agriculture

UConn Extension is Growing Food and Health with the Mashantucket Tribe

“The mission statement of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation (MPTN) states they will ‘…establish a social, cultural and economic foundation that can never be undermined or destroyed…,’” says Tribal Councilor Daniel Menihan, Jr. MPTN was facing challenges growing their fruits and vegetables at a scale to meet the tribe’s needs on their land in Ledyard, and some members were struggling with diabetes.

UConn has enjoyed a long history of engagement with members of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal community. Many members have graduated from UConn and served on the UConn Foundation Board, among others. Despite the fact that there is an Extension office only 10 miles from the reservation, MPTN has rarely participated in any educational outreach or training offered by UConn Extension.

UConn Extension received the four-year Federally Recognized Tribes Extension Program (FRTEP) grant from USDA-NIFA with the goal of having the tribe share their ideas for growing food and health, and help them learn about the Extension resources that are available. As a result of the grant, the relationship between MPTN and UConn is strengthening, and there is growth in agricultural production, food security, and health for the tribal people.

heirloom tomatoes
Heirloom tomatoes grown by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation. Photo: Noah Cudd

“MPTN is still learning, but they are now able to grow their own food, in what looks like a commercial setting,” states Shuresh Ghimire, PhD, Vegetable Crops Extension educator and principal investigator on the grant. “They have high tunnels, a rototiller, a plastic mulch layer, and cold storage, which are common tools for a commercial farm.”

Extension provides expertise through one-on-one consultation, and classroom and hands-on training on-site in a collaborative setting. Educational outreach addresses the following critical areas identified by the MPTN Council:

  1. Improve food security
  2. Improve economic viability
  3. Improve youth engagement and communications
  4. Improve nutrition and diabetes awareness through collaborative education

An Extension program involving several specialists in fruit and vegetable production, farm business management, marketing, 4-H youth development, health and nutrition, communications, evaluation and assessment is working with the MPTN on their goals. Tribal members are participating in other Extension programs, beyond the scope of the grant. A 4-H club is being established at MPTN to increase opportunities for youth.

“Once this grant came, we started working with UConn Extension Educators. There has been a substantial gain in the knowledge and skills regarding growing food, writing a business plan, nutrition, and health,” says Jeremy Whipple, a MPTN member.

Growing with MPTN

Extension provides education for MPTN in state-of-the-art sustainable vegetable and fruit production techniques, and through

people in the greenhouse at the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation
UConn Extension educators work with members of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation in a high tunnel. Photo: Shuresh Ghimire

collaboration with MPTN, is melded with traditional and historical tribal farming methods. This provides MPTN with a means to continue the richness of their history while moving into modern sustainable farming economically.

Tribal youth are included in all aspects of the agricultural venture with the tribe’s expectation that several youth will develop major roles in the business venture. Two tribal youth are being paid by the grant to work in vegetable production at MPTN.

“Learning how to grow tomatoes, including pest management, is one of the many things I enjoy working with on this grant” Ernest Pompey, one of the tribal youths working on this grant says. “I am excited to share what I learned about growing and eating healthy food to other youth in my community.”

“The tribe also established a community garden where they bring other youth from the community to teach them about growing. The knowledge is expanding within their own community, and they are teaching each other now,” Shuresh says.

making the three sisters recipe with members of the Mashantucket tribe
Extension educators make the Three Sisters recipe with members of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation.

UConn Extension’s nutrition team is working with the tribal community health providers to deliver educational programming in healthy eating and diabetes prevention using classroom education, and hands-on learning in the selection and preparing of healthy food, and exercise through gardening. The goal is to reduce the risk and incidence of diabetes in the tribal community.

“The Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) utilizes a hands-on approach to nutrition education, combining nutrition knowledge with enhancement of skills to apply this knowledge to prepare healthy foods that are convenient, affordable and culturally appropriate,” says Mike Puglisi PhD, RD, state EFNEP director. “Erica Benvenuti, New London County nutrition educator, taught children in the MPTN High 5 Program the importance of food safety and increasing vegetable intake, and enhanced learning through getting the children involved in preparation of a traditional recipe prepared by the MPTN, the Three Sisters Rice recipe.”

The grant is starting its third year, and another Extension educator is working with tribal youth and adults in developing a business plan for the agricultural venture to increase their success rate. Youth and adults are also learning about their agricultural history and how it can successfully be integrated into today’s modern sustainable agriculture by combining classes with in-field learning experience.

