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The Basics of Food Tolerances and Maximum Residue Limits

Written by Wiley A. Hall, 4th, Ph.D.
Originally Published in Safe Food Alliance, Testing & Analysis

An MRL (Maximum Residue Limit) or a food tolerance, as it is known in the USA, is the maximum amount of a pesticide residue that can be found in or on food. While any food with a pesticide residue under an MRL should be safe to eat, it is important to remember that an MRL is not a safety limit. That being said, a residue over an MRL is not necessarily a safety hazard, but rather a violation of good agricultural practices (GAP).

If you are growing, packing, importing/exporting, or otherwise involved in the domestic or global trade in agricultural commodities, it is critical that you be aware of any MRLs that may affect your commodity and the regulations around them. This article is meant to give you a basic introduction of pesticides and their limits, but no single article can cover all the complexities and local variations in MRLS. If you have questions about your specific situation, reach out to your PCA, local farm advisor, grower group, or a Safe Food Alliance representative.

Let’s start with some definitions.


A pesticide is defined by the EPA as: “Any substance or mixture of substances intended for preventing, destroying, repelling, or mitigating any pest.”, “Any substance or mixture of substances intended for use as a plant regulator, defoliant, or desiccant.” or “Any nitrogen stabilizer”.

Active Ingredient

The active ingredient (AI) in a pesticide is the chemical or chemicals that actually have the desired effect and do the heavy lifting (the AI in Round Up is glyphosate). The rest of a pesticide product is the inert ingredients such as solvents (e.g. water) and adjuvants which are additives that improve pesticide performance (spreaders, wetting agents).

Pesticide Residue

A pesticide residue is the trace amount of any pesticide remaining on the crop after treatment
(and any post treatment steps required by the label, such as a reentry period). It is important to note that an MRL may refer to an AI, adjuvant, or any other residue that results from a pesticide application, like metabolites. Remember, all MRLs are specific to a pesticide and crop combination. For example, if you find the fungicide Imazalil on oranges, and the market does not have an MRL for it, then any Imazalil residue found on an orange is illegal (a positive list system or PLS).

Default MRLs

Some markets, like Europe or Japan, have default MRLs where if there’s no specific MRL for a given crop/ pesticide, but the pesticide isn’t specially banned, the MRL defaults to a given value (usually 0.01ppm). These default MRLs are generally set to around the current limit of detection for most pesticides, though, so there’s often little difference between a default MRL and no MRL.

Residue Definition

The last important definition we’ll discuss is the residue definition. The residue definition tells you what chemicals need to be measured to determine if your commodity conforms with the MRL. For example, the residue definition for the herbicide oxyfluorfen is just the chemical oxyfluorfen, but for fosetyl-aluminum both the parent compound, fosetyl-aluminum and the chemical it degrades into in the environment, phosphonic acid, needs to be measured. This can also change based on the commodity and market: the residue definition for glyphosate for wheat in the United States is different than the definition for almonds in Australia.

How are MRLs made?

While an MRL is not a safety limit, the setting of an MRL begins with safety testing.

How It’s Done

  1. The registrant of a pesticide performs animal studies to determine the smallest amount of the active ingredient that the animal can be exposed to before having an adverse reaction. This amount is the no observable adverse effect level or NOAEL.
  2. From there, they take the NOAEL and multiply it 100 times to give a range (Safety Margin) to include as much of the population as possible.
  3. The safety margins and two toxicological values are then applied: the smallest amount that it is acceptable for humans to consume at one sitting (acute reference dose or ARfD) and the smallest amount that it is acceptable for humans to consume on a long-term basis (acceptable daily intake or ADI) are calculated.
  4. The registrant carries out field trials, where the pesticide is applied to the commodity at the highest proposed rate and the crop is then handled according to GAP.
  5. Finally, the MRL is set based on statistical analysis on the range of pesticide residues found on the crop from the field trials, after all applicable harvest activities. What that means is they analyze how much of the crop is left after harvest and measure if it might get people sick.

Following The Directions

Again, while the MRL needs to be at a safe level (all sources of consumption are summed and the MRL is only approved if the public’s estimated consumption is under the ADI and ARfD), it is really a way of ensuring that GAP was followed in the application of the pesticide. If the instructions in the pesticide label are followed, the pesticide residue, by the time the commodity reaches the consumer, should be under the MRL. It is important to follow the label, as an MRL violation is a sign that GAP was not adhered to, possibly risking harm to the environment, workers and those who live nearby the spray site.

How to Stay Informed on MRLs

The world of pesticide regulations is large and constantly changing. Even the basic information
covered in this article may seem like a lot to have to keep track of, without getting into the specifics of how MRLs work in each individual market. Europe alone is worth its own (much longer) article, one that might go out of date in the time between writing and reading. The good news is that all the information you need to stay informed on the state of MRLs is publicly available if you know where to look.

For the most up to date information, make sure to stay in communication with any PCAs, farm advisors, or grower groups who may have firsthand knowledge of your crop, growing methods, and target market.

Second, visit an online database where you can find information on what MRLs there are for your crop and market. Online databases are available for the United States, Europe, Japan, Korea, Canada, for starters, but that can still be a lot to have to keep straight. Bryant Christie Inc. keeps an excellent MRL database that covers over “…1000 pesticides, 875 commodities, and 125 markets”; due to a grant from the federal government. Access is free to users within the United States.

Remember, the key to avoiding pesticide residue issues is to stay informed. By knowing where there may be potential issues ahead of time and testing for residues before you ship your commodity, you can manage your pesticide risk.

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Unions Can – and Will – Play a Leading Role in Tackling the Climate Crisis

Written by Matt Perry, Reader in Labour History, Newcastle University
Originally Published in The Conversation

How did a billionaire win over coal miners in Pennsylvania and West Virginia to become president? Three words: “Trump digs coal”. By linking deindustrialisation and the decline of working communities in America’s “rust belt” to environmental regulation, Donald Trump could paint his greener rivals as out of touch with the concerns of ordinary Americans. Never mind that climate change and pollution will hit working class people hardest – when it’s “jobs or the planet”, the former will always be a more immediate worry for the precarious and impoverished.

It needn’t be that way though. The campaign for One Million Climate Jobs, organised by the Campaign against Climate Change Trade Union Group, has put workers at the forefront of its vision for tackling the climate crisis. The proposals for a Green New Deal in the US and the UK are supported by trade unions which represent millions of workers. Both projects demand jobs are protected and new ones created as part of a “just transition” from the carbon economy.

The Trade Union Congress (TUC) backed the September 20 day of international climate strikes and millions of workers joined the protests that school students had launched. This kind of mass mobilisation will be crucial to climate action and the role trade unions play will be indispensable. But worker-led environmentalism isn’t a recent phenomenon – the history of labour and green movements are intertwined.

You have nothing to lose but your planet

Trump’s “workers-versus-the-planet” framing misunderstands the origins of the climate crisis, which go back to the private enclosure of common land in the UK. This forced people from rural areas and into crowded urban slums, creating the first proletariat. Once there,industrialists switched from water-powered mills to coal-powered factories to intensify the work routines of these new urban workers.

The ‘dark satanic mills’ of ‘Cottonopolis’: Manchester, England
in 1840 during the height of its cotton industry.

