Fruit Farmers Are Using Sex Chemicals to Manage Pests — VICE Munchies

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Photograph: Oregon Department of Agriculture

Photograph: Oregon Department of Agriculture

Alternatives to conventional farming can get pretty out-there: biodynamic farming, for example, utilizes cow horns filled with shit and buried underground, flower-filled stags’ bladders hung in a tree, and cosmic forces swirled into a bucket. And now, in a Freudian twist on green agriculture, a growing number of fruit farmers around the world are managing pests by spraying their orchards with pheromones—the communicative sex chemicals that insects emit—confusing the bugs and reducing their impact on the farmers’ crops.

For the past four years, Semios—a Vancouver-based technology company that develops high-tech, minutely calibrated agricultural products for tree fruit and nut growers—has been working on a pheromone-delivery system that helps both organic and conventional growers in the US, Canada, and Europe reduce their reliance on conventional pesticides.

In what the company calls a “precision farming platform,” Semios’ wireless sensors and controls monitor orchard conditions such as temperature and humidity, delivering farmers real-time updates on their smartphones. One of the pieces of equipment that the company manufactures is a pheromone-misting dispenser that releases exact chemical replicas of the pheromones put out by common fruit pests such as codling moths, whose larvae are the so-called “worms” that commonly end up inside apples.

Reached recently by phone, Michael Gilbert, Semios’ CEO and a chemist by training, explained how Semios’ technology works. One of the main ways in which insect pests cause damage to fruit, he explained, is when a male and a female mate, the female lays eggs on the fruit, and the eggs hatch into larvae that then feed upon that fruit. With Semios’ pheromone mist, Gilbert said, “we prevent that whole process from happening.”

A female moth, Gilbert explained, will find mates by emitting pheromones that communicate her sexual readiness as well as her location. When males sense those pheromones, they seek her out for mating. But on a farm equipped with pheromone dispensers, male moths will end up at one of those misters, not next to a female. They won’t be able to mate, and over time, Gilbert said, the local pest population will drop as the insects’ lovemaking habits are continually thwarted.

“Just a tiny amount of the pheromone chemical—which we reproduce exactly in the lab—is enough to confuse all the males in the field,” he said.

For farmers, the major draw of using pheromones to manage pests is that the chemical signals won’t affect the bugs that actually help out in orchards, such as ladybugs, which eat crop-attacking aphids. Because only codling moths will respond to codling moth pheromones, other creatures will go about their activities as normal.

“Any crop has a subset of insects that are damaging, and a subset of insects that are doing good,” Gilbert explained. “That’s the big challenge of classical pest management. The ‘kill everything in sight’ approach of chemical pesticides harms beneficial insects, too. But the beauty of pheromones is that they’re species-specific.”

Allen Godwin is the second-generation owner of Godwin Organics in Washington State, where he grows apples, pears, and cherries on his small-scale orchards. For him, the targeted nature of pheromones is the technology’s most appealing feature.

“The easiest thing in the world is to go out and spray chemicals every day,” he said. “But building up the natural predators of crop pests is a big part of our integrated pest management strategy, so that’s just not possible. We don’t like spraying, and it’s expensive.”

Although chemical pheromones are much pricier than chemical pesticides, Gilbert explained, they’re more cost-effective for farmers over the long run. Whereas with pesticides farmers often have to spray continually, Semios technology is able to detect the conditions when pests will be most active—at a particular time of year, for instance, or when the weather is unusually warm and humid—and will emit the pheromones only on those nights, using just a small amount of product.

Godwin Organics is currently on its second season of using Semios pheromone misters, and Godwin said the system has worked well for him: he’s noticed a drop in the local codling moth population, a decrease he said would be more dramatic if other growers in the area would adopt the technology, too

“It’s very useful in what we’re doing, and we’re planning on continuing forward with the system,” he said. ‘Smart farm technology’ overall, Gilbert added, will likely continue to spread among growers both large and small. “I see application for this project even farther than where’s it been taken today,” he said. “In five years, I think many more growers will have adopted these kinds of programs.”

Our Fish Fridays — The Jewish Week

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Photographs: Lauren Rothman

Photographs: Lauren Rothman

For the past couple of decades, appetizing fans in the know have made a weekly pilgrimage to a Greenpoint, Brooklyn factory. There, a 60-year-old fish-smoking plant offers retail shoppers a wealth of delicacies — from fatty sable tail to peppery pastrami lox and much, much more — all at bargain-basement prices.

The ritual is known as Fish Fridays, and it takes place at Acme Smoked Fish. Founded in 1954 by Harry Caslow, a Russian immigrant who arrived in New York in 1906, the factory offers a huge range of house-smoked and cured fish, and while the products are normally available at stores and restaurants only, on Friday mornings they’re offered to the public at a 50 to 70 percent discount.

The combination of high-quality fish and low prices attracts a diverse array of customers, from Orthodox Jews loading up for the Sabbath to local hipsters looking to brunch in style. For Adam Caslow, Acme’s fourth-generation owner and operator, that’s what’s most exciting about running the “smoked fish speakeasy.”