“Ultimately, after the grant ends, MPTN’s farm will operate as a commercial vegetable farm would in terms of production and reaching out to Extension when they do need help. They will be independent, and continue growing their operation to support the goals of the tribal nation,” Shuresh states.

Article by Stacey Stearns and Shuresh Ghimire

Christmas in July at CT Greenhouses

It is Christmas in July for the greenhouse producers who grow poinsettias. In order to have plants that are blooming for December sales, greenhouses start the process early. Poinsettias require months in the greenhouse before they are ready to be purchased and taken home.

Leanne Pundt, one of our Extension educators was scouting the plants for whitefly immatures at one the Connecticut growers last week and took these photos.

poinsettias as seedlings
Poinsettias are purchased as seedlings by the greenhouses. Photo: Leanne Pundt
poinsettia plants in a water tunnel
The planting line in the watering tunnel. Photo: Leanne Pundt

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

poinsettias on cart to be transported into the greenhouse
Potted plants are placed on carts to be transported into the greenhouse. Photo: Leanne Pundt
poinsettias growing in the greenhouse
Poinsettias growing in the greenhouse. Photo: Leanne Pundt

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

poinsettia plants in the greenhouse
Poinsettia plants in the greenhouse. Photo: Leanne Pundt

 

Auerfarm Appoints Erica Fearn as Executive Director

Erica FearnThe Auerfarm 4-H Education Center in Bloomfield, Connecticut announces the appointment of Erica Prior Fearn, CAE, as its new Executive Director, beginning July 24.

Fearn succeeds Interim Executive Director Barbara G. DeMaio, who held the position since March.

“Auerfarm is thrilled to have an executive of Erica’s caliber lead our organization. Her experience at the CT Farm Bureau at both the state and nationals brings a wealth of talent to our organization. In addition, Erica’s 25-year involvement with Connecticut

4-H, both as a youth participant and now as leader, speaks volumes about her commitment and passion for agriculture and the environment, which are at the heart of everything we do at Auerfarm,” said Mark Weisman, chair of Auerfarm’s board of directors.

“I have always admired the mission and work of Auerfarm. It is an invaluable community resource for children, families and guests from across the region who want to learn about agriculture and the environment. I look forward to working with its very dedicated staff and volunteer force to further enrich the visitor experience and chart Auerfarm’s future,” said Fearn.

In addition to her work with the CT Farm Bureau, Fearn served as a consultant to several agricultural and environmental related non-profits.  Fearn has a BS in Animal Science from UConn and earned a certificate in Financial Success for Non- Profits from Cornell University.

Fearn is a resident of West Suffield, CT.

“We are very thankful to Barb DeMaio for serving as our Interim Director for the past several months. Her work was integral in maintaining Auerfarm’s level of excellence as a community resource,” said Mary Eberle, Auerfarm board member and chair of the recruitment committee. “We also thank Harvest Development Group for their assistance is recruiting both Erica and Barb to our organization,” said Eberle. “Harvest identified the type of leaders that we needed to continue Auerfarm’s heritage as a one-of-a-kind destination and experience.”

GMO 2.0 Overview

GMO 2.0 Overview 

By Quamyia Foye

Quamyia Foye is an undergraduate at UConn and attended GMO 2.0: Science, Society and the Future and wrote the following summary of the event, along with her perceptions.

 

Overview of Risks and Benefits of Genetically Engineered Crops

Dr. Paul Vincelli, extension professor and provost distinguished service professor from the Department of Plant Pathology at the University of Kentucky, presented a presentation touching on the benefits and risks of genetically engineered crops. In the first part of Dr. Vincelli’s presentation, he discussed non-GMO breeding/ conventional breeding which is a less precise, controlled and more disruptive form of growing agronomic and horticultural crops. Since conventional breeding leans more to the traditional side some people prefer this method over genetic engineering. However, Dr. Vincelli made a very strong point, that when it comes to genetic change what matters is not how it is made but what it does. Genetically engineered crops, crops whose DNA has been modified using genetic engineering methods, are typically seen in a negative light due to it being ‘man-made’ even though there is no current scientific evidence that shows any negative effects. The greatest concern when it comes to genetically engineered crops is transgene flow. A transgene is a gene or genetic material that was genetically engineered from one organism to another. ‘The introduction of a transgene (called “transgenesis”) has the potential to change the phenotype of an organism (A. J. Clark 2011)”. Based off of this information it can be seen that when it comes to transgene flow an individual’s main fear and concern is that a different gene from completely different organisms can be passed along to an unrelated crop which is viewed as unnatural and unsafe by some people. However, that is not the case. Two examples of crops being genetically engineered and having positive benefits are aflatoxins and tomatoes. Aflatoxins in its natural state are one of the most potent carcinogens but due to gene splicing its carcinogenesis traits was reduced making it a safe substance and a disease resistant tomato was created with a single gene from a pepper. Just by simply modifying/inserting a gene these two crops were improved which in turn can be beneficial for farming and human consumption. At the end of this presentation, Dr. Vincelli stated that there is no umbrella GMO and that there are different applications for each type of plant. When it comes to genetically engineering crops it should be taken on a case by case basis therefore, nothing should be excluded since everything is unique in its own way.

