March 31st, 2014

"WICHITA, Kan. — Farmers from across the nation gathered in Washington this month for what has become an annual trek to seek action on the most important matters in American agriculture, such as immigration reform and water regulations.

But this time, a new, more shadowy issue also emerged: growing unease about how the largest seed companies are gathering vast amount of data from sensors on tractors, combines and other farm equipment.

The increasingly common sensors measure soil conditions, seeding rates, crop yields and many other variables, allowing companies to provide farmers with customized guidance on how to get the most out of their fields.

The involvement of the American Farm Bureau, the nation’s largest and most prominent farming organization, illustrates how agriculture is cautiously entering a new era in which raw planting data holds both the promise of higher yields and the peril that the information could be hacked or exploited by corporations or government agencies.

Seed companies want to harness the data to help farmers grow more food with the same amount of land, and the industry’s biggest brands have offered assurances that all information will be closely guarded."

Read more from The Washington Post

March 10th, 2014

"WASHINGTON — The farm bill signed by President Obama last month was at first glance the usual boon for soybean growers, catfish farmers and their ilk. But closer examination reveals that the nation’s agriculture policy is increasingly more whole grain than white bread.

Within the bill is a significant shift in the types of farmers who are now benefiting from taxpayer dollars, reflecting a decade of changing eating habits and cultural dispositions among American consumers. Organic farmers, fruit growers and hemp producers all did well in the new bill. An emphasis on locally grown, healthful foods appeals to a broad base of their constituents, members of both major parties said.

“There is nothing hotter than farm to table,” said Representative Bill Huizenga, a Michigan Republican from a district of vast cherry orchards.

While traditional commodities subsidies were cut by more than 30 percent to $23 billion over 10 years, funding for fruits and vegetables and organic programs increased by more than 50 percent over the same period, to about $3 billion."

Read more from The New York Times

March 7th, 2014

"WASHINGTON — The chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board told senators Thursday that the Obama administration should already be using its power to require industries to adopt safer technology in making and handling deadly chemicals such as the one that exploded last April at a fertilizer plant in West.

“The EPA has the authority today to require companies to apply IST [inherently safer technology] in design, equipment and processes,” Dr. Rafael Moure-Eraso said in testimony before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

“These major accidents don’t have to happen,” he said. “They kill and injure workers, harm communities and destroy productive businesses.”

Fifteen people died and hundreds were injured in the tiny farming town of West when highly explosive ammonium nitrate, a common fertilizer ingredient, exploded during a fire at the West Fertilizer Co."

Read more from Dallas News 

March 3rd, 2014

"WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Agricultural Retailers Association (ARA) and The Fertilizer Institute (TFI) today announced plans to create ResponsibleAg, an independent, not-for-profit organization designed to support fertilizer retailers’ compliance with federal safety and security regulations.

Under ResponsibleAg, retail fertilizer dealerships will have access to comprehensive inspections based on federal regulatory requirements. The inspections will be carried out by trained auditors who will have successfully completed an intensive training course based on the objectives of ResponsibleAg.

“While the vast majority of fertilizer retail businesses operate safely, securely and in compliance with federal regulations, we are acting out of an abundance of caution and concern for the wellbeing of workers and communities,” said TFI President Chris Jahn. “ResponsibleAg will verify compliance at more facilities and with greater speed than is currently being done by the multitude of federal agencies that regulate the nation’s fertilizer retailers, so we are choosing to act now rather than waiting for the next government inspection.”

“ResponsibleAg will help ensure existing regulations are conveyed and easily understood by fertilizer retailers,” said ARA President & CEO Daren Coppock. “Retailers want to do the right thing, but overlapping, duplicative or potentially conflicting requirements make compliance a challenge. This program will help retailers by collecting the regulatory requirements into one standard, and offering them tools and information to ensure their facilities conform to all current federal regulations.”

ResponsibleAg will credential auditors who will inspect and verify individual facilities’ level of compliance with applicable federal regulations. Facilities that successfully complete assessments will be recognized for having done so. Any site that does not successfully complete an assessment will be provided a list of recommended corrective actions. Additionally, random quality assurance reviews to verify the assessments will be conducted by third party auditors."

