Vermont Farm to Food - Part 2

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



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



In Featured
Future of Ag

By Admin

VT Digger: Tebbetts, Moore & Schirling: Innovating for water quality

On 17, May 2018 | In Featured, Future of Ag | By Admin

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Anson Tebbetts, secretary of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets; Julie Moore, secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources; and Mike Schirling, secretary of the Department of Commerce and Community Development.

From Vermont’s inception, freedom and unity have spurred innovation. John Deere invented the tractor. Ben and Jerry created world-class ice cream. Environmental leaders like George Perkins Marsh defined conservation. The state’s rich history highlights how Vermonters and their values have led the way.

Innovation continues today. Farmers are working with engineers, scientists and researchers on projects that improve the environment while improving their finances. Biodigesters transform manure to electricity. Perennial plants and grasses transform bare soils into buffers to protect rivers, and lasers help milk cows.

Our next challenge is phosphorous innovation. Phosphorus is essential for plant growth, and both human and animal health. Too much phosphorus can be harmful to our waterways. Farmers deploy a bevy of conservation measures to keep phosphorous on their fields. Adopting these best management practices to protect water has also improved soil. And efforts are currently underway to spark further innovation in phosphorus management, building on that progress.

Gov. Phil Scott has challenged the agencies of Natural Resources, Agriculture and Commerce to find engineers, innovators and entrepreneurs who can work with farmers to deploy new and innovative approaches to capture and reuse phosphorus. That innovation could take the form of extracting phosphorus from manure, processing waste to produce energy, and perhaps generating revenue and creating jobs. Possible approaches include production of compost, fertilizers and bio-char. There are many companies working on these solutions and, through the Phosphorus Innovation Challenge, Vermont is at the table.

In phase one of this project the state has made $250,000 available for “proof-of-concept” grants to support several projects. The state is accepting proposals for this seed money over the next two months. A panel comprised of scientists, entrepreneurs, and business experts will help guide the selection. If you would like to take up the challenge, we look forward to hearing from you!

We know that achieving Vermont’s clean water goals will require us to deploy both traditional conservation measures and new methods and ideas. We look forward to a day when products or processes that ensure clean water and farm viability are the standard, taking their place alongside other tools on our farms, many of which have their roots in Vermont. Freedom and unity includes innovation which continues to move Vermont forward, as it has for centuries, improving our environment, families and communities.

Tebbetts, Moore & Schirling: Innovating for water quality



In Blog
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.


Feng Zhang speaks with correspondent Bill Whitaker


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.


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


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.


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.



In Blog
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

Anson Tebbetts: Agriculture sector working for water quality

On 25, Jan 2018 | In Blog, Featured, latest-news, Progressive Farming, water quality | By Admin

VT Digger

As you go about your day, it’s likely you pass a farm – or two or more – along the way. Hidden in hamlets and stretched out in the valleys, Vermont’s farms are part of our daily lives.

And although farmers have worked the land for over a century, there may be something unexpected, yet rooted in Vermont, happening behind the scenes.

Something innovative. Something progressive. Something that’s making a difference, over time, in our land, waterways, farms and communities.

Vermont farmers, along with many others in our state, are working for water quality.

A closer look at Vermont farms shows how cutting-edge technology is increasingly becoming the new norm. From state-of-the art waste management systems to cover crops that keep agricultural fields growing biomass year-round preventing soil from eroding, Vermont agriculture is evolving once again. New generations, along with legacy farmers, are actively making improvements on their farms and they are networked for change: In 2017, 3,137 farmers, partners and members of the public took in 5,011 hours of education at 93 water quality events. Last year 70 Vermonters received advanced certification in manure application. It’s progress.

And that’s just the beginning. In 2017, the state invested $17 million in related water quality projects across all sectors. As part of this investment, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture devoted $5.2 million in technical and financial assistance, engagement and outreach, rules and regulation, and inspection and enforcement — it’s the biggest water quality investment in the history of Vermont.

The Agency of Agriculture’s work over the past year includes $1.1 million in grants for on-farm projects such as fencing, manure storage and barnyards, $1.7 million in Clean Water Initiative grants to partners for education, implementation and phosphorus reduction alternatives beyond traditional conservation practices. There are 31 people at the Agency of Agriculture’s water quality division focused on ensuring the regulations are achieved, designing conservation practices, and offering education and technical assistance to help farms make the necessary changes for water quality. Grants and the technical support offered by the agency are a tool for farmers who are motivated for change and all grants require money from the farmer.