Coal powered travel helped bosses find cheaper labour overseas and strengthened their authority over an insurgent working class. At every step, workers resisted this transition. The high point of this long battle was the English plug riots of 1842 – viewed as the world’s first general strike – when textile workers literally pulled the plug on the coal-fired boilers of their factories.

In their new urban grimescapes, workers suffered from the toxic raw materials and effluence of the factories they worked in. Class determined whether city dwellers lived in the smog around chimneys or with clean air in leafy suburbs, and it still does.

Born out of the acute stress of living in polluted and disease ridden slums, working class movements won public health reforms that have became the standard, such as proper sanitation and rubbish disposal. Working class people have always valued nature in leisure time too, whether it’s cycling, fishing, pigeon-fancying, dog walking or tending allotments.

Unions have long campaigned against workplace hazards, and it’s workers who fight the impacts of climate change every day. Firefighters risk their lives to rescue people from more frequent flooding and wildfires and the Fire Brigades Union has campaigned against staff cuts, inadequate levels of equipment and a lack of training to deal with hazards like polluted floodwater.

A world to win

Environmental struggles litter labour history, but they’re not always the stories you read about. The modern environmental movement emerged, to a large extent, from Rachael Carson’s brilliant Silent Spring – a book published in 1962 which revealed the devastating ecological consequences of pesticides in post-war America. But the book overlooked the acute burden on vulnerable agricultural workers who are forced to use these chemicals.

During a spectacular organising drive and protests by the United Farm Workers in the 1960s, union leader Cesar Chavez exposed the damage these toxins caused to Latino labourers, winning concessions from their employers and standing up for them against anti-migrant racism.

Belfast, July 30 2019:
Workers from the Harland and Wolff shipyard, where the Titanic was built,
protest against the potential closure of the yard.
DJ Wilson/Shutterstock

Today, the shipyard that built the Titanic – Harland and Wolff in Belfast – is threatened with closure, but its workers are defiant. They demand that the shipyards be nationalised and used to create renewable energy infrastructure. This offers an exciting glimpse of the leading role that workers can take in the enfolding response to the climate crisis.

Elsewhere in the world, labour organisations have allied with indigenous people against developments that threaten their lands and destroy the local environment. In British Columbia, unions supported First Nation resistance to pipelines and tar sands oil extraction, while the rubber tappers’ union demonstrated against destruction of the Amazon rainforest.

Such a broad alliance is needed to tackle climate change, and that means mobilising labour in its widest sense – women in the household economy the rural poor, indigenous people, fishing communities, the unemployed and school students. Equally, understanding the configuration of power and ideology that drives the fossil fuel economy – big businesses, geopolitical rivalry over oil and gas resources, nationalistic buck-passing, corporate PR and those who blame overpopulation. With CO2 emissions rising, there’s little time to waste.

Working class environmentalism is part of the solution to the climate crisis. If successful, the movement will give new meaning to the old maxim: “the cause of labour is the hope of the world”.

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Innovations in Irrigation for SGMA Compliance Ease: Fresno State #AgTechDay Showcase

Written by Tara Sweeney

Sustainable Groundwater Management Act

USDA State Shares of Total U.S. Irrigated Acres 2012 Pie Chart

Anyone in California can tell you—California is facing a water problem. The majority of that water is being consumed by agriculture—according to the USDA, it accounts for 80 percent of the United States’ water consumption. In many Western States, it can account for over 90 percent. In 2012, California was the state with the second largest agricultural acreage at 7.9 million—at about 14 percent of the Nation’s total.

In the wake of increasing drought risk in “The Sunshine State” the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) was signed into California law in September 2014, the act requires local governments and water agencies to reduce water use, reaching a balance between pumping and recharging groundwater basins by 2040 for critically overdrafted basins, then 2042 for the remaining high and medium priority basins.

Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs)

Localized GSAs work within city governments to meet their specific land-use and water-management requirements; SGMA groundwater management is a platform that can help local growers, GSAs, and local governments track and monitor water use in relation to current basin levels. UC Davis defines the SGMA online portal, under the California Department of Water Resources, as a platform for local GSAs to create groundwater sustainability plans to show how they plan to balance groundwater pumping with groundwater replenishment within 20 years, without undesirable results such as subsidence—the sinking of an area of land due to the movement of underground materials. These local agencies will create local solutions that will vary from basin to basin.

How are growers meant to track their ET (evaporation to transpiration) ratio efficiently, to ensure that they are compliant with GSAs by adopting Groundwater Sustainability Plans? Each GSA has specialized requirements to react to their specific local legislation as well as their local water needs. As such, growers need to start looking into innovations in irrigation. Innovations for both assistance in monitoring water-use for ease of reporting to their GSA’s, and to streamline the efficiency of their growing operations.

Fresno State AgTechDay Showcase

That’s where Fresno State’s AgTechDay comes into play; on November 15, 2019 The Center for Irrigation Technology (CIT) hosted the event at Fresno State’s Water, Energy, and Technology (WET) center that acts as a hub of innovation incubating companies that can create products that will make tracking water usage—and meeting SGMA regulations more manageable.

Bill Green, Center for Irrigation Technology’s Education Manager was quoted as saying,

“The Center for Irrigation and Technology is excited to host, encourage and facilitate conversations surrounding real-world issues in water, energy, and agriculture. Our goal is to help lead those conversations, but also inform and educate those who wish to learn more, or reach a higher level of sustainability within those three industries.”

The event provided monitoring and controlling device option overviews for the industry with examples. An Agricultural Consultant, Researcher, and Sales Representative explained how their methods and devices worked at the water source at the plant source, and devices that worked in-between. Below is a brief explanation of their offerings and how they can benefit growing operations at each stage in the water management process.

At the Water Source

Some of the technologies proposed would help growers and GSAs monitor water use at the source. Examples of which are specialized fertigation—injection of fertilizer or nutrients into the irrigation system—methods, collecting data via digital platforms to upload to the SGMA online platform, and monitoring power and water data wirelessly at the point of utility power meters.

Stock Image of Blueberries

Among the orchards in Fresno State’s Agricultural Laboratory, Agricultural Consultant William D. Jones proposed a strategy—based on his research with blueberries and similar crops—for more efficient fertigation. Firstly, that the measurements of concentration of fertilizer in the water source (parts per million) and amount of fertilizer applied to the field (pounds per acre) of fertilizer nutrient elements. Secondly, placement of the elements directly in the root zone. Thirdly, more suitable fertigation equipment were key to improving crop yield and quality for growers while protecting the groundwater resource from the leaching of those chemicals.

Most growers base their fertigation measurements on the amount (lbs/acre) of fertilizer; Jones suggested that this can cause an inconsistency and overuse of fertilizers. As such, Jones suggested fertigation be measured by concentration (ppm) in the water provided at the root source to both provide consistent fertilizer application, as well as preventing excess fertilizer nutrients being carried into the groundwater resource. Jones created a chart outlining the amount of fluid fertilizer and pounds of nutrient element per one acre inch of water for each element. Useful dry fertilizer products he noted were urea, ammonium sulfate, ammonium phosphate, MAP, DAP, calcium nitrate, ammonium nitrate (scarce), and potassium nitrate. Useful fluid fertilizer products he noted were CN 9, CAN 17, UAN 32, and 10-34-0 Polyphosphate.

