Full list: Agriculture in the News

“Feeling The Bern” with Locally-Made Hot Sauce at the Skinny Pancake

By Alex Epstein
Full Article
Burlington, VT – For a restaurant that sources over 70% of its ingredients locally, according to their latest local food audit, perhaps it’s no surprise the Skinny Pancake recently started making their own locally-sourced hot sauce to go alongside their mouth-watering crêpes, paninis, sides, and more…

​With a combination of local habañero, anaheim, hungarian, and wax peppers, plus an homage paid to former Burlington mayor and current Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, the Skinny Pancake’s Curtis Garrow has created a community-building, crowd-pleasing hot sauce that will leave you “feeling the Bern” no matter your political views.

The Birth of “Bern Baby Bern”

Call it an “aha” moment, call it eureka, but when Curtis Garrow stared down at the list of produce offerings in an e-mail sent from Pomykala Farm while ordering produce for the Skinny just a few weeks ago, he knew a house-made, locally-sourced hot sauce simply had to happen.
The Skinny Pancake is renowned for its partnerships with local farms and for its work in building a stronger local foodshed across the state of Vermont. So why not use the now apparently vast array of Vermont-grown hot peppers available for a hot sauce?

Like a beautiful piece of artwork, a map of Vermont featuring plaques with the names and locations of all of the Skinny Pancake’s local purveyors adorn the western-facing wall of the Burlington restaurant, drawing the attention of locals and tourists alike.

Overhearing conversations from onlookers of this foodshed spectacle, one thing is unequivocally clear: people are increasingly wondering about and wanting to know where their food comes from.

And that’s something Curtis, and the Skinny Pancake, couldn’t be happier about.

Strengthening Local Foodsheds

As a born-and-raised Vermonter, sharing his love for the local foodshed by working with local farmers simply made good sense: “Seeing farming in an everyday sense,” Curtis told me, “these people dedicating their lives to what they do… What better way to give back than by purchasing local goods from local people that you know? We’re keeping the money local, and bringing their name into the bigger picture.”

In layman’s terms, what this means is that your salad greens now come with a name and a face–and that’s something to be cherished for more reasons than one. As members of 1% for the Planet, the Skinny Pancake is committed to the triple bottom line: People, Planet, and a Profit, donating 1% of their annual sales to local non-profits, in addition to their care and respect for farmers and the working landscape.

​Last summer, I had the incredible opportunity to see, first-hand, the importance of the relationships built between farmers and restaurants like the Skinny Pancake during a working membership at Good Heart Farmstead, one of the Skinny Pancake’s local purveyors (which also happens to be run by a friend of mine from college).
Good Heart Farmstead's Greens Destined For Skinny Pancake, Montpelier

Washing greens from Good Heart Farmstead destined for the Skinny Pancake, Montpelier / Image Credit: AE Digital Environmental Communications
On my hands and knees, in the compost-rich, organic soil, I began clipping lettuce greens, thinking about where they might be headed, and who the lucky end consumer of this fresh and crispy lettuce would be.

“Where’s all this gloriousness headed to?” I asked from a few rows away.

Oh! That? That’s headed to the Skinny Pancake in Montpelier,”  Edge, Good Heart Farmstead’s co-owner, told me. Once you’re done, can you go down and give it a rinse?”

Washing the beautiful greens that go in the Skinny Pancake’s salads and accompany their crêpes was somewhat of a religious experience for me. As I was lifting them in and out of the water, I was imagining them perfectly dressed in the Skinny’s famous maple-pesto vinaigrette, sitting directly next to a Johnny crêpe, which features locally-raised pulled pork with caramelized onions and a VT maple-barbeque sauce, or a Josh Panda crêpe, “fried Misty Knoll chicken tenders with shredded potatoes wrapped in a cornmeal crepe and smothered in sausage gravy,” two of my all-time favorites the Skinny Pancake offers.

Being so close to the source, and knowing the greens’ final destination, was unlike anything I had ever been a part of before.

How are those greens coming, Alex?” Edge yelled from across the farm. Time to focus…

But I couldn’t stop thinking.