GMO Plant Technologies

Dr. Yi Li, a professor in the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture at UConn CAHNR, discussed GMO plant technologies and its positive benefits. At the beginning of the presentation, he explained the process of transferring specific genes to crop plants. An example Dr. Li gave was how drought tolerant low yield corn plant was ‘combined’ with a drought sensitive high yield plant which created a drought tolerant high yield corn plant. This process first begins when plant p1, drought tolerant but low yield, drought gene is isolated and then precisely inserted into plant p2, which is drought sensitive but high yield which then produced the drought tolerant and high seed yield corn variety. Dr. Li then goes on to discuss how GMO plants are not monsters and that transgenic plants can occur naturally. For example, in the genome of a cultivated sweet potato, there is Agrobacterium T-DNAs with expressed genes. Since 1997 we have been consuming GMOs, and since then, there has been an increase in the production of genetically modified soybeans, cotton, and corn. Nearly 100 percent of these crops planted in the US are GMOs and up to 80 percent of packaged foods contain GMO ingredients. When some individuals see such high percentages, they often question what is being modified in the food that they are consuming. Typically, the mass majority of food that is modified has beneficial properties. For example, genetically modified apples have a longer time span of freshness. Golden rice is modified to prevent blindness, cotton is modified to resist certain insects, and there are genetically modified papayas that are virus resistant. There are also studies that show and prove that planting Bt corn, a type of transgenic corn that “produce the insecticidal proteins that occur naturally in Bt” (Bacillus thuringiensis), reduces the use of insecticide. Even with there being scientific proof that there are beneficial properties in genetically modified organisms some individuals will still try to discredit it and state that since it is man made there is bound to negative side effects. However, what many people do not understand is that GMO and traditional methods of crop production are fundamentally the same. Both traditional and GMO breeding methods are involved in gene transfer. The only difference is that with traditional breeding the first plant, which has the desired gene, and second plant create a new plant type that has a combination of both of the plant genes which includes the specific desired gene. When it comes to GMO breeding methods only the desired gene from the selected plant is inserted into the second plant. This results in a new plant species that has an almost identical genetic makeup of the second plant except it has the specific desired gene now apart of its DNA. Overall, there are three major plant breeding technologies which are, gene editing, traditional breeding, and genetically modified organisms. When it comes to public acceptance and effectiveness GMO is the most effective yet least accepted, gene editing is in the middle with both effectiveness and acceptance and traditional breeding is the least effective yet the most accepted. Based off of these results it can be seen that when it comes down to what is actually beneficial the public tend to lean towards their belief than the actual veracity. We need to use all possible tools to improve crop yield in order to feed the current population because based on the data presented it shows that as the world population increases the area which crops are grown decreases which can cause significant problems pertaining to the demand of food and the population.