Considerations that he suggested for the implementation of a more efficient fertigation system are whether the injection installation system were to be stationary or mobile; whether nutrient configuration be in single tanks—either single nutrient or multinutrient with chemical compatibility considerations— or multiple tanks for multiple elements; along with nutrient types and concentrations to be mindful of.

For more information you can contact William D. Jones, Certified Crop Advisor via email or call his office at (559) 642-3650.

Alongside the canal in the outreaches of Fresno State’s Agricultural Laboratory, PowWow Energy presented on how their digital platform provides integration and reporting. PowWow uses the currently installed SmartMeters to monitor water use—saving on the cost of hardware in that respect—for reporting to GSAs, along with telemetry stations to track the groundwater table. Their system’s algorithms can help set a baseline of data, potentially identify problems, and track measurable results.

Stock Image of a Water Meter

Morgan Halpenny presented the Pumpsight meter, which provides measurement of power and water data via a wireless receiver. providing measurement of power and water data via a wireless receiver. Pumpsight also uses telemetry—the process of recording and transmitting the readings of an instrument—and they are compatible with radio frequency systems that have a common published interface (LoRa, Zigbee, SigFox.)

Firstly, Pumpsight offers pump optimization with efficiency and cost analysis, measuring when and how much water is applied, and being able to respond to line pressure and water table changes. Secondly, the system offers failure prevention by identifying degrading equipment, monitoring well levels for rehab and maintenance needs, and system alerts for blowouts, power outages, or equipment failures. Pumpsight’s data logging feature’s higher frequency of sampling can provide better information resource for making water management decisions, measure the impact of conservation efforts and equipment upgrades, along with recording historical water consumption. Halpenny suggests that the increased frequency will allow users to respond more quickly to water needs, instead of the traditional measurement comparing the beginning of the season to the end of the season.

For more information PowWow can be contacted at or (415) 658-7125.
Pumpsight can be contacted at or (213) 793-5894

The previous technologies monitor water use at the source, further on we will discuss technologies that are attached to the plant and one that acts as a water control measure between the source and the plant.

Attached to the Plant

Researchers from the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) evaluated a series of devices that measure sap flow in individual plants, equipping vineyards to optimize irrigation — meeting water conservation goals and realizing energy and financial savings.

EPRI Engineer/Scientist Ryan Berg presented research led by EPRI’s Sudeshna Pabi and Marek Samotyj on “Plant Aware Irrigation” (PAI) developed by Fruition Sciences, supported by the California Energy Commission’s Electric Program Investment Charge Program, through Commission Agreement Manager, Karen Perrin. Researchers assessed PAI’s potential benefits by quantifying water and electricity savings, along with crop quantity and quality at harvest.

The technology uses sap flow sensors installed directly on vine stems. Vines are selected using aerial imagery, and ground-based laser mapping. Proprietary algorithms use sap flow data along with climate data to derive a daily Water Deficit Index (WDI) alerting staff to irrigate crops when an established threshold is reached.

Researchers installed PAI technology at three test vineyards in Northern California’s wine country, each producing a different type of grape (cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, and chardonnay). They evaluated results relative to traditional irrigation practices. The vineyards were selected to provide insights into the water/energy nexus and its relevance to climatic and grape variations. In addition to water consumption, data included berry sugar accumulation profiles to assess fruit ripeness and yield measurements over 12 months.

Stock Photo of Grape Vines

They reported that the water stress imposed in PAI treatment blocks indicated an average of 61% water and energy savings across all locations, with no effect on fruit ripening or yields. In fact, researchers and vineyard owners noted a qualitative and quantitative improvement, as measured by earlier berry ripening leading to:
• higher berry color content and more flavors;
• more uniform berry sugar accumulation profile; and
• similar or higher individual berry weight.

The research suggests that monitoring vines directly can potentially help keep plants healthy and producing to meet requirements, while enabling environmental and fiscal sustainability.

For more information you can contact Ryan Berg at or (650) 855-8627.

The last technology to discuss goes between the plant and water source to act as a way to control the irrigation process.

And In-Between

Joseph Gallegos of Drought Diet Products presented a new technology, previously only used on smaller-scale urban, organic farming growing operations—used on berries and similar root systems—where the irrigation system creates a miniature virtual water table for application of water and fertigation nutrients at the root level. The system consists of post-industrial ABS plastic for the piping that is installed at the depth of the root system to release the water directly where it is needed instead of surface treatments which may not penetrate the soil completely. His company is looking for large-scale orchard operations to install an enlarged version of this system alongside every other row of trees. The goal of this is to reduce the loss of water through evaporation, and only use what the trees need. In the winter time the same pipe is used to recharge the groundwater from winter storms or snow runoff—equal to the amount of water
that was taken out during the summer months. End goal is groundwater balancing each crop year. More research needs to be done, to measure how this technology can be translated from small-scale urban farms to large-scale industrial farming methods.

For more information you can contact Joseph Gallegos at
or call his office at (562) 301-5598

These innovations mentioned were only those of the featured presenters, for more information on other innovations available through those that participated in the trade show at Fresno State’s AgTechDay, please contact Courtney Meinhold, (559) 278-2066,; for more information about Fresno State’s Center for Irrigation Technology (CIT) contact Charles Hillyer,; for more information about the Water, Energy, and Technology (WET) center call (559) 278-2066 or fax (559) 278-6033).

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Makerspaces— Revolutionizing Manufacturing and Revitalizing the Workforce

Written by Tara Sweeney

What are Makerspaces, FabLabs, and Hackerspaces?


Dale Dougherty, CEO of Make Community describes the Maker Community as “people with creative and technical expertise that have ideas they’d like to make and ideas they want to share.” Even the Maker Community structure is highly adaptable—it is a global network of localized makerspaces. The venue of a makerspace can vary from schools and colleges, to community non-profits, to internal corporate sponsored groups—as long as they provide
the tools, materials, and environment to make andinnovate. Makerspaces developed in the early 2000s on the wave of the DYI movement. Since then, it has become a way for technologists to code and build sophisticated electronics, as explained by the World Economic Forum.

Some makerspaces are informal shared workspaces, whereas others provide informal courses on subjects such as electronics (both hardware and software,) 3D printing, additive or subtractive manufacturing, textiles, biotechnical, auto mechanical, and vacuuforming to name a few. Different types of makerspaces include fablabs and hackerspaces. Downtown Fresno, California has examples of each of these types of makerspaces: Ideaworks which functions more as a general makerspace; the Pi-Shop which acts as a fablab as well as an entrepreneurial
incubator; and Root Hackerspace which—as its name suggests—is a more generalized hackerspace, though it has makerspace capabilities.


Ideaworks makerspace sits in a historical building that once housed an indoor pool; currently, they only utilize the first floor of the building, but as their community base and capabilities grow they plan to expand into the multiple floors. As you make your way through the H Street entrance, guided by the lightbulb gear logo, you will walk into a lobby where they have hints of their home building’s history and various projects on display. A long hallway directly in front of the entrance will lead you all the way to the back of their warehouse; on your right at the mouth of the hallway will be their breakroom that branches off to a textiles room and a small hackerspace. Through the hackerspace you would be able to go to their machining section. To your left is the Board President and Executive Director, Janelle Ozeran’s office. Then the next door to the left is the ceramics room. The door after houses their 3D printers, and at the end of the hall is their woodshop.