In addition, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, in partnership with the Department of Environmental Conservation, inspects farms and jointly enforces water quality regulations. In 2017, Agency of Agriculture investigators performed 392 inspections including investigating 150 complaints – 100 percent of those received. Farmers who knowingly do not comply with laws face action: In 2017 farmers received 93 enforcement actions from the agency, a 145 percent increase over 2016. This increase is due to more boots on the ground inspecting.

Despite this progress, we at the agency must do more. We will expand implementation of best management practices as well as thinking of innovative ways to reduce phosphorus. We need policies that create new markets to export phosphorus and create incentives for farmers to keep phosphorus off the land.

Farmers are stepping up because they, too, are passionate about the land, water, animals and communities. They are passionate about the jobs that they provide and committed to making the best award-winning products from Vermont. Passion extends to many others as well. The Agency of Agriculture is working closely with partners such as the Department of Environmental Conservation, University of Vermont Extension, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Lake Champlain Basin Program and many more.

Certainly, there is much more work to do. But by working together with investment, education, enforcement and assistance, Vermont is on an upward trajectory, aiming high for quality in land, water and agriculture. We are all committed to a greener Green Mountain State, and unified, we will get there.



In Featured
Progressive Farming

By Admin

History Space: 100 years of dairy farming in Swanton

On 23, Jan 2018 | In Featured, Progressive Farming | By Admin

Burlington Free Press

Jan. 20, 2018

How do you build a business that lasts 100 years? For dairy farmer Robert Manning, owner of the Manning Farm in Swanton, it’s about family support and playing an active role in the community too.

“Farmers have deep roots and are invested in the long-term vision of the town they live in,” said Robert Manning. “It means a lot to me to see 100 years of what we’ve accomplished, especially with how much it’s changed s

ince the farm was started.”

The Manning Farm celebrated their 100-year anniversary in November of last year. The farm has been a family operation ever since it began with Robert’s grandfather, Gerald Griswold in 1917. The Manning family has always been active in their community – Robert served for more than 20 years on the town zoning and regional planning boards – and he says those connections helped people better understand farming.

“Back in the old days people were once removed from a dairy farm – now it’s three or four generations removed and they may not understand farming,” Robert said. “We work seven days a week around the clock to make food so that other people don’t have to.”

When Robert was a kid, there were 17 farms on the same road. Today, there are two, including his own.

“We had 135 acres when we started and now it’s around 1,200 between what we own and rent,” Robert said. “When you look out over the land after you’ve tended to it – it’s rewarding.”

After Robert’s grandfather died in 1966, Robert and his wife Sandy bought the original farm, which was across the road from where they are now, and in 1971 they purchased what is now the current Manning Farm. Today, three generations of family members work alongside each other to keep the farm running smoothly, and the fourth generation, Robert’s great-grandkids, provide some comic relief.

Family members work on the farm

Many Vermont dairy farms, like the Manning Farm, have expanded to allow for additional family members to work on the farm. In 1980, Robert and Sandy’s son David returned after college and helped shape the future of the farm. David played a big role in transitioning the farm to a free stall barn in 1980, and putting an addition on the barn in 1997 and again in 2016.

“The barn is self-regulating and has fans and curtains that run automatically based on the temperature outside to keep it 50 – 60 degrees in the barn, which cows prefer,” David said. “For bedding, we use water beds with sawdust on top and rubber non-slip mats in the alleys. Cows generally are sleeping or lounging an average 12 to 14 hours per day. The barns are really comfortable for them.”

In the 1980s many Vermont farms made the switch from the use of tie stall barns where cows are kept in fixed milking stalls, to the free-stall barn where they can roam freely. The cows are moved to a milking parlor designed to milk many cows at the same time, greatly improving efficiency. When the farm started 100 years ago they had just five cows. Today the farm milks 500 cows three times a day. This is possible because three of David’s six children decided to work on the farm, too. David’s daughter Rebecca Howrigan manages the health of the cows.

“I’m proud of the advances we’ve made to ensure our cows are healthy and in turn provide high-quality dairy products,” Rebecca said. “My favorite technology we use is the pedometers that the cows wear on their ankles. I have a FitBit and I track my steps, but I also track the steps our cows take, among other things.”

