SA Newsletter May 2000

Sustainable Agriculture Newsletter

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Sustainable Agriculture Newsletters Archive

College of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Sciences
Volume 8, Issue 5 – May 2000

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Diverse viewpoints aired at Biotechnology and Genomics Extension Conference

When the topic is biotechnology and genomics, is it possible to be objective? First, you need to “know your own hot spots,” said a participant at the recent Biotechnology and Genomics Extension Conference at the University of Minnesota.

The three-day session featured 20 presenters with opinions from A to Z on public impacts of biotechnology, benefits vs. risks and public concerns. Following are highlights from some of them, taken in the order they appeared on the program:

Nevin Young, (612-625-2225,, professor of Plant Pathology. Agro-ecology, population biology, and molecular genetics provide tools for objective assessment of environmental risks of GM-crops. Risks include genetic pollution (super weeds), harm to non-target species, creation of novel pathogens and unpredicted consequences. Benefits include easier and more profitable management for farmers, a shift to “safer” and possibly “fewer” environmental chemicals and unexpected benefits.

Genomics is different than genetic engineering. Genomics is like genetics—the scientific discipline that seeks to understand the structure and function of genes. Genetic engineering is like breeding—the use of genetic principles to create living organisms that are useful to people. Genomics research is creating a massive reservoir of functionally defined genes, providing the raw material for the future of genetic engineering.

Jim Riddle, (507-454-8310,, organic inspector from Winona, Minn. Science now shows that GE crops have unanticipated ecological impacts, are bad for the U.S. economy, have a negative impact on family farmers and are being rejected by consumers. Are U of M researchers encouraged to conduct “public interest” research, or are they funded to conduct “corporate interest” research? Insurance companies won’t insure biotech companies, and that “should tell you something.”

Loni Kemp, (507-743-8300,, Minnesota Project, Canton, Minn. GMOs pose more questions than answers. Kemp referred to “The Splice of Life,” a position paper on the implications of genetic engineering published by the Midwest Sustainable Agriculture Working Group. It recommends encouraging public dialogue around genetic engineering, since “GE technologies are evolving without broad public input or discussion.”

Noel Kjesbo, conventional grower, Wendell, Minn. The Extension Service is responsible for the food miracle in the U.S. I farm 2,000 acres, which is not “big” compared to my neighbors who farm 5,000, but I don’t want to be that big. Bt corn is worth about $12 per acre to me and GMO beans are worth about $15 per acre. GMOs give me flexibility and are worth defending against unfounded allegations.

Philip Regal, (612-624-6751,, professor of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior. The GMO issue has challenged some of the best minds in science for the past 16 years. Many GMOs ought to be, in theory, quite safe while others, in theory, could be quite dangerous. Questions about their safety are vested with questions about trust, scientific leadership, the media, corporate ambitions and the importance of democratic institutions. This issue will not blow over…Europeans are very well informed and they don’t trust U.S. products with GMOs. Farmers should not accept claims based on public relations information from industry.

Ken Keller, (612-626-9547,, professor and former president, University of Minnesota. The biotechnology and society issue can be summarized in five themes: Scientific uncertainty, political and ideological uncertainties, movement from a representative to direct democracy, ethics and ethical symbolism, and the “cautious road is still a road.” Uncertainty is not failure; because we don’t know everything doesn’t mean we don’t know anything. The cautious road is still a road and we need to move forward with caution.

Ron Phillips, (612-625-1213,, Regents professor and McKnight Presidential Chair in Genomics. Advances in DNA sequencing are coming much faster than predicted. In terms of public perception, in a recent poll of 600 adults some 40 percent did not approve of (even) traditional cross breeding and 20 percent thought it was morally wrong. There is no evidence that biotech foods are risky. We must weigh risk vs. opportunities; with some crops we are one gene away from disaster.

An air of excitement at Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference

A rapidly growing share of the food market and major revisions in proposed national organic standards were reasons for an “air of excitement” at the recent Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference in La Crosse, Wis.

Beth Nelson, coordinator of MISA’s Information Exchange who attended, says it was the largest organic conference in the country. In a keynote addresses, Mark Ritchie (Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy) said the “inevitability” of big business agriculture was a myth, witnessed by increased popularity of organic products and the growing organic movement.

Major concerns, Ritchie said, are whether the organic community will be able to keep up with increasing demand. More must be done to help farmers make the transition to organic practices and to support them during the three-year transition period. Ritchie also said Swiss Air had decided to use organic food since it was “the only way to guarantee no GMO’s.”

“This was clearly a conference put on by farmers for farmers,” Nelson says. Over 50 practical workshops were presented, with topics ranging from how to keep track of your audit trail, to processing your own milk or using cover crops. Audiotapes on all sessions are available. For more information, contact Nelson at (612) 625-8217, or

Emily Green new coordinator for Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships

The Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships are teams of citizens and U of M faculty and staff who organize themselves to identify and address issues important to bioregions in Minnesota. The new program coordinator is Emily Green, originally from St. Peter, Minn.

