Science Policy Report

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04 December 2013

In This Issue:

International Corner

~ December 5 is World Soil Day
~ Climate change negotiations in Warsaw result in a timeline for agreement in 2015
~ Warsaw climate talks make headway on preserving forests
~ Income to become dominant driver of global food system
~ Towards a better use of our genetic resources

Research, Education, Extension Funding Opportunities

~ NIH Support for Conferences and Scientific Meetings
~ Biotechnology, Biochemical, and Biomass Engineering
~ Evaluation of Multiple Shallow-water Systems Analysis
~ FY14 Guidelines for Brownfields Assessment Grants
~ Plant Feedstock Genomics for Bioenergy
~ Conservation Stewardship Program

Conferences, Meetings and Reports

~ Apply Today: Congressional Science Fellowship
~ Corn likes to sleep around, and that makes it hard to control GMOs
~ In a bean, a boon to biotech
~ Labels for controversial ingredients
~ Dear Colleague Letter: Advancing Recruitment and Retention in Geosciences
~ Underwater 'cap' of permafrost is melting, releasing more methane into atmosphere
~ Growing perennial grasses with corn has benefits, but financial losses are likely
~ STEM-ming the tide
~ Paper tying rat cancer to herbicide is retracted
~ Abrupt impacts of climate change: anticipating surprises

Congressional/Administration News

~ Budget conferees talk privately as deadline nears
~ Veto override will limit pesticide use, GMO crops on Hawaiian island
~ The secret, dirty cost of Obama's green power push
~ White House report highlights importance of passing a food, farm, and jobs bill
~ USDA funds research to improve plant production and health
~ Farm Bill: great experiment or dysfunction?
~ Developing rules to stop erosion of U.S. wetlands
~ Reducing carbon emissions: benefits and costs to society

International Corner

(TOP) ~ December 5 is World Soil Day

world soil dayDecember 5th is World Soil Day, and the Soil Science Society of America reminds us to protect our soil. “Soil is one of the world’s most neglected resources,” says David Lindbo, North Carolina State University soil scientist and president of SSSA. “We must take care of our soil for this generation, and all generations to come.” The tag line for the society is “Soils Sustain Life,” which “illustrates that without soil, we don’t have food, clothing, shelter, water—all the things that contribute to life,” he says. Nick Comerford, a University of Florida soil scientist and SSSA member, wrote a SSSA blog post for World Soil Day explaining how soil cleans our water. “Soil is the largest filter on the planet,” says Comerford. Soil is a physical filter, taking out particulates. It also is a chemical reactor. Negatively charged soil acts like a magnet, pulling out positively charged ions and other pollutants that travel through the soil. And, microbes that live in soil help to clean water further by providing miniature water treatment plants in the soil. Read the blog post

(TOP) ~ Climate change negotiations in Warsaw result in a timeline for agreement in 2015

Small steps toward an agreement on climate change in 2015 were made at the recent 19th Conference of Parties (COP19) talks in Warsaw, Poland. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) conference was extremely tense, with emotions running high after the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, the frustrations over slow-moving texts and the explosive new issues on the table such as “loss and damage.” The conference went a record 38 hours overtime, and was marked by fasting, staged walkouts by developing countries and environmental groups, and frenzied last minute negotiations. In the end, the conference left the door open for a new agreement in 2015, but with a lot of work to be done in the coming two years. Read full article