“As the neighborhood has changed, so has Fish Fridays,” Caslow said on a recent Friday morning. “In the ’50s, when we were founded, this was a neighborhood of Polish immigrants. But today, all kinds of people live here. And the popularity of smoked fish has grown, too. So we get an incredibly varied mix of shoppers.”

For Caslow, it’s heartening to hear that Acme smoked fish forms the centerpiece of many a family gathering.

“This type of food is so ingrained in family,” Caslow said. “I’ll hear customers tell me, ‘I drove from Jersey to get lox for my son’s bar mitzvah,’ stuff like that. Knowing that what we make unites families, brings them together? That makes me feel good.” 

Those Missing Restaurant Ratings — The West Side Spirit

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Bettola restaurant, whose "B" rating seems to be missing. Photograph: Lauren Rothman

Bettola restaurant, whose "B" rating seems to be missing. Photograph: Lauren Rothman

Summer weather is here, and sidewalk cafes have sprung into action. That means open restaurant doors -- enabling some eateries to conceal their less-than-stellar sanitary inspection grades.

The rating cards, those 8.5-by-11-inch, laminated signs, let diners know with a blue “A,” a green “B,” or a yellow “C” how the city’s Department of Health has graded the restaurant on its food sanitation practices. City law requires all restaurants to display their rating cards in a prominent, easy-to-see location, such as on a front-facing window or outside wall.

But a walk around the Upper West Side on May 27 reveals that more than a handful of neighborhood restaurants hide their grades behind a propped door, allow them to fall to the bottom of windows, or don’t display them at all.

Good Enough To Eat, located on the corner of Columbus Avenue and 85th Street, has been serving comfort food such as pumpkin French toast and white cheddar mac and cheese since 1981. According to the DOH’s website, the sprawling cafe is currently assigned a “C” rating. But you wouldn’t know it by visiting: Good Enough To Eat’s “Grade Pending” sign—meaning that the restaurant has appealed its grade and is awaiting a new round of inspections—is placed near the bottom of the entryway, concealed by a propped-open front door.

General Manager Christian Post denies that the sign is hard to spot—”I’m looking at it right now,” he said when reached by phone last week—and believes that the restaurant was rated unfairly.

“There’s a lot of reasons why we were misgraded,” Post said. “There’s a lot of subjectivity in the system. If the inspector is in a particularly good mood, maybe some things get overlooked. And if he’s in a foul mood, he might grade accordingly.”

Under the current system, restaurants are inspected by a DOH inspector at least once per year. These visits occur randomly and result in a letter grade that’s based on a restaurant’s violations, or lack thereof. Inspectors are trained to look primarily for kitchen issues that might pose health risks, such as pests or improperly stored food, but also examine structural issues. The more violations a restaurant accrues, the lower its letter grade drops. But restaurant owners have long complained that the system is often arbitrary.

“I’ve seen plenty of disgusting greasy spoons that have an ‘A’,” Post said. “To me that seems damn near impossible.”

Because the restaurant has appealed its grade, it’s allowed to display a “Grade Pending” sign, instead of its “C” rating card. Yet the manner in which that card is currently displayed would not pass muster with the DOH.

“As part of the inspection process, the Health Department checks to make sure a restaurant’s letter grade is posted conspicuously, and we will also respond to complaints about missing or obscured letter grades,” a DOH spokesperson wrote by email. “Violations for obscuring a letter grade, or not posting one, carry fines of either $500 or $1000, respectively.”

It’s difficult to locate Good Enough To Eat’s rating card without a little searching—but at least it’s there. The same can’t be said for Bettola, the Italian trattoria that extends onto Amsterdam Avenue between 79th and 80th Streets. According to the DOH’s rating card lookup, the restaurant currently has a “B” rating, but the card making customers aware of that is no where to be found. On a recent weekday afternoon, a woman who identified herself as Bettola’s manager said, “It’s grade pending. When we have the door open, it’s hard to see.” The woman then disappeared into her office without offering further comment.

Up the street, at Land Thai Kitchen, the “open door” explanation was in full effect. Like Good Enough To Eat, the restaurant has its “B” rating card posted in a side window, making it difficult to spot when the door is propped open.

“Sorry to be unclear about posting the ‘B’ grade in the window,” Land Thai manager Vanida Bank wrote by email. “Yesterday was a nice day to open the window, and we didn’t notice that the grade was hidden. We will post the grade somewhere else to make sure that everyone can see it.” When asked about the restaurant’s experience with DOH inspections, Bank said she had no comment.

No data is available to show how often the DOH cracks down on improper display of rating cards. And the DOH, for its part, strives to paint a sunny picture of the state of sanitation in city restaurants.

“Fines are not issued frequently, as the majority of the approximately 24,000 restaurants in New York City both have an A and clearly post their grade,” the spokesperson wrote.