Computer keeps track of cows

On average, the cows at the Manning Farm take about 3,000 to 5,000 steps a day. The data is sent to a computer and Rebecca monitors it constantly throughout the day. Like a person, if a cow isn’t feeling well she’ll be laying down more. The computer has an algorithm that alerts Rebecca so that she can be proactive to help the cow feel better.

“We take the health of our cows very seriously because their health is directly related to their ability to make high-quality milk,” Rebecca said.

Rebecca didn’t always know she would be a dairy farmer. She has an English degree from the University of Vermont and gained experience working for a heifer breeding service, before returning to the farm where she and her husband Patrick are raising their kids – Regan, 6 and Ryland, 3.

Rebeca’s younger brothers, Nick and Oliver Manning, ultimately decided that the farm was where they wanted to be as well. Nick manages maintenance on the farm, Oliver focuses on the calves, and they both manage the farm land that is used primarily to grow crops. Just like the barns, the way fields are managed have evolved too. The Manning Farm tractors are outfitted with GPS that allows them to drive themselves, leaving just the turning to the driver. It’s called precision agriculture and it allows farmers to keep a closer eye on their fields.

“It helps us get a better understanding of what the fields need, and it can eliminate human error. We put the GPS system on our corn chopper and so it records all the yield information, and we can see if we needed more fertilizer or less in other places – also what varieties of crops grow better in certain soils,” Oliver said. “In the past, you might put a set quantity of fertilizer or manure on a field – especially with runoff concerns – this technology helps us to make sure the right amount is applied in the right spots to help protect the environment and waterways.”

Farming for the next 100 years

The evolution of the Manning Farm is a familiar story in Franklin County, where there are 184 dairy farms out of the 868 total in the state according to 2014 updates by the Vermont Agency of Agriculture to the U.S. Census of Agriculture.

The number of dairy farms in Vermont has steadily been decreasing, but according to USDA data, the milk being made has remained stable as individual farms have grown, consolidated and adopted new technology to become more efficient and sustainable.

Most recently, farms have been under increasing pressure to adopt sustainable farm practices to reduce the impact of manure on local watersheds. The Required Agricultural Practices (RAPs) were introduced last year by the Vermont Agency of Agriculture Food & Markets, and are a set of requirements farmers must adopt to improve water quality.

“Required Agricultural Practices (RAP’s) are about assisting farmers in improving farm operations to support soil health and reduce erosion and run-off on their farms. Acre-per-acre, agricultural land has four times less phosphorus run-off as developed land; we want to support our farmers to reduce phosphorus pollution in our waterway’s and keep farm land open, rather than lose our farms and risk development that may increase phosphorus pollution. We are here to help continue to grow a culture that supports clean water practices in Vermont, on our farms and beyond,” said Secretary Anson Tebbetts of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture Food & Markets.

The iPhone app for farming

At Copper Hill Farm in Fairfax, dairy farmer Kurt Magnan uses a soil health app on his iPhone to monitor the manure and other fertilizer they put on fields. The app tracks weather conditions and makes recommendations on when to work in the fields, and how much nutrients the soil needs. Additionally, for the past four years, the farm has planted 450 acres of cover crops on their corn fields.

“Specialized equipment allows us, and many other farms, to plant cover crops that grow through the winter on the fields to prevent sediment and water from leaving the fields during the snow melts and spring rains through erosion,” Magnan said.

According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) data, Vermont farmers planted a record-setting 25,727 acres of cover crops in 2016 on approximately 25 percent of all annual cropland – a 58 percent increase in acres of cover crops planted in 2015. NRCS reported this has resulted in significant reductions in soil erosion and phosphorus in our waterways.

Manure turns into energy

Technology is leading the sustainability efforts in many other ways too. More than a dozen Vermont farms have installed methane digesters to turn manure into renewable energy. In 2015, Nelson Boys Dairy in St. Albans installed a Green Mountain Power ‘Cow Power’ methane digester. The farm generates four times the amount of power it consumes. That extra power is sent back into the grid and is used by local homes. The digester also turns manure into a liquid byproduct used as fertilizer on their fields, and the sterile, dried solids are used as a fluffy bedding for their cows.

“At the foundation of what we do is quality and health and comfort for our animals. Animal welfare and the environment are very important to us. We are, first and foremost stewards of the land, and we’re proud of that,” Dylan Nelson, of Nelson Boys Dairy said.

The milk from Nelson Boys Dairy, Copper Hill Farm, and the Manning Farm is processed at the St. Albans Co-op in St. Albans, along with the milk from more than 360 dairy farms. The three farms also participate in the Ben & Jerry’s Caring Dairy Program which helps farms that supply milk to Ben & Jerry’s continuously evaluate and improve their practices.