Read more from The Fertilizer Institute

January 29th, 2014

"WASHINGTON — THE United States is facing an industrial chemical safety crisis. The horrifying chemical spill that recently contaminated the drinking water of hundreds of thousands of people in West Virginia is the latest in a relentless series of disasters and near-misses across the country.

It is clear to me, as chairman of the independent federal agency charged with investigating industrial chemical accidents, that urgent steps are required to significantly improve the safety of the nation’s chemical industry — an industry vital to our economy, yet potentially dangerous to those who live near the thousands of facilities that process or store hazardous chemicals.

Those facilities include ones like the Chevron refinery in Richmond, Calif., where aging, corroding pipes resulted in a huge fire in August 2012, and the fertilizer plant in West, Tex., where stores of ammonium nitrate exploded last year and laid waste to a large part of the town, killing more than a dozen people.

Sifting through chemical-plant rubble from catastrophic accidents year after year, our board has long called on regulators to require — and for industry to adopt — what is known as inherently safer technology. By this, we mean using safer designs, equipment and chemicals, minimizing the amounts of hazardous chemicals stored and used, and modifying and simplifying processes to make them as safe as practicable."

Read more from The New York Times

December 30th, 2013

QUEENSLAND, Australia—A new bacterium found in the roots of sugarcane could reduce the use of fertilizer in sugarcane production and improve yield, according to a new study published in the journal Microbial Biotechnology.

University of Queensland researchers searched for bacteria that were present in large numbers around the roots of thriving sugarcane plants.

Researchers discovered a new bacterium, Burkholderia australis, that promotes plant growth through a process called nitrogen fixation. The bacteria was tested to ensure that they were happy living amongst the roots of growing sugarcane seedlings, and sequencing the genome to confirm that they had the genetic ability to turn nitrogen into plant food.

"While two of the most abundant bacteria did not have noticeable effects on plant growth, Burkholderia australis was doing quite well in competition with other soil bacteria in the environment, and turned out to be particularly good for the plants," said lead researcher Chanyarat Paungfoo-Lonhienne, Ph.D.

Bacteria are widely used in sugar cane production, as well as with other crops, where they help to break down organic matter in the soil to make vital nutrients available to the growing plants or turn nitrogen from the air into nitrogen compounds that are essential for growth (so-called biological nitrogen fixation).

The results can be very variable, which is unsurprising given the complexity of biological processes in and around the plant root. This variability means that the success of bacterial fertilizers might depend on developing tailor-made versions for different crop cultivars and environments.

In addition, bacteria can used to battle foodborne pathogens. The coat of potential poultry probiotic Lactobacillus johnsonii was recently characterized, giving the first clues of how it may be used to exclude pathogenic bacteria from chickens.

Read more from Food Product

November 18th, 2013

"The “now hiring” sign is up online for Emmetsburg, Iowa, where the nation’s largest maker of ethanol used for motor fuel is putting the final touches on a manufacturing plant that will rely not on corn, but on the stalks and cobs left behind.

The company, Poet, is looking for an accountant, electricians, lab technicians, a supervisor for starch and cellulose operations, and more. Large flatbed trucks have already dropped off 2,600 tons of big bales at the distillery’s 22-acre stack yard. Equipment is visible from miles away across the flat, open prairie. The process is a bit like making moonshine on an industrial scale, helped along by some high-tech, bioengineered enzymes.

“My gosh, it’s been a boon for everybody,” said Myrna Heddinger, a retired nurse serving her third term as the mayor of Emmetsburg, a town of 3,500 people that has squeezed in 500 temporary construction workers. “We just don’t have that many places for people to rent to stay,” she added.

Poet and its joint venture partner, the Dutch industrial giant and enzyme maker DSM, have received $100 million in Energy Department grants and $20 million in financial incentives from the state of Iowa. They say they expect to begin production of ethanol at the Emmetsburg plant in early 2014, at a rate of about 20 million gallons a year."

Read more from The Washington Post

October 18th, 2013

"UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- A research team including a Penn State chemical engineer was recently awarded a $3.9 million National Science Foundation grant to understand how blue-green algae convert nitrogen into oxygen.

