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FAOSTAT offers more data on key ag indicators

Biotechnology and drones may be the most visible innovation areas in the world of agriculture, but there's room for new approaches to data dissemination. Data — which is costly to produce and often complex to communicate — is the key decision support tool for policy-makers engaged in concrete action.

The U.N. Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) has launched a new and revamped FAOSTAT website, making the world's most comprehensive statistical database on food, agriculture, fisheries, forestry, natural resources management and nutrition even more accessible for public use.

The updated web-based tool, now in its fourth edition, includes a host of behind-the-scenes technological improvements as well as user-friendly innovations such as full compatibility with mobile devices and superior download options that will significantly improve the overall user-experience.

FAOSTAT offers free, open and easy access to time-series and cross-sectional data for 245 countries and territories going back to 1961. It typically receives around 200,000 visits per month from national statisticians, government officials, researchers, the private sector, international agencies, civil society and media from all over the world, FAO said.

The website now offers a completely new state-of-the-art user interface, accessible by smartphone and tablet as well as by personal computer. Its search options have been enhanced, filters improved and navigation simplified, while the overall system architecture has been made more flexible, allowing quicker publication of new data sets in the future.

Data visualization has been improved with the new tool, and it is now possible to download customized data sets, maps and charts that users could previously only browse.

The new FAOSTAT also introduces a new feature, presenting a set of ready-to-use key indicators — ranging from land use and food production to food access and government budget allocations for agriculture — by country, region and for the whole world.

Some of these indicators are those adopted to assess and measure progress towards the targets set in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. FAO is the custodian of 21 key Sustainable Development Goals indicators, and FAOSTAT will help monitor the international community's pledges to eradicate extreme poverty, hunger and malnutrition by 2030 as well as promote sustainable agriculture and use of natural resources.

Moreover, with the entry into force of the Paris Agreement on climate change, international organizations will help countries to put in place and monitor national actions for climate change adaptation and mitigation.

FAOSTAT's data set on greenhouse gas emissions is already being used to facilitate analysis of where the best mitigation options lie along food system supply chains, helping countries and their farmers to develop faster and more targeted climate-smart strategies that boost resilience and food security as well as enabling access to international climate funding.

CROP PROGRESS: Corn harvest 97% completed

The corn harvest is nearly done, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture reporting on Monday that 97% of the crop is in the bin, which matched last year’s pace and is one point ahead of the five-year average.

USDA discontinued its soybean harvest survey after last’s week results showed that 97% of the crop was cut.

The winter wheat rating slipped one point to 58% in good to excellent condition (47% good and 11% excellent), which was better than last year’s 53% for the same week.

Iowa’s corn harvest was at 98%, compared with the five-year average of 97%. The state had nearly a full week for fieldwork.

“Grain movement from farm to elevator was rated 51% moderate to heavy, down four percentage points from the previous week. Off-farm grain storage availability was rated 63% adequate to surplus. On-farm grain storage availability was rated 58% adequate to surplus,” Iowa said.

In Illinois, the corn harvest was 100% done versus the 98% average.  Winter wheat in the state was rated 70% good/excellent, 26% fair, 1% poor and 3% very poor.

Indiana's corn harvest was at 97% done versus the 94% average. Winter wheat conditions declined a little to 67% good/excellent, 27% fair, 4% poor and 2% very poor.

“Growers have reported that some of the wheat that has not yet emerged was due to dry conditions after planting. Wheat conditions declined some this week partially due to ponding in the north and drought in the south,” Indiana's report said.

Total U.S. winter wheat planting is at 97%, and emergence is at 89%, versus the respective five-year averages of 99% and 88%.

Kansas wheat slipped one point to 55% good/excellent after a week of warm, dry conditions. Montana’s crop dropped two points to 76% good/excellent, Oklahoma was unchanged at 56%, the Texas crop dropped two points to 41%, Colorado dropped four points to 47% good/excellent and Nebraska improved a point to 54%.

Nationally, sorghum was 94% harvested versus the 92% average.

Chlorpyrifos review causes concern

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released an updated assessment for chlorpyrifos. While EPA did propose modifying the scientific analysis used, the agency continues to recommend that chlorpyrifos be pulled from the market.

