FarmPolicy

January 22, 2020

Food Security; Dairy Issue; Aquaculture; Sec. Vilsack (USDA); Biofuels; Climate Issues; and California Water

Categories: Climate Change /Ethanol

Food Security- Focus on India and Biotechnology

The AP reported yesterday that, “Last week, India halted the commercial release of the world’s first genetically engineered eggplant, called Bt brinjal. The environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, said that given the lack of consensus within the scientific community and the pitch of public opposition, further study was needed to guarantee consumer safety.

Why the skepticism over a technology many scientists say is crucial for feeding the 9 billion people who will populate the planet by 2050?

“To many in India, embracing Bt brinjal — which has a gene owned by Monsanto Co — also means embracing corporate farming and surrendering some control of the nation’s food supply to a powerful foreign company. They worry this could have disastrous consequences for the nation’s 100 million small farming families.”

The article stated that, “Whether India, like China, will ultimately embrace GM food is a question with profound implications.

At issue is how India — which the U.N. says will surpass China as the world’s most populous country by 2030 — will feed itself.

“Many other transgenic food crops are in the works, including staples like rice. Advocates say these new strains will boost yields and stabilize supply by, for example, improving drought resistance. Their fate now hangs in the balance, scientists say.”

Yesterday’s article explained that, “Rising wealth has increased India’s appetite, even as agricultural productivity languishes. Food inflation is at 18 percent, due to supply bottlenecks and widespread drought. And the World Health Organization says 21 percent of Indians still don’t get enough to eat every day, with 46 percent of children underweight.

“Despite its high-tech image, India remains a nation of small, mostly poor farmers, many of whom are skeptical of the promises of industrialization. At least 45 percent of the population relies on agriculture for their livelihood, and most have small, family run farms — a far cry from the U.S., where less than 2 percent of Americans farm for a living.

“The fate of these small farmers is at the center of the Bt brinjal debate.”

The article went on to provide this additional context: “Critics in India say America, where most soybeans and corn have some genetic modification, is not asking tough enough questions about GM food.

The debate also rages on in Europe, where the 27-member European Union has approved only one genetically modified crop, maize Monsanto 810. Illustrating the deep divide, despite the approval, six countries have imposed a moratorium on the corn crop: France, Germany, Luxembourg, Greece, Austria and Hungary. And even in countries like Italy, where no formal ban applies, no one chooses to plant the crop, cultivated most prevalently in Spain.

The transgenic landscape is remarkably different in the U.S.

“‘By the early ’90s we had a working (regulatory) framework in place that allowed developers to go to the agencies and say, ‘I’ve got this new product, here’s my data, do you approve it?’ said Bruce Chassy, a professor of food microbiology at the University of Illinois.

“That’s exactly what some Indians don’t want.”

And Reuters writer Rina Chandran reported today that, “A genetically modified version of eggplant, a staple in fiery curries, was slated to be the first GM food introduced into India in a bid to stabilize food prices and mitigate some of the effects of climate change on Indian food crop yields.

Yet, Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh blocked the release of the vegetable until further notice following an outcry by environmentalists and some farmers. The opposition to GM foods was so heated that some protesters burned effigies.”

The Reuters article stated that, “‘This is bad for the country’s agricultural and biotechnology future. Our scientists have lost their credibility, companies will be unwilling to invest more money, and it will take us a long time to pick up the pieces again,’ said C. Kameshwar Rao, an official at the Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness & Education, a GM advocacy institute.

“‘Scientists can’t win a shouting match with politicians.’

“India’s farm sector has changed very little since the advent of the Green Revolution with crop yields failing to keep up with soaring population growth and rising incomes.”

Today’s article indicated that, “Even though the GM seeds for the vegetable would likely cost three times the price and farmers would need to purchase seeds for every sowing rather than reusing crop seeds, proponents say the extra expenses would be compensated by lower pesticide costs and less devastating crop loses.

Expanding India’s food supply is crucial in a country of one billion people, with predictions the population might reach 1.4 billion by 2025.

The United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization has said food production will need to double by mid-century to meet demand from a growing world population, prompting calls for a second Green Revolution.”

Dairy Issue

Lauren Etter reported in today’s Wall Street Journal that, “From a strip mall in this town of 7,200 [Wauseon, Ohio], Willy van Bakel built a multimillion-dollar business bringing fellow Dutch dairy farmers to America. They’re ‘dreamers’ like himself, he says.

“Mr. van Bakel’s company, Vreba-Hoff Dairy Development, signed up 70 Dutch immigrants over the past decade for a package deal designed to help them start dairy farms here. Typically, Mr. van Bakel helped clients sell their farms in the Netherlands and used the proceeds as seed money to finance bigger dairies with more cows in America.”

