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Industry-in-Brief: Freight Farms Receives NASA Grant, White House Launches Microbiome Initiative, more

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Freight Farms Receives NASA Grant

Freight Farms, a containerized farming company, has received a NASA Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) grant to fund work alongside Clemson University in exploring growing food to extreme climates. The funding also involves the development of a Freight Farms Self-Sustaining Crop Production Unit for both NASA applications in deep space, as well as for the commercial market by providing a secure source of food regardless of climate, terrain, energy infrastructure, or available land. The unit will be designed along the lines of Freight Farms’ Leafy Green Machine.

NASA’s Ames Research Center in California manages the STTR grant program, which encourages small businesses and research institutions to conduct federal research and industrial commercialization. Through the development of an off-grid crop production unit, Freight Farms will directly support NASA’s goals of deep space exploration through manned missions. The proposed innovations could also be applied to other industries in need of a stable food supply, such as disaster relief, military bases, mining and offshore industries, or remote living in harsh climates. On-site food production reduces cost and security risk of transport, food spoilage due to travel, and any dependency on traditional logistics.

Freight Farms has raised nearly $5 million in funding from investors including Spark Capital.

The White House Launches National Microbiome Initiative

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, in collaboration with Federal agencies and private-sector stakeholders, has unveiled a new National Microbiome Initiative (NMI). The NMI aims to advance understanding of microbiomes in order to aid the development of useful applications in areas such as health care, food production, and environmental restoration. Microbiomes are the communities of microorganisms that live on or in people, plants, soil, oceans, lakes, rocks, and the atmosphere. Recent discoveries have generated a new view of the biological world, one that recognizes that plants and animals are actually meta-organisms containing one or many microbial species.

The NMI will have three goals: (1) supporting interdisciplinary research to answer fundamental questions about microbiomes in diverse ecosystems; (2) developing platform technologies that will generate insights and help share knowledge of microbiomes in diverse ecosystems and enhance access to microbiome data; and (3) expanding the microbiome workforce through citizen science and educational opportunities.

Report: GE Foods are Good for the Environment

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released a new report concluding that food products derived from genetically modified crops are not only safe, but beneficial for the environment. The report is targeted to a broad audience, including industry professionals, consumers, and scientists. The report involved commentary from 80 different speakers, a review of over 900 reports, and commentary from 700 public members about GE crops. Among their many conclusions, the researchers found that GMOs have no large-scale health impacts, increase some vitamin and nutrient content for certain foods, and help farmers fight pest-caused crop loss. It also noted, however, that in some cases genetic material transmutes to nearby wild forages and that pests can develop a resistance to the technologies.

FDA Unveils Rules for Nutritional Labeling on Food 

The FDA has unveiled new rules that will effect a substantial overhaul of the nutrition facts panel on food packaging and the longstanding “reference amounts customarily consumed,” more commonly referred to as serving sizes. The new rules bring many changes. For starters, the calories and servings information will be displayed more prominently in larger text, serving sizes will be increased to more accurately reflect the amounts that people typically consume in a sitting, and a dual column layout will feature both the nutrition information for a single serving and the entire package. This represents the first major makeover for the label in over two decades. Manufacturers with over $10 million in annual food sales have until July 26, 2018 to comply, while those under $10 million have until July 26, 2019. Read about the new rules here and here.

Canada Approves Genetically Engineered Salmon

Canada’s health ministry has approved genetically engineered AquAvantage salmon for human consumption, marking the first time a transgenic animal will be allowed in Canadian supermarkets and restaurants. AquaBounty, which grows its GE fish in hatcheries in Canada, received US approval of the fast-growing salmon just six months earlier. Similar to criticisms from US consumers and industry observers, many decried the Canadian government’s decision not to impose a mandatory labeling requirement on the salmon. According to Health Canada’s current regulations, a genetically modified food must only be labeled if there is a proven health risk, i.e., an allergen, or where its nutritional value has been changed significantly. After US approval came down, Alaskan Senator Lisa Murkowski levied a war against the FDA’s approval of the pejoratively nicknamed “Frankenfish.” The agency has finally accepted an amendment proposed by the Senator for the third year in a row that will require AquAvantage salmon to be labeled in the US.

Relaxed Rules on Crowdfunding Promote Mixed Reviews

New rules from the US Securities and Exchange Commission under the JOBS Act took effect last week, allowing businesses to accept equity investments for up to $1 million from non-accredited investors. Previously, only accredited investors — those with a net worth of $1 million+ or an annual income of over $200,000 — could invest. The new regulation – Title III – includes a number of other components that appear attractive to businesses. Companies looking to raise less than $500k and the majority of first-time issuers are only required to provide unaudited financial statements in lieu of audited ones. Many folks are keeping a close eye on how the rules play out during the first few months, with some observers already placing their bets on whether the rules will have a substantial or welcomed impact. Crowdfunding platform WeFunder initiated a campaign under Title III with Taxa Biotechnologies, a GM products company.

The Safety Debate over Roundup Takes a Rollercoaster Ride

Whether Roundup is safe has catapulted into the media spotlight during recent weeks as a number of health organizations and researchers take stances on the controversial glyphosate-based agricultural chemical. The World Health Organization’s Joint Meeting on Pesticide Residues concluded this week that glyphosate, the main ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup, is “unlikely to cause cancer in people via dietary exposure.” This statement directly contravenes another finding from a WHO body, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, which announced that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

In a blog posted Monday, Monsanto’s vice president for global regulatory and government affairs Phil Miller referred to the JMPR’s decision as exoneration for the global ag company. “Based on the overwhelming weight of evidence, the JMPR has reaffirmed the findings of regulatory agencies around the world that glyphosate is unlikely to pose a cancer risk,” Miller wrote.

Meanwhile, a group of farm workers in Nebraska have filed a federal lawsuit against Monsanto alleging that Roundup caused them to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The complaint alleges that Monsanto engaged in deliberate misrepresentation when it came to warning farmers about the dangers of using Roundup and purposely misled consumers about its safety. Monsanto has adamantly denied allegations linking cancer to its glyphosate-based products, standing by its assertion that Roundup is “safe enough to drink,” which the farmers highlight in their complaint.

Enforcement of GM Labeling Law Relaxed for First Year

With only 41 days until Vermont’s mandatory GMO labeling law takes effect, food companies are scrambling to figure out what they’ll need to accomplish before July 1, 2016 to be within compliance. The Vermont Attorney General’s office released an annotated version of the landmark rule along with a memo outlining the office’s enforcement priorities in the first few months of the rule’s lifetime. Between July 1, 2016, and June 30, 2017, companies found to be in violation of the mandatory labeling requirement will have 30 days to come into compliance before the AG’s office takes any enforcement action against the manufacturer. Perhaps more importantly, the right of individuals to bring a private cause of action for violations of the law has been delayed until 2017.  These updates provide industry with a bit more breathing room as they adjust to the new rule without compromising the main intent behind the legislation.

Meanwhile on Capitol Hill, legislators are rumored to still be working on a compromise bill that would enact a federal regulatory scheme for GMO labeling. If successful, the federal law would preempt Vermont’s legislation and any other state-based efforts to control GMO labeling.

Other News That’s Fit to Chew:

  • Amazon is debuting a series of new private-label food products.
  • Prince Charles uses homeopathy and other alternative management practices for his organic sheep and cattle farm, reports The Guardian.
  • Children of farm workers in Salinas are landing high-tech jobs through intensive degree programs, reports NPR.

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Image credit: Freight Farms

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