GMOs and Big Agriculture in the US

Gerry Berkowitz, a professor in the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture, at the University of Connecticut CAHNR program presented both his work and that of Robert C Bird, professor of Business Law and Eversource Energy Chair Business Ethics, at the UConn school of business. Dr. Berkowitz touched upon the effect of GMO’s on agriculture and how we need to question what is being presented to us. He stated that we need to be aware that what we consider the ‘truth’ is based on the best evidence available, but that is not always, or often not, the final story. When it comes to certain issues, the public’s perception will usually conflate, which is to combine several issues into one. For example, there was a case where a groundkeeper sued Monsanto after he developed Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma after using Roundup various times throughout the day at extended periods. Roundup’s active ingredient, glyphosate, is a known carcinogen which Monsanto, its manufacturer, failed to provide warning and appropriate information regarding the potential danger of the product. The judge, in this case, allowed evidence from internal emails and experts warnings, as well as a 2015 WHO-IARC classification of glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans”. The groundkeeper went on to win the lawsuit. When it came down to it, there was not even solid scientific evidence that Roundup is actually carcinogenic. As mentioned previously, in 2015 the WHO-IARC stated that Roundup was ‘probably carcinogenic to humans’. The US EPA concluded that Roundup was ‘not likely to be carcinogenic’. Since there is no solid conclusive evidence the judge based his decision on Monsanto’s failure to provide information on the possible carcinogen. Due to the public perception of companies such as Monsanto and the misconstruing of what the case was about, after and during the case there was a lot of backlash concerning Monsanto GMOs, and its agrichemicals when in actuality this case did not pertain to GMOs or the toxicity of agrichemicals. Mr. Berkowitz also brought up the controversial topic of GMO labeling. He asked do consumers have a right to know where they are spending their money towards food and to link this to their value system? In simpler terms, do individuals have the right to know exactly what is in their food and should they be able to associate this with their beliefs and or the worth of the food? In the US, nearly 80 percent of consumers prefer to have GMO labeling laws, yet many companies oppose it. One viewpoint was that if GMO labeling did happen there would be an increase in non-GMO food prices. Mr. Berkowitz disagrees. Since we already have certified organic labeling, he believes that the real reason is that if products with GMO were labeled, there would be a reduction in purchases. Currently, when it comes to GMO labeling, Congress has passed national labeling law preempting state standards which were directed by the USDA to establish a labeling standard which can vary from an actual label to a QR scan.

My perception of the event

In conclusion, this event exhibited various perceptions and methods of GMO and overall did a splendid job. All the panelists were passionate about what they were discussing and were able to explain their topic in a clear and concise manner. I also enjoyed the crowd’s participation and engagement with the panelists and how they did not stray from asking tough questions. For example, one participant asked in terms of labeling would they prefer if a product simply stated it was genetically engineered or it stated which type of genetic engineering was done. Dr. Vincelli said he was in favor of labeling genetically engineered foods for social reasons and not scientific. He stated that he really did not have a good answer to completely explain his reasoning and also commented that he would not be in favor of the product stating what type of genetic engineering was used because it would be too complicated for individuals. Dr. Berkowitz explained that he supports labeling simply because the public supports labeling however he does not believe that it should be for genetic engineering types because people have problems with the technology and not the type of engineering. Dr. Li then stated that he prefers to eat GMOs than conventional produce, so he supports both types of labeling. This type of engagement provided extra insight into GMOs and the panelist viewpoints as well as gave the audience time to process new information and be able to process and put everything together. Ultimately, this event was a great experience and provided much insight into GMOs and how people perceive them.

For more information visit https://gmo.uconn.edu/

Conservation Planning

aerial view of Connecticut River and agricultural fieldsExcess fertilizer use and inefficient nutrient management strategies often are causes of water quality impairment in the United States. When excess nitrogen enters large water bodies it enhances algae growth and when that algae decomposes, hypoxic conditions—often called a “dead zone” occur.

Nutrients carried to the Long Island Sound have been linked to the seasonal hypoxic conditions in the Sound. There are many different sources of nutrients within the Long Island Sound Watershed, an area encompassing parts of Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont. These sources include municipalities, industry, agriculture, forests, residential lawns and septic systems.

The Long Island Sound Watershed Regional Conservation Partnership Program (LISW-RCPP) is a technical and financial assistance program that enables agricultural producers and forest landowners to install and maintain conservation practices. The goal of this program is to enhance natural resources and improve water quality. Funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the LISW-RCPP supports efforts that find common ground among agricultural producers and conservation organizations in working towards the sustainable use of soil, water, and other natural resources.

Conservation practices can achieve multiple positive environmental outcomes, including water quality improvement. A widemap imagery for conservation planning for farms variety of practices exist including in-field (cover crops, reduced tillage, diversified rotation and nutrient management), and edge-of-field strategies (grassed water ways, buffer strips, riparian area, bioreactors and wetlands). These changes, in turn improves nitrogen retention during vulnerable leaching periods in the spring and fall. Conservation strategies also function to safeguard other ecosystem roles, such as carbon sequestration, animal refuge habitat, fisheries and recreation.

