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December 2014

Latest Research Studies and Reports

Neonicotinoid-coated soybean seeds provide little benefit
Mounting scientific literature regarding neonicotinoid pesticides is finding they contaminate our rivers and streams, and likely play an important role in causing colony collapse disorder. One of the primary ways these pesticides enter the environment is through genetically modified soybean seeds coated with the pesticide prior to planting. Now, a new peer-reviewed report by the Biological and Economic Analysis Division of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has concluded these seed treatments do not provide any significant benefit, with data indicating that there was no difference in yield when comparing treated and untreated seeds. Also, as currently used, the pesticides are present in the soybean leaf during a time when most destructive pests are not active. “U.S. soybean growers derive limited to no benefit from neonicotinoid seed treatments in most instances,” the report says, adding, “Usage of neonicotinoid seed treatments does not protect soybean yield any better than doing no pest control.”
 
Pollinators increase with landscape diversity on organic farms
In a recent study published in Agriculture Ecosystems and the Environment, scientists found that pollinator services to crops on organic farms increased when habitat heterogeneity was increased, but this same trend was not seen on conventionally farmed land. Researchers compared pod development in beans on conventional farms and organic farms surrounded by varying amounts heterogeneous habitat depending on the amount of surrounding land set aside to grow hay or grass. Pots of beans were then placed in each field and monitored for indicators of successful pollination in the number of bean pods that developed as well as the total number of beans per pod. Overall, organic farms had more pods per plant than conventional fields, suggesting that more successful pollination occurred in organic fields. Also, as the amount of habitat heterogeneity increased, so did the number of beans in each pod—demonstrating that pollination services in organic fields also increased as the landscape became more diverse. Surprisingly, this increase in pollination services with habitat heterogeneity was not observed in conventional farms. The authors hypothesized that it may be that organic farming is simply friendlier towards pollinators because it does not use synthetic herbicides or fertilizers.

Pesticide use associated with diabetes in farmers wives
A recent study conducted by the National Institutes of Health and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill shows that pesticide use is associated with the development of diabetes. The Agricultural Health Study has followed more than 89,000 farmers and their spouses in Iowa and North Carolina since 1993 in order to better understand how agricultural work affects the health of farmers. Using data collected from this study, researchers found that of among more than 13,600 farmers’ wives who had ever mixed or used pesticides, five of those pesticides (Fonofos, Phorate, parathion, dieldrin, and 2,4,5-T/2,4,5-TP) were associated with the development of diabetes. These results are consistent with other studies, and suggest that increased risk of diabetes in women and men is associated with the use of specific pesticides.

Latest Updates from The Organic Center

Discussing agricultural greenhouse mitigation
The Organic Center attended the meeting of the Coalition on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases to discuss effective ways to encourage voluntary agricultural greenhouse gas reductions. Stakeholders including scientists, agricultural producers, environmental NGOs and carbon market developers engaged in a dialog regarding the opportunities and challenges in implementing successful compliance carbon markets within the agricultural sector. The goal is to mitigate climate change while creating opportunities for agricultural producers.
 
Developing the 2015 Dietary Guidelines
The Organic Center continues to be involved with the development of the 2015 USDA Dietary Guidelines and recently attended the fifth meeting of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. The Center previously submitted comments to the subcommittee on food sustainability and safety supporting the health and environmental benefits of organic food and farming.
 
Organic projects shared at Tri-Societies Annual Meeting
Two of The Organic Center’s current project collaborators presented research at the Annual Meetings of the American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America, and Soil Science Society of America (Tri-Societies) last month in Long Beach, CA. Dr. Anna McClung of USDA’s Agricultural Research Service spoke about her collaboration with The Center examining methods for minimizing exposure to grain arsenic in organic rice production, and also reported on the effects of cover crop and soil amendment on organic rice production. In addition, Dr. Elham Ghabbour spoke on the National Soil Project to measure sequestered carbon contents of grassland and forest soil profiles. The National Soil Project is directed by Dr. Geoff Davies, who is currently collaborating with Dr. Ghabbour and The Organic Center on a project examining the benefits of organic agricultural practices on soil health. The Tri-Societies meeting included an international conference entitled “Organic Food Systems: Innovations in Organic Food Systems for Sustainable Production and Enhanced Ecosystem Services.” Speakers from 12 countries presented scientific innovations in organic agriculture, and discussed current knowledge and potential of organic food systems to enhance ecosystem services.
 
Collaborators present tool at the Nitrogen Footprint Network
Researchers collaborating with The Organic Center presented their research at the first annual meeting of the Nitrogen Footprint Network recently at the University of Virginia. The purpose of the workshop was to teach participants how to use the Nitrogen Footprint Tool, designed to measure the nitrogen footprint of a university or institution based on its energy use, food consumption, and other activities that directly or indirectly release reactive nitrogen to the environment. The tool was developed by a team at UVA led by James Galloway and Allison Leach, and its implementation led to a commitment by the Board of Visitors to reduce the university’s nitrogen footprint by 25 percent by 2025. This workshop represents the first step in expanding the tool to other universities and institutions, and will be followed by having participating universities develop their own nitrogen footprints to help develop a new version of the tool that is more generally applicable.  Dr. Galloway’s lab is currently working with The Organic Center on comparing organic versus conventional contributions to nitrogen pollution to quantify the environmental benefits of choosing organic.
 
Commitment to pollinator health
The Organic Center made strategy recommendations to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and USDA’s Pollinator Health Task Force on ways to restore the health of our pollinators. Most organic farming practices are less harmful to pollinator populations than conventional farming methods, and many are beneficial. Some of these techniques include using integrated pest management strategies to avoid the use of synthetic pesticides toxic to bees, particularly neonicotinoid-coated seeds which likely provide no benefit to farmers (see above).  Organic farms are also much more likely to utilize techniques such as crop rotation and hedge row cultivation that not only improve soil health and provide habitat for natural pest predators but also are beneficial to native bee populations by creating diverse habitat and food sources. By encouraging conventional farmers to adopt techniques already employed with success in organic systems, we can restore our pollinator populations.
 
Organic industry supports research on organic rice safety
A recent study release by Consumer Reports and covered by the Dr. Oz show analyzes data on arsenic levels in rice. The Organic Trade Association and The Organic Center have responded to this report by releasing a public statement, currently published on the Dr. Oz website, and providing members with an analysis of the report.  The organic industry is taking a proactive approach to decrease the already low levels of arsenic in rice by supporting research to understand the external factors affecting these levels. The goal is to develop improved rice varieties and rice-growing protocols to ensure that organic rice production maintains consistently low levels of arsenic. This research is guided by standards set by the Codex Alimentarius, a commission established by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Health Organization (WHO). It is important to point out that rice is still part of a healthy diet. Current research, such as the data reported by Consumer Reports, shows that the levels of arsenic found in domestic rice are below internationally established safety limits. Additionally, numerous studies have demonstrated the health benefits of diets high in whole grains including rice, and organizations such as the American Heart Association and the National Institutes of Health along with the U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend that consumers increase their consumption of these whole grains to improve their health.

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