“It covers everything from our hiring practices to our land management to cow care, so it really keeps us on point with social responsibility,” Kurt said.

As the demand for sustainable, responsibly produced food increases researchers are exploring the impact of different types of diets on the available land base in the U.S. A 2016 study from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University found that a vegetarian diet that includes dairy products could feed the most people from the area of land available in the U.S. when compared to other diets, although diets with low to moderate amounts of meat also fared well in the study.

“Before we go about converting land to other uses, to develop sound agricultural policy, we have to understand the impact of dietary patterns on land use. We don’t want to short-change the equitable distribution of nutritious, life-sustaining foods to the whole population,” said author Gary Fick, Ph.D., professor in the School of Integrative Crop Science at Cornell University.

For the Manning family, this is good news as they look ahead to the next 100 years.

“There’s an opportunity with all the advancements in technology for us to gain efficiencies so we can feed more people on the same land base,” Rebecca said. “Farmers are continuously finding new ways to improve for the good of the environment and our communities.”

To learn more about Vermont dairy farm practices visit:

Laura Hardie is the Farmer Relations & Communications Manager for New England Dairy & Food Council and New England Dairy Promotion Board.



In Featured

By Admin

New organic dairy farmers face market challenges

On 29, Dec 2017 | In Featured | By Admin

WESTMORE, Vt. (WCAX) Joanne Lidback and her husband own a small dairy farm with about 60 cows in Westmore. “Back then we didn’t realize it was as bad as it was,” Lidback said.

After taking over the family business, Lidback wanted to make sure the farm was viable for the future. “How are we going to build our farm and our business and hopefully prepare it for the next generation?” she said.

The Lidbacks thought getting into the organic milk market was the way forward, and not only because of the profits. They can make twice as much as conventional dairy farmers. After speaking with consultants from the organic milk industry, the family thought the transition wouldn’t be too difficult. They already follow most of the requirements. “Then we got the call in the fall of 2016 that we wouldn’t be needed,” Lidback said.

“The organic milk market, nationally and internationally, is flooded,” said Stephanie Walsh, an organic certifier with the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont. She says the organic milk market is so flooded farmers are seeing decreases in the amount they are getting paid. “Milk buyers are doing a little supply control.”

There are four organic milk buyers in the state, Stonyfield, DanoneWave, Organic Valley, and Upstate Niagra. These companies sign organic dairy farms to contracts, so the farmer is guaranteed to make a profit after investing in the transition. “The process of getting their dairy animals, their cows, into organic production is a 12-month long process,” Walsh said. “It’s very difficult for a producer who is wishing to transition to organic, for any reason, to do so without a contract because it’s a very expensive process.”

Lidback says one of the reasons it’s so expensive to go organic is the price of feed. She says around six months ago a ton of conventional feed was around $300, whereas a ton of certified organic grain was $600 or more. And it’s not just feed, there are higher costs to keep the cows healthy as antibiotics can’t be used. Organic dairy cows are required to get 30-percent of their feed from pasture, which mean no pesticides are allowed to be used anywhere on the farm. Adding to the expense — they are paid conventional milk prices during the 12-month transition process, even though they are farming organically.

“A lot of farmers have to take out loans to get them through this 12-month period,” Walsh said.

So what’s next for Lidback? She says she will continue to sell her milk as conventional, even though she’s gone mostly organic. “It’s lean times for sure,” she said.

When the organic market opens up again, Lidback says she will be ready. And once the family lands a contract, they’ll take the final steps to get the organic certification. “Supply and demand goes up and down over the years. Even though no milk buyers now, we’re hoping that goes back up again,” she said.

Vermont Dairy Farmers and Climate Change

On 13, Oct 2017 | In Featured, GMO’s and The Environment, Progressive Farming | By Admin

This is a great story about how climate change will impact the dairy and maple industries in Vermont.



In Featured
Progressive Farming

By Admin

Phosphorous Run-Off TV Story

On 13, Oct 2017 | In Featured, latest-news, Progressive Farming | By Admin

Taking to the skies to help prevent runoff– a helicopter took flight in Franklin County Friday morning at Pleasant Valley Farm. The mission: plant hundreds of acres of winter rye.

The plant protects the soil from eroding and keeps nutrients in the soil.


Click here for the full story