Monday, June 14, 2004

Some things I should have been paying attention to last week

There was a great story by Steve Stecklow and Erin White (in the 6/8 WSJ -- I give you the info in lieu of a link) about "fair trade" price-gouging which -- shockingly -- is being engaged in by retail chains, not the co-ops or certifiers:
"Supermarkets are taking advantage of the label to make more profit because they know that consumers are willing to pay a bit more because it's fair trade," says Emily Dardaine, fruit-product manager at Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International, or FLO, a Germany-based federation of fair-trade groups.

Both British chains say they aren't exploiting fair-trade products to their own advantage. In some cases, after being asked about their margins, retailers cut their prices.

Douchebags.

Alan Guebert had some interesting numbers from the latest USDA farm census, like:

For the first time, the 2002 Ag Census reports contract livestock production. Two numbers leap out of that date: a.) 20,778 poultry producers grew 8.3 billion chickens under contract in 2002 and b.) 10,370 hog producers raised and delivered 79.4 million hogs in 2002 under contract. That�s more than 85% of nation�s hogs.
He also picked up a WSJ item (6/7) that Cargill is about to introduce DNA testing for beef cows. From the original article:
Cargill's genetics project identified markers able to predict five traits, including a steer's ability to produce marbled meat -- the intramuscular fat that is a big factor in tenderness. Cargill says it also has found markers that predict the genetic ability of cattle to convert feed into muscle, which could help Cargill select cattle that grow more efficiently in its feedlots. Its four Caprock feedlots in Texas and Kansas fatten more than 600,000 cattle annually and its Excel Corp. meatpacker unit is the nation's second-biggest beef packer.

Tests made by smaller outfits for marbling and tenderness first began hitting the market in 2001, says Calvin Gunter, director of corporate development for Bovigen Solutions LLC. The Metairie, Louisiana, test-maker sells tests mostly to breeders, who can afford to pay the $50 to $100 (about 40 euros to 80 euros) it costs to test an animal.

Mr. Gunter says companies are racing to find improved tests, but must also prove that they can deliver accurate results. "Being that this is an emerging tech, one of the questions in the marketplace is 'How real are the markers?" Mr. Gunter says.

The highest priority is a test that can accurately predict tenderness. Consumers have long complained about the uneven quality of beef, and Steven Kappes, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, Nebraska, says tenderness is one of beef's most elusive properties. "You can't see it and it is hard to measure," he says. "You really need a DNA test to be able to sort cattle by tenderness."

All Things Considered audio segment on industrial biotech.

Another study shows that GE Salmon will destroy wild Coho salmon populations [Seattle Times story | PNAS abstract].

The full set of last week's Sac Bee biotech series: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

If you are interested in Vini Passiti, Franco et al., "Off-Vine Grape Drying Effect on Volatile Compounds and Aromatic Series in Must from Pedro Xim�nez Grape Variety, J. Agric. Food Chem. 52 (12), 3905 -3910 quantifies some of the changes grapes undergo as they dry in the sun. Romani, et al., "Germplasm Characterization of Zolfino Landraces (Phaseolus vulgaris L.) by Flavonoid Content," pp. 3838 -3842 of the same journal, quantifies the flavonoids of one of the world's greatest (and rarest) beans. They found one never before detected in beans: delphinidin feruloylglucoside. Delicious.

Nature article on "bioprospecting," and the Convention on Biological Diversity, accessible through SciDev.Net.

Hao and Golding, "Patterns of Bacterial Gene Movement," Mol. Biol. Evol. 21(7): 1294-1307:

Our results suggest that an amazingly large number of genes have been laterally transferred even within comparatively closely related bacteria. Lateral transfers are thought to be influenced more by physical proximity than by phylogenetic proximity of the organisms and are seen to share similar genomic properties such as genome size, genome G/C composition, and carbon utilization. The functions of most laterally transferred genes are still unknown. The most studied lateral transfers belong to pathogenic islands, but pathogenicity islands are only a small part of genes laterally transferred. The results presented here suggest that many of the LT genes may be species-specific adaptations.

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