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Published May 19, 2014, 10:02 AM

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Vilsack says he is unlikely to appear at ND event, pesticides suspected in the spike of illness in Washington state and Vermont becomes the first U.S. state to mandate GMO labeling.

By: Agweek Staff and Wire reports,

Vilsack unlikely to appear at ND event

• U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has told U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., that he would like to come to North Dakota, but not this year, a spokesman for the senator says. In a May 2 letter, U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., invited Vilsack to North Dakota on June 14 to visit with farmers and ranchers about farm bill implementation, but also “to Richland County to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the Smith-Lever Act, which established a system of cooperative extension services connected with the land grant universities.” Heitkamp, a native of Richland County, asked Vilsack about the engagement at a recent breakfast meeting. The secretary said he couldn’t commit to come until 2015, but will do it when “the time is right.”

Pesticides suspected in spike of illnesses in Washington state

• Pesticides could be linked to a spike in cases involving breathing difficulties and skin rashes in central Washington state, health officials say. Washington health department spokeswoman Kelly Stowe says the illnesses could be tied to 15 separate incidents of spraying pesticides in commercial orchards. Roughly 60 people have been sickened in the agricultural region since March, including agricultural workers, neighbors to orchards and a utility crew working near fruit farms. At least eight people sought emergency medical treatment for symptoms that included nausea, vomiting and headaches, Stowe says. The majority of pesticides used by commercial orchards are strictly regulated by state and federal environmental and agricultural agencies, which prohibit applications that cause exposure to humans, either directly or in drift events, when pesticides drift from the intended targets, says Washington State Health Officer Kathy Lofy. The state licenses roughly 24,000 pesticide applicators, dealers, consultants and inspectors, all of whom are required to gain training in applying restricted chemicals safely, says Joel Kangiser, pesticide compliance program manager for the Washington agriculture department. He says the bulk of incidents under investigation involved so-called air-blast spray applications in which a high-speed fan is used to drive air through a pesticide solution, creating a mist.

Vt. becomes first US state to mandate GMO labeling

• Vermont is the first U.S. state to mandate labeling of foods made with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as Gov. Peter Shumlin signed a law that is widely expected to be challenged in court by some food and agriculture companies. The law, set to take effect July 1, 2016, would for the first time align at least a small part of the U.S. with more than 60 other countries that require labeling of genetically engineered foods. And it sets the stage for more than two dozen other states that are currently considering mandatory labeling of such GMO foods. Shumlin says the state had set up a “food fight fund” to take online donations to help defend the law from litigation expected to be filed by food industry interests to block the law. Consumer groups and lawmakers supporting such mandatory labeling say there is no scientific consensus on whether or not genetically engineered crops are safe, and consumers should be able to easily distinguish products containing GMOs so they can avoid them if they wish.

Deadline approaching for ND specialty crop grant applications

• BISMARCK, N.D. — The application deadline for the 2014 Specialty Crop Grants is appraoching quickly. “North Dakota has been granted more than $3 million to promote the production, processing and use of specialty crops,” says Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring. “Individuals, organizations and institutions are invited to submit proposals, either on their own or in partnerships.” The funding from U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agriculture Marketing Service can only be used for projects that enhance the competitiveness of specialty crops or benefit a specialty crop industry as a whole. Specialty crops are defined as “fruits and vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits and horticulture and nursery crops, including floriculture.” Specialty crops now grown commercially in North Dakota include dry beans, dry peas, lentils, potatoes, grapes, honey and various vegetables. An information manual with application instructions, scoring criteria and an application template can be found on the North Dakota Department of Agriculture website at Applications must be submitted in electronic form by 4 p.m. May 23. An external review committee will review and score the applications, which will then be forwarded to USDA for final approval. The grants will be awarded in late fall or early winter. For more information, contact Emily Edlund at 701-328-2191 or

USDA: Bees crucial to many crops still dying at worrisome rate

• Honeybees, crucial in the pollination of many U.S. crops, are still dying off at a worrisome rate, even though fewer were lost last winter, according to a government report issued May 15. Total losses of managed honeybee colonies was 23.2 percent nationwide for the 2013 to 2014 winter, according to the annual report issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the “Bee Informed Partnership,” a group of honeybee industry participants. The death rate for the most recent winter, October 2013 through April 2014, was better than the 30.5 percent loss reported for the winter of 2012 to 2013, but worse than the 21.9 percent in 2011 to 2012, the report says. Previous surveys found total colony losses averaged 29.6 percent in the past eight years. In the past few years, bee populations have been dying at a rate the U.S. government says is economically unsustainable. Honeybees pollinate plants that produce about a quarter of the food consumed by Americans, including apples, almonds, watermelons and beans, according to government reports. Scientists, consumer groups and bee keepers say the devastating rate of bee deaths is in part because of the growing use of pesticides sold by agrichemical companies to boost yields of staple crops such as corn. Last year, the European Union said it would ban neonicotinoids used for corn and other crops, as well as on home lawns and gardens. Similar constraints in the U.S. could cost manufacturers millions of dollars.