Prioritizing areas for nutrient management strategies requires an understanding of the spatial relationships between land use and impaired surface waterbodies. Our project utilizes a geographic information systems (GIS) based approach to under- stand and act upon these important spatial relationships. In part, we are identifying contemporary and historical hotspots of agricultural land use by using satellite- derived land use land cover (LULC) classifications initially developed by
the University of Connecticut’s Center for Land Use Education and Research (CLEAR). Spatial analyses depicting the proximity of agriculture to highly valued water resources (both surface and ground- water) serves as the foundational work that informs where efforts to protect and restore water quality will be most impactful to the greater Long Island Sound Watershed.

Our future work will pair spatial maps with modeled contemporary and historical nutrient loading patterns to expand regions of interest. Our goal is to provide education and tools that help farmers realize the benefits of sustainable agriculture with individual conservation plans tailored to their specific needs and objectives. Connecticut’s environment of diverse crops and farms offers unique opportunities and challenges. UConn Extension is offering soil tests and interpretations to assess each farm’s nutrient needs. We look forward to co-creating knowledge with farmers and developing soil health solutions for long-term production goals and resilient farms.

Article by Katherine Van Der Woude and Kevin Jackson

Risk Management Tools: Helping Connecticut Farms Grow

Horsebarn Hill at UConn
A view of Horsebarn Hill at sunrise on July 20, 2017. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

“Agriculture is inherently a risk filled profession,” says Associate Extension Educator Joseph Bonelli. “Utilizing risk management is a tool for farmers to minimize the impacts of threats they can’t completely control by reducing the impact of certain dangers on their farm business.”

UConn Extension has a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Risk Management Association (RMA) grant for farmers and growers, specifically focusing on crop insurance and its options. USDA offers fewer disaster assistance funds, and wants farmers to take a greater interest in managing their risks and related financial impacts. The program is designed to create a safety net for operations through insurance for weather incidents, pests, or a lack of market.

The beauty of the programming is that Extension educators can weave in other topics of interest in areas of risk management for farmers. Examples include production risk, plant diseases, or labor. RMA covers any practice that mitigates risk on a farm operation.

“I enjoy helping farmers develop solutions to problems,” Bonelli states. “I ask them what keeps them up at night. For many farmers its problems that risk management can help them mitigate. Extension helps farmers understand the tools that are available, and grow the farm for the next generation.”

Mary Concklin, Visiting Associate Extension Educator for Fruit Production and IPM, is the co- principal investigator on the RMA grant with Bonelli. An advisory board of 12 people meets annually to provide input on programming. Members of the committee include Extension educators, Farm Bureau, the Department of Agriculture, and industry organizations.

Programs offered include workshops and one-on-one sessions with technical advisors. The RMA program has a suite of educational resources. A video series was created featuring farmers from different sectors of agriculture discussing how crop insurance has helped their operation. A monthly e-newsletter was recently introduced. Each issue showcases a farmer, and provides tips that farmers can immediately put into practice.

Agricultural producers appreciate that RMA programs have an impartial approach, and are not trying to sell anything. Program instructors serve as technical advisors and a sounding board.

UConn Extension is part of a network of information through our association with other land grant universities and Extension systems, and brings in outside expertise as it’s needed by our farmers. Risk management is also incorporated into other UConn Extension programs for agricultural producers.

Connecticut farmers have experienced a tremendous shift from wholesale to retail marketing. The demands on farmers and growers to understand how to promote and market value added crops has added another level of responsibility, where before farmers only focused on production. Direct marketing brings another whole area of risk through product liability and competition.

Not all national crop insurance programs fit Connecticut agriculture. Farmers need to make an informed decision
based on the facts as to whether or not a policy fits their business, and should be purchased. Bonelli and Concklin provide feedback to USDA on the reasons why Connecticut farmers choose not to purchase insurance, with the goal of improv- ing federal programs available.

“We try to be on the leading edge of what’s new to help farmers be more productive and financially viable,” Bonelli concludes. “It’s rewarding that UConn Extension is part of the success and resiliency of farmers in our state. No one organization is responsible, we’re part of a team working with the farmers to grow their businesses.”

Article by Stacey Stearns

Connecticut Grown Strawberries Ripe for Picking

Connecticut grown strawberries in cartonsFresh from the field, Connecticut Grown strawberries are now ripening and ready to eat. Strawberries are the first fruit available in Connecticut and signal the arrival of summer for many residents who look forward to visiting one of the state’s pick-your-own farms.

