Agriculture news

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Researchers develop way to trace global spread of major plant disease

A team led by Oregon State University scientists has developed a way to potentially thwart the spread of a disease-causing bacterium that harms more than hundred plant species worldwide, an advance that could save the nursery industry billions of dollars a year.

The research has important implications for commercial plant growers because it could help halt the spread of Agrobacterium. The bacterium causes crown-gall disease, which impacts more than 100 plant species, including fruit trees, roses, grape vine, nursery plants and shade trees. Those species have a combined value of more than $16 billion annually in the United States alone, according to the USDA.

The methods developed for the study can also potentially be applied to track diseases in humans and animals and even foodborne disease outbreaks. For example, plasmids spread antibiotic-resistant genes, a pressing problem for human and animal health.

The Oregon State scientists worked with researchers at the USDA Agricultural Research Service on the study. The findings were published in the journal Science.

“Understanding the genetic basis for how pathogens emerge and diversify in agricultural ecosystems is foundational for determining their spread and assessing risks,” said Jeff Chang, a professor in Oregon State’s College of Agricultural Sciences and one of the authors of the study. “These are critical to informing policies for improving plant health and preparing against disease outbreaks to increase global food security.”

The paper centers on plasmids, self-replicating DNA molecules that are found in Agrobacterium. Their spread amplifies the spread of disease. The plasmids of Agrobacterium have genes that give Agrobacterium the unique ability to transfer a portion of the plasmid into plant cells and genetically reprogram the host to cause crown-gall or hairy root disease.

These plasmids also have genes that allow Agrobacterium to transfer the entire plasmid horizontally from one bacterium to another rather than through vertical, or parent to child, inheritance. Upon acquiring a harmful plasmid, a previously benign strain of Agrobacterium can become a novel pathogen lineage. This ability makes control of the pathogen and tracking of an outbreak difficult. Thus, to develop their tracing system, the researchers first had to understand the evolution and classification of the plasmids.

Before this research, the accepted scientific view was that the frequent transfer of genetic information among plasmids and the large amount of genetic variation among Agrobacterium species made drawing evolutionary relationships between the two practically impossible. Without such information it’s not possible to accurately track disease outbreaks.

The researchers focused on two classes of plasmids, tumor inducing and root inducing, both of which provide Agrobacterium the ability to transfer a portion of the plasmid into plants and cause disease.

Melodie Putnam, director of the Oregon State Plant Clinic, and others at OSU and USDA-ARS provided hundreds of strains with plasmids from their well-curated collection and helped analyze the large datasets.

Alexandra Weisberg, lead author and a post-doctoral researcher co-mentored by Chang and Niklaus Grünwald, of the USDA-ARS Horticultural Crops Research Unit in Corvallis, sequenced 140 strains with plasmids and, surprisingly, found the plasmids all descended from just nine lineages.

“Armed with this extensive genetic sequencing information about how to classify plasmids and Agrobacterium, we could infer both how bacteria move among nurseries and how the plasmids move among bacteria,” Weisberg said.

Having whole genome sequences of Agrobacterium allowed the researchers to link nurseries on the basis of having strains with the same genome and plasmid sequences, the same genome sequence but different plasmid sequences, or different genome sequences but the same plasmid sequences, Weisberg said.

They were able to track at least seven cases in which global distribution of plants contributed to the widespread transmission of a single Agrobacterium strain-plasmid combination. One of these cases included a nursery that produces plants for wholesalers and may have served as a kind of patient zero source for many outbreaks. Strains of the same genotype-plasmid combination were later identified in two other nurseries in another part of the world.

With the ability to separately analyze the bacteria from the plasmid, the researchers found many cases in which plasmid transmission perpetuated disease spread. For example, they found one strain-plasmid combination that was collected in 1964. Plasmids with the same sequences were identified in strains collected 30 to 40 years later in different parts of the world.

A few strains of Agrobacterium, and some plasmids, have been modified and are used in tools for studying plant function, and for introducing new traits into plants. By characterizing the variation and relationships between plasmids, findings from this study also have potential applications in optimizing these biotechnology tools or developing new ones to advance research.

Read Coronavirus Food Assistance

USDA issues first Coronavirus Food Assistance Program payments

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue today announced the USDA Farm Service Agency has already approved more than $545 million in payments to producers who have applied for the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program. FSA began taking applications May 26, and the agency has received over 86,000 applications for this important relief program.