“They have a reliable source of greens? And the Skinny Pancake reliably needs greens?” Perfect. Incredible!

“Match made in heaven,” I thought.

And it was.

Seeing Edge hop in his truck and head just 15 miles to Montpelier with the 50 lbs of lettuce we had just harvested was nothing short of magical.

From hot sauce to greens, it’s clear that every ingredient counts when the goal is to support as many local producers as possible. Without the pure dedication and big hearts of local farmers who make the abundance of local ingredients available, and the restaurants like the Skinny Pancake who purchase them and help farmers generate a steadier income, there would be no locally-made hot sauce to be had, or maple-y-pesto-y greens to enjoy on a chilly winter’s day.

Marketplace: Why Campbell changed its mind on GMO labeling

Mother Jones: The EPA Finally Admitted That the World’s Most Popular Pesticide Kills Bees—20 Years Too Late

Bees are dying in record numbers—and now the government admits that an extremely common pesticide is at least partially to blame.

For more than a decade, the Environmental Protection Agency has been under pressure from environmentalists and beekeepers to reconsider its approval of a class of insecticides called neonicotinoids, based on a mounting body of research suggesting they harm bees and other pollinators at tiny doses. In a report released Wednesday, the EPA basically conceded the case.

Marketed by European chemical giants Syngenta and Bayer, neonics are the most widely used insecticides both in the United States and globally. In 2009, the agency commenced a long, slow process of reassessing them—not as a class, but rather one by one (there are five altogether). Meanwhile, tens of millions of acres of farmland are treated with neonics each year, and the health of US honeybee hives continues to be dismal.

The EPA’s long-awaited assessment focused on how one of the most prominent neonics—Bayer’s imidacloprid—affects bees. The report card was so dire that the EPA “could potentially take action” to “restrict or limit the use” of the chemical by the end of this year, an agency spokesperson wrote in an emailed statement.

Reviewing dozens of studies from independent and industry-funded researchers, the EPA’s risk-assessment team established that when bees encounter imidacloprid at levels above 25 parts per billion—a common level for neonics in farm fields—they suffer harm. “These effects include decreases in pollinators as well as less honey produced,” the EPA’s press release states.

The crops most likely to expose honeybees to harmful levels of imidacloprid are cotton and citrus, while “corn and leafy vegetables either do not produce nectar or have residues below the EPA identified level.” Note in the below USGS chart  that a substantial amount of imidacloprid goes into the US cotton crop.

Meanwhile, the fact that the EPA says imidacloprid-treated corn likely doesn’t harm bees sounds comforting, but as the same USGS chart shows, corn gets little or no imidacloprid. (It gets huge amounts of another neonic, clothianidin, whose EPA risk assessment hasn’t been released yet.)

The agency still has to consider public comments on the bee assessment it just released, and it also has to complete a risk assessment of imidacloprid’s effect on other species. In addition to their impact on bees, neonic pesticides may also harm birds, butterflies, and water-borne invertebrates, recent studies suggest. Then there are the assessments of the other four neonic products that need to be done. Meanwhile, a coalition of beekeepers and environmental groups filed a lawsuit in federal court Wednesday pointing out that the agency has never properly assessed neonics in their most widely used form: as seed coatings, which are then taken up by crops.

Sustainable Pulse: Monsanto Cuts 16% of Work Force as Sales in Roundup Herbicide Fall 34%

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Monsanto announced Wednesday that sales in the company’s agricultural productivity segment, which includes its probable carcinogen Roundup herbicide, fell 34 % to $820 million. Monsanto’s shares fell over 2% as a result.

The Biotech giant also said Wednesday that it now plans to cut a total of 3600 jobs, or about 16 % of its global work force, through fiscal 2018, and expects to record $1.1 billion to $1.2 billion in restructuring charges.

Monsanto has been struggling for investor confidence following the announcement in March 2015 that the World Health Organisation’s cancer agency had declared the world’s most widely used weedkiller – glyphosate – a “probable human carcinogen”.

Glyphosate is the base of Monsanto’s whole business model;

a) the glyphosate-based herbicide ‘Roundup’ is Monsanto’s leading product.

b) Roundup is the herbicide that the majority of Monsanto’s GM crops are designed to be grown with.

