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All the News That’s Fit to Eat: Poultry Processing, Vermont’s GMO Labeling Bill, and Open Source Seeds

1. USDA Criticized for “Misleading” Claims about Worker Safety in Poultry Plants (Washington Post)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) plan to speed up poultry processing lines by up to 25 percent has faced fierce opposition from food safety, worker rights, and animal rights advocates since the proposal was first floated in 2012. Now, the agency is under fire from another federal agency, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), for claiming that a recent NIOSH study shows that increased line speeds pose no additional risk to workers. NIOSH Director Josh Howard has called USDA’s conclusion “misleading.” The study, which found that rates of carpal tunnel syndrome among workers in one South Carolina poultry plant stayed roughly the same over a ten month period, is simply not extensive enough to substantiate USDA’s claims.

2. White House Pressed to Protect Ailing Monarch Butterflies (New York Times/Dot Earth)

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This year, the area in Mexico that Monarch butterflies covered after migrating was only 1.65 acres, the smallest ever. In 1996, the butterflies covered 45 acres.

The Monarch butterfly is in trouble. It’s numbers have declined by a whopping 90 percent over the last 20 years as milkweeds, a once-prominent part of the rural landscape, have also disappeared. Monarch caterpillars eat exclusively milkweeds, but the heavy herbicide use associated with large monoculture farming has led to a sterile farm landscape, free of many pollinators and the plants that feed them. This week, a group of farmers, scientists, and other butterfly lovers, lead by Gary Paul Nabhan, sent a letter (PDF) to the President and the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior, asking for changes in ag and land management in the Monarch’s famous migration path. Here’s more about what farmers can do to help the Monarchs.

3. Mandatory GMO Labeling Bill Passed In Vermont Senate, Could Be Nation’s First
(Reuters)

This small New England state is on the way to doing something pretty big. As you might have heard, the Vermont State Senate passed a mandatory GMO labeling bill on Wednesday. It had already passed through the House in May and it could end up on the governor’s desk as soon as next week. Barring any unexpected hiccups, Vermont will become the first state to enact a labeling law in June 2016. (The bills passed in Maine and Connecticut in 2013 both include a “trigger clause” meaning that other states around them must pass similar bills before they go into effect.) The lawmakers behind the bill are anticipating lawsuits, but they’ve also “adding language to the bill that they hope will provide an iron-clad legal justification for the measure,” reports Politico. (For more on state-by-state GMO labeling, see our story from earlier this week: GMO Labeling Update: State Efforts Pick Up Momentum, Big Ag Doubles Down).

4. Kitchens Could Be Sources of Drug-Resistant Bacteria (Reuters)

Is there a “nightmare superbug” lurking on your cutting board? Researchers in Switzerland collected used cutting boards from their hospital kitchen and found that 6.5 percent harbored a strain of drug-resistant E. coli, compared to 3.5 percent of boards from private homes. The proliferation of  such superbugs is due in large part to the overuse of antibiotics in the livestock and poultry industries (growth-promoting antibiotic treatment is illegal in the European Union and is being phased out in the U.S., though “therapeutic” treatment is still allowed). In the kitchen, bacteria from meat and poultry can easily spread to other foods through contact with contaminated cutting boards and gloves. To keep your kitchen free from superbugs, Lance Price of George Washington University recommends using a dedicated cutting board for meat and poultry and washing used boards with hot water and detergent.

5. Cow Fartpacks Are Here (Outside)

The White House recently took a stand on dairy sector greenhouse gas emissions (that is, cow farts) as part of its climate change mitigation strategy, planning to reduce methane production by 25 percent by 2020. Meanwhile, a team of scientists from Argentina may have found a creative way to get the ball rolling. Meet the cow “fartpack,” an apparatus that siphons up to 300 liters of methane from a cow’s rumen and converts it to energy. While the new invention shows promise, when it comes to its potential to help the administration reach its ambitious goal, you might actually want to hold your breath.

6. How Buying Local Food Grows Local Economies (EcoWatch)

Farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture, farm stands–what kind of impact does direct-to-consumer agriculture have on local economies? A new study from Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences found that local agriculture has a positive effect on total agricultural sales in certain parts of the country, particularly the Northeast and Midwest. Furthermore, total agricultural sales are linked to an increase in individual income levels nationwide, an indicator of overall economic growth. These results suggest that local agriculture, albeit a small fraction of the overall U.S. economy, can make a strong impact on economic vitality at the community level.

7. Open Source Seed Initiative Aims to Preserve Seeds for All of Us (NPR)

Earlier this week, a group of activists and plant breeders made 29 varieties of crops available as “open source seeds” that can’t be patented, licensed, or otherwise turned into someone’s intellectual property. The effort is part of a larger campaign to encourage growers to share seeds, knowledge, and practices with one another and to combat the increasing privatization of the seed industry. Seed companies typically patent their products, which ensures that growers have to continue buying seeds year after year if they want to keep growing the same crops. Food justice advocates argue that defending seeds from corporate patents is critical to maintaining a safe, healthy food supply and preserving cultural traditions.

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