Envirowrap: Fracking, Monsanto, Chips

Wherein we start with more bad news about fracking, then take up some GMO stacking, then finish up some good news.

Fracking endangers public water supplies

Hydraulic fracturing — fracking — blasts gas out of sedimentary shale formations with chemical-laced water under high pressure. It’s fraught with controversy [previously], and now it’s polluting drinking water supplies.

But it’s not well water that’s been polluted. The contamination is showing up in surfce water supplies, and the source is drilling waste water.

Don Hopey has the story for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

Unlike radiation, which so far has shown up at scary levels only in Marcellus Shale hydraulic fracturing wastewater sampling done at wellheads, the spike in salty bromides in Western Pennsylvania’s rivers and creeks has already put some public water suppliers into violation of federal safe drinking water standards.

Others, like the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, haven’t exceeded those limits but have been pushed up against them. Some have had to change the way they treat water.

Bromide is a salty substance commonly found in seawater. It was once used in sedatives and headache remedies like Bromo-Seltzer until it was withdrawn because of concerns about toxicity. When it shows up at elevated levels in freshwater, it is due to human activities. The problem isn’t so much the bromide in the river but what happens when that river water is treated to become drinking water.

Bromide facilitates formation of brominated trihalomethanes, also known as THMs, when it is exposed to disinfectant processes in water treatment plants. THMs are volatile organic liquid compounds.

Studies show a link between ingestion of and exposure to THMs and several types of cancer and birth defects.

Read the rest.

Monsanto stacks the GMO soybean deck

“Stacking,” in the ergot of folks who craft genetically modified crops for corporate profit, means adding more genetic tweaks to a previously patented crop.

As we’ve noted before, widespread use of Monsanto’s glyphosphate Roundup herbicide has prompted a little bit of accelerated natural selection, resulting in Roundup-scoffing superweeds.

So what’s the next step? Add another herbicide to the mix and throw in a gene that resists it.

So add some dicamba to your Roundup, and Monsanto and German giant BASF has just the soybean for you.

One might suspect the Red Queen’s in play?

And here’s some excerpts from the joint Monsanto/BASF press release:

BASF and Monsanto Company (NYSE: MON) today announced a new agreement to collaborate on the advancement of dicamba tolerant cropping systems. The companies have granted reciprocal licenses, and BASF has agreed to supply formulated dicamba herbicide products to Monsanto.

The agreement will facilitate further development work and subsequent commercialization of a dicamba tolerant system, which includes innovative dicamba formulations proprietary to BASF and the dicamba tolerant trait for soybeans, which is proprietary to Monsanto. The system is expected to be introduced in the United States and Canada in the middle of the decade, pending regulatory approvals.


Upon commercialization, the dicamba tolerance trait is expected to be stacked with the high yielding Genuity® Roundup Ready 2 Yield® soybean trait. Monsanto also has corn, cotton and canola dicamba tolerant crops in its research and development pipeline. These next-generation technologies are aimed at offering farmers multiple modes of action and superior application timing flexibility in combating weeds.

In November 2010, Monsanto and BASF published favorable results of joint field testing of new dicamba-based formulations with Monsanto’s next-generation dicamba tolerant soybeans.

And another pest-resistant crop, the old-fashioned way

From Cornell University comes word of another new pest-resistant crop, but this time it’s one done the old-fashioned way, by good old-fashioned breeding from existing varieties.

We sometimes forget how good farmers have been at breeding since they first realized that by picking and choosing the seeds they saved for next year’s crop and the animals they bred, they could get bigger and better yields.

It was farmers in Mexico who transformed a grass called teosinte into modern corn. The same’s true for most of the foods we eat. Farmers selected wild plants and critters over thousands of harvests to give us the food that stocks our pantries.

So let’s hear it for Cornell for doing one of the things land grant colleges like the little outfit here in Berkeley were supposed to do: Creating new crops for the public, not for corporate profiteers!

Here’s the story from Stacey Shackford, staff writer at Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. And catch the great bit of trivia at the end:

Kettle-cooked or ridged, salted or flavored, Americans love potato chips, consuming an average six pounds per person per year.

Breeders at Cornell are helping to feed the nation’s appetite for the crispy snacks — and New York’s $62 million potato industry — by releasing two new potato varieties.

Waneta and Lamoka — named after a pair of twin lakes in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York — are especially appealing to potato chip manufacturers because they fare well in storage and produce a nice color when cut. This is important because chipping potatoes are harvested in fall, but may not be chipped until the following spring, said Walter De Jong, associate professor of plant breeding and genetics.

Lamoka also has a high level of starch, a trait that is desirable for chipping because it soaks up less oil when fried. Waneta has less starch, but is also less likely to bruise, a characteristic that may appeal to farmers in New York, where fields are stony.

Both varieties are resistant to the golden nematode, a pathogen present in some New York soil that attacks potato roots, and common scab, another soil-borne pathogen present nationwide that can cause pits in potatoes. This gives them a distinct advantage over Snowden potatoes, the chipping industry standard, which are susceptible to both diseases.

“New York growers will have a higher quality product to sell,” De Jong said.

First crossed in 1998, the varieties have undergone 13 years of testing, propagation and evaluation. They have been grown on several farms in trials across the country, and reaction among both growers and manufacturers has been positive, De Jong said.

Around 40 acres of seed were produced in 2010; that means that 400 acres of the new potatoes can be planted in 2011, and demand is already outstripping supply, he said. Each acre yields about 30,000 pounds of potatoes.

Waneta and Lamoka are the seventh and eighth varieties to be released in the past decade by the Cornell potato-breeding program, which develops both chipping and tabletop varieties. Other recent releases include Red Maria, Adirondack Red and Adirondack Blue, which have proven popular with consumers due to their novel red and purple pigmented flesh. De Jong also breeds for size, shape, texture, and disease-and pest-resistance.

Nationally, 28 percent of the domestic potato crop is sold fresh; 13 percent become potato chips and 35 percent become frozen fries. The average American eats 126 pounds of potatoes each year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Almost half of the 20,500 acres of potatoes grown in New York by 150 commercial farmers are made into potato chips, and many are processed in Pennsylvania plants, such as Utz and Herr’s, De Jong said.

Potato chips were actually invented in New York in 1853, when railroad magnate Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt complained that his potatoes were cut too thick and sent them back to the kitchen at a fashionable resort in Saratoga Springs. To spite his haughty guest, Chef George Crum sliced some potatoes paper-thin, fried them in hot oil, salted and served them, and the “Saratoga Crunch Chips” became a hit.


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