(TOP) ~ Warsaw climate talks make headway on preserving forests

Despite slow progress on the climate negotiations as a whole, anti-deforestation groups are cheering the conclusion of the 19th Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) for the advances made to solidify the framework for a forest protection mechanism. There were some tense moments, but negotiators in Warsaw, Poland, were able to agree on key text on scientific and technical rules, financing and a national coordination system for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+), a program that would pay countries to keep forests standing. Deforestation accounts for between 10 and 20 percent of the Earth's carbon dioxide emissions and is the leading source of CO2 emissions in many heavily forested developing nations, such as Indonesia. The passage of these texts completes a number of goals set at the 2010 climate conference in Cancun, Mexico. On the second to last day, conference leaders decided to add text to the official U.N. charter on five key technical issues. These had been written and agreed to over the last three years in the UNFCCC's Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA). These include a decision to enforce environmental and human rights safeguards in REDD+ projects; to lay the groundwork for a system to monitor, report and verify carbon emissions reductions from standing forests; to establish national forest monitoring systems; to institute reference levels, or base lines, upon which a country measures efforts in reducing deforestation; and to create definitions for the drivers of deforestation. Overall, little progress was made at this year's conference, where countries were under pressure to craft a new global warming pact by the end of 2015 in Paris.

(TOP) ~ Income to become dominant driver of global food system

Per capita income is set to eclipse population growth as the dominant driver of change in the global food system, says a Purdue researcher noted for his work on the economic impacts of global trade and environmental policies. Thomas Hertel said that while population and income will remain the two most influential factors in determining global food demand and cropland expansion, their relative importance will be altered. "For the first time in human history, income will have a greater influence than population growth on food security," said Hertel, distinguished professor of agricultural economics. Read full article

(TOP) ~ Towards a better use of our genetic resources

The European Commission has released a report titled 'Agricultural Genetic Resources – From Conservation to Better Use' which outlines the commission aims for the period until 2020. While issues of conservation and halting biodiversity loss in agriculture remain a central element, the report highlights the need for a change of rationale with greater emphasis on an increased sustainable use of our genetic resources such as traditional or endangered breeds of animals or plants. The report is accompanied by a second document, reporting on existing programs, as required by the end of 2013 under the current regulation. This change of approach is reflected in the broadening of the tools supporting efforts to better use genetic resources, so that by 2020 greater financial resources and a wider range of funding opportunities are available. See press release

Research, Education, Extension Funding Opportunities

(TOP) ~ NIH Support for Conferences and Scientific Meetings

The HHS National Institutes of Health is accepting grant applications for its programs which support high quality conferences that are relevant to the public health and to the scientific mission of the participating [NIH] Institutes and Centers. Eligible applicants include State and Local governments, public and private institutions of higher education, nonprofit and for profit organizations and others. Deadline 7 Sep 2016. Read full announcement

(TOP) ~ Biotechnology, Biochemical, and Biomass Engineering

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is seeking grant funding proposals under its Biotechnology, Biochemical, and Biomass Engineering (BBBE) program which supports fundamental engineering research that advances the understanding of cellular and biomolecular processes and eventually leads to the development of enabling technology and/or applications in support of the biopharmaceutical, biotechnology, and bioenergy industries, or with applications in health or the environment. Research projects of particular interest in BBBE include metabolic engineering and synthetic biology; quantitative systems biotechnology; tissue engineering and stem cell culture technologies; protein engineering/protein design; and development of novel "omics" tools for biotechnology applications. Deadline 15 Aug 2014. Read full announcement

(TOP) ~ Evaluation of Multiple Shallow-water Systems Analysis

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Chesapeake Bay Program Office (CBPO) is announcing a Request for Proposals (RFP) for applicants to provide the Chesapeake Bay Program (CBP) partners with proposals for the application of shallow-water models to improve Chesapeake Bay shallow-water simulations of dissolved oxygen, chlorophyll a, suspended solids, and water clarity in order to better understand the impacts of alternative management strategies on water quality and living resources in the tidal Chesapeake Bay. The RFP is also seeking proposals for the evaluation of the multiple, developed shallow-water models. Deadline 9 Jan. Read full announcement