As a 501-3c non-profit, Ideaworks is one-hundred percent volunteer driven. “At Ideaworks, we think of ourselves as more of a community workshop,” stated Ozeran. “In addition to just having the shop spaces and the tools that our members can access, we have a community of people who can lend their expertise,” she explained.

They have themed creation days: Metal Mondays, Tech Tuesdays, 3D Thursdays, and Sawdust Sundays—open to the public to tour the facility and learn about the types of courses and equipment that they can offer. Ideaworks Academy offers Vocational Training in industries such as metalwork and welding. They also host a Coder Dojo, meant for seven to 17 year olds to learn simple coding projects—partnering with Kepler Neighborhood school to expose elementary students to coding—that they host in their hackerspace. You can join Ideaworks for their themed days open to the
public, or join the community and attend monthly member meetings. They will also be celebrating Pi Day, March 14th, 2020.

Ideaworks can be contacted at or through text at (559) 840-8749.
For more information browse

Though Ideaworks represents the more generalized makerspace possibilities—there are more specialized versions that expand on their specific tools—such as their 3D printers and their smaller-scale coding bootcamp; FabLabs and Hackerspaces are two such specialized makerspace types.


A Fab Labs or digital fabrication laboratories as defined by Fab Foundation are “places to play, create, learn, mentor, and invent by providing access to the environment, the skills, the materials and the advanced technology to allow anyone anywhere to make (almost) anything.”

The Pi Shop

On the opposite side of the industrial warehouse that holds Ideaworks, is The Pi Shop; and like the juxtaposed physical position the Pi Shop is the other side of the makerspace coin. Where Ideaworks is more informal and focused on the creative and educational opportunities of a makerspace, The Pi Shop offers these same opportunities towards entrepreneurial incubating for product ideation and prototyping.

“Our goal here [at The Pi Shop] is to serve the community: entrepreneurs, start-up businesses and really help them from the idea phase, to the prototype phase, to the launch to market phase and also with the funding and legal aspects. So, in every step of the entrepreneur’ s journey or the start-up business journey, we are there to assist them from start to finish”

– -Kent Pelisari, Manager of Producteurs at The Pi Shop

In-line with its more entrepreneurial focus, The Pi Shop has co-work office spaces where they can host their courses and members can hold meetings. The internal hallway that houses these smaller rooms leads into their large warehouse that holds their larger equipment: CNC, 3D printing, milling, and laser cutting equipment along with gated lockers that members can use to store their projects.

“We are trying to bring manufacturing incubators here in Fresno and having them start their business here, have a hub here, have a headquarter office here, because it’s a great place to start a business. We have a vast network of Manufacturers we work with and one of the things is when you create a product here, we want to get you in contact with manufacturers in the Central Valley or help you build that manufacturing facility. So we have both of those arms to help with that.”

-Kent Pelisari, Manager of Producteurs at The Pi Shop

They offer free workshops monthly—how to pitch, how to network, how to crowdfund, and more.

They are partnering with Merced and Fresno State Universities on capstone projects and work closely with the human powered vehicle club at Fresno State. They are looking to expand by offering workshops targeting high schools for entrepreneurship training. They will be hosting Entrepreneurship A to Z workshops running until April 2020, and business networking events to be announced.

The Pi Shop can be contacted at or via (559) 481-5004.
For more information browse


The first Hackerspace, C-Base a non-profit association in Berlin, Germany was established in 1995 to increase knowledge and skills pertaining to computer software, hardware, and data networks.

Root Access Hackerspace

“Root Access Hackerspace is a community workspace, we are an intersection of three different styles of DYI spaces.” explained former Chief Operations Officer Andrew Runner. They offer woodworking, a hackerspace component—where they do electronic recycling, lock picking, and programming microcontrollers like raspberry pi or arduino—and a fablab component with lasercutters or 3D printers.

The community offers monthly meetups (Raspberry Pi, Intro to Linux, Sip and Stitch) and participates in local events (Hackathon at Fresno State, DevFest, Google Developers Group of Fresno) and host themed meetups (Pumpkin hacking, Hacksgiving).

Root Access Hackerspace can be contacted at
For more information browse

These three makerspaces discussed outline examples of standalone operations as structures for makerspaces. However, there are also structures that work with or within classrooms and colleges, or even corporate and manufacturing facilities.

How do these makerspaces benefit manufacturing? According to CMTC California Manufacturers Network, “Makerspaces allow anyone—students, workers, and executives—to turn ideas into products.” However most, due to their lack of structured courses, do not train students entering the workforce—an especially key need that the industry faces according to Gene Sherman, the founder of Vocademy.

How Makerspaces Benefit Manufacturing

Trained Workforces

My goal is to empower people with modern hands-on skills and make them more valuable to the world.
By doing so, we can drive innovation, solve the Advanced Manufacturing Skills Gap,
and help people find meaningful and well paying careers.

Gene Sherman, Founder of

Vocademy offers hands-on training, which is the next logical step for someone who gets a taste of manufacturing
through a makerspace and wants to start creating structure for workforce development.
Overall trade and tech school enrollment has been declining each year since 2011, as reported by Popular Mechanics. Manufacturing employs 8.9% of the workforce while paying 12% more than other occupations by the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ numbers. Despite this, a 2018 Deloitte Institute report notes that 89% of manufacturers can’t find qualified applicants and are leaving jobs unfilled.

In response, Sherman created Vocademy: a “Vocational Academy” meant to train on the key vocational fields. Vocademy offers 40-60 hour training courses in advanced manufacturing subjects: electronics and programming, machining shop fundamentals, welding and fabrication, sewing and textiles, and woodworking fundamentals. In the future they plan to offer CNC machining fundamentals, life skills, and manufacturing career skills. Or students can
combine all these courses into a six month program. Taking courses gives students access to three months of using a makerspace-type lab where they can practice and create. Vocademy currently partners with charter schools and manufacturers that look to it for trained hires.

Gene Sherman can be contacted at or by phone at (951) 660-1803.
For more information browse

Increased ROI

Examples of U.S. companies experiencing a return on investment in makerspaces and the equipment needed are available in California, Michigan, and Kentucky.

The SFMade coalition consists of 400 manufacturing firms in San Francisco—an existing effort to boost the “community of makers” in San Francisco, as reported in The Atlantic. 102 of those firms founded during the economic distress of 2009-2012 increased their employment by 10.5% in 2011 and 12.5% by 2012; they had drawn from a local base of skilled workers—that now would need to be created in other areas of the U.S. through training courses such as Vocademy.

Ford launched a Makerspace facility in Dearborn, Michigan—which experienced a 200 percent increase in intellectual property development in the first year—as reported by the Association of Equipment Manufacturers.

The FirstBuild microfactory in Kentucky, backed by GE Appliances in partnership with Local Motors, is a co-creation community that invents new home appliances. They grew 1,000 percent—from 23 to over 23,000 employees—in only a few years.

As more manufacturers adopt makerspaces, more research and case studies can be done to more thoroughly analyze other potential benefits that they pose to the industry.

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Explore – Review: Evening Events in the Valley

We are nearing the end of the summer season. The days are still long, and the nights will soon begin to cool, which means it’s a great time to take advantage of some of the evening events happening around the Central Valley. Here are three that I think are worth checking out.