“The coronavirus has hurt America’s farmers, ranchers, and producers, and these payments directed by President Trump will help this critical industry weather the current pandemic so they can continue to plant and harvest a safe, nutritious, and affordable crop for the American people,” Perdue said. “We have tools and resources available to help producers understand the program and enable them to work with Farm Service Agency staff to complete applications as smoothly and efficiently as possible and get payments into the pockets of our patriotic farmers.”

In the first six days of the application period, FSA has already made payments to more than 35,000 producers. Out of the gate, the top five states for CFAP payments are Illinois, Kansas, Wisconsin, Nebraska, and South Dakota. USDA has released data on application progress and program payments and will release further updates each Monday at 2 p.m. ET. The report can be viewed here.

FSA will accept applications through August 28, 2020. Through CFAP, USDA is making available $16 billion in financial assistance to producers of agricultural commodities who have suffered a five-percent-or-greater price decline due to COVID-19 and face additional significant marketing costs as a result of lower demand, surplus production, and disruptions to shipping patterns and the orderly marketing of commodities.

In order to do this, producers will receive 80 percent of their maximum total payment upon approval of the application. The remaining portion of the payment, not to exceed the payment limit, will be paid at a later date nationwide, as funds remain available.

Getting Help from FSA

New customers seeking one-on-one support with the CFAP application process can call 877-508-8364 to speak directly with a USDA employee ready to offer general assistance. This is a recommended first step before a producer engages the team at the FSA county office at their local USDA Service Center.

Producers can download the CFAP application and other eligibility forms here. Also, on that webpage, producers can find a payment calculator to help producers identify sales and inventory records needed to apply and calculate potential payments. Producers self-certify their records when applying for CFAP and that documentation is not submitted with the application. However, producers may be asked for their documentation to support the certification of eligible commodities, so producers should retain the information used to complete their application.

Those who use the online calculator tool will be able to print a pre-filled CFAP application, sign it, and submit it to your local FSA office either electronically or via hand delivery through an office drop box. Please contact your local office to determine the preferred delivery method for your local office. Team members at FSA county offices will be able to answer detailed questions and help producers apply quickly and efficiently through phone and online tools. Find contact information for your local office here.

Policy Clarifications

FSA has been working with stakeholder groups to provide further clarification to producers on the CFAP program. For example, the agency has published a matrix of common marketing contracts that impact eligibility for non-specialty crops and has provided a table that crosswalks common livestock terms to CFAP cattle categories. Updated information can be found in the frequently asked questions section of the CFAP website.

Read climate solutions

Senators agree: Agriculture is part of the climate solution

A bipartisan group of senators have introduced a bill to help agriculture contribute to and benefit from comprehensive climate solutions. The Growing Climate Solutions Act directs the U.S. Department of Agriculture to create a certification program that will make it easier for farmers to develop, verify and sell environmental credits. The bill is sponsored by Sens. Mike Braun (R-IN), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI).

This legislation was met with support from the agriculture community any beyond. The bill has the support of the American Farm Bureau Federation, National Corn Growers Association, Environmental Defense Fund, McDonald’s, Microsoft, and over 40 farm groups, environmental organizations, and Fortune 500 companies. 

The bill encourages sustainable farming practices by making it easier for farmers to participate in carbon markets. The Growing Climate Solutions Act creates a certification program at USDA to help solve technical entry barriers that make it difficult for farmers and forest landowners to participate in carbon credit markets.

The National Milk Producers Federation applauded the bipartisan Growing Climate Solutions Act introduced in the U.S. Senate, calling it an important step toward reducing agricultural carbon emissions that aligns well with dairy’s goal to achieve carbon neutrality or better by 2050 through the industry’s Net Zero Initiative.

Jim Mulhern, president and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation said, “Dairy farmers are environmental stewards who value proactive approaches to sustainability, and this legislation will provide a welcome boost to their efforts. We look forward to working with Senators Braun, Stabenow, Graham, and Whitehouse to advance this bill in Congress.”

“Corn farmers have been leaders in adopting farming practices to improve the quality of soil, water, and air around our farms and are pleased to endorse the Growing Climate Solutions Act. This bipartisan effort recognizes agriculture’s role in mitigating the impact of climate change and promotes voluntary, agriculture-friendly ideas into the climate discussion,” said Kevin Ross, President of the National Corn Growers Association.

