BEYOND THE COUNTY: CA tightens pesticide regs, More deaths in Syria, US farmers embrace quinoa |

BEYOND THE COUNTY: CA tightens pesticide regs, More deaths in Syria, US farmers embrace quinoa

FILE -- This March 1, 2016 file photo, shows a view towards the Turkish border from Kinsibba, Syria. Syrian opposition activists said Thursday, Oct. 6, 2016, an explosion in a village in northwestern Syria near the border with Turkey has killed at least 16 people. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says the blast in Atmeh was either caused by a suicide bomber or a remotely detonated bomb that that there are rebels among the casualties. Another group, the Local Coordination Committees, says the blast was caused by a bag filled with explosives that went off on the Syrian side of a border crossing. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin, File)

UN Syria envoy warns Aleppo could be ‘destroyed’ this year

GENEVA — The U.N. envoy for Syria called on al-Qaida-linked militants to leave the embattled city of Aleppo in exchange for an end to government and Russian bombardment, warning Thursday that thousands of civilians could be killed and the historic city “destroyed” by year end if conditions do not soon change.

Special envoy Staffan de Mistura urged fighters from Fatah al-Sham Front to leave the city in exchange for peace. The group was previously known as Nusra Front and changed its name after announcing it had split from al-Qaida earlier this year. The U.N. considers it a terrorist organization.

De Mistura entreated both sides to “look at my eyes” before offering to “personally” escort the fighters to a refuge of their choosing, provided they agree to lay down their arms.

The combined Syrian government and Russian bombardment of the city’s rebel-held east has killed 376 people over the last two weeks, the envoy said. While far fewer have been killed in the western side, which has a population of over a million, presumed rebel shelling killed at least eight people on Thursday, Syrian state media and observers said. It marked one of the bloodiest days in recent memory for government-held neighborhoods of the city.

De Mistura acknowledged that the fighters would “need some guarantees” before an evacuation to another rebel-held part of the country, but said these would have to come from the government. He also called for the local administration in opposition-held eastern neighborhoods to remain in place after Fatah al-Sham leaves, with the U.N. establishing a presence there to bring humanitarian supplies to the besieged population.

His proposals marked the first major initiative by the U.N. to help find a way out of the Syria crisis after the United States, citing in part the Aleppo onslaught, suspended its joint effort with Russia to stop the fighting. Those two powers had been leading the diplomatic push. Russia, which currently holds the presidency of the U.N. Security Council, called for de Mistura to brief members on Friday morning.

Yet rebel fighters in Aleppo expressed deep skepticism over the terms of de Mistura’s proposal. They say the Fatah al-Sham Front has been instrumental to the east’s defense, having led an August counter-offensive that briefly broke the government’s siege. The U.N. estimates 275,000 people are trapped in eastern Aleppo.

Ammar Sakkar, a military spokesman for Fastiqum rebel group, said the evacuation plan was “a form of trickery” that would allow pro-government forces to carry out a “longer period of killing and crime.” He accused the U.N. of holding a “double standard,” arguing that before calling for fighters to leave it must “first stop the head of terrorism and stop his own acts of terrorism and crime against the Syrian people,” referring to Syrian President Bashar Assad.

“It would have been better if (de Mistura) spoke about protecting civilians and halting the criminal activities that target civilians in Aleppo,” echoed Yasser Alyousef, a political spokesman for Nour el-Din el-Zinki insurgent group.

While Assad has not commented on de Mistura’s proposals, his remarks during an interview with Denmark’s D2 station Thursday indicated he would not be satisfied with the limited rebel evacuation. Insisting his military would retake the whole of Aleppo, the president rejected any distinctions between the array of nationalist to ultraconservative Islamic factions fighting against his authority.

“The moderate opposition is a myth,” he told D2. “That’s why you cannot separate something that doesn’t exist from something that does exists. All of them have the same grassroots.”

During the interview, Assad also denied reports by opposition activists and international relief agencies that his government was targeting hospitals and civilian infrastructure.

