Industry-in-Brief: CRISPR Mushrooms Avoid USDA Regulation, Google Earth Partners with FAO, more

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GAO Criticizes USDA’s Lacking Regulation of CRISPR Mushrooms

The USDA has said that it will not exercise its regulatory authority over a new mushroom developed using the CRISPR-Cas 9 gene-editing technology. This is the first organism to come under the USDA’s scrutiny, making it a major precedent-setting decision for the biotech industry. To create the mushroom, a plant pathologist at Penn State University deleted one of six genes in a white button mushroom that causes the fungus to brown over time, reducing enzyme activity by nearly a third. In a letter to the Penn State researchers, USDA’s Biotechnology Regulatory Service head Michael Firko stated that because the fungus doesn’t contain agrobacterium it does not need the department’s stamp of approval.

The same day that the department mailed its letter to Penn State, the Government Accountability Office issued a report expressing concerns over how the USDA is handling the regulation of GE organisms. The report recommends that the USDA create a timeline for updating its regulations to reflect better the diverse range of technologies that are emerging in the field of biotechnology. It also urged the agency to include farmers growing biotech crops in its survey to gain a better understanding of the impacts of unintended GE and non-GE crop mixing.

Google and FAO Partner on Satellite Imagery

Google Maps and the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) are teaming up to make geospatial tracking and mapping products more accessible to countries fighting climate change and experts crafting forest and land-use policies.

The FAO Collect Earth application builds on top of Google Earth and Earth Engine to provide a simple global and national forest carbon monitoring tool. We look forward to further strengthening this partnership in support of global climate action and sustainable development.” During the three-year partnership, Google Maps will provide 1,200 trusted tester credentials on Google Earth Engine to FAO staff and partners while also providing training and receiving feedback on users’ needs and experiences. FAO will train its staff and technical experts in member countries to use its Open Foris Initiative and Google Earth.

Chinese Citizens Protest Chem China’s Syngenta Acquisition

Four hundred Chinese citizens have penned a letter protesting the merger of Swiss-based pesticide and seed company Syngenta and government-owned Chem-China indicating that the deal would foster the widespread cultivation of genetically engineered crops across China’s landscape. Announced in February 2016, Chem China is set to acquire Syngenta for $43 billion making it China’s largest acquisition of a foreign company. The move was made in part to help the country get a grip on food security as its population continues to rise. China has been skeptical of GMO crops, allowing imports of GMOs solely for animal feed and prohibiting the human consumption of GE foods except for papayas and cooking oils. This week, however, a Chinese agriculture official endorsed the mass-production of genetically-engineered crops.

Also in February 2016, Monsanto announced that it received import approval from China for its new GE Roundup Ready 2 Xtend soybeans. The country’s agricultural land is in bad shape, however, after extensive overproduction, overuse of fertilizers and pesticides, and contaminated water. Some Chinese officials believe GE crops may be a way to overcome these hurdles while boosting production. Some groups have already announced their opposition to the FDA’s withdrawal, including animal drug manufacturer Phibro Animal Health Corp, which has requested a hearing to contest the move.

Farm Subsidy Payments Set to Reach $14bn

This year will mark the third straight year of negative incomes for farmers. The downturn is a result of sustained low commodity prices. As a result, farmers may cut down on their purchases of fertilizer and other inputs, seek out cheaper seed, and attempt to negotiate down the cost of their land leases. Earlier this week, Bloomberg reported that nearly $14 billion of farmers’ net income this year will come from federal payments, constituting roughly 25 percent of total estimated farm profits ($54.8 billion.) What could all this mean for investment in agtech and farmers’ adoption of new and existing technologies? Find out in AgFunderNews’ recent interview with a Rabobank senior research analyst.

FDA Announces Withdrawal of Swine Drug Carbadox Over Carcinogenic Residue Concerns

The US Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Veterinary Medicine has started the process of withdrawing its support for carbadox, a drug administered to combat bacterial infections in pigs, especially targeting swine dysentery. This resulted from concerns that the drug leaves trace amounts of carcinogenic residue. Canada banned the use of carbadox as a feed additive in 2004 due to such concerns around carcinogens and because studies showed drug-induced birth defects. The European Union and Australia have also banned the use of carbadox outright. Current US laws allow the administration of carbadox in swine up to 42 days before slaughter.

Vermont to Target Willful Violators of GMO Labeling Law

With roughly 75 days until Vermont’s mandatory GMO labeling law takes effect, the state has confirmed that it will only target violations that appear willful in nature. The law also includes a safe harbor provision for food products that were manufactured and distributed before July 1, 2016. The safe harbor isn’t indefinite, however, giving these non-compliant foods a six-month pass. Food companies in violation of the law will be slapped with a fine of up to $1,000 per product, per day. Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, legislators are still racing to try and pass a federal GMO labeling bill that would preempt Vermont’s law and thwart other legislative efforts to require the mandatory labeling of products containing GMOs in other states.

According to a report from the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, farmers in the US planted 2 million fewer hectares of genetically engineered crops during 2015 compared to 2014. Despite this, the nation still leads the world in biotech crop cultivation. Whether the reduction in biotech crops has anything to do with consumer scrutiny remains unclear.

Walmart Expands Curbside Grocery Pickup Service

As more retailers race to keep up with increasing demand for food e-commerce options, Walmart is expanding its curbside grocery pickup service in some cities across the United States. Customers can now knock off their grocery lists by tapping on products through the retailer’s mobile app and collect their goods at a drive-through window affixed to participating Walmart locations. The latest markets to join Walmart’s curbside service include Kansas City; Boise, Idaho; Richmond and Virginia Beach, Virginia; Austin, Texas; Provo, Utah; Daphne, Alabama; and Charleston, South Carolina. A full list of the regions offering this new service can be found here.

Other News That’s Fit to Chew:

  • Kraft Heinz is launching its Cracker Barrel brand into the macaroni and cheese segment with a ‘premium’ line featuring liquid cheese.
  • Chinese seed thieves have raised Iowa corn farmers’ concerns over protecting their GMO seed varieties.
  • The Guardian reports that two-thirds of Europeans support a ban on glyphosate.
  • Whole Foods, the infamously pricey health food store, is launching a budget-friendly spinoff, Fast Company reports.

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