Monsanto stated; “Net sales for the quarter decreased over the prior year’s first quarter to $2.2 billion. Gross profit on an as-reported basis for the 2016 first quarter also decreased over the prior year period to $901 million. As expected, the decline in the quarter is due to weaker foreign currencies, glyphosate pricing and lower corn volumes in Latin America.

With the anticipated continuation of several global and industry headwinds that include the recent currency devaluation in Argentina, Monsanto expects full-year ongoing EPS guidance to be at the lower half of the range of $5.10 to $5.60.”

Star Tribune: Hershey dumps sugar beets because of GM concerns

Washington Post: FDA must develop plan to label genetically engineered salmon, Congress says

December 17, 2015
Full Article

The sprawling federal spending bill unveiled this week on Capitol Hill included a small passage with potentially big implications in the food world.

In two paragraphs on page 106, lawmakers instructed the Food and Drug Administration to forbid the sale of genetically engineered salmon until the agency puts in place labeling guidelines and “a program to disclose to consumers” whether a fish has been genetically altered. The language comes just a month after FDA made salmon the first genetically modified animal approved for human consumption and represents a victory for advocates who have long opposed such foods from reaching Americans’ dinner plates. At the very least, they say, consumers ought to know what they are buying.

The fish in the spotlight is the AquAdvantage salmon, produced by Massachusetts-based AquaBounty. The Atlantic salmon contains a growth hormone from a Chinook salmon and a gene from the ocean pout — a combination to help it grow large enough for consumption in 18 months instead of the typical three years.

Activists and commercial fishermen have raised concerns about whether the fish is safe to eat and whether potential environmental harms could unfold if any of AquaBounty’s salmon ever made their way into ocean waters and mated with wild salmon. The company has argued that its fish, which are all female, sterile and raised in land-locked facilities, actually could reduce pressure on wild stocks and prevent the over-fishing of Atlantic salmon. FDA has said its approval was “based on sound science and a comprehensive review” and that regulators are confident the genetically altered fish is safe to eat.

The agency said last month it could require additional labeling of genetically engineered foods only if “there is a material difference — such as a different nutritional profile” between the genetically engineered food and its natural counterpart. In the case of the AquaAdvantage salmon, FDA found no such differences.

But the language in the federal spending bill, which is expected to soon pass Congress, directs FDA to prevent the AquaBounty salmon from reaching the U.S. market until regulators finalize labeling guidelines. It also directs them to spend “not less than $150,000” undertaking the effort.

“There’s a question as to whether this fish should even be called a salmon,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who pushed for the additional language. “The FDA made no mandatory labeling requirement. Instead, they said it could be labeled voluntarily. But no manufacturer of a ‘Frankenfish’ is going to label it as such. … At least now people will have the opportunity, the chance, to know what it is that they are purchasing.”

Lisa Archer, director of the food and technology program at the Friends of the Earth, said the advocacy group would continue to keep pressing to have labels on all genetically modified foods, but the salmon provision was a good start. “The vast majority of people want GMO labeling, and Friends of the Earth and our allies will continue to fight for our basic right to know what we are feeding our families,” she said in a statement.

Despite the language in this week’s federal spending bill, it remains unclear when and where genetically modified salmon might show up for sale.

Knowing FDA likely would approve the AquaBounty salmon, consumer and environmental activists have in recent years convinced some of the country’s largest retailers not to stock it. Chains such as Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Costco and Target have said they will not sell the controversial fish.

Times Union: Vermont GMO labeling law survives congressional challenge

December 20, 2015
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — Vermont appears to have dodged a bullet, at least for now, after Congress declined to invalidate a state law that aims to require labeling of genetically modified foods a little more than six months from now.

A federal court challenge still seeks to block Vermont’s law from taking effect July 1.

But a push in Congress to block states from passing such labeling laws appears to have fallen by the wayside. The House passed a bill in July that would have pre-empted states’ authority over the issue. The Senate declined to take it up, despite heavy lobbying from the food and biotechnology industries.