Gazebo Gardens Beer Garden

3204 N. Van Ness Blvd, Fresno CA
Thurs-Sat year round
5:30 pm – 9:00 pm

If you’re looking for an evening of food and music in a beautiful locale, then Gazebo Gardens is your destination. They turn this nursery into a Beer Garden with food trucks and live music every Thursday through Saturday evening year round. You can grab a bottle of beer or select one of the 5-8 beers on tap at one of the two stands. Then, wander through the roses, statues, and shrubs to find seating nestled between the plants. Kids love to run through the gardens, playing tag around the trees and under the gazebo, and watching for the trains that pass by throughout the evening. There is even a raised pond to explore. 

When you’re feeling peckish, stroll through an assortment of food trucks. There are generally 8-12 trucks to choose from, and they rotate regularly so you can find your favorites and try new ones. We have sampled sliders from Meltdown Bistro, chicken tikka masala from Ganesha Masala, falafel and gyros from Holy Shish, vegan burritos from El Jaca, and both creamy and boozy shaved ice from Sno Cafe. All are delicious and are made better by the friendly and relaxed environment. And did I mention the dogs? Gazebo Gardens is dog friendly and usually abounds with furry friends. 

There is always a live band performing on their small stage near one of the beer garden taps. There are picnic-style tables in front, and a few more rows off to the side. Some even have inset fire pits for cooler evenings. While there are tables and chairs scattered throughout the gardens, seating can be hard to come by on more popular nights. I suggest sending a scout while you wait for your beer or dinner. Luckily, people are generally friendly and wander around when not eating, so seating eventually becomes available. And even if you can’t get a spot near the band, the music carries throughout the gardens, making it a lovely evening anywhere you go.

Lindsay Friday Night Market

Honolulu St/Sweet Brier Plaza, Lindsay, CA
Fridays year round
5:30 pm – 10:00 pm

If you love a good swap meet, but hate the mornings, check out the Lindsay Friday Night Market. The small town of Lindsay is home to many Hispanic and Latino families, and their cultures shine at this event. The town square is a lively hub for the market, and is often filled with people dancing to live music or a DJ. There are rows and rows of vendors selling both original and discounted goods. You can even shop for birds and farm animals. There are, in fact, so many vendors and rows that I almost got lost during my first visit. Luckily, I had a regular patron with me to keep me oriented. 

In addition to traditional goods, art, and animals, you can find an assortment of delectable food. There are the market staples of kettle corn, pizza, and hot dogs, but the real treats are the cultural options. We endured an epic line for delicious pupusas made by hand right in front of us. My boyfriend indulged in his favorite, elote (corn). I grew up eating corn on the cob, but elote comes with a buffet of possible toppings, including mayonnaise, Tajin (seasoning powder), lime, salt, and hot sauce.  

The atmosphere was friendly and lively, but not for the agoraphobic. We attended on a sweltering summer night, and the place was still packed. People were generally friendly and eager to chat, but there were long lines and crowded walkways. However, if you’re not daunted by a crowd and enjoy a festive environment, add the Lindsay Night Market to your Friday night plans.

Clovis Farmers Market

Pollasky between 5th & Bullard, Old Town Clovis, CA
Fridays during summer
5:30 pm – 9:00 pm
Saturdays year round
9:00 am – 11:30 am

If you’re looking for a laid back farmers market with plenty to explore, check out the Clovis Farmers Market. You can explore local produce, handmade items, and food year round every Saturday, but during the summer months you can also visit the market on Friday evenings. It is a nice way to wrap up the week and get some yummy produce for your weekend. 

I enjoyed wandering the three blocks lined with beautiful, local produce and flowers the most, but my 5 year old enjoyed the live performances and mini train ride more. There was a band set up in the center intersection, and when they were on break a local group of cloggers called the California Ground Pounders stepped in to perform. I wasn’t familiar with the genre, but it was fun to watch. If you haven’t witnessed it, envision people in modified tap shoes doing a cross between square and line dancing. And it was clear this group enjoyed what they were doing, despite the heat. 

The Clovis Farmers Market does a good job interspersing crafters, produce vendors, local companies, and food options throughout the market. There is, however, a cluster of food stations near the main intersection along with some picnic tables which were, unfortunately, in direct sunlight. We visited our friends at Fine Print Plus, bought some organic local berries, and checked out a few handmade items. We wrapped up our evening by enjoying a second band at the far end of the market, right before embarking on a windy little off-track train ride. My son was sad to go, but declared the evening a success, and I agreed.

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Explore – Review: Authentic Southern Food in California

BBQ 152
8295 Monterey Rd
Gilroy, CA 95020

Gilroy, California always makes me think of three things: garlic, roadside produce stands, and outlet shopping. I certainly didn’t expect to discover quality southern style barbeque, live music, and craft beer; but that is exactly what we found.

If you have ever visited the Gilroy Premium Outlets, you’ve probably eaten at one of the many chain restaurants in the neighboring blocks. Little did you know that amazing barbeque was waiting just past those restaurants, yet still within one mile of the outlets. And I’m willing to bet that, if you skip the double burger and Mexican chain food just once, you’ll never go back.

BBQ 152 sits just off Highway 152 on Monterey Street. It’s an unassuming storefront with a large, simple black and white sign nestled between Crepe Myrtle trees on the parkway. It’s not flashy, but it’s easy to find and worth the trip. 

My boyfriend and I opened the door to find the sound of live acoustic music carrying over the chatter of happy patrons. It was late for lunch, but the place was more than half full and held a steady stream of customers throughout our time there. It has a family friendly vibe without being kid-centric. One little blonde kiddo was swaying to the music as his family ate. We even witnessed one man start to clear his table with one hand and continue eating with the other. The food was just too good to leave behind.

Between the two of us, we sampled three meats, three sides, two beers, and all of the sauces. It was all delicious, and every meat had that glorious pink ring you only find on expertly smoked meat. Pulled pork is my go to at any barbeque place, and theirs did not disappoint. It was tender, smokey, and melted in my mouth. It came with a side of Hogwash, which is their custom vinegar and molasses blend. It worked well with the meat, but it wasn’t my cup of tea. I preferred their smoked BBQ sauce on mine. 

My boyfriend ordered a three meat plate with pulled pork, tri tip, and brisket. He’s pretty picky about his pulled pork, but he too approved. The tri tip and brisket were also tender and flavorful pre-sauce, but the smoky BBQ sauce brought out their flame grilled essence. And if you want sauce with a kick, try their spicy BBQ sauce. It definitely brings heat to your meat.

What surprised me most at BBQ 152 were the sides. I grew up with a southern grandma who fried chicken gizzards and made cornbread stuffing from scratch. Although I adored her stuffing, I never could get used to her savory cornbread on its own. As a West Coast kid, I wanted the sweet stuff, preferably with honey butter. I couldn’t understand why she wouldn’t make it the way everyone else around here did. Let’s just say that she would be happy eating the cornbread at BBQ 152. It was moist, dense, and only slightly sweet. And to my surprise, I really enjoyed it. 

The beans were also more savory than I expected, with a strong underlying flavor of cumin and other Mexican spices. Definitely not the sweet baked beans often found at a California barbeque. The potato salad, on the other hand, wasn’t very memorable. It didn’t taste store bought, but it was somewhat bland and remarkably unremarkable. 