Chlorpyrifos is a “widely used and widely tested chemistry proven to be safe and effective for an array of commodities, specialty crops and public health uses throughout the United States,” industry groups said in comments to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. Chlorpyrifos is the active ingredient in Lorsban.

EPA’s release of documents to the federal docket is in regard to food-use tolerance revocations of chlorpyrifos. This proposed action follows a long review of chlorpyrifos that has included three separate Scientific Advisory Panels (SAPs), the first two held in 2008 and 2012 and the most recent in April 2016. All three SAPs came to the same conclusion, questioning EPA’s shift to the use of certain epidemiological study outcomes rather than toxicological data in human health risk assessments. In particular, the SAPs have cautioned EPA against using the study outcomes from the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health (CCCEH).

EPA has not consistently provided opportunity for stakeholder input and, generally, has not responded to the thousands of comments that have been submitted on the chlorpyrifos docket, CropLife America (CLA) said in a statement.

“EPA’s most recent move represents a major proposed action that sets a precedent of using study outcomes for regulatory decision-making in lieu of laboratory data. This change in approach creates an unpredictable system for companies that have put hundreds of millions of dollars and decades of work into ensuring their products meet the highest human health and safety requirements,” Jay Vroom, president and chief executive officer of CLA, said. “Upon examination of the 55 documents, the decision to continue on the path toward the revocation of a vital crop protection product seems to have been made with almost no new relevant information to back the result.”

“EPA stated that it planned to revise its previous approach to drinking water assessment. Yet, upon initial review of the docket, nothing has changed to enhance the refinement of the models,” noted Dr. Janet Collins, CLA senior vice president of science and regulatory affairs. “The overly conservative assumptions used in both the human health and the drinking water assessments create unrealistic limitations to the use of chlorpyrifos. We are disappointed that EPA continues to use the epidemiological study reports from the literature to assess exposure and health outcome when, as they state, EPA does not have access to the data that can be used in a meaningful and relevant risk assessment. Rather, EPA has added assumptions based on expected use of chlorpyrifos with no record of actual use.”

Due to the volume of data added to the docket, CLA will need the full 60 days allotted to review the documents adequately and prepare comments, the industry group said.

This update was not a final decision and comments will be accepted until Jan. 17, 2017, at https://goo.gl/PmIuCZ. Under a court order, EPA has to issue a final decision on chlorpyrifos by March 21, 2017.

Commerce Department awards industry groups $260,000

Commerce Department awards industry groups $260,000

During the American Feed Industry Assn.'s (AFIA) annual Equipment Manufacturers Conference earlier this month in Tucson, Ariz., the U.S. Department of Commerce presented $260,112 to the American Society of Agricultural & Biological Engineers (ASABE) and AFIA as part of the International Trade Administration's Market Development Cooperative Program (MDCP). ASABE, AFIA and industry partners will match the award and then some, contributing $744,035 of their own funding, as each award winner pledges two-thirds of the project costs as well as making the commitment to sustain the project moving forward.

From left: AFIA members Mike Schuster, Laidig, Matt Podany, Chief Agri-Industrial, and Andrew Ellsworth, EBM, joined a group effort to raise money for the EMC scholarship fund through the annual golf tournament and putting contest.

The award will assist in the development of international standards for feed machinery, thus increasing trade exports through trade standardization. Funding will specifically be dedicated to education, outreach, training, preparation, coordination and travel support for U.S. feed machinery industry representatives engaged in international standards development. The award also includes financial and technical assistance from the International Trade Administration, which will support business plans that strengthen industry by elevating exports. This will be a factor in the creation of U.S. jobs through exports.

"AFIA and ASABE staff are extremely excited about the federal funding we will receive for our work on the ISO/TC-293 project, as it will assist us in our educational efforts as we seek to engage industry experts in the process," said Gary Huddleston, AFIA manager of feed manufacturing safety and environmental affairs. "We will also be able to use the funding to help offset some of the travel expenses incurred to get U.S. industry experts to the required ISO meetings."