Packaging Digest: FDA denies petition for GMO labeling

By George Misko
January 04, 2016
Full Article

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently took two actions regarding the hotly contested issue of labeling of foods and ingredients containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

1. On Nov. 19, 2015, FDA formally denied a 2012 Citizen Petition filed by the Center for Food Safety. Explaining, the Agency stated that the petition “does not provide evidence sufficient to show that foods derived from genetically engineered plants, as a class, differ from food derived from non-GE plant varieties in any meaningful or uniform way, or that as a class, such food present any different or greater safety concerns than food developed by traditional plant breeding.”

2. Also on Nov. 19, FDA issued a guidance on voluntary labeling of foods derived from Genetically Engineered Plants. In the guidance, FDA recommends the use of terms, such as “not genetically engineered,” “not bioengineered” and “not genetically modified through the use of modern biotechnology,” and discourages the use of the term “genetically modified organism,” as well as the abbreviation “GMO” as most foods do not contain entire organisms. FDA did clarify, though, that it does not intend to take enforcement action against a label using the acronym “GMO.”

The Guidance cautions against the use of the term “free” or similar terms, such as “does not contain GMOs” or “non-GMO,” due to the difficulty of substantiating such a claim. Although, FDA did not indicate whether it intends to exercise enforcement discretion with respect to “free” claims.

The Agency further explained that “a statement may be false or misleading if, when considered in the context of the entire label or labeling, it suggests or implies that a food product or ingredient is safer, more nutritious, or otherwise has different attributes than other comparable foods because the food was not genetically engineered.”

Finally, FDA alerted manufacturers that genetically engineered crops with characteristics that are materially different from those of comparable foods would require labeling under existing provision to disclose such material difference.

While federal regulations do not require special labeling for bioengineered foods, some 80 bills were introduced in state legislatures that would require special labeling. And one law, in Vermont, is scheduled to take effect on July 1, 2016. The Grocery Manufacturers Assn. (GMA) and others filed a lawsuit following passage of the bill some 18 months ago, challenging Vermont’ labeling mandate. Litigation in that case is ongoing.

Another possible avenue to prevent Vermont’s GM labeling law from going into effect is federal legislation. That attempt failed in 2015 when the U.S. Senate failed to act on legislation, even though the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill, which would have preempted state and local governments from mandating GM labeling. An attempt to include a preemption provision in the year-end Omnibus Appropriations bill also failed. In a release about the Dec. 4 letter, the International Dairy Food Assn. pointed out that approximately 80 GMO labeling bills were introduced in 20 states during 2015.

As noted by Daryl Thomas, svp of sales and marketing, Herr Foods Inc., at a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing on biotechnology earlier this year:  “Absent immediate action by Congress to create a federal GMO solution, manufacturers will have essentially three options in order to comply with a state labeling law such as Vermont’s Act 120: (1) order new packaging for products going to each individual state with a labeling law, (2) reformulate products so that no labeling is required or (3) halt sales to those states with mandatory labeling laws.”

VT Digger: Session preview 2016: New water rules for farmers top list of agriculture committee priorities

Jan. 3, 2016
Mike Faher
Full Article

Vermont’s new water-quality law comes with many new requirements for farmers.

But how Vermont will enforce mandatory agricultural practices is still a matter of debate.

While the House and Senate agricultural committees are considering a long list of issues in 2016, ranging from departmental fees to honey bees, officials say the primary focus will be the implications of sweeping new water-quality standards for livestock and land management.

“If (farmers) have concerns about what they’ve heard or how this is going to come down, they need to get ahold of their legislators,” said Sen. Robert Starr, D-Essex/Orleans and chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. “We’ll also be holding a hearing or two in the spring, probably later in the session.”

The water-quality law, Act 64, cites widespread impairment of Vermont’s waters as the basis for far-reaching regulations on farms, towns and businesses.

For farms, that rule-making process is well under way. The state Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets has wrapped up a public comment period on a set of draft water quality rules and has held more than 20 meetings on the issue across the state, said Diane Bothfeld, the agency’s deputy secretary for dairy policy.

Topics covered by the agency’s draft rules include buffer zones; small-farm certification; nutrient storage and management; soil health; and livestock exclusion. In the latter category, for example, the proposed rules limit where livestock get access to surface water.