BBQ 152 also had a nice selection craft beer to pair with your meal. They offered about a dozen mostly local California beers on tap. I opted for Professor’s Patent, a smooth IPA on tap from Capitola brewer Sante Andairius Rustic Ales. It was light, but flavorful, and not too hoppy. My date chose a canned option: Mango Shakes from San Francisco brewer Bare Bottle Co. It was lightly creamy with a noticeable mango finish. Both were delicious and rounded off our meals beautifully.

We couldn’t have been more pleased with our lunch choice. It wasn’t packed with tourists, despite it being a Saturday. It had a friendly atmosphere, and great food. If you are passing through Gilroy for work or a little shopping, I hope you skip those flashy chain restaurants and give BBQ 152 a try.

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Safety – Organic food health benefits have been hard to assess, but that could change

Grapes harvest. Farmers hands with freshly harvested black grapes.


Written by: Cynthia Curl, Assistant Professor, Boise State University
Originally published in The Conversation
16 August 2019


“Organic” is more than just a passing fad. Organic food sales totaled a record US$45.2 billion in 2017, making it one of the fastest-growing segments of American agriculture. While a small number of studies have shown associations between organic food consumption and decreased incidence of disease, no studies to date have been designed to answer the question of whether organic food consumption causes an improvement in health.


I’m an environmental health scientist who has spent over 20 years studying pesticide exposures in human populations. Last month, my research group published a small study that I believe suggests a path forward to answering the question of whether eating organic food actually improves health.


What we don’t know


According to the USDA, the organic label does not imply anything about health. In 2015, Miles McEvoy, then chief of the National Organic Program for USDA, refused to speculate about any health benefits of organic food, saying the question wasn’t “relevant” to the National Organic Program. Instead, the USDA’s definition of organic is intended to indicate production methods that “foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.”


While some organic consumers may base their purchasing decisions on factors like resource cycling and biodiversity, most report choosing organic because they think it’s healthier.


Sixteen years ago, I was part of the first study to look at the potential for an organic diet to reduce pesticide exposure. This study focused on a group of pesticides called organophosphates, which have consistently been associated with negative effects on children’s brain development. We found that children who ate conventional diets had nine times higher exposure to these pesticides than children who ate organic diets.


Our study got a lot of attention. But while our results were novel, they didn’t answer the big question. As I told The New York Times in 2003, “People want to know, what does this really mean in terms of the safety of my kid? But we don’t know. Nobody does.” Maybe not my most elegant quote, but it was true then, and it’s still true now.


Studies only hint at potential health benefits


Health-conscious people want to buy organic for its health benefits, but it’s not yet clear whether such benefits exist.Goran Bogicevic/




Since 2003, several researchers have looked at whether a short-term switch from a conventional to an organic diet affects pesticide exposure. These studies have lasted one to two weeks and have repeatedly shown that “going organic” can quickly lead to dramatic reductions in exposure to several different classes of pesticides.


Still, scientists can’t directly translate these lower exposures to meaningful conclusions about health. The dose makes the poison, and organic diet intervention studies to date have not looked at health outcomes. The same is true for the other purported benefits of organic food. Organic milk has higher levels of healthy omega fatty acids and organic crops have higher antioxidant activity than conventional crops. But are these differences substantial enough to meaningfully impact health? We don’t know. Nobody does.


Some epidemiologic research has been directed at this question. Epidemiology is the study of the causes of health and disease in human populations, as opposed to in specific people. Most epidemiologic studies are observational, meaning that researchers look at a group of people with a certain characteristic or behavior, and compare their health to that of a group without that characteristic or behavior. In the case of organic food, that means comparing the health of people who choose to eat organic to those who do not.


Several observational studies have shown that people who eat organic food are healthier than those who eat conventional diets. A recent French study followed 70,000 adults for five years and found that those who frequently ate organic developed 25% fewer cancers than those who never ate organic. Other observational studies have shown organic food consumption to be associated with lower risk of diabetes, metabolic syndrome, pre-eclampsia and genital birth defects.


The problem with drawing firm conclusions from these studies is something epidemiologists call “uncontrolled confounding.” This is the idea that there may be differences between groups that researchers cannot account for. In this case, people who eat organic food are more highly educated, less likely to be overweight or obese, and eat overall healthier diets than conventional consumers. While good observational studies take into account things like education and diet quality, there remains the possibility that some other uncaptured difference between the two groups – beyond the decision to consume organic food – may be responsible for any health differences observed.


What next?


Often, new medical and health knowledge comes from carefully designed clinical trials, but no such trial has been conducted for organic food. Anyaivanova/


When clinical researchers want to figure out whether a drug works, they don’t do observational studies. They conduct randomized trials, where they randomly assign some people to take the drug and others to receive placebos or standard care. By randomly assigning people to groups, there’s less potential for uncontrolled confounding.


My research group’s recently published study shows how we could feasibly use randomized trial methods to investigate the potential for organic food consumption to affect health.


We recruited a small group of pregnant women during their first trimesters. We randomly assigned them to receive weekly deliveries of either organic or conventional produce throughout their second and third trimesters. We then collected a series of urine samples to assess pesticide exposure. We found that those women who received organic produce had significantly lower exposure to certain pesticides (specifically, pyrethroid insecticides) than those who received conventional produce.


On the surface, this seems like old news but this study was different in three important ways. First, to our knowledge, it was the longest organic diet intervention to date – by far. It was also the first to occur in pregnant women. Fetal development is potentially the most sensitive period for exposures to neurotoxic agents like pesticides. Finally, in previous organic diet intervention studies, researchers typically changed participants’ entire diets – swapping a fully conventional diet for a fully organic one. In our study, we asked participants to supplement their existing diets with either organic or conventional produce. This is more consistent with the actual dietary habits of most people who eat organic food – occasionally, but not always.


Even with just a partial dietary change, we observed a significant difference in pesticide exposure between the two groups. We believe that this study shows that a long-term organic diet intervention can be executed in a way that is effective, realistic and feasible.


The next step is to do this same study but in a larger population. We would then want to assess whether there were any resulting differences in the health of the children as they grew older, by measuring neurological outcomes like IQ, memory and incidence of attention-deficit disorders. By randomly assigning women to the organic and conventional groups, we could be sure any differences observed in their children’s health really were due to diet, rather than other factors common among people who consume organic food.


The public is sufficiently interested in this question, the organic market is large enough, and the observational studies suggestive enough to justify such a study. Right now, we don’t know if an organic diet improves health, but based on our recent research, I believe we can find out.


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Safety – Blockchain: What is it and does it live up to the hype?

Written by Hillari Bynum
Originally published in Innovation
20 July 2019


Hand touching global network connection and data exchanges on sky sunset background. Technology and telecommunication concept.


Blockchain Fundamentals


The easiest way to understand blockchain technology is to think of it as an electronic notary. A notary protects the integrity of a document by verifying the signer’s identity, making sure they aren’t being forced to sign under duress or intimidation and making sure they’re aware of the contents of the document or transaction. So, when a document is notarized, you can feel confident the document is legitimate.


Blockchain serves a very similar function.


A blockchain is a growing list of records, called blocks, which are linked using cryptography. Each block contains a cryptographic hash of the previous block, a timestamp, and transaction data. By design, a blockchain is resistant to modification of the data. It is “an open, distributed ledger that can record transactions between two parties efficiently and in a verifiable and permanent way.”


Therefore, like a notary, Blockchain protects the integrity of the information stored within each block.


Why is Blockchain such a buzzword in the Food Industry?