“Visiting a Connecticut strawberry patch to pick your own is a wholesome, family fun activity,” said Bryan P. Hurlburt, Connecticut Department of Agriculture Commissioner. “This type of activity supports local farms and farm families while generating millions of dollars in agritourism for the state’s economy. And, the best part of it all is that you get fresh Connecticut Grown strawberries to eat at home.” 

While it’s early in the season, producers are reporting that picking is quite good. “Despite the amount of record breaking rain in April and early May, the strawberries crop is now experiencing excellent weather for maturing to ripening. The season is off to a great start and it appears that the production will be right in line for a successful strawberry season,” said Nancy Barrett, owner of Scantic Valley Farm in Somers, CT.

It’s a good idea to call ahead, or check the farms website, for daily updates as weather conditions impact availability. Sweet and juicy strawberries are also available now at farmers’ markets and farm stands throughout the state. Find one near you at www.CTGrown.gov/strawberry.

When ripe, strawberries smell wonderful and taste even better. As members of the rose family, this perennial plant is a good source of vitamin C, manganese, folate, and potassium. They are also loaded with antioxidants.

Strawberries should be plump and firm with a bright red color and natural shine. The color and fragrance of the berry, not size, are the best indicators of flavor. Once you get your strawberries home, wash them and cut the stem away to store in a cool place. If you plan to keep them in the fridge for a few days, wait to clean them until you plan to eat them. Rinsing them speeds up spoiling.

Strawberries can be used to make jams, jellies, shortcake, pie and more. They can also be pickled, especially when picked green or unripe, or frozen to use later in smoothies. Find more recipe ideas to create your own delicious dishes by visiting our Pinterest page at https://www.pinterest.com/GrowCTAg/.

Make plans to visit a Connecticut strawberry patch this weekend to create lasting memories and delicious, healthy dishes.

Article by Connecticut Department of Agriculture

Evan Lentz: Intern Spotlight

Evan Lentz and Casey Lambert spent the summer of 2018 as undergraduate interns scouting for diseases and insects at vineyards and small fruit farms throughout the state with the iPiPE grant through the National Institute for Food and Agriculture.

iPIPE is the Integrated Pest Information Platform for Extension and Education. It’s a weather and pest-tracking tool for growers to use. The program uses technology to categorize endemic pests, users, and data. Extension Educator Mary Concklin has a two-year iPiPe grant.

“We collected information on farms, uploaded it to iPiPE, and shared our results with the growers,” Evan says. “I got to know many of the farmers and

their day-to-day routines. Some of them really cared that we were at the farm, and we were a resource to help with their problems.”

Evan graduated in May of 2019 with a major in Sustainable Plant and Soil Systems, and a minor in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. He starts graduate school in the fall. “I highly recommend Extension internships to anyone, in any major,” he concludes.

Article by Stacey Stearns

Welcome Abby Beissinger to UConn Extension!

Abby BeissingerUConn Extension and the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture are proud to announce our newest team member, Abby Beissinger. Abby has accepted the position of Plant Diagnostician in the UConn Plant Diagnostic Laboratory. Her first official day was May 28, 2019.

Abby attended the University of Wisconsin and received a B.A. in Anthropology in 2011. During her undergraduate studies, she focused on agriculture and sustainable development, and implemented development projects in Costa Rica, Mexico, and Uganda. Abby spent two years as an AmeriCorps volunteer teaching urban agriculture and gardening to youth in Massachusetts, and a summer with the Student Conservation Association leading trail crews in Chicago. From her work, she realized she was drawn to plant pathology and how plant diseases impact human livelihoods.

In 2016, Abby graduated from Washington State University with a M.S. in Plant Pathology. Her research focused on how management decisions of Potato virus Y impact the epidemiology and etiology of the virus. She then relocated to University of Connecticut to run the Conservation Ambassador Program in the Department of Natural Resources & the Environment. She fostered a statewide volunteer network of 90+ community partners including schools, non-profits, and government agencies to mentor high school students conducting long-term conservation projects. She enjoyed helping students make an environmental impact, and was drawn back to plant pathology to support growers and agricultural networks.

Abby is an example of the winding path people take to discover plant pathology, and is excited to serve as UConn’s Plant Diagnostician. In her spare time, Abby can be found in her garden growing food and flowers, painting, dancing, or exploring cities and their greens spaces.