In his press conference, de Mistura said the presence of 900 Fatah al-Sham Front fighters should not be used as an excuse to besiege and bombard over a quarter of a million people. “Is this going to be the alibi for destroying the city?” he asked.

“The bottom line is: In a maximum of two months — two and a half months — the city of eastern Aleppo at this rate may be be totally destroyed … and thousands of Syrians, not terrorists, will be killed,” he said.

Activists said the violence in Aleppo eased on Thursday after Syria’s military command announced the night before that it planned to scale back bombardment to allow civilians to leave besieged rebel-held neighborhoods.

“There were shellings and air raids, but it was less than in previous days,” said activist Bahaa al-Halaby, speaking from Aleppo province near the city.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that although airstrikes have almost stopped on rebel-held neighbohoods, government forces were pushing ahead with their ground offensive. The Observatory and state media said troops advanced in the northern neighborhood of Bustan al-Basha, capturing a sports complex and a nearby housing compound.

Violence continued elsewhere in Syria. An explosion in Atmeh, a northwestern village near the Turkish border, killed at least 29 people including several Turkish-backed opposition fighters, activists said. IS quickly claimed responsibity for the attack via its news agency, Aamaq.

The bombing and the Aleppo standoff underscored the complexity of the Syrian conflict, which pits Assad’s forces against rebels trying to oust him, alongside a U.S.-led coalition’s fight against Islamic State group. Russia says its year-long air campaign in support of Syrian troops aims to fight terrorism.

The Observatory said the blast in Atmeh was a suicide bombing. It said the dead were Turkish-backed opposition fighters. Another group, the Local Coordination Committees, said the blast killed 35 people, including two senior judicial officials from the opposition.

An amateur video posted online shows about 18 bodies on the floor outside what appears to be a clinic. Some of the men are in military uniforms. The video appears genuine and corresponds to other AP reporting of events depicted.

US farmers make foray into quinoa as demand for grain grows

SEQUIM, Wash. — To the south of Nash Huber’s farm fields are the Olympic Mountains, peaking at nearly 8,000 feet. Due north is the end of a channel of Pacific Ocean waters that separate the United States from Canada.

Yet in this corner of the country is where the 75-year-old Huber hopes the South American grain quinoa takes root.

Last month, Huber harvested quinoa commercially for the first time on about 30 acres, making him the latest addition to a small number of U.S. farmers trying to capitalize on American eaters’ growing demand for the Andean grain.

“It’s a beautiful crop,” Huber said as he surveyed his combine grinding the plants and spitting out the seeds. He chose a variety called Redhead, which turned his field lipstick red for a couple of weeks before harvest. “We’re still learning. I kind of stepped off the end of the dock here with a bit of a bite this year.”

Americans consume more than half the global production of quinoa, which totaled 37,000 tons in 2012. Twenty years earlier, production was merely 600 tons, according to the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization.

Yet quinoa fields are so rare in American farming that the total acreage doesn’t show on an agricultural census, said Julianne Kellogg, a Washington State University graduate student monitoring quinoa test plots around the Olympic Mountains, including one next to Huber’s field. A rough estimate puts the country’s quinoa fields at 3,000 to 5,000 acres.

Quinoa’s nutritional punch has pushed the grain beyond health food stores and into general consumption, propped up by celebrities like Oprah Winfrey.

It has all the amino acids humans need, making it a complete protein, Kellogg said. That’s hard to find in grain crops, she said. It’s also gluten-free.

The grain’s future is marked with possibilities, including milk, beer, cereals, hair products, snacks — products well beyond the salad bar.

“I think we’re witnessing the start of a staple,” said Sergio Nuñez de Arco, a Bolivia native whose company, Andean Naturals, has been instrumental in bringing quinoa north, distributing to Costco, Trader Joe’s and others.

The spike in demand from the U.S. and Europe led big farm operations in Peru to enter quinoa farming a few years ago. That resulted in an oversupply, and prices have been falling.

According to a July report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service, quinoa prices plummeted about 40 percent between September 2014 and August 2015.

