4 CapitalPress.com October 9, 2015 USDA proposes more scrutiny for biotech wheat field trials Agency wants developers to obtain permits for field trials By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI Capital Press The USDA wants to in- crease its oversight of field tri- als for genetically engineered wheat due to past unautho- rized releases of the crop. The agency recently pro- posed requiring permits to conduct field trials for trans- genic wheat, which is more rigorous than the current sys- tem of simply notifying regu- lators of such tests. A variety of genetically engineered wheat resistant to glyphosate herbicides was found in an Oregon field in 2013, which prompted a USDA investigation because the cultivar wasn’t deregulat- ed. During its investigation, the agency found more unau- thorized biotech wheat grow- ing at an agricultural research station in Montana in 2014. Due to those incidents, the USDA decided to enhance its regulatory requirements for field trials by mandating permits, which “will help pre- vent future compliance issues, protect plant health and the environment, and allow for flexibility in the length of the volunteer monitoring period and the specific permit con- ditions used to address how volunteers of GE wheat will be appropriately managed,” according to the agency. For example, the agency can require biotech develop- ers to regularly submit volun- teer monitoring reports. In 2015, biotech develop- ers have notified the USDA of 620 acres of genetically engi- neered wheat field trials. Most field trials for bio- tech crops are conducted un- der such notifications, which don’t require the USDA to establish basic standards pri- or to approving planting, said George Kimbrell, attorney for the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit that’s critical of fed- eral biotech oversight. “There’s no actual pre-planting approval like there is with a permit,” he said. It’s yet to be determined whether requiring permits for wheat will reduce escapes of the crop, but it’s significant that USDA has singled out wheat when unauthorized re- leases have also occurred with other crops, Kimbrell said. The USDA’s announce- ment begs the question of why permits aren’t re- quired for all field trials, he said. “It’s an indication field trial oversight has been inadequate.” The Biotechnology Indus- try Organization, which rep- resents developers, said it’s still reviewing USDA’s permit proposal for wheat. “Much of the research in GE wheat, however, is cur- rently being conducted by small companies and public institutions. At first glance, the (USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) proposal may have a greater impact on their ability to con- duct field trials of GE wheat since they have fewer re- sources to deal with new reg- ulatory requirements,” said Karen Batra, BIO’s food and agriculture communications director, in an email. Monsanto, which devel- oped the biotech wheat dis- covered in Oregon, also said it’s reviewing the proposal. The company already works with industry and USDA stewardship programs to continuously improve its field trial process, a spokes- person said in an email. Growers report painless water, energy savings through irrigation method By JOHN O’CONNELL Capital Press MUD LAKE, Idaho — Local farmer Steve Shively believes a trial in one of his alfalfa fields proves a simple, cost-effective new irrigation method can help Idaho pro- ducers save significantly on water and energy. As part of a research proj- ect with Bonneville Power and University of Idaho Ex- tension irrigation specialist Howard Neibling, Shively converted a single span of a pivot irrigating alfalfa to low-energy sprinkler applica- tion, or LESA. He also tried it in wheat, but hail damage skewed results. LESA utilizes long hos- es that dangle low-pressure sprinkler heads about a foot from the ground, distributing water beneath the plant cano- py to reduce evaporative loss- es by 20 to 30 percent over the course of the season. “LESA reduced (water) loss from 80 percent efficiency or less to 90 percent or better. That’s where the savings are coming from,” Shively said. LESA nozzles are posi- tioned about 4.5 feet apart on pivots, rath- er than 9 feet apart under conventional configurations. It’s Neibling’s derivation of Shively l o w - e n e r g y, precision appli- cation (LEPA), which dribbles water from special nozzles on hoses rather than spraying it. Dribbler nozzles designed for LEPA, popular in Texas, don’t put out enough water to establish crops in low-rainfall regions such as Idaho. Water also better infiltrated Shively’s soils under LESA. During a Sept. 22 field day on Shively’s farm, Neibling drilled 5 feet deep and still found soil moisture within the LESA ring of the pivot’s rotation, compared with dry soil less than a foot deep in other areas of the alfalfa field. Under LESA, Shively yield- ed 2.74 bales of hay per acre, compared with 1.87 bales in the rest of the field. An energy audit confirmed Shively also stands to save $2,000 per year in power for each 140-acre pivot he converts. Neibling attributes Shive- ly’s yield boost to a pump that provided too little pressure for most of the pivot but was ad- equate for low-pressure LESA nozzles. Shively estimates LESA setups cost $4,000 to $5,000 more than conventional nozzle systems, but all of the parts are available locally, and he said growers should recoup their investments in less than two seasons. Next season, he plans to convert whole pivots to LESA. Neibling, in the final year of a three-year LESA test proj- ect, has also tried the method in Arco, Malta and parts of Ne- vada, using it successfully in spring grains, potatoes, alfalfa and corn. Nevada growers were able to shut