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Home News Headlines Notes and Quotes: Bits and briefs on beneficial bats, the Food Safety Modernization Act and ‘Bad Karma’

Notes and Quotes: Bits and briefs on beneficial bats, the Food Safety Modernization Act and ‘Bad Karma’

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A researcher at Southern Illinois University Carbondale (SIU) has confirmed something a lot of farmers and conservationists have suspected for a long time — bats do agriculture a world of good.

Former SIU graduate student Josiah Maine followed up on the work of his master's thesis advisor, Justin Boyles, an assistant professor at SIU, who published work in 2011 suggesting that bats might save farmers billions of dollars a year.

Maine's study estimates the economic value at about $1 billion, based on his experiments with bats and corn earworm moths in southern Illinois. The “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” published results of the study last month.

The study tested how corn fared with and without bats. Maines built six netted enclosures to keep bats away from the corn at night. During the day, when bats sleep, he pulled the netting back so birds could take their share of the moths, as they normally would. He compared damage from the earworm moth in that field to a control plot where bats could eat all the corn earworm moths they wanted.

He found nearly 60 percent more earworm larvae and 50 percent more corn kernel damage per ear inside the enclosures than in the control areas. The damaging fungal growth associated with pests and toxins produced by the fungus were also significantly higher in the enclosures.

That's good news for Texas, which has the highest concentration of Mexican free-tail bats in the world at Bracken Cave in the Hill Country. Bats Conservation International (BCI) in Austin funded the SIU research, which confirms what BCI found in its Texas studies.

Bats account for as much as 30 percent of corn and cotton farmers' revenue in the Winter Garden region of Texas, according to one report, and another showed that bats saved South Central Texas farmers as much as $173 an acre by gobbling up not only corn earworm moths, but cotton boll moths, fall armyworms, pecan nut casebearers and many others.

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Farms are exempt from the Preventive Control Rule for Human Food because the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) clarified its definition of a farm as part of the first major rule of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).

FDA published he first two rules, Preventive Control for Human Food and Preventive Control for Animal Food, last month. Organizations that lobbied for changes to the law gave the first rules mixed reviews.

The Texas-based Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance (FARFA) and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) both released statements applauding the FDA for clarifying what constitutes a farm as defined in the Preventive Control Rule for Human Food. The original definition would have forced many farms to comply with the rule.

“The FDA's final definition of farm better reflects the reality of many farms by allowing for multiple owners and multiple locations,” FARFA director Judith McGeary said. “The definitions of farm activities, like harvesting and packing, are more expansive. The original definition classified some farms as facilities if they cleaned or bagged produce.”

NSAC policy specialist Sophia Kruszewski said the revised definition of farm “hews much more closely to the reality of what farms look like, how they operate, and how they are managed.”

While Kruszewski believes the final rule reflects many of the issues raised by the sustainable agriculture community, she added that the rule, as published, perpetuates confusion about which farms the FDA will consider food facilities.

“Belatedly, FDA has initiated a separate rulemaking to address this issue, but failure to incorporate the clarification into the final preventive control rule released today is a missed opportunity,” she said.

Farmers who still aren't sure if they're exempt from the new rule can figure it out by asking themselves if they have to register with the FDA now as a food facility under provisions of the Bioterrorism Act of 2002. If not, they don't have to register as a food facility now. The bioterrorism act authorized FDA to establish a registration requirement for food facilities for traceability purposes.

The FDA is under a court-ordered deadline to finalize the produce rule (which will affect farmers), the foreign supplier verification program and third-party accreditation rules by Oct. 31.

FSMA still faces one more major hurdle — funding. The White House asked Congress for $109 in additional spending to implement FSMA. Bills pending in the House and Senate provide less than half of that amount.

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Researchers at the Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) in New York blame bad karma for the decimation of palm oil supplies all over the world all over the world — and they're not kidding.

A press release from CSHL notes that palm oil, which makes up half of the world's supply of edible vegetable oil, is controversial because the cultivation of oil palm plants sometimes comes at the expense of rainforest. Researchers at CSHL are working to improve yield in order to ease pressure on the land.

Working with the Malaysian Palm Oil Board, CSHL researcher Rob Martiessen discovered a gene called SHELL that controls oil palm fruit yield as part of his effort to figure out why hybrid plants, created with plant tissues in petri dishes and planted by large plantations, bore only worthless, desiccated fruit.

According to the press release from CSHL, “it has to do with the methyl mark (epigenetic) on an ancient transposon that is embedded in the oil palm genome called Karma.”

Martiessen, in identifying the flaw, naturally named it “Bad Karma.”

Now, oil palm growers can use a simple genetic test on plantlets to gauge their Karma. Growers cull the plants with Bad Karma, which is good news for the oil palm industry — and the environment.

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