“Farmers are rotating out of quinoa,” Nuñez de Arco said. “They went back to the city to look for work. It was good while it lasted, so it’s back to rural migration.”

Nuñez de Arco has opened a California processing plant for the bitter coating that covers the quinoa grains. It wasn’t welcome news for his Bolivian farmers.

“There needs to be some improvement to practices and they’re gonna get that through some healthy competition,” said Nuñez de Arco, now based in San Francisco. “My push has been to protect the smaller farmer in a top-shelf niche, where they will have the demand.”

In Washington state, Huber’s quinoa will head to Lundberg Family Farms, a California-based company that has been a leader in domestic quinoa production. This year, Lundberg and its network of contracted farmers along the West Coast hope to harvest 2 million pounds of quinoa.

“It’s great to have product available where folks are consuming it,” said Tim Schultz, vice president of research and development at Lundberg. “You have less food miles on it.”

For more quinoa to grow in the United States, farmers and researchers must find the right mix of varieties and environments. The Washington State University plots are testing varieties for heat resistance and late-summer sprouting, among other benchmarks. Next year, they’ll test plots in Maryland and Minnesota.

“From a farmer’s perspective, it’s more options for rotations,” said Kevin Murphy, an assistant professor at the university.

That’s an option that attracted Huber. Quinoa represents his first commodity crop. On a harvest day, he eyeballed a lower yield than he wanted, in part because the elk that roam the nearby woods frolicked in the quinoa fields.

“I hope I break even,” he said with a laugh. “If we break even or make a little bit of money, that’ll be good because I learned quite a few things here.”

Barely half of illegal border crossers caught

SAN DIEGO — Immigration authorities caught barely half of the people who illegally entered the U.S. from Mexico last year, according to an internal Department of Homeland Security report that offers one of the most detailed assessments of border security ever compiled.

The report found that 54 percent of people who entered illegally between border crossings got caught in the 2015 fiscal year. That’s much lower than the 81 percent success rate that Homeland Security cited publicly using a different counting method.

The 98-page report was completed in May, and Homeland Security officials have declined to release it, despite urging from some members of Congress. The Associated Press obtained a copy from a government official involved in border issues. The official acted on condition of anonymity because the report has not been made public. Homeland Security officials had no immediately comment Thursday.

The report offers the fullest measure yet how secure the border with Mexico really is — a major issue in a presidential campaign that features Republican nominee Donald Trump calling for a wall along the entire 1,954-mile border. The report includes enough material to argue that the government has made big strides or that it is falling woefully short.

In terms of people, 170,000 got away from the Border Patrol during the 2015 fiscal year, 210,000 the previous year and 1.7 million in 2005. The huge drop over the last decade is largely explained by the decline in job opportunities since the Great Recession, with more Mexicans now leaving the United States than arriving here.

During that time, there has also been a massive increase in border enforcement, including jail time and other serious consequences for those who get caught, and significant increases in the number of people getting deported. The government now spends $14 billion annually on border security.

The number of people who got away is larger when including those who escaped detection at border crossings or who entered by sea, which is the responsibility of Homeland Security agencies outside the Border Patrol. Adding those, 200,000 people got away last year, 260,000 in 2014 and 1.9 million in 2005.

The Border Patrol’s capture rate on the Mexican border was 55 percent in 2014 and 36 percent in 2005, according to the report prepared for Homeland Security by the Institute for Defense Analyses, a federally funded research organization. The Border Patrol achieved an 11-point improvement in 2014 after years of slow but steady gains. The report does not offer an explanation for the sudden improvement.

The report, which includes an appendix of more than 100 pages on methodology and a review of previous efforts to count border crossers, offers detailed analysis going back to 2000, shortly before the U.S. erected hundreds of miles of fences along the Mexican border, added surveillance gear and doubled the number of Border Patrol agents. Homeland Security has been under pressure to show if those multibillion-dollar investments yielded results.