"All of these efforts and activities will hopefully help ensure an outcome in this standards work that will be beneficial to U.S. feed equipment manufacturers," he stated.

A formal presentation took place at the conference on Nov. 4, with DOC and ASABE representatives in attendance to announce the award and answer questions following Huddleston's presentation on ISO/TC-293, an initiative in which AFIA is heavily involved. Huddleston is chairman for ISO/TC-293's Technical Advisory Group.

The annual four-person golf scramble tournament and putting contest was held to raise funds for the Equipment Manufacturers Committee Scholarship Fund. Participants made donations through a raffle for items donated by Maxi-Lift Inc./Southwest Agri-Plastics Inc., as well as various opportunities connected with the golf tournament. The donation and event proceeds, which total more than $3,400, will be contributed to the scholarship fund.

Marine microalgae may have potential as new food, fuel source

Taken from the bottom of the marine food chain, microalgae may soon become a top-tier contender to combat global warming, climate change and food insecurity, according to a Cornell University study published in the December issue of Oceanography.

"We may have stumbled onto the next green revolution," said Charles H. Greene, professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at Cornell, and lead author of the new paper, "Marine Microalgae: Climate, Energy & Food Security From the Sea."

The study presents an overview of the concept of large-scale industrial cultivation of marine microalgae (ICMM).

ICMM could reduce fossil fuel use by supplying liquid hydrocarbon biofuels for the aviation and cargo shipping industries. The biomass of microalgae remaining after the lipids have been removed for biofuels can then be made into nutritious animal feeds or perhaps consumed by people, Greene said.

To make the biofuel, scientists harvest freshly grown microalgae, remove most of the water and then extract the lipids for the fuel. The remaining defatted biomass is a protein-rich and highly nutritious byproduct — one that can be added to feeds for domesticated farm animals, like chickens and pigs, or aquacultured animals, like salmon and shrimp.

Growing enough algae to meet the current global liquid fuel demand would require an area of about 800,000 sq. miles, or slightly less than three times the size of Texas. At the same time, 2.4 billion tons of protein co-product would be generated, which is roughly 10 times the amount of soy protein produced globally each year.

Marine microalgae do not compete with terrestrial agriculture for arable land, nor does growing it require freshwater. Many arid, subtropical regions — such as Mexico, North Africa, the Middle East and Australia — would provide suitable locations for producing vast amounts of microalgae, Cornell said.

A commercial microalgae facility of about 2,500 acres would cost about $400 million to $500 million. "That may seem like a lot of money, but integrated solutions to the world's greatest challenges will pay for themselves many times over during the remainder of this century, Greene said. "The costs of inaction are too steep to even contemplate."

Microalgae's potential is striking. "I think of algae as providing food security for the world," Greene said. "It will also provide our liquid fuels needs, not to mention its benefits in terms of land use. We can grow algae for food and fuels in only (0.1-0.01 of) the amount of land we currently use to grow food and energy crops.

"We can relieve the pressure to convert rainforests to palm plantations in Indonesia and soy plantations in Brazil," Greene said. "We got into this looking to produce fuels, and in the process, we found an integrated solution to so many of society's greatest challenges."

Canada continues bovine TB investigation

In late September, the U.S. Department of Agriculture notified the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) that a case of bovine tuberculosis (TB) was detected in a cow from Alberta when it was slaughtered in the U.S.

CFIA said a team of investigators was immediately mobilized to manage the agency's initial investigation and response to the finding. On Oct. 24, the operations center in Calgary, Alb., was fully activated. CFIA's emergency response plans are scalable depending on the nature of the event. Additional communication and logistical support was added when the National Emergency Operations Centre was activated.

According to a recent update from CFIA, there are currently 34 farms in Alberta and two farms in Saskatchewan under CFIA quarantine and movement controls.

To date, there are six confirmed cases of bovine TB, including the index cow that was confirmed to have the disease when it was slaughtered in the U.S. All confirmed cases are from the one infected herd located on three separate premises in Alberta. All of the cattle from the herd are in the process of being removed from the premises and humanely destroyed.

While there are no confirmed cases of bovine TB in Saskatchewan, CFIA said the animals on the quarantined farms in that province have been in contact with the infected herd and are, therefore, subject to movement controls.