(TOP) ~ FY14 Guidelines for Brownfields Assessment Grants

The Small Business Liability Relief and Brownfields Revitalization Act requires the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to publish guidance to assist applicants in preparing proposals for grants to assess and clean up brownfield sites. EPA’s Brownfields Program provides funds to empower states, communities, tribes, and nonprofits to prevent, inventory, assess, clean up, and reuse brownfield sites. EPA provides brownfields funding for three types of grants: Brownfields Assessment Grants, Brownfields Revolving Loan Fund (RLF) Grants, and Brownfields Cleanup Grants. Under this RFP, EPA is seeking proposals for Assessment Grants, only, to provide funds to inventory, characterize, assess, and conduct planning (including cleanup planning) and community involvement related to brownfield sites. Deadline 22 Jan. Read full announcement

(TOP) ~ Plant Feedstock Genomics for Bioenergy

The U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science, Office of Biological and Environmental Research (OBER), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), hereby announce their interest in receiving applications for genomicsbased research that will lead to the improved use of biomass and plant feedstocks for the production of fuels such as ethanol or renewable chemical feedstocks. Specifically, applications are sought for research on plants that will improve biomass and oil seed characteristics, yield, or 2 sustainability. Research to overcome the biological barriers to the low-cost, high-quality, scalable and sustainable production of bioenergy feedstocks using the tools of genetics and genomics are encouraged. Deadline 19 Dec. Read full announcement

(TOP) ~ Conservation Stewardship Program

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is opening the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) for new enrollments for federal fiscal year 2014. Starting today through Jan. 17, 2014, producers interested in participating in the program can submit applications to NRCS. The CSP is an important Farm Bill conservation program that helps established conservation stewards with taking their level of natural resource management to the next level to improve both their agricultural production and provide valuable conservation benefits such as cleaner and more abundant water, as well as healthier soils and better wildlife habitat. Deadline 17 Jan. Read full announcement

Conferences, Meetings and Reports

(TOP) ~ Apply Today: Congressional Science Fellowship

Policy minded? If you are an early or mid-career scientist and have an interest in policy issues, consider applying for the ASA, CSSA, and SSSA Congressional Science Fellowship. This Washington DC fellowship can start anytime from September 2014 to January 2015, lasts for one year, and carries a generous stipend plus relocation expenses. Apply by Jan. 15, 2014. Get more information

(TOP) ~ Corn likes to sleep around, and that makes it hard to control GMOs

cornPollen spreads. It is one thing everyone in the genetically modified organisms (GMOs) debate agrees upon. The technology used by farmers to keep plants from spreading their genes is simple – it’s called distance. But distance only provides statistical prevention, not absolute prevention. Lynn Clarkson, president of the specialty grain producer Clarkson Grain, which deals in blue corn, understands that 100 percent effective is pretty much impossible. “We have a pretty good sense of how far pollen will drift because blue kernels show up like beacons on yellow corn cobs. We’ve gotten calls from five miles away. And a good Midwestern thunderstorm with big updrafts can move pollen hundreds of miles.” So who is responsible for controlling the plants? It’s not just an organic versus biotechnology battle, either. Biotech farmers that grow crops with special characteristics are increasingly concerned. Read full article

(TOP) ~ In a bean, a boon to biotech

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently proposed a policy that would eliminate artery-clogging trans fats from foods. The new federal push could also turn out to be a boon for Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer, two companies that are developing genetically modified (GM) soybeans that are manipulated in such a way that the composition of its oil is longer-lasting, maybe healthier, and free of trans fats. Russ Sanders, the director of food and industry markets at DuPont Pioneer, said, “In essence we’ve rebuilt the profile. It almost mirrors olive oil in terms of the composition of fatty acids.” The new beans are among the first genetically engineered crops with a trait that benefits consumers, as opposed to farmers. Read full article

(TOP) ~ Labels for controversial ingredients

This editorial suggests that instead of requiring genetically modified foods by law to be labeled, food companies themselves should decide whether and how to inform consumers. An example, they note, is Cargill’s recent announcement that it would place labels on ground beef containing the filler material critics have derided as “pink slime.” The battle over labeling food containing genetically engineered ingredients is being waged state by state, due, in part, because the federal government has not seen reason to impose such a requirement. The industry is fighting hard against such initiatives. A better course, write the editors, is “for manufacturers is to label the products voluntarily. Consumers generally want to know what is in the food they buy, but the vast majority may well shrug at the labels and buy the products anyway. They have been eating genetically engineered foods for years without harm.” Read full article