The Journal article indicated that, “Today, the dream has soured. About a dozen of his clients have filed for bankruptcy protection or are being foreclosed on by banks. Sixteen farms sit idle because construction was halted for lack of financing. Mr. van Bakel says his lender reneged on an agreement to provide funding. Some of these farmers have been waiting for five years or more and still have no farm, despite having given Mr. van Bakel millions of dollars from the sale of their old farms.

“Now Mr. van Bakel faces lawsuits from farmers, lenders and suppliers alleging, variously, that he owes them money and that he misused their funds. Some farmers accuse Mr. van Bakel of overcharging them for the dairies and cutting corners on construction.”

Aquaculture

Kimberly Kindy reported in today’s Washington Post that, “The whiskered, bottom-feeding catfish is one of the lowliest creatures on Earth. But for months, catfish have been at the center of an intense Washington lobbying effort pitting domestic producers against importers.

At issue is how catfish will be regulated and whether Vietnamese imports pose a health risk to American consumers. U.S. catfish producers used a multimillion-dollar lobbying effort to persuade Congress in 2008 to tighten regulation of the single species of fish, a program expected to incur $5 million to $16 million in start-up costs with its launch next year.

“The battle has sparked threats of a trade war from Vietnam, which wants its fish excluded from the regulations. The Vietnamese ambassador to the United States, Le Cong Phung, has called Congress hypocritical for changing the rules on catfish to give an advantage to domestic producers.”

Ms. Kindy pointed out that, “Under the farm bill passed in 2008, catfish inspections are moving to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has spent 18 months crafting regulations. The rules, which are still secret, might be approved by the Office of Management and Budget as early as Tuesday. All other fish remain under the purview of the Food and Drug Administration.

“Domestic catfish producers argue that tougher regulation — which would increase onsite inspections and testing — would force foreign producers to adhere to safety standards more in line with those that domestic producers must follow.”

Today’s article noted that, “The catfish wars have been brewing since 2002, when Congress passed a farm bill barring Vietnamese fish farmers from labeling their fish as catfish. The Vietnamese fish is from the genus Pangasius; the law mandated that only fish in the Ictaluridae family, which is produced in the United States and is commonly called channel catfish, could bear the catfish label. The two fish have a similar taste.”

“By 2008, when another farm bill made its way through Congress, Americans were eating slightly less domestically produced catfish than they had in 2002. But consumption of Pangasius — which is typically called basa at fish markets — had skyrocketed. Price was a factor. Wholesale, basa sells for $1.75 to $2 per pound, while channel catfish goes for a dollar more.

“Domestic trade groups tried a new tactic. They argued that a more rigorous catfish inspection program was needed to improve foreign farming practices, especially in Vietnam. Though they had fought in 2002 to bar Pangasius from bearing the catfish label, by 2008 they did an about-face, calling it ‘imported catfish’ that should be included in the USDA program,” the article said.

Sec. Vilsack- USDA Issues

Krissah Thompson authored a “Q and A” report in today’s Washington Post with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

In part, the Post item indicated that, “When Tom Vilsack became head of the Agriculture Department last year, he faced a backlog of 11,000 civil rights complaints and several unresolved class-action lawsuits from minority farmers and ranchers.

“The largest case, known as Pigford, remains open. It originally was settled in 1999 for $1 billion after 16,000 black farmers said they had been unfairly denied farm loans. Thousands of black farmers later complained that they were unaware of the suit, and in 2008 it was reopened. Some farmers have said the Obama administration is not moving fast enough, and on Monday they protested outside the USDA headquarters.

Vilsack said in an interview Friday that he is close to a resolution and is working hard to transform the department’s handling of civil rights.”

Biofuels

An update posted yesterday at the “Green House” section of USAToday Online stated that, “As companies push to cash in on President Obama’s call for biofuels and clean coal technologies, two are touting a way to turn government and other paper waste into fuel, or ‘trashanol.’

“Yes, all those thousand-plus-page pieces of legislation can now be turned into a biofuel that the manufacturers say emits up to 90% less carbon dioxide than gasoline.

“On recent demonstration drives around Washington, Denmark’s Novozymes and Maryland-based Fiberight used their so-called trashanol to power a flex-fuel Chevy HHR and Ford F150.”

Yesterday’s update indicated that, “‘Enzyme technology is ready for market,’ Adam Monroe, president of Novozymes North America, said in a statement. His company received two Energy Department research grants, in 2002 and 2008, worth $14.5 million, to reduce the cost of enzymes and improve their efficiency in coverting cellulose to biofuels.

“His company has also received a $28.4 million tax credit to build an enzyme manufacturing plant in Blair, Neb., which it says will create 100 new green jobs.”

Meanwhile, a press release issued yesterday by the Renewable Fuels Association stated that, “The U.S. ethanol industry exported 5.64 million metric tons (mmt) of distillers grains worth nearly $1 billion in 2009, shattering the previous record set in 2008, according to data released last week by the Foreign Agriculture Service. Exports in 2009 were 24 percent above 2008 levels and more than five times higher than the amount of distillers grains exported just five years ago.