Of the animals CFIA has tested to date, 52 showed a response to initial testing and then received a postmortem examination. The postmortem revealed that 12 of these animals had gross lesions compatible with bovine TB. The tissue samples from these animals were sent to the lab for examination. Laboratory results confirmed that the lesions seen in five of the animals are consistent with bovine TB. Five animals had polymerase chain reaction results that were positive for Mycobacterium tuberculosis complex, presumptive Mycobacterium bovis.

These positive test results indicate that transmission among animals has occurred, and CFIA is currently conducting a risk assessment to determine how these results affect the investigation and whether or not additional herds may be declared infected.

The increase in the number of infected animals has no effect on food safety. This is because all animals are examined for signs of disease at slaughter. Any animal that shows signs of disease, like the lesions associated with bovine TB, is condemned, and meat from that animal will not be sold for human consumption. The practice of conducting a postmortem examination on each animal slaughtered has been standard in Canada since the 1930s and is not a new measure applied in light of the recently discovered situation in Alberta.

To date, there have been no impacts on trade.

CFIA said it will update its website on a regular basis as new information regarding the investigation becomes available.

Mechanism identified in fight against pathogens

Research from the University of Southampton, in collaboration with colleagues at A*STAR in Singapore, has provided a new understanding of a protein that plays an important role in protecting bacterial cells associated with harmful infections.

Understanding the protein's protective mechanism could help in the development of new antibacterial agents.

The protein, called OmpA, is found in the outer cell membranes of many species of Gram-negative bacteria, which are responsible for a number of bacterial infections that affect humans, animals and plants.

A highly complex cell envelope protects these bacteria from the presence of naturally occurring antimicrobial compounds and conditions that could cause sudden, potentially damaging changes in the cell volume. The envelope is composed of outer and inner membranes separated by a region known as the "periplasmic space," which is composed largely of a molecule called peptidoglycan that forms an extended "mesh." This is often referred to as the cell wall.

Using computer simulations, the researchers found that portions of OmpA act as a link between the outer membrane and the cell wall and spontaneously adjust to provide flexible mechanical support, which is important when encountering environmental stress.

Lead author Syma Khalid, professor of computational biophysics within chemistry at the University of Southampton, said, "If we are to design novel antibiotics that will either destroy the protective cell envelope of harmful Gram-negative bacteria or gain access to the interior of the cell by crossing the cell envelope, we must first understand how the structure of the cell envelope enables it to carry out its protective functions. Of fundamental importance is to understand how the cell wall is connected to the inner and outer membranes.

"We now know which portions of the protein would make ideal targets for novel drugs or peptides designed to disrupt the protective cell envelope of these bacteria," Khalid added.

The research, which was funded by the U.K.'s Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council, was published in the journal Structure.

Wild hogs cost South Carolina landowners $115m

wild hogs

Feral hogs are a $115 million problem for the South Carolina’s agriculture, livestock and timber industries, according to a Clemson University study on landowners’ perceived damages from the invasive animals.

This is the first time a comprehensive dollar figure has been attached to the ecological and industry damages in the state caused by wild hogs, which reproduce rapidly and are growing in numbers.

Invasive feral hogs are trapped on a rural property. Image Credit: Susan Sullivan.

“They are ecological zombies. They eat everything. They eat deer fawn. They uproot endangered salamanders. They eat ground-nesting birds and their eggs. They really eat anything,” said Shari Rodriguez, report author and assistant professor in the forestry and environmental conservation department.

The hogs also prey on wildlife and livestock and consume large amounts of agricultural crops and seeds, sprouts and seedlings, which disrupts reforestation. Their rooting, wallowing and nesting behaviors decrease water quality and promote soil erosion. They can also spread diseases like pseudorabies and brucellosis, which can spread to humans.

“It is shocking how many diseases they carry,” Rodriguez said. “They are vectors for a lot of diseases that can be passed on to livestock or other wild animals, too. It’s best to wear gloves when handling them.”

Rodriguez surveyed 2,500 farmers and rural members of the South Carolina Farm Bureau (SCFB) to better understand their perceptions of wild hogs and the cost of damage caused by these invasive pigs brought to North America by European settlers centuries ago to hunt.