During a foodborne illness outbreak, one of the biggest challenges is determining where the contaminated food originated from and where it was distributed/served/sold. There is not an easy way to track down this information; which makes managing a recall, or an outbreak, incredibly tricky, time-consuming, and dangerous.


Blockchain could change all of that.


Blockchain technology can keep a record of the entire supply chain. If Blockchain were implemented across the food industry, it would be possible to see everywhere a single piece of produce has been — from farm to plate. Consumers and food industry professionals alike would be able to see if a recall had impacted their produce or if it was from the same farm that is being investigated for a foodborne illness outbreak. Cool, right? It doesn’t stop there! This enhanced traceability could also help protect against food fraud by providing a verifiable record or every stage in the supply chain.


Okay great, let’s do it.


It isn’t that easy. There are a lot of very real obstacles in the way, and there is no easy solution.


Slow Supply Chain Adoption


In a dream world, when helpful technology is created, people rush to adopt it because they know it is valuable. In the world we actually live in, the reality is much different. Many key stages of the food supply chain operate with very low margins. Growers, packers, slaughterhouses, wholesalers, and harvest companies have very manual processes – and they don’t always have the capital to invest in technology. The other thing these companies are short on is time for training. Successful implementation of a new system requires time, money, and desire. When you’re operating with a shortage of time and money, desire is hard to come by as well. Transparency and traceability are popular ideas throughout the food industry, but when it comes time to actually turn that idea into reality, many companies have an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”attitude.


The unfortunate reality is that people often pay the cost of food traceability at the early stage of the supply chain (growers, packers, processors) and the benefit is felt the strongest by those at the end of the supply chain (retailers and consumers). What this means is that we are asking the companies with the smallest margins to make the most significant investments – which they are often unwilling or unable to make. It is a fair point, outside of altruism, there is not a clearly defined business benefit to growers — so we are asking them to complicate their process, invest time and money, for little direct benefit.


This is particularly damaging because Blockchain won’t be revolutionary if it is only protecting part of the food supply chain. To be completely effective, every piece of the food supply chain needs to be on board.



Food Fraud is big business


Experts estimate that food fraud is now a $40 billion-dollar business. Unfortunately, the people committing food fraud are making a lot of money, and they are likely to be involved at some point in the supply chain. Blockchain and traceability technology threaten this business because of the technological ability to sound alarm bells and alert the world to food fraud. So, to protect their business model, these criminals will fight traceability implementation tooth and nail.


Too many independent systems


There are a lot of small-to-mid-sized companies offering traceability solutions, but unfortunately, these systems don’t always talk to each other. Blockchain success is heavily dependent on private tech companies being open to working together and sharing their data — which historically, they are not.


Traceability is different for different groups


Traceability varies by industry and product. For example:


  • Agriculture/Farming: Identification starts with the birth of livestock or planting and moves through the growth process, use of pesticides, nutritional records, vet records, and transportation records;
  • Food Processors: Identification starts at the source of each ingredient and follows through the processing, packaging, distribution, and transportation process;
  • Retail and Food Service: Identification starts with receiving receipts/invoices to identify the lot and batch information with regulations not requiring tracking “one-up” to the final consumer;
  • Transportation and Distribution: Commingling points of contact are vectors for the spread of disease. Waybills should contain source party and target party identification. Specific locations are needed for livestock in most countries. If products are disaggregated for smaller shipments, then records need to reflect lot/batch codes of the manufacturer or processor.


Different groups have different motivations, and it may be difficult for a system to accommodate the needs of each industry or product.


So, does it live up to the hype?


The short answer is maybe. Blockchain represents immense possibility, but it also comes with equally immense challenges. If the food industry doubles down on Blockchain and can secure engagement at every phase of the supply chain, the results would be revolutionary. However, if there is only partial adoption of traceability technology, it will be far less successful.


There is a reason to be optimistic, however! The FDA recently launched the New Era of Food Safety program that looks ready to move the food industry forward into new traceability technologies.

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Ethics – Reclaiming lost calories: Tweaking photosynthesis boosts crop yields

Written by: Amanda Cavanagh
Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Originally published in The Conversation
3 January 2019

What if your ability to feed yourself was dependent on a process that made a mistake 20 percent of the time?

We face this situation every day. That’s because the plants that produce the food we eat evolved to solve a chemistry problem that arose billions of years ago. Plants evolved to use carbon dioxide to make our food and the oxygen we breathe – a process called photosynthesis. But they grew so well and produced so much oxygen that this gas began to dominate the atmosphere. To plants, carbon dioxide and oxygen look very similar, and sometimes, plants use an oxygen instead of carbon dioxide. When this happens, toxic compounds are created, which lowers crop yields and costs us 148 trillion calories per year in unrealized wheat and soybean yield – or enough calories to feed an additional 200 million people for a whole year.

Amanda Cavanagh tests modified tobacco plants in a specialized greenhouse to select ones with genetic designs that boost the yield of key food crops. Claire Benjamin/RIPE Project, CC BY-ND

Improving crop yields to grow more food on less land is not a new challenge. But as the global population grows and diets change, the issue is becoming more urgent. It seems likely that we will have to increase food production by between 25 and 70 percent by 2050 to have an adequate supply of food.

As a plant biochemist, I have been fascinated by photosynthesis for my whole career, because we owe our entire existence to this single process. My own interest in agricultural research was spurred by this challenge: Plants feed people, and we need to quickly develop solutions to feed more people.

Supercharging photosynthesis to grow more food

It can take decades for agricultural innovations such as improved seeds to reach growers’ fields, whether they are created via genetic approaches or traditional breeding. The high-yielding crop varieties that were bred during the first green revolution helped prevent food shortages in the 1960s by increasing the proportion of grain-to-plant biomass. It’s the grain that contains most of the plant’s consumable calories, so having more grain instead of straw means more food. But most crops are now so improved that they are close to their theoretical limit.

I work on an international project called Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency (RIPE), which takes another approach. We are boosting harvests by increasing the efficiency of photosynthesis – the solar-powered process that plants use to turn carbon dioxide and water into greater crop yields. In our most recent publication, we show one way to increase crop yield by up to 40 percent by rerouting a series of chemical reactions common to most of our staple food crops.

Photorespiration costs a lot of energy

In the process of photosynthesis, carbon dioxide and water are transformed into sugars and oxygen. Sunlight powers this chemical reaction. BlueRingMedia/

Two-thirds of the calories we consume across the globe come directly or indirectly from just four crops: rice, wheat, soybean and maize. Of these, the first three are hindered by a photosynthetic glitch. Typically the enzyme that captures carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, called Rubisco, converts carbon dioxide into sugar and energy. But in one out of every five chemical reactions, Rubisco makes a mistake. The enzyme grabs an oxygen molecule instead. Rather than producing sugars and energy, the chemical reaction yields glycolate and ammonia, which are toxic to plants. To deal with this problem, plants have evolved an energy-expensive process called photorespiration that recycles these toxic compounds. But toxin recycling requires so much energy that the plant produces less food.

Photorespiration uses so much energy that some plants, like maize, as well as photosynthetic bacteria and algae, have evolved mechanisms to prevent Rubisco’s exposure to oxygen. Other organisms, like bacteria, have evolved more efficient ways to remove these toxins.