down full LESA pivots for up to two days per week, while conventional pivots had to run continuously to provide crops the same level of mois- ture, Neibling said. Washing- ton State University is also testing the technology in com- mercial fields. Neibling hopes to continue his LESA research, noting UI cereal scientists are pursuing funds to study how LESA may reduce headblight and lodging in grain by keep- ing water off of plant heads. Sean Ellis/Capital Press Onions are sorted at the JC Watson Co. packing facility in Parma, Idaho, Sept. 15. Onion farmers in Idaho and Eastern Oregon are enjoying higher onion prices than last year, but onion size is down. Onion prices higher, bulb size smaller By SEAN ELLIS Capital Press ONTARIO, Ore. — As onion farmers in the Treasure Valley area of Idaho and Or- egon gather in the remainder of this year’s crop, they are enjoying prices that are sig- nificantly better than last year. But onion size and yields are expected to be down be- cause of a severe heat wave earlier in the growing season that affected plant growth. “The size is down a tiny bit because of the heat but the quality looks pretty good. With all the heat we had ... the crop fared better than I thought it was going to,” said Nyssa, Ore., grower Paul Skeen. “We’re looking for- ward to a good market.” The price for a 50-pound bag of jumbo onions is around $8 right now, up from about $4.50 at this time last year. “That’s a very good mar- ket for harvest time,” said Kay Riley, manager of Snake River Produce in Nyssa, one of about 30 onion shippers in the region. “It looks like it will be a pretty average crop,” he said. “Quality seems to be good (but) size on some lots is a lit- tle smaller than normal.” The area of southwestern Idaho and Malheur Coun- ty, Ore., is one of the largest onion growing regions in the country, but acreage has de- creased somewhat since 2013 because of a significantly re- duced water supply on the Or- egon side. According to estimates by USDA’s National Agricul- tural Statistics Service, there will be 8,400 acres of onions harvested on the Idaho side in 2015 and 9,000 acres on the Oregon side. That 17,400-acre total is down from the 19,900-acre total in 2013, when 9,000 acres were harvested in Idaho and 10,900 were harvested in Malheur County. According to NASS, 9,300 acres of onions were harvested in Malheur County and 6,900 acres in Idaho in 2014, a total of 16,200. While Eastern Oregon on- ion acres are about the same as last year, Idaho has seen a significant increase this year because of the water situation, said Oregon State University Cropping Systems Extension Agent Stuart Reitz. “They had a little bit better water situation over there,” he said about Idaho. “A lot of it is driven by the drought.” Reitz said a lot of onion fields in the valley were af- fected by a nine-day stretch of 100-degree temperatures that ended July 4. “That took its toll on the plants. We didn’t see the size we normally get around here,” he said. “Some plants seemed to run out of gas by the end of July.” But Idaho farmer Sid Free- man said his onion crop looked great, which he attributed to the drip irrigation system he installed two years ago. “This is the best crop we’ve ever grown,” he said, adding that the heat wave ended be- fore it hurt his onion plants. “It stopped just in time. It didn’t do a whole lot of damage.” EPA deflects criticism over new rules By TIM HEARDEN Capital Press A top U.S. Environmen- tal Protection Agency official is downplaying the agency’s perceived ties to farmworker and environmental advocacy groups that pushed for the new pesticide regulations that have been imposed on growers. Jim Jones, who as the EPA’s assistant administrator for chemical safety and pollution prevention took the lead role in developing the regulations, said he and his team spent far 41-2/#4x 41-7/#4x more time with farmers and manufacturers than they did with advocacy groups when writing the rules. “Personally I spent time with farmers in multiple states and have spent some time with farmworkers,” Jones told the Capital Press. “My team spent a lot of time with all of the above. The EPA and U.S. Depart- ment of Labor announced the final rules on Sept. 28, setting a minimum age limit of 18 for handling agricultural chemicals and increasing training, signage and reporting requirements. The changes in the Agricultur- al Worker Protection Standard were the government’s first in about 20 years and come as thousands of potentially pre- ventable exposure incidents are reported each year, officials contend. The final rules followed a public comment period in which nearly 4,000 comments were re- ceived as well as what the EPA calls “extensive” involvement from the agricultural communi- ty. However, the EPA is drawing criticism from farm groups and others over its perceived cozy relations with the most vocal ad- vocates of the new rules. For instance, the Agricultural Retailers Association took note of United Farm Workers pres- ident Arturo Rodriguez’s pres- ence on the EPA’s press call to announce the new rules, arguing in a news release his inclusion highlights “the extent to which one advocacy group’s position influenced the final rule.” Moreover, some of the groups that were the most vocal advocates for the rule chang- es have received EPA grants in recent years, some of which were for pesticide-related work, according to the agency’s grant database. For example, nearly $1.6 million in federal funds has gone to the Migrant Clinicians Network, which is currently under a five-year, $760,000 EPA grant to “provide financial assistance to support a national program” training health care workers to recognize and treat “pesticide-related illness,” ac- cording to the agency.