Rodriguez’s report estimates perceived damages based on survey responses but does not report actual damages. The nearly 750 survey responses gave Rodriguez a basis to estimate overall damages in the state, however, and provides insights on landowners’ views on feral hogs and how they control them.

The report estimates $44 million in damage to crops, livestock and timber across the state. Landowners reported another $71 million in non-crop losses from damage to wildlife food plots, streams, ponds, wetlands, equipment, vehicles, unpaved roads, fire lanes and landscaping.

Despite the steep costs of damage, respondents reported very little investment in hog control, such as trapping or fencing.

“They need to be eradicated, not just controlled,” said Marion Barnes, a senior agent with the Clemson Cooperative Extension Service. “They’re a nuisance wildlife and they need to be treated as such. I deal with the destructive nature of them day after day when I visit farms and see what they do to corn crops and peanut crops. I’ve got nothing good to say about feral hogs.”

An estimated 130,000 to 140,000 wild hogs live in South Carolina, an increase of around 30% over the past decade, said Charles Ruth, wildlife biologist with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. Hogs tend to be densely populated and can cause severe damage to one landowner’s property while a landowner just a few miles away may have no hog problem at all, he said.

Feral hogs have been present in South Carolina for centuries, Ruth said, but were once confined to coastal regions of the state and controlled locally. Now hogs are establishing themselves in new areas as people catch, transport and release them for hunting, Ruth said. State law prohibits the release of hogs in the wild as well as the removal of live hogs from forests without a permit, Ruth said.

SCFB advocates legislation to require domestic hogs be certified and tagged when transported to market, which could close a loophole some use to relocate feral hogs, said Gary Spires, director of government relations at SCFB.

“Over the last several years, we have seen more and more acreage being affected by wild hogs,” he said. “They tear up crops and damage fields. In some cases, farmers have to go in and repair the field because damage has been getting so bad. The other thing that we are very, very fearful of is the spread of disease. Our livestock folks are very aware of that.”

Feral hogs are intelligent animals that can adapt to trapping methods, Rodriguez said.

“If you don’t remove the entire population in that sounder (herd), you’ve just educated the hogs that didn’t get trapped. Once you’ve failed to catch the whole sounder in a particular trap setup, you’d better switch the trap setup if you hope to capture the rest,” she said.

Feral hogs reach sexual maturity at just six months of age and can reproduce three times a year with an average litter size of five, though litters range from one to 13 piglets, Rodriguez said. Adult hogs have few native predators. Beyond alligators in the lower part of the state, humans are the only native predators of adult wild hogs, she said.

“Those biological characteristics contribute to the knowledge that their population is going to grow exponentially and already is growing exponentially,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez’s report indicates that rural property owners view wild hogs as more of a nuisance than a beneficial animal to hunt. She said a comprehensive study on actual damages from wild hogs would be advantageous in understanding the threat to the state’s $41.7 billion agriculture and forestry industry or the need to pursue new methods of control or eradication.

Smithfield to acquire Clougherty Packing from Hormel

Smithfield Foods smithfield foods logo

Smithfield Foods Inc. has begun the process to acquire Clougherty Packing LLC from Hormel Foods Corp. Through this agreement -- which is expected to be completed within a month, pending closing conditions and regulatory approvals -- Smithfield will add the Farmer John and Saag's Specialty Meats brands to its lineup, as well as two processing facilities and three farms to its operations.

"By folding Farmer John into our operations, we are better positioned to take advantage of our long-term strategic growth goals, which includes an increasingly diversified customer and consumer base and greater supply chain efficiency," said Kenneth Sullivan, president and chief executive officer of Smithfield Foods. "As we continue this transition and expand our operations, we are proud to welcome these new West Coast employees into our growing Smithfield family."

Clougherty Packing, based in southern California, is a leading integrated producer and processor of a full line of branded pork products. Founded in 1931, Farmer John is the number-one bacon and sausage brand in southern California. Saag's Specialty Meats is a premium brand of deli meat and specialty sausage made without any artificial flavors, colors, fillers, extenders or monosodium glutamate. Along with two California-based processing facilities, Smithfield will acquire three PFFJ LLC farms located in Arizona, California and Wyoming. Altogether, the operations will add 2,000 employees, growing Smithfield's total workforce to 52,000.