(TOP) ~ Dear Colleague Letter: Advancing Recruitment and Retention in Geosciences

This is the second of two Dear Colleague Letters being released by the Directorate for Geosciences (GEO) with a focus on cultivating and preparing a diverse geoscience workforce for the future and strengthening geoscience education. A well-prepared, innovative science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workforce is crucial to the Nation’s health and economy. Read full letter

(TOP) ~ Underwater 'cap' of permafrost is melting, releasing more methane into atmosphere

Scientists are continually working to improve estimates of just how much methane is being emitted from the Arctic. A new study led by researcher Natalia Shakhova of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and the Russian Academy of Sciences' Far Eastern Branch reports that methane releases from one part of the Arctic Ocean are more than twice what scientists previously thought. Shakhova and her colleagues investigated releases of methane from permafrost underneath a shallow part of the Arctic Ocean called the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, which sits in the ocean north of Siberia and east of the Lena River Delta. There, the underwater permafrost serves as a cap over methane in the seafloor. The permafrost is thawing, though and losing its ability to hold in the methane. In deeper parts of the ocean, the methane released from the ocean floor would likely never make it up to the atmosphere, since it would get used up by microbes before it reached the surface. However, on the shelf where Shakhova measured methane releases, the shallowness of the sea and the fact that methane is released as bubbles mean that it rises quickly to the surface and escapes into the atmosphere.

(TOP) ~ Growing perennial grasses with corn has benefits, but financial losses are likely

Replacing some rows of corn with biofuel-making perennial grasses could drastically reduce the environmental impacts often associated with growing corn, a recent study in the journal PLOS ONE has found. The practice could cut nitrous oxide by 84 percent, increase soil carbon by 30 percent, decrease the amount of water-polluting phosphorus fertilizer runoff by 29 percent, and boost the number of pollinators by 11 percent. The economic benefits of such a practice are, however, less clear-cut, and could come at a steep price for farmers, as perennial grasses could hurt the landscape’s ability to generate income. In fact, the practice could represent a net $30.7 million in lost income. According to Tim Meehan, an associate scientist with the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, that’s when a financial incentive for protecting waterways, promoting biodiversity, and curbing climate change would be needed to balance the equation. See full study

(TOP) ~ STEM-ming the tide

About half of bachelor’s degree candidates in science, technology, engineering and math leave the field before completing a college degree, according to a report from the U.S. Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics. That might seem high, but it roughly tracks the rate at which students in other majors (like humanities, education and health sciences) switched majors or dropped out of college, too, the study found. See full article

(TOP) ~ Paper tying rat cancer to herbicide is retracted

The journal Food and Chemical Toxicology has said it has retracted a paper, published 14 months ago, that seemed to show that genetically modified (GM) corn and the herbicide Roundup could cause cancer and premature death in rats. The editor of the journal, A. Wallace Hayes, said the study results, while not incorrect or fraudulent, were “inconclusive, and therefore do not reach the threshold of publication.” Many scientists, including some allied with the biotechnology industry, criticized the study, which was conducted by Gilles-Eric Séralini, of the University of Caen, France, as flawed, sensationalistic, and even fraudulent. Hayes argued the number of rats in each arm of the study was too small and the strain of rat used was prone to cancer. GMWatch, a British organization that opposes GM crops, called the journal’s action, “illicit, unscientific and unethical,” adding that inconclusive data was not sufficient grounds for a retraction.

