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What's Next in Bird Flu Response?

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Indianapolis, IN (Associated Press, January 25, 2016):  More than 414,000 turkeys and chickens have been killed, some through a method considered a "last resort" of euthanasia, at 10 southwest Indiana farms affected by a bird flu outbreak. Testing and monitoring will continue for weeks to determine if the outbreak of the H7N8 viral strain is contained. That strain is different from one that led to the deaths of more than 48 million birds last summer.

Here are some questions and answers about what happened and what's next in the response to the outbreak in Dubois County, Indiana's top turkey-producing county about 70 miles west of Louisville, Kentucky:

WHEN WERE THE LAST BIRD FLU CASES CONFIRMED?

Indiana's last bird flu cases were confirmed Jan. 16. Animal health officials announced the previous day that a form of the viral strain that was causing infected birds to die had been found at a turkey farm in Dubois County. The next day, officials said the virus had been detected at nine other turkey farms. Eight of those farms had a form of the viral strain that only made the birds sick; testing continues on the virus found at the ninth farm.

Chicken Most Consumed Meat

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Washington, DC (Economic Research Service, January 27, 2016):  In 2013, 57.7 pounds of chicken per person on a boneless, edible basis were available for Americans to eat, compared to 53.6 pounds of beef and 43.4 pounds of pork, according to ERS's food availability data.

From 1909 to the early 1940s, chicken availability had been around 10 pounds per person a year, while yearly per-person beef and pork availability had ranged from between 30 and 50 pounds.  Chicken began its upward climb in the 1940s, as innovations in breeding, mass production, and processing made chicken more plentiful, affordable, and convenient for the dining-out market and for cooking at home.

By 1996, chicken had overtaken pork as the second-most-consumed meat, and in 2010, chicken overtook beef for the No. 1 spot.

Beef availability rose during the second half of the last century, peaking at 88.8 pounds per capita in 1976. Pork availability, which had fallen in 2010 and 2011, was up in 2012 and again in 2013.

Surprising Truth about the Food Movement

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Washington, DC (Washington Post, January 26, 2016):  Let me ask you a question: When it comes to our food supply, what do you care about?

Think about it for a second. Make a mental list.

Now, let me ask you another question: Do you care about farmworker exposure to pesticides? I sure do, and I'm betting you do, too. But was it on your list? I'm betting it wasn't.

And that difference, in a nutshell, is the source of a serious misconception about what we think of as "the food movement." Ask people whether they care about a particular topic, and they're likely to tell you — truthfully — that they do. But ask what people care about without prompting, and the fraction of people citing the issues that fall under food movement auspices – organics, local food, genetically modified organisms, farm subsidies, antibiotics, farmworker conditions, animal welfare — is actually quite small.

Take GMO labeling: Polls routinely show that, when you ask people whether they want GMOs labeled, upwards of 90 percent say yes. Overwhelming support for labeling GMOs! But if, instead, you ask consumers what they'd like to see identified on food labels that isn't already there, a paltry 7 percent say "GMOs." Almost no support for labeling GMOs!

That 7 percent study was done by William Hallman, professor and chairman of the Department of Human Ecology at Rutgers University, who points out that "most of the research that is out there that has tried to gauge how much people care about such things [has] asked people to react to lists of foods that are nasty or nice, and there are certainly social-desirability biases baked into the responses to such questions."

The Rutgers study asked consumers about information on labels using both methods: first, "What would you like to see on labels?" and second, "Would you like to see X on labels?" The difference between the responses is huge, and it's at the heart of why the food movement seems so much bigger than it actually is.

When subjects were asked what they would like labels to identify, here were some of the results: 7 percent (the highest number) said GMOs, 6 percent said where the food was grown or produced; 2 percent said chemicals; 1 percent said pesticides. A survey by the International Food Information Council in 2014 asked a similar question; 4 percent of respondents cited biotechnology and 4 percent cited source or processing information. Those are very small numbers.

But when the Rutgers study asked the question the second way, 80 percent of respondents said it was somewhat, very or extremely important to them that GMO content be on the label. Pesticides? 83 percent.

The moral of this story is that it's easy to make it look like people care a whole lot more than they do.

Where does that leave us? How many people really do care? Is there even such a thing as a food movement?

Farmland Values Fall as Boom Ends

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New York (Bloomberg News, January 21, 2016):  The American farm boom is all but over. Farmland values are down from all-time highs. Global surpluses left corn and soybean prices below the cost of production. And the amount of agricultural debt relative to income ballooned to the highest in three decades, just as the Federal Reserve has begun raising interest rates for the first time since 2006.

While many growers remain profitable, the global commodity slump is increasing pressure on a Midwest economy that was largely shielded from the worst of the financial crisis by high crop prices and land values. Last year, farm income was the lowest since 2002. This year's agriculture-trade surplus in the U.S. — the world's top exporter — will be the smallest in a decade. Meanwhile, sales are dropping for the likes of tractor-maker Deere (DE) and seed supplier Monsanto (MON).

"The farm economy had a near-perfect five or six years," built upon record U.S. demand for corn-based ethanol in fuel, surging food purchases in Asia and near-zero-percent interest rates that helped spur land investment, said Brent Gloy, an agricultural economist at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. With the oil slump eroding ethanol margins and a strong dollar dampening U.S. exports, the Fed's decision last month to start raising borrowing costs "means there's nothing left of the boom," Gloy said.

Illegal Immigration at Lowest Level in 10 Years

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New York, NY (TPM LiveWire, January 20, 2016):  A new report from the Center for Migration Studies reveals that the number of immigrants living in the U.S. illegally is at its lowest number in more than a decade.

Currently 10.9 million immigrants live in the country illegally, according to the Washington Post, which got the report first. That is the first time the unauthorized immigrant population has dropped below 11 million since 2004 and it is at its lowest level since 2003. The report reveals that the number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. has been shrinking steadily since 2008.

In a presidential election cycle where Republicans–especially Donald Trump– have made illegal immigration a central tenet of their message, the report is a stark reminder of the vast gap between electoral rhetoric that fires up the GOP base and the reality on the ground. Immigration has emerged as a major fault line in the GOP as more moderate Republicans like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio have been attacked for their positions that immigrants who are living in the U.S. illegally should have a chance to earn legal status while Trump has boasted the need to build a big ol' border wall.

"One reason for the high and sustained level of interest in undocumented immigration is the widespread belief that the trend in the undocumented population is ever upward," the new Center for Migration Studies report says. "This paper shows that this belief is mistaken and that, in fact, the undocumented population has been decreasing for more than a half a decade."

USDA Reports Reduced Tillage by Major Crops

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Washington, DC (Economic Research Service, January 21, 2016): No-till and strip-till are two of several tillage methods farmers use to plant crops.

These practices disturb the soil less than other methods, reducing soil erosion, helping maintain soil carbon, and can contribute to improved soil health.

In a no-till system, farmers plant directly into the undisturbed residue of the previous crop without tillage, except for nutrient injection; in a strip-till system, only a narrow strip is tilled where row-crops are planted.

Overall, 39 percent of the combined corn, soybean, wheat, and cotton acres (the four most widely grown crops in the U.S.) were in no-till/strip-till in 2010-11 (89 million acres per year), with adoption rates higher for some crops.

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