Other draft rules include restrictions on when and where manure can be stored and applied; a requirement for a 25-foot buffer zone protecting surface water; and new land-management practices to alleviate erosion.

“It’s a big job, but it’s a very important job,” Bothfeld said. “You want to write rules in ways that people understand … making sure the language is right, making sure it makes sense.”

Act 64 says new agricultural water rules must be in place by July 1, and Bothfeld said the next step is to take the agency’s proposals to legislators. While that legislative debate can’t go on indefinitely, Starr emphasized that there’s still time to make changes. “Farmers should understand that just because they heard something at a hearing doesn’t mean it’s set in stone,” he said. “It can be altered and fixed.”

Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham and chairwoman of the House Agriculture and Forest Products Committee, said she has been hearing concerns about the water-quality law, especially from smaller farmers.

“A lot of folks who you would call small farmers had no idea what the (state’s) accepted agricultural practices were and had no idea how to comply with them,” Partridge said. Now that Act 64 upgrades those practices from “accepted” to “required,” Partridge said, “I think we need a very strong educational piece to make sure people know what’s going on and are not blindsided, and also have an opportunity to weigh in.”

It’s not just the state’s water-quality rules that farmers and food producers need to be concerned about. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has developed regulations under the Food Safety Modernization Act, and those policies were the subject of a recent meeting in Brattleboro.

Local officials say the state needs more FDA funding to implement the new regulations, which make significant changes to food inspection requirements.

“We want to make sure the feds get it right, and we also want to have it set up so that they give us money and we can do our own inspections,” Starr said. “As a state, we may even have to do some cost-sharing. Because it’s a benefit to our producers and to the people of Vermont to make sure these inspections are done and we’re shipping the best of the best to our consumers.”

From the Agency of Agriculture’s perspective, the state may need more legal authority to broadly implement the Food Safety Modernization Act. “We will propose some draft legislation to give us that authority,” Bothfeld said.

State and federal rule-making aside, Starr, Partridge and Bothfeld named a number of other topics they’d like to tackle in 2016, including:

• Taxes. Partridge said she has concerns about the way Vermont is taxing some farming operations and equipment, “in particular the sales and use taxes. We took a bunch of testimony last year.”

“There are some things that are being taxed that shouldn’t be,” Partridge said. “For instance, fencing. Gates are being taxed. There is a provision in the law for sales-tax exemption for agricultural equipment.”

Addressing the issue may happen via a mix of education, Department of Taxes regulation and statutory revision, Partridge said. “Retailers really want to be doing the right thing, but they just don’t know what the right thing is,” she said. “We want Vermont to be a good place to do business, and having this kind of confusion makes that difficult.”

• Energy siting. Starr wants to “take a hard, long look” at large-scale solar facilities being built on agricultural land, and he sees a need for more agricultural consideration in the state’s Section 248 permitting process for energy facilities.

“It’s pretty easy to go out into a field and set up all these panels,” Starr said. “But we’ve spent millions and millions of dollars protecting agricultural soils in this state because we thought they were critical to our well-being.”

• Fees. Starr said the Agency of Agriculture will propose changes to fees for services including weights and measures inspections of equipment like store scales and gasoline pumps.

• Education. Starr expects his committee will propose changes to the state’s 2+2 FARMS program, which provides tuition scholarships to a small group of students each year.

The program sends students to Vermont Technical College where they earn a two-year associate’s degree in dairy farm management technology, then matriculate to the University of Vermont for a bachelor’s degree. Lawmakers have been talking to graduates in preparation for revamping the program “to offer more variety for young people to look at and still qualify for scholarships,” Starr said.

“A lot of things have changed over the years in agriculture,” he said. “We’re more diversified now. More people are into cheeses and organics and fruits and vegetables.”

• Farm diversification. Officials are concerned about regulatory gray areas that have caused conflict in some parts of the state. For example, when does a farm that offers regular, well-attended burger nights become something more akin to a restaurant?

While no legislation has yet been introduced on the topic, Bothfeld said officials have been gathering information on the issue for a few years and hope to soon present their findings to legislators. “We’re trying to help define and give some parameters to farms that do value-added agriculture,” she said.