(TOP) ~ Abrupt impacts of climate change: anticipating surprises

Both abrupt changes in the physical climate system and steady changes in climate that can trigger abrupt changes in other physical, biological, and human systems present possible threats to nature and society. Abrupt change is already underway in some systems, and large scientific uncertainties about the likelihood of other abrupt changes highlight the need for further research. However, with recent advances in understanding of the climate system, some potential abrupt changes once thought to be imminent threats are now considered unlikely to occur this century. This report summarizes the current state of knowledge on potential abrupt changes to the ocean, atmosphere, ecosystems, and high latitude areas, and identifies key research and monitoring needs. The report calls for action to develop an abrupt change early warning system to help anticipate future abrupt changes and reduce their impacts. See full report

Congressional/Administration News

(TOP) ~ Budget conferees talk privately as deadline nears

With less than two weeks left until their target date for reaching an agreement, the leaders of a House-Senate budget conference committee are hoping to resolve any remaining differences and produce a deal to fund the government over at least the next year and provide relief from upcoming automatic spending cuts. House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan and Senate Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray will continue their talks face-to-face. The 29-member panel has met in two public sessions since it was formed as part of the stopgap spending measure that ended the government shutdown in October. People close to the talks said the two were focusing their efforts on a limited agreement which would offset some of the sequester with a combination of spending cuts in mandatory programs, user fees and other non-tax revenue. Under an agreement that reopened the government in October, the conference committee has until Friday, Dec. 13 to produce a conference report. But the real deadline is Jan. 15, when the stopgap funding measure expires. With the House scheduled to adjourn for the year on Dec. 13, the committee has an incentive to present a plan in time for it to be considered by both chambers before the end of the year. Without an agreement, government funding will run out Jan. 15, requiring passage of another stopgap spending bill before then to avoid a government shutdown. The automatic spending cuts of the second year of the sequester are estimated to hit around mid-January unless Congress changes the law that created the sequestration or writes a compromise budget that meets the sequester spending caps.

(TOP) ~ Veto override will limit pesticide use, GMO crops on Hawaiian island

"The governing body on the Hawaiian island of Kauai voted to override their mayor's veto of a bill that seeks to reign in widespread pesticide use and the testing of new genetically modified crops. The Kauai County Council's 5-2 vote means agricultural companies will be unable to plant crops inside buffer zones created around schools, homes and hospitals. New limits will be placed on pesticide use and companies must disclose where they will plant test crops. The vote to override Kauai County Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr.'s veto caps months of protests by islanders and mainland U.S. groups opposed to extensive testing of crops on Kauai, a largely rural island that has a tropical climate considered ideal for trying out new biotech crops. The council needed five votes to cancel the veto. Read full article

(TOP) ~ The secret, dirty cost of Obama's green power push

green powerHidden Cost of Ethanol is the topic of an Associated Press 'investigation' which found that the ethanol era has proven far more damaging to the environment than politicians promised and much worse than the government admits today. Five million acres of land set aside for conservation have vanished on Obama's watch. Landowners filled in wetlands. They plowed into pristine prairies, releasing carbon dioxide that had been locked in the soil. Sprayers pumped out billions of pounds of fertilizer, some of which seeped into drinking water, contaminated rivers and worsened the huge dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico where marine life can't survive. The consequences are so severe that environmentalists and many scientists have now rejected corn-based ethanol as bad environmental policy. The AP story notes that the government's predictions of the benefits have proven so inaccurate that independent scientists question whether it will ever achieve its central environmental goal: reducing greenhouse gases. Read full story

(TOP) ~ White House report highlights importance of passing a food, farm, and jobs bill

The White House has released a report which highlights the economic benefits that would result from changes proposed in the Farm Bill. The report states that passage of a Food, Farm and Jobs Bill would: Build on recent momentum of the U.S. agriculture economy, a key engine of economic growth; Promote development in communities across the country, by expanding new opportunities for American agriculture, increasing manufacturing potential and supporting businesses across rural America; Protect our vital food assistance programs, which benefit millions of families and individuals – in rural, suburban and urban areas alike; Create a reliable safety net for our farmers and ranchers, including a strong crop insurance program, a long term extension of disaster programs and retroactive assistance for livestock producers. See full report