Green recently completed an M.S. in conservation biology from the U of M, where she conducted research on wetland restoration in agricultural landscapes. She has been the watershed program director for the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis and communications director for an environmental policy non-profit in Washington, D.C. For more information on the Regional Partnerships program, contact her at (612) 625-8759,

Greg Cuomo is new head of Morris Center

The new head of the U of M West Central Research and Outreach Center in Morris is Greg Cuomo, who previously served as a forage specialist there. Dean of the College of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Sciences Chuck Muscoplat says the search committee cited Cuomo “as the candidate most likely to provide unique approaches and solid solutions to agriculture’s challenges.”

Food Choices: creating a Midwest food system based on sustainably produced foods

Food Choices is a project to create a food system among farmers, processors, distributors, retailers and consumers in the Midwest based on sustainbly produced foods. Another goal is developing marketing models for ecologically and sustainably produced foods for retail stores and direct farmer-to-consumer marketing.

Confirmed retail partners are Coborns, Inc., and Twin Cities Natural Foods Co-ops, Inc. The initial campaign will include apples, beef and pork, and fall squash and pumpkins. Up to 30 Minnesota farmers will be participating this year; thereafter the project will expand throughout the Upper Midwest.

Food Choices is a joint project of the Land Stewardship Project, Cooperative Development Services and the Organic Alliance. For more information, contact Jim Ennis at (651) 265-3684,

World food supply will suffer from a global, industrialized agriculture

The new industrialized agriculture is too important to be left to the vagaries of the free market, according to Willard Cochrane, professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota. Cochrane was the leading farm policy advisor to the Kennedy administration in the 1960s.

He is the topic of a new book, “Willard Cochrane and the American Family Farm,” written by Richard A. Levins, an economist with the University of Minnesota Extension Service and professor of applied economics. Cochrane has championed the family farm throughout his career, and advocates treating agriculture more like a public utility than we have in the past.

“He would not regulate food prices,” Levins wrote, “but views the food production and distribution system the same way he sees our education and health care systems. Each must be in good working order at all times. Their products are not ‘market goods,’ they are basic human rights. “For Cochrane, it is unthinkable that a private, unregulated system should be expected to guarantee human rights. That, above all, is the responsibility of public governance.”

“The global economy is inherently unstable and can lead to recessions of the type raging through the Midwest in the late 1990s,” Levins wrote. “Current price problems give way to far more serious fears of production shortages…as weather patterns (are) permanently disrupted by global warming.

“Rich and poor alike will be increasingly vulnerable to food-borne illness. The global economy brings us imported foods produced with substandard sanitation and treated with chemicals banned from use in the United States.” Cochrane “worries that biotechnology will challenge the environment in ways we have not anticipated,” Levins wrote. “Threatening life forms, unlike any type of pollution we have seen, can be self-perpetuating and therefore virtually impossible to contain.”

Cochrane also worries that family farming will disappear altogether without immediate and decisive public action. He advocates a program to help preserve the remaining family-sized farms. “About 665,000 farms in the U.S. have sales between $20,000 and $250,000 per year,” Levins wrote. “For these farms, he would guarantee their income with an annual payment ranging from $15,000 to $25,000 per year.

“The payments are not intended to support prices…rather, they have the effect of preserving independent farm decision-making and providing enough people to maintain viable rural communities.”

John Kenneth Galbraith forwards the book. Copies are available for $30 from the University of Nebraska Press, (800) 755-1105,

Hog farms can be hazardous to the health

Surveys of people living in three rural North Carolina communities suggest that industrial hog farms reduce quality of life and affect the health of people living near them, according to a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-CH) study. Funded by the national Institute of Environmental Health Sciences’ Environmental Justice program, 155 interviews included neighbors of a 6,000-head hog operation, two adjacent cattle farms and a farm area without large livestock operations. “…headache, runny nose, sore throat, excessive coughing, diarrhea and burning eyes were reported more frequently in the hog community,” says Steven Wing, associate professor of epidemiology at the UNC-CH School of Public Health. “Quality of life, as indicated by the number of times residents could not open their windows or go outside even in nice weather, was similar in the control and the community in the vicinity of the cattle operation, but greatly reduced among residents near the hog operation.”

The biggest differences between the communities were seen in the quality-of life questions, researchers found. More than half the respondents in the hog community, as compared to fewer than a fifth in the other two areas, reported not being able to open windows or go outside 12 or more times over the previous six months.

For more information, contact Wing at (919) 966-7416.

About this newsletter…

For the past year we’ve been funded by the Minnesota Extension Service and the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture (MISA) with support from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

We’re always looking for story ideas. Send them to the editor: Jack Sperbeck, 405 Coffey Hall, University of Minnesota, St. Paul, MN 55108, (612) 625-1794. E-mail: Other editorial board members: Helene Murray (612) 625-0220,; Tom Wegner (612) 374-8400,; and Bill Wilcke (612) 625-8205,

Our mission statement: To help bring people together to influence the future of agriculture and rural communities to achieve socially, environmentally and economically sustainable farms and communities.

The University of Minnesota is committed to the policy that all persons shall have equal access to its programs, facilities, and employment without regard to race, color, creed, religion, national origin, sex, age, marital status, disability, public assistance status, veteran status, or sexual orientation.