The Growing Climate Solutions Act creates a certification program at USDA to help solve technical entry barriers that prevent farmer and forest landowner participation in carbon credit markets. These issues — including access to reliable information about markets and access to qualified technical assistance providers and credit protocol verifiers — have limited both landowner participation and the adoption of practices that help reduce the costs of developing carbon credits.

To address this, the bill establishes a Greenhouse Gas Technical Assistance Provider and Third-Party Verifier Certification Program through which USDA will be able to provide transparency, legitimacy, and informal endorsement of third-party verifiers and technical service providers that help private landowners generate carbon credits through a variety of agriculture and forestry related practices. The USDA certification program will ensure that these assistance providers have agriculture and forestry expertise, which is lacking in the current marketplace. As part of the program, USDA will administer a new website, which will serve as a “one stop shop” of information and resources for producers and foresters who are interested in participating in carbon markets.

Through the program, USDA will help connect landowners to private sector actors who can assist the landowners in implementing the protocols and monetizing the climate value of their sustainable practices. Third party entities, certified under the program, will be able to claim the status of a “USDA Certified” technical assistance provider or verifier. The USDA certification lowers barriers to entry in the credit markets by reducing confusion and improving information for farmers looking to implement practices that capture carbon, reduce emissions, improve soil health, and make operations more sustainable.

Today, many third-party groups are developing protocols and testing methods to calculate emissions reduction and sequestration in agriculture and forestry. The landscape is evolving rapidly. The Growing Climate Solutions Act recognizes this fact and provides the Secretary with a robust advisory council composed of agriculture experts, scientists, producers, and others. The advisory council shall advise the Secretary and ensure that the certification program remains relevant, credible, and responsive to the needs of farmers, forest landowners, and carbon market participants alike.

Finally, the bill instructs USDA to produce a report to Congress to advise about the further development of this policy area including: barriers to market entry, challenges raised by farmers and forest landowners, market performance, and suggestions on where USDA can make a positive contribution to the further adoption of voluntary carbon sequestration practices in agriculture and forestry.

Read Dicamba

U.S. court removes dicamba registration; future of weed killer uncertain

Late Wednesday evening, Bayer Ag (formerly Monsanto) and other crop protection manufacturers, were blocked by the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals from selling dicamba-based weed killers in the United States. Due to the timing of this decision, the future use of the herbicide is still unknown for farmers in the 2020 growing season. 

A three-judge panel in San Francisco declared that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency “substantially understated risks that it acknowledged and failed entirely to acknowledge other risks,” according to court documents. The ruling mentions three out of four dicamba products on the market — Monsanto’s XtendiMax; DuPont’s FeXapan; and BASF’s Engenia. The only one not mentioned was Syngenta’s Tavium product.

Four environmental activist groups — National Family Farm Coalition, Center for Food Safety, Center for Biological Diversity, and Pesticide Action Network North America — filed the lawsuit in 2018 in an attempt to force the EPA to cancel the approval of the weed killers, claiming volatility to surrounding crops and wildlife. 

In a statement, Bayer said, “We strongly disagree with the ruling and are assessing our options. If the ruling stands, we will work quickly to minimize any impact on our customers this season. Our top priority is making sure our customers have the support they need to have a successful season.

The EPA, BASF, and Corteva are currently reviewing the court decision and have yet to make an announcement.

However, the ruling only applies to the current registration, which expires December 20, 2020. Bayer was already working to obtain a new EPA registration for the weed killer for 2021 and beyond.

There are still many unknowns for many farmers, many of whom have already purchased the product or planned on using it for the 2020 growing season. The court did acknowledged that this could be costly for farmers, through no fault of their own.

“We acknowledge the difficulties these growers may have in finding effective and legal herbicides to protect their (dicamba-tolerant) crops,” the ruling states. “They have been placed in this situation through no fault of their own. However, the absence of substantial evidence to support the EPA’s decision compels us to vacate the registrations.”

The Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit that has long pushed back against biotechnology in agriculture, was the lead counsel for the group of plaintiffs. The center’s George Kimbrell said, “Today’s decision is a massive win for farmers and the environment. It is good to be reminded that corporations like Monsanto and the Trump Administration cannot escape the rule of law.”

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