The primary measure that Homeland Security has released for public consumption is the number of Border Patrol arrests, which tells how many people got caught but not how many got away. Arrests dropped to the lowest level in 44 years in 2015, down 80 percent from a peak of nearly 1.7 million in 2000.

For the last two years, the department has released an “interdiction effectiveness rate” that measures the percentage of people who got caught among all who attempted to enter between crossings on the Mexican border. The figure includes those who set foot in the U.S. and turned around and asylum-seekers. It was 81 percent in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2015.

The report obtained by the AP takes a different approach. It does not credit the government for people who turn around or turn themselves in to agents to seek asylum, a common occurrence among Central American women and children who have entered the country in large numbers over the last five years.

The report says there were 140,000 asylum seekers on the Mexican border last year and 170,000 in 2014, compared to about 20,000 a year a decade ago. Homeland Security’s practice of counting those as captures goes a long way toward explaining why its success rate was so much higher.

The report also counts people who entered the country illegally at border crossings — typically by presenting fake or stolen documents to immigration inspectors. Homeland Security does not publish those numbers. The report says 28,000 escaped detection last year, down from 46,000 in 2014. The capture rate improved to 39 percent from 29 percent.

Counting border crossers who elude capture is a mammoth and imprecise task but one that many experts believe is necessary to judge whether the border is secure. Homeland Security approaches the job by tracking physical evidence, such as footprints in the desert and other signs of human presence, and by agent sightings. The internal report uses that information, along with migrant surveys and techniques developed by social scientists.

California tightening rule on popular pesticide

FRESNO, Calif. — California will tighten rules on how much farmers can use a common pesticide listed by the nation’s most productive agricultural state as a chemical known to cause cancer, regulators told The Associated Press on Thursday.

The change doesn’t ban the pesticide Telone but creates a uniform rule for its application each year. The rule is drawing criticism from farmers who call it a key way to fight pests and fear the crackdown could lead to rising food prices.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does not limit annual use of Telone, and California is the only state to restrict how much can be applied, said Charlotte Fadipe, spokeswoman for the state Department of Pesticide Regulation.

Growers inject Telone into the soil to kill pests before planting new orchards, vineyards and crops, such as sweet potatoes, carrots and strawberries.

It dissipates before crops are planted, and officials say harmful residue isn’t found in food. Rather, the fumes released when it is first applied can potentially cause health issues when people breathe it in over long periods of time.

Brian Leahy, director of the pesticide regulation department, announced the new rule that he said protects public health while allowing farmers to keep an important tool to kill pests. It goes into effect Jan. 1.

“I believe that overhauling the way we manage the pesticide, to be based upon a fixed amount, will be health-protective and simpler to manage,” Leahy said in a statement.

Now, farmers are allowed to use 90,250 pounds of the chemical each year within 6 square miles. They can carry over unused amounts from one year to the next — potentially doubling the base allowance. Until recently, they could also request a waiver from the state to use more than double the limit in a year, officials said.

The new rule limits the annual allowance to 136,000 pounds with no option for carrying over unused amounts. Farmers also will not be permitted to use the chemical in December, when California’s weather conditions make the air concentrations of the pesticide higher, officials said.

Merced sweet potato farmer Bob Weimer, criticized the stricter regulation, saying that Telone is an essential way to kill pests in California, which grows nearly half of the nation’s fruits, nuts and vegetables.

“It’s going to have an impact on consumers,” Weimer said. “There’s no question about it.”

Farmers like him are already limited in ways to kill pests, he said, adding that the change doesn’t make sense because his fields are miles from the nearest community.

Telone came under fire recently when the Oakland-based Center for Environmental Health sued its maker, Dow Agro-Sciences LLC. The health advocacy group contends that Dow fails to warn people in farming communities throughout California when Telone is being used, as required by law.

No direct cases of illness have been linked to Telone, but Caroline Cox, the centers’ researcher director, says the state’s job is to protect residents in the face of grave consequences.

“We can’t wait for that particular kind of information,” she said. “It takes so long, and it’s so hard to get.”