These natural solutions have inspired many researchers to try to tweak photorespiration to improve crop yields. Some of the more efficient naturally occurring recycling pathways have been genetically engineered in other plants to improve growth and photosynthesis in greenhouse and laboratory conditions. Another strategy has been to modify natural photorespiration and speed up the recycling.

Chemical detour improves crop yield

The red car represents unmodified plants who use a circuitous and energy-expensive process called photorespiration that costs yield potential. The blue car represents plants engineered with an alternate route to shortcut photorespiration, enabling these plants to save fuel and reinvest their energy to boost productivity by as much as 40 percent. RIPE, CC BY-SA

These direct manipulations of photorespiration are crucial targets for future crop improvement. Increased atmospheric carbon dioxide from fossil fuel consumption boosts photosynthesis, allowing the plant to use more carbon. You might assume that that this will solve the oxygen-grabbing mistake. But, higher temperatures promote the formation of toxic compounds through photorespiration. Even if carbon dioxide levels more than double, we expect harvest yield losses of 18 percent because of the almost 4 degrees Celsius temperature increase that will accompany them. We cannot rely on increasing levels of carbon dioxide to grow all the food we will need by 2050.

I worked with Paul South, a research molecular biologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service and professor Don Ort, who is a biologist specializing in crop science at the University of Illinois, to explore whether modifying the chemical reactions of photorespiration might boost crop yields. One element that makes recycling the toxin glycolate so inefficient is that it moves through three compartments inside the plant cell. That’s like taking an aluminum can into three separate recycling plants. We engineered three new shortcuts that could recycle the compound in one location. We also stopped the natural process from occurring.

Four unmodified plants (left) grow beside four plants (right) engineered with alternate routes to shortcut photorespiration. The modified plants are able to reinvest their energy and resources to boost productivity by 40 percent. Claire Benjamin/RIPE Project, CC BY-ND

Designed in silico; tested in soil

Agricultural research innovations can be rapidly tested in a model species. Tobacco is well-suited for this since it is easy to genetically engineer and grow in the field. The other advantage of tobacco is that it has a short life cycle, produces a lot of seed and develops a leafy canopy similar to other field crops so we can measure the impact of our genetic alterations in a short time span. We can then determine whether these modifications in tobacco can be translated into our desired food crops.

Over two years of field trials, scientists Donald Ort (right), Paul South (center) and Amanda Cavanagh (left) found tobacco plants engineered to modify photorespiration are more productive in real-world field conditions. Now they are translating this technology hoping to boost the yield of key food crops, including soybeans, rice, cowpeas and cassava. Claire Benjamin/RIPE Project, CC BY-ND

We engineered and tested 1,200 tobacco plants with unique sets of genes to find the genetic combination that recycled glycolate most efficiently. Then we starved these modified plants of carbon dioxide. This triggered the formation of the toxin glycolate. Then we identified which plants grew best – these have the combination of genes that recycled the toxin most efficiently. Over the next two years, we further tested these plants in real-world agricultural conditions. Plants with the best combination of genes flowered about a week earlier, grew taller and were about 40 percent larger than unmodified plants.

Having shown proof of concept in tobacco, we are beginning to test these designs in food crops: soybean, cowpea, rice, potato, tomato and eggplant. Soon, we will have a better idea of how much we can increase the yield of these crops with our modifications.

Once we demonstrate that our discovery can be translated into food crops, the Food and Drug Administration and the USDA will rigorously test these modified plants to make sure they are safe for human consumption and pose no risk to the environment. 

Such testing can cost as much as US$150 million and take more than 10 years.

Since the process of photorespiration is common across plant species, we are optimistic that our strategy will increase crop yields by close to 40 percent and help find a way to grow more food on less land to be able to feed a hungry global population by 2050.

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Finance – Economics of Legalizing Cannabis – Pricing and Policing are Crucial

Written by: Alice Mesnard, Reader in Economics, University of London
Originally published in The Conversation
29 July 2019

Legalising cannabis can have major benefits for all citizens. If carried out correctly, everyone will benefit from less crime and stronger rule of law. Legalising the drug will especially help protect young people and may even lower their consumption of the drug. It is also a way of raising taxes for the state, instead of fuelling criminal organisations, which currently control the illegal market.

These benefits are increasingly recognised by the public. Crucial to seeing these benefits come about, is the way legalising cannabis is done and how the drug is priced once it is made legal. These are the findings from research I’ve carried out with colleagues in France. There must be a combination of getting the price level right and cracking down on illegal activities to reach the right balance between reducing criminality and avoiding increases in cannabis consumption following legalisation.

To fight the black market, the price of legal cannabis has to be relatively low. For example, it could be set around or slightly below the current illegal price. This will attract current users of the drug away from their existing dealers.

But if nothing else is done, this will not be enough to eradicate the black market. Dealers will simply lower their prices to attract customers back. They are able to do this because there is currently a high markup in the illegal market.

There is a large range of prices and cannabis products sold illegally but the average price of high-quality cannabis is roughly US$300 per ounce in London, according to the crowd-sourced website This is up to three times as high as production costs based on evidence from the US market.

Controlling consumption

The increased competition that the legal market would bring would likely substantially increase consumption – not something most policy makers want. So as well as implementing a legal market, there needs to be a mix of policies to control consumption, including sanctions that are enforced against illegal activities. This would allow a government to price out dealers, while keeping the price of legal cannabis relatively high.

The reasoning is simple: if production or distribution costs of illegal cannabis increase, it is easier to drive criminals out of business by selling legal cannabis. My research shows that the harsher the punishments you put in place against people selling cannabis illegally, the higher you can set the price of legal cannabis to price out dealers. We call this the “eviction price”.

Other instruments governments can use to increase the eviction price are to deter consumers from buying illegal cannabis through enforced sanctions or warning them against the dangers of using illegal cannabis compared to high-quality, safe products supplied on the legal market.

Viable alternatives

It’s also important to introduce incentives for illegal cannabis producers and sellers to turn their activity toward the legal sector. So as well as investment in law enforcement to crack down on criminal activity, it’s important that former cannabis dealers are given viable job alternatives. Otherwise they may just switch to selling alternative illegal drugs or close substitutes.

Dealers often live in deprived neighbourhoods and are trapped in vicious cycles of crime where low aspirations and job prospects push them into illegal businesses. Investment in these communities is therefore needed to support and train those that make a living from drug dealing.

The money that will be generated by selling and taxing legal cannabis should be largely redistributed towards these kinds of initiatives. Plus, legalising cannabis may enable the police to reallocate their efforts towards other crimes, improving police effectiveness against class-A drugs and non-drug crimes. This was found in the London borough of Lambeth after penalties were reduced in 2001 for those holding small amounts of cannabis.

History also shows that prohibition increases violent crimes. Famous gangsters such as Al Capone in Chicago in the 1920s profited from the imbalance between demand and supply of alcohol by establishing organised crime to supply and serve alcohol illegally in speakeasies. In illegal markets, violence is often seen as the only way to resolve conflicts and secure market power.

Our research was inspired by recent examples of cannabis legalisation in Canada and Uruguay. The stated objectives in both countries was to combat drug-related crime. It is too early to evaluate the overall effects of these policies but evidence from Canada suggests that illegal transactions linked to the black market shrunk as a result of legalisation. And we also learnt from what did not work so well there: a shortage of legal supply helped the illegal market persist. So it’s important to avoid making the same mistakes and propose more effective policies to control the overall consumption of cannabis.