The three-year project, "Designing Nitrogen Fixing Ability in Oxygenic Photosynthetic Cells," includes Costas Maranas, the Donald B. Broughton Professor of Chemical Engineering at Penn State, andWashington University of St. Louis faculty members Himadri Pakrasi, the Myron and Sonya Glassberg/Albert and Blanche Greensfelder Distinguished Professor of Biology; Tae Seok Moon, assistant professor of energy, environmental and chemical engineering; and Fuzhong Zhang, assistant professor of energy, environmental and chemical engineering.

The work will model the nitrogen fixing ability in cyanobacteria which are single cell oxygenic photosynthetic organisms. The objective here is to learn how to "transplant" the nitrogen fixing capability of one such species to another. The hope is that this knowledge will eventually inform how to design nitrogen fixation in plants.

Because plants require nitrogen for growth, nitrogen is widely used in plant fertilizers. Its extensive use, however, may cause soil quality degradation and water source contamination"

Read more from Penn State News

October 16th, 2013


After the Occupational Safety and Health Administration proposed $118,300 in fines last week for West Fertilizer and its owner Adair Grain, The Dallas Morning News wanted to see how that fine compared to other OSHA fines. We analyzed the agency’s 56,800 fatality/catastrophe inspections since 2001.

When OSHA found wrongdoing and decided to fine a company, it proposed an average fine of $12,836 before any negotiations or appeals. The agency actually collected an average of $6,010.

Many of the top 25 fines in OSHA’s history are large industrial explosions, usually resulting in multiple deaths, which may be a better comparison to West than the general average. The West explosion, which killed 15 people and injured 300, however, is nowhere close to OSHA’s five largest fines:

1. 2005 BP Texas City explosion, killed 15, injured 170: $84 million in proposed fines

2. 2010 Connecticut power plant explosion, killed six, injured 50: $16.6 million in total proposed fines

3. 1991 IMC Fertilizer/Angus Chemical explosion, killed eight, injured 120: $11.5 million in proposed fines

4. 2008 Imperial Sugar explosion, killed 13, hospitalized 40: $8.8 million in proposed fines

5. 1995 Samsung Guam employee fell from high elevation, killed one: $8.3 million in proposed fines

In fact, OSHA fined West Fertilizer 70 percent of the maximum allowed by law for the number and severity of violations alleged, $118,300 out of a maximum $168,000 fine.

OSHA cited West Fertilizer for 24 serious violations, according to Sen. Barbara Boxer, chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, who announced the fine. Serious violations, according to OSHA, are workplace hazards that could cause an accident resulting in death or serious physical harm and have a maximum penalty of $7,000 per violation."

Read more from Dallas News

October 14th, 2013


If you read our Sunday story on ammonium nitrate, you know that non-explosive nitrogen fertilizer alternatives are rapidly overtaking its market.

But what about making ammonium nitrate itself safer?

Lawsuits aimed at CF Industries, one of the nation’s two ammonium nitrate fertilizer makers, accuse the company of producing the fertilizer that exploded in West, a claim CF Industries denies.

The West lawsuits say “there were an abundance of alternative designs no longer protected by patent rights, which nullify or reduce the reactive properties of ammonium nitrate.” And they say CF Industries should have been using one.

So is it really possible to alter ammonium nitrate so that it resists exploding?

Attorney Mo Aziz, who is representing victims of West, says it is.

“We’re going to have to spend significant resources to prove that, and I think we’re up to the challenge,” Aziz said.

Attorney Johnnie Cochran Jr. (of O.J. Simpson trial fame) made the same claim after Timothy McVeigh blew up Oklahoma City’s federal building, On behalf of victims of the blast, Cochran argued that Dallas-based ICI Explosives USA should have created a safer version of its product.

Cochran based his claim in part on a 1968 patent by an explosives engineer named Samuel Porter. He had created a process to desensitize ammonium nitrate by adding small amounts of another chemical.

After Oklahoma City, the National Research Council looked into the idea at the request of the ATF. The resulting 1998 report concluded that: “Clearly, there is great incentive to identify an additive that, when added in small percentages, could render ammonium nitrate or other energetic chemicals inert to detonation…but no such additive has yet been identified.”

That same year, a federal appeals court upheld a decision to dismiss Cochran’s suit.

More recently, the Pentagon has devoted a lot of time and money to developing such a formula. It also has come up empty-handed.

Read more from Dallas News