Friday, May 24, 2013

Toni’s Farm and Food Roundup

ToniThe fight for GMO labeling revved up this week, as the Connecticut state Senate and Vermont House of Representatives both recently voted in favor of bills mandating the labeling of genetically engineered (GE) foods.

On May 9, the Vermont House voted 107-37 in favor of the bill, which does not include any food from animal products. Though the bill will now move onto the Senate, it will not be reviewed until sometime in 2014, as the state’s legislative session as ended for 2013. Opponents of the bill argue that GMO producers could sue the state if the federal government determines there is no substantial difference between conventional and genetically engineered foods.

In Connecticut, the Senate voted 35-1 in favor of the bill on May 21. Because of the economic implications of such a law, the bill requires at least three other states in the region to pass similar bills by July 2015 before the law can take effect. With about 12 other states in the country reviewing proposed GE labeling laws, Connecticut is not alone in its initiative, though no states have passed a comparable measure yet.

It seems opponents to the bill might have good standing, since on May 23 the U.S. Senate voted 71-27 against an amendment to the farm bill that would allow states to decide whether genetically modified products must carry a label. The initiative would not have determined whether GMO products be labeled, but rather leave the ruling to states on an individual basis. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) sponsored the bill, which he called a “fairly commonsense and non-radical” idea. Sanders proposed a similar measure in 2012 that was also voted down. Internationally, 64 countries require food containing genetically modified organisms to be labeled.

At an Organic Trade Association meeting in Washington D.C., Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack vowed to shake up the future of organics with policy changes. Vilsack assured organics will receive more coverage through the federal crop insurance program, and as of next year the organic surcharge for crop insurance will drop by 5 percent. Vilsack also said he would provide USDA agencies with new instructions regarding the requirements for organic certification. Organic prices are under consideration for 2014, as only corn, soybeans, cotton, processing tomatoes, avocados and some stone fruit crops currently have a price separate from that of conventional. The USDA Risk Management Agency already determined there will be an organic price for oats and mint, with apricots, apples, blueberries and millet to be determined.

Pink is the new green, at least for vertical farmers. Urban vertical farming is booming across the globe, with Sweden even gearing up to build a 177-foot skyscraper to grow vegetables on each floor. Horticulturists found, however, that the most practical and economically efficient way to farm vertically is in empty warehouses on the outskirts of cities, due to the lower cost of electricity. What’s more, plants only need certain types of light to grow. Rather than using fluorescent lamps to light the many layers of a vertical farm, using just the red and blue lights have the same effect but use significantly less energy. The result is a vertical farm ablaze with pink light. LED lights differ from conventional fluorescent lamps used in greenhouses because, in addition to being more energy efficient, LED lights can be set to a specific wavelength. The low temperature of LED lights also allows farmers to maximize energy use by placing the lights closer to the plants than a typical greenhouse light. Using a system of stacking the LED lights, one vertical farm in Texas, Caliber Biotherapeutics, is experimenting with the idea of growing plants entirely indoors using the artificial light—void of cumbersome variables like weather and pests. The practice is far from affordable for the average farmer, but could be a viable way to control such aspects of farming for finicky specialty crops.

And, finally, we couldn't end the week without an update about the Senate's debate on the Farm Bill, which has ended for now, but may start up again when they return to session on June 4th. As always, we'll keep you posted as to what you can do as the Senate continues to debate, and the House takes up the debate on the Farm Bill.

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