“We appreciate the Farmer John, Saag’s and PFFJ employees’ dedication and commitment to their customers and consumers. While the businesses have performed well, they no longer align with our company’s growth strategies,” said Jim Snee, president and CEO of Hormel Foods. “This divestiture also allows for the integration of the pork processing facility at Farmer John with the majority of the live production operations which supply the facility, and are currently owned by Smithfield. We will work together to ensure a smooth transition for our employees and customers.” 

The purchase price for Clougherty Packing is $145 million, pending capital adjustments at closing. The transaction is expected to take place within the next 30 days, pending customary closing conditions and regulatory approvals.

Hawaii counties don't have authority to ban GMO crops

Although attempts to ban or impose restrictions on genetically-modified organisms (GMO)have been made in three Hawaii counties (Hawaii, Maui and Kauai), all ordinances that passed in these counties have been struck down in the federal district court, and Friday that court’s decision was upheld on appeal in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. 

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals backed lower court decisions knocking down county-level GMO bans in Kauai, Maui and Hawaii, finding that the state's pesticide law did not allow for the local restrictions. The Court ruled that the U.S. Department of Agriculture alone has the authority to regulate field trials and experimental GE crops; neither states nor local governments can ban or approve. Hawaii is commonly used for experimental plots by the major seed companies because of the year-long growing season.

Agrigenetics, Inc. (a company affiliated with Dow AgroSciences LLC), DuPont Pioneer and Syngenta jointly filed a complaint in U.S. District Court in Honolulu, Hawaii, against the County of Kaua‘i for violating the United States and Hawaii Constitutions, multiple federal and state laws and the Kaua‘i County Charter in the enactment of Bill 2491. On February 7, an amended complaint was filed, adding BASF to the complaint.

In November 2014, a voter initiative passed in Maui to ban all GMO crops, current and future. And, on the Big Island of Hawaii, the county council banned any new GMO crops from being planted, with the exception of current papaya and floral operations. However, farmers would find themselves breaking the law if they plant any more acres than they currently have. Both ordinances were invalidated in federal court, and these decisions, including the Kauai decision, were under consideration in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

“We welcome the protection that this decision provides Hawaii’s hard-working farmers and growers (including our fellow plaintiffs), for standing up for science and for supporting continued innovation in agriculture.  Although we continue to review and consider the decision, we believe that the court of appeals was correct in its conclusion that Hawaii County lacks the legal authority to regulate in this area,” said Karen Batra, spokesperson for the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO).

Batra added, “Agricultural biotechnology has contributed to modern farming solutions that have enabled farmers to grow more food on less land with fewer pesticide applications, less water and reduced on-farm fuel use.”

Supporters of the ban saw victory in the ruling as well. Of significance to state and local communities throughout the United States, the Ninth Circuit ruled that federal law—specifically, the Plant Protection Act—does not prohibit states and counties from passing local laws to regulate and ban commercially-grown GE crops.

They explained that the Court ruled that under Hawai‘i law, counties and municipalities do not have the authority to regulate GE crops (as some in other states do), and that Hawai‘i state law places such authority in the hands of the State alone.

“We believe that when Hawai‘i’s state courts have an opportunity, they will reject the Ninth Circuit’s conclusion on this point and allow Hawai‘i’s people to protect themselves, since the State certainly hasn’t protected them,” said Earthjustice attorney Paul Achitoff.

“We are extremely disappointed with the ruling that some experimental GE field trials can only be regulated by USDA, and are considering all legal options. Most importantly, we continue to stand and fight with the people of Hawai?i against these chemical companies,” said George Kimbrell, senior attorney for the Center for Food Safety.

Attorneys with Center for Food Safety and Earthjustice, who represented local residents, conservation groups, and Hawai‘i County in the proceedings, said they are “analyzing the full scope of the court’s decisions and will be considering options that would protect Hawai‘i’s people, farms and the environment.”