“Distillers grains are the livestock feed coproduct of ethanol production from grain. In a typical dry mill ethanol biorefinery, one-third of every bushel of corn entering the facility is returned to the market in the form of high protein, nutrient rich livestock feed. Only the starch portion of the corn kernel is converted to fuel, while the remaining protein, fat and other nutrients remain intact in the coproduct.”

Recall that last week The New York Times editorial board weighed in on the new EPA guidelines regarding biofuel classification, which included consideration for international indirect land use changes when figuring emissions calculations.

Two letters to the editor in response to the Times position on this issue were published in today’s paper.

National Corn Growers Association President Darrin Ihnen stated that, “While American corn farmers are pleased the Environmental Protection Agency recognizes that corn ethanol offers significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions compared with gasoline, we disagree strongly with its dependence on — and your support for — the theory of international indirect land use change.

“Upwardly trending corn yields disprove this theory. In 2009, for example, farmers grew enough corn to break 2007’s production record, and we did so harvesting nearly seven million fewer acres.”

And Renewable Fuels Association President Bob Dinneen noted that, “While praising the Environmental Protection Agency’s recent decision supporting the expansion of biofuels production, you continue to insist on a direct connection between America’s production of corn and land use impacts in sovereign countries elsewhere in the world.

“These so-called indirect land use impacts have questionable scientific validity. In fact, more than 100 scientists and Ph.D.’s have stated: ‘The ability to predict this alleged effect depends on using an economic model to predict worldwide carbon effects, and the outcomes are unusually sensitive to the assumptions made by the researchers conducting the model runs. In addition, this field of science is in its nascent stage, is controversial in much of the scientific community, and is only being enforced against biofuels.’”

Mr. Dinneen added that, “In a rush to continue denigrating American agriculture, you ignore land use and carbon impacts of oil production, the increasing efficiency of corn and ethanol production in the United States and the fact that logging, cattle ranching and other activities have a more destructive impact on tropical forests than anything else.”

Climate Issues

Ben Geman reported yesterday at The Hill’s Energy and Environment Blog that, “A top Obama administration scientist on Monday struck back at climate skeptics who claim that record snowstorms this winter have undercut evidence of global warming.

“‘It is important that people recognize that weather is not the same thing as climate,’ said Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“Lubchenco, speaking on NPR’s ‘Diane Rehm Show,’ said the planet is warming but that weather is variable. The snowy weather, Lubchenco said, ‘is not a contradiction and it is not really unexpected.’”

Meanwhile, Bloomberg writer Stuart Biggs reported yesterday that, “Phil Jones, the professor at the center of a scandal over hacked e-mails on climate change, said his data wasn’t well organized and the period since 1995 hasn’t seen statistically significant global warming, British Broadcasting Corp. reported.

“Jones, who stepped aside as head of the Climate Research Unit of the University of East Anglia in the U.K. pending an inquiry, said lack of organization contributed to his refusal to share data with climate-change skeptics, according to a transcript of his interview with the BBC.

“Jones also said scientists hadn’t yet settled the debate over whether global temperatures in medieval times were warmer than recently, the BBC said. Jones stood by the view that global warming was most likely predominantly man-made.”

California Water

Recall that a Greenwire article from last week reported that, “Sen. Dianne Feinstein has targeted the Senate jobs bill in a bid to guarantee more water for struggling farmers in California’s San Joaquin Valley regardless of restrictions imposed by the Endangered Species Act.

“Feinstein’s office yesterday announced plans to attach a rider to the jobs bill, calling it the ‘Emergency Temporary Water Supply’ amendment. It would seek to ensure that farmers and water districts get between 38 percent and 40 percent of their normal allocations. A final draft of the amendment is yet to be written, her office said.”

The editorial board at The San Francisco Chronicle offered a perspective on this development yesterday, noting in part that, “Sen. Dianne Feinstein should drop her end-run bid to ship delta water south for farming. Her plan defies court rulings, endangered-species protections and scientific studies.

“The water grab disrupts years of negotiations over balancing the state’s needs by rewarding one group – drought-stricken farmers – at the expense of fishing and environmental groups, also living with declining water supplies. Worse yet, Feinstein’s action short-circuits a study she ordered up by the National Academy of Sciences on river-flow rules designed to safeguard smelt and salmon.

“The senator was at pains to explain that her idea is only in draft form, suggesting that it may be a negotiating tactic.”

The Chronicle opinion item stated that, “She’s advanced a plausible argument, but any solution needs analysis and group agreement. Water deliveries to some farmers are 10 percent of past levels, and she’s proposing to boost these allotments to 30 to 40 percent.

Feinstein’s plan would greatly help the parched west side of the San Joaquin Valley, where farmers have idled hundreds of thousands of acres for lack of water.”

“California water policy needs a political champion willing to take on a complicated issue. That means adopting a balanced approach, not one that bails out one side at the expense of all others,” the opinion item said.

Keith Good

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