Please join us in welcoming Abby to UConn Extension! Please visit our website for more information on the Plant Diagnostic Laboratory.

Authors: Karen Snover-Clift and Abby Beissinger

When did GMO become a dirty word?

man shopping in a grocery store aisle
Companies place the non-GMO label on their product as a marketing tool, either feeding off the fear generated by misinformation, or the demands of their consumers. (Stock photo via Anthony Albright, Flickr/Creative Commons)

Do you know someone with diabetes? While most people may associate GMOs with food products, their use actually began in the medical field with insulin.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved GMO insulin for use in October of 1982 after rigorous testing, clinical trials, and review. Prior to that, diabetics used insulin obtained from the pancreas of cattle or swine. Supplies were dwindling, and there was fear that the insulin shortage would result in negative health ramifications for patients. The recombinant DNA technology used, that we now refer to as GMOs, provided a safe and effective alternative. In fact, GMO insulin is a closer match to human insulin, and patients who could not tolerate insulin from a cow or pig can utilize GMO insulin without negative side effects.

Despite the benefits of GMOs, 80% of respondents to the 2018 Food and Health Survey Report from the International Food Information Council Foundation are confused about food or doubt their choices because of conflicting information. The report found that context of GMOs influenced consumer judgment. The Pew Research Center found that 49% of Americans think genetically modified foods are worse for one’s health. In short, many people may fear or be suspicious of GMOs, but there is a history of important effects that most people would applaud. Insulin is such a case.

Scientists create GMOs by changing the genetic code of a living being in some way. Plant and animal genetics have been altered for thousands of years through breeding. New technology lets scientists select a specific trait, instead of changing the entire genetic makeup. The medical, agricultural, and environmental fields all have GMO products.

Accepting or rejecting GMOs is an individual decision. However, all decisions consumers make should be based on facts. An overwhelming majority of scientists believe that GMOs are safe, according to the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine. Information from science-based sources can be hard to find in the flood of information available on the Internet.

With that in mind, experts in agriculture, health and natural resources at the University of Connecticut (UConn) have established a web site (https://gmo.uconn.edu/) providing science-based information to help consumers make their own decisions about GMOs.

A handful of food products have approved GMO versions sold in the United States. These include: apples, canola, corn, papaya, pineapple, potatoes, salmon, soybeans, squash, and sugar beets. Insect resistant and herbicide tolerant crops are the two most common features in GMO varieties. Only specific varieties have a GMO version in many of these products, for example, the Arctic apple. The Flavr Savr tomato was introduced in 1994 as the first GMO food product, but is no longer sold because it lacked flavor.

Consumers benefit from GMOs. Although the benefits aren’t always noticeable when you’re browsing the grocery store, they include:

  • Improving food safety of products,
  • Lowering consumer food prices,
  • Protecting food supplies from insects,
  • Limiting food waste on the farm and in your fridge,
  • Reducing the carbon footprint needed for food production, and
  • Keeping the environment healthy.

Despite the benefits, negative perceptions about GMOs are wide-spread. Consumer knowledge and acceptance of GMOs has not matched the pace of adoption by the agricultural community. Experts in the field concur that GMO communication campaigns have failed to answer the “what’s in it for me” question for the public. The majority of campaigns only cite the benefits to farmers, and feeding a growing global population. Consumers commonly reference changes to nutritional content, or the creation of allergens as concerns with GMOs, although there is no evidence of either.

I notice negative perceptions about GMOs in the supermarket, when foods are labeled as non-GMO even though it’s impossible for them to contain GMOs. Salt doesn’t have any genetics to modify, although you’ll find some salt labeled as non-GMO. Cat litter is another example of a product that can’t have GMOs, but is labeled non-GMO.

Companies place the non-GMO label on their product as a marketing tool, either feeding off the fear generated by misinformation, or the demands of their consumers. People without a clear understanding of GMOs spread misinformation on the Internet. Much of what is shared lacks science-based facts and the rigors of peer review. A common tactic is connecting scientists to biotechnology corporations. Ironically, many of the campaigners in the anti-GMO movement are paid to share these messages.

Consumers should form their own opinions about GMOs from the wealth of available science-based information and experts. Instead of accepting and spreading misinformation, shouldn’t we ask more questions, and turn to reliable sources instead?

Article by Stacey Stearns