• Bees. Partridge wants to take a closer look at a bill that would ban neonicotinoids, a pesticide that has been linked to declining bee populations. H.236, introduced by Rep. Chris Pearson, P-Burlington, says 15 countries have imposed a moratorium on the use of neonicotinoids and several U.S. cities also have banned the substance.

“We haven’t had an incident of colony collapse in the state of Vermont yet,” Partridge said. “Obviously, we don’t want to have one.”

New York Times Op-Ed: Are You Eating Frankenfish?

THIS month, Congress may decide whether consumers are smart enough to be trusted with their own food choices. Some lawmakers are trying to insert language into must-pass spending legislation that would block states from giving consumers the right to know whether their food contains genetically modified ingredients.

They must be stopped.

Nine out of 10 Americans want G.M.O. disclosure on food packages, according to a 2013 New York Times poll, just like consumers in 64 other nations. But powerful members of the agriculture and appropriations committees, along with their allies in agribusiness corporations like Monsanto, want to keep consumers in the dark. That’s why opponents of this effort have called it the DARK Act — or the Deny Americans the Right to Know Act.

As a chef, I’m proud of the food I serve. The idea that I would try to hide what’s in my food from my customers offends everything I believe in. It’s also really bad for business.

Why, then, have companies like Kellogg and groups like the Grocery Manufacturers Association spent millions in recent years to lobby against transparency? They say, in effect: “Trust us, folks. We looked into it. G.M.O. ingredients are safe.” But what they’re missing is that consumers want to make their own judgments. Consumers are saying: “Trust me. Let me do my own homework and make my own choices.”

In fact, some of us have done our homework, and here’s what we found: The use of G.M.O.s has led to unintended consequences. For instance, most G.M.O. crops are engineered to withstand blasts of a powerful weed killer that the World Health Organization has decided probably causes cancer. New “superweeds” are appearing that require even more lethal formulations. Since the introduction of G.M.O. crops, use of these chemicals has increased 16-fold.

G.M.O. advocates like to label anyone who objects “anti-science.” It’s true that genetic technology has had an amazing impact on the development of medicine and the eradication of infectious diseases. If G.M.O. foods were actually providing a clear benefit to the public, like improved nutrition, lower costs or better taste, without creating a spiral of ever-increasing toxicity in our environment, I’d be all for them. And if G.M.O.s ever deliver on their promise to improve food security, which they have yet to do in the more than 20 years since they were introduced, I’d be over the moon.

Vermont recently passed a law requiring the labeling of these foods. Other states are considering doing the same. That’s the impetus behind this backdoor effort: Opponents want Congress to pre-empt Vermont and other like-minded states from implementing these rules.

Last month the Food and Drug Administration approved for sale to the public the first genetically engineered animal approved for human consumption — a fish they are calling the AquAdvantage salmon.

This “super” salmon was conceived by combining genes from Chinook salmon that produce extra growth hormone with an “antifreeze” gene from a bottom-feeder, the non-Kosher ocean pout. The result is a fish that grows far faster and larger than non-engineered salmon.

The F.D.A. insists the transgenic fish is safe for humans, but many experts believe they have yet to prove AquAdvantage will be safe for the environment or other fish. Factory fish farms depend on the use of antibiotics and pesticides to control disease and parasites that flourish in high-density environments. The waste they release can decimate other marine life and contaminate the water supply. Farmed fish often escape into larger waters, endangering native species. While these new salmon will be sterile, mistakes can happen.

Fine, you say. Enough already. If you don’t like the Frankenfish, don’t buy it.

But there’s the rub. This new engineered fish could be marketed as … Atlantic salmon. There might be no way for consumers to identify it as genetically engineered.

Consumers have a right to seek out food produced in accordance with their values, and not be misled by an industry’s strenuous efforts to keep them in the dark. When G.M.O. ingredients are clearly labeled, consumers can exercise those rights.

Blocking the labeling of G.M.O. foods would be a step in the wrong direction, away from greater accountability and responsibility. Congress should reject these efforts to block our right to know.