Can’t compete with Matthew; candidates cut Florida campaigns

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Like thousands of other Americans, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton abruptly upended their plans Thursday in Florida, where Hurricane Matthew threatened to wreak havoc on final-stretch presidential campaigning in a critical swing state.

The campaigns rushed to move staff and volunteers, close offices and cancel events in the path of the storm. And as many Floridians heeded calls to evacuate, both candidates began the delicate task of pursuing votes during a crisis.

Clinton’s campaign asked the state for more time to register voters — a request Florida Gov. Rick Scott rejected — and the Trump team pulled its negative TV ads.

“Nothing is more important than the safety of your family,” Trump said in an unusually restrained statement. “Please stay safe.”

The hurricane is expected to hit Trump’s prized Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach. Campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks said, “Mr. Trump spoke with employees yesterday to ensure they are safe and following instructions from local officials.”

Clinton tweeted: “Hurricane Matthew is a major storm. … Stay safe Florida.”

Both stayed far away, preparing for their second debate, a town hall-style faceoff on Sunday in St. Louis. Trump was holding a dry run town hall in Sandown, New Hampshire, while Clinton was speaking at fundraisers in New York.

Along the Southeast coast, Matthew was expected to bring dangerous conditions to Georgia, South Carolina and, possibly, North Carolina. But it was the impact on vote-rich Florida, a must-win state for Trump, that had the campaigns on high alert. The hurricane closed in just as both sides ramped up their early-vote push and just days before a voter registration deadline.

Vote-by-mail ballots are being sent to voters across the state this week, leaving the potential for ballots to arrive just as voters temporarily abandon their homes. So far, a record 2.5 million people — nearly one-third of those who voted in 2012 — have made requests for the early ballots.

Scott said Thursday evening that he would not consider extending the Oct. 11 voter registration deadline.

“Everyone has had a lot of time to register,” Scott said, adding, “I don’t intend to make any changes.”

Scott, a Republican, is a strong supporter of GOP nominee Donald Trump and chairman of a Super PAC running Clinton-bashing television ads.

Officials said they were hoping that any disruption to voting would be less severe than with Superstorm Sandy, which struck New Jersey and New York just before the 2012 presidential election and kept many voters away from polls.

At least half of Florida voters typically cast ballots early, either by mail or in person, compared with just a fraction in New York and New Jersey.

Still, disruptions in Florida campaigning were immediate.

In Palm Beach County, local Republican Chairman Michael Barnett said Matthew already had forced cancellations, including phone-banking operations and an event where Ivanka Trump was the headliner. Local GOP officials also will miss an opportunity for outreach to Latino leaders, because an annual gala of a local Hispanic civic group was canceled.

“There is no good time, but this is just the worst time,” Barnett said. “Whatever happens, I think we can make up for the lost time, as long as we are not cleaning ourselves out from under a catastrophic mess.”

Democrats, too, prepared for high-power campaigning to grind to a halt in affected areas. Television advertising often fails to reach voters preoccupied by an impending storm and the aftermath.

“Even if you want to do politics, no one is there to listen,” said Steve Schale, a Democratic consultant who directed Barack Obama’s 2008 Florida campaign and was an adviser for his re-election efforts in the state.

How and where to advertise became an immediate flashpoint between the campaigns. After Clinton ads were spotted on the Weather Channel, the Trump campaign accused her of a “tone deaf” attempt to capitalize on the situation.

A Clinton spokesman said ads had been scheduled on local Weather Channel stations in Florida and other states. But the storm’s potential severity prompted the campaign to cancel the Florida portion.

The storm posed unusual challenges and opportunities for the candidates, particularly Trump, who is trying to prove his leadership.

The New York businessman has sometimes appeared clumsy in his response to crises — including sending out tweets in which he seemed to pat himself on the back for predicting terror attacks.

In the aftermath of the flooding in Louisiana earlier this year, Trump and his running mate, Mike Pence, rushed to the Baton Rouge area to tour the damage. During the trip, Trump criticized the president and later Hillary Clinton for failing to do the same, despite request from local officials to steer clear.

— Associated Press

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