(TOP) ~ USDA funds research to improve plant production and health

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) announced nearly $9 million in grants for research into issues affecting plant breeding and production, leading to improvements in plants that are critical to the sustainability and competitiveness of American agriculture. “As plants play a vital role in the success of the national and global economy, it is crucial we study plant breeding and genomics and innovative approaches to plant improvement and protection,” said Sonny Ramaswamy, NIFA director. “The knowledge gained from the work funded today will allow us to successfully face challenges in food security, bioenergy, climate change and increasing global competition.” The awards were made under the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) Foundational Program priority area of plant breeding for agricultural production. See press release

(TOP) ~ Farm Bill: great experiment or dysfunction?

The farm bill, writes David Rogers in Politico, is one of the great untold policy battles of this Congress. It is, he adds, at a breaking point, and, in entering its third year of debate, an apt symbol of the Capitol’s dysfunction. It could also be a last beacon of sorts in Congress for bipartisan action. Senator John Hoeven (R-ND) said, “We have to make this place work, and the farm bill is one of those things we can still do together. It’s even more important now after what’s been happening here.” So, why, asks Rogers, is it so hard? One reason, suggests Rogers, is that everyone underestimated the challenge of replacing direct payments with a new safety net that has to fit a tangled agriculture landscape that has seen dramatic changes over the last two decades. The new bill contains two options in its commodity title: a Senate plan geared to revenues, and a House one focused more to production costs. Read full article

(TOP) ~ Developing rules to stop erosion of U.S. wetlands

The planet emits around 450 million tons of carbon dioxide every year through converting wetlands. These wetland systems, sometimes called "blue carbon," are commonly defined as mangroves, salt marshes and seagrass. And while they take up a fraction of the surface area of larger carbon sinks like boreal and tropical rainforests, studies have proved they hold as much as 340 times more CO2, much of it stored over centuries in their sediment. The United States has some of the largest blue carbon systems in the world, but their rapid conversion for agriculture and real estate development is a major source of emissions. Four years ago, nothing was being done about it. But that is slowly changing. In the fall of 2010, members of nonprofits Conservation International and Restore America's Estuaries contacted various federal agencies, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. At that point, NOAA wasn't doing very much, but that quickly changed. Within months, the agency established a Blue Carbon Team. A recent study from researchers at Duke University and USGS outlines a half-dozen existing federal policies that could be adapted to include blue carbon management. See full study

(TOP) ~ Reducing carbon emissions: benefits and costs to society

The White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is seeking public comments on its Technical Support Document entitled 'Technical Update of the Social Cost of Carbon for Regulatory Impact Analysis Under Executive Order 12866'. The Social Cost of Carbon (SCC) is an estimate of the monetized damages associated with an incremental increase in carbon emissions in a given year. It is intended to include (but is not limited to) changes in net agricultural productivity, human health, property damages from increased flood risk, and the value of ecosystem services due to climate change. The Technical Support Document explains the derivation of the SCC estimates using three peer reviewed integrated assessment models and provides updated values of the SCC that reflect minor technical corrections to the estimates released in May of this year. Get more information

Sources: Climatewire; Energy and Environmental Daily; Food Industry Environmental Network, LLC; Inside Higher Ed; Meridian Institute; National Science Foundation; The New York Times; Politico; Reuters; STEM Daily

Vision: The Societies Washington, DC Science Policy Office (SPO) will advocate the importance and value of the agronomic, crop and soil sciences in developing national science policy and ensuring the necessary public-sector investment in the continued health of the environment for the well being of humanity. The SPO will assimilate, interpret, and disseminate in a timely manner to Society members information about relevant agricultural, natural resources and environmental legislation, rules and regulations under consideration by Congress and the Administration.

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