FarmPolicy

December 16, 2017

Interview with Rep. Adrian Smith (R-Neb.); Climate Issues; Biofuels; and Food Safety

Interview with Rep. Adrian Smith (R-Neb.)

On Friday, FarmPolicy.com had the opportunity to speak with Rep. Adrian Smith (R-Neb.). Rep. Smith serves on the House Agriculture Committee and our conversation focused on trade issues.

A transcript of our discussion from Friday is available here, while an audio replay can be heard here (MP3- about five minutes).

Climate Issues

An update posted on Friday at CQPolitics reported that, “Postponement of the Senate’s much-anticipated energy debate is raising new doubts about prospects for climate change legislation, and about the ability of this Congress to complete energy provisions that have much broader support.

“Capping weeks of speculation and closed-door negotiations, Majority Leader Harry Reid said he was scrapping plans to bring an energy and climate change package to the floor next week. He acknowledged that such a package would not attract even the minimal level of Republican support it would need.”

The CQ item explained that, “Instead, Reid said he will soon unveil a four-part bill addressing the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and relatively non-contentious energy initiatives, such as promotion of home energy-efficiency and vehicles powered by natural gas. The bill would also boost funding for the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, which helps pay for state and federal recreation programs.

“‘This is not the only energy legislation we’re going to do,’ he said. ‘This is what we can do now. We’re running out of time because of all the delays we’ve had on the Senate floor over the past year.’”

Evan Lehmann of ClimteWire reported on Friday at The New York Times Online that, “Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid abandoned efforts to reduce carbon emissions from the nation’s power plants yesterday, marking the first major legislative setback for President Obama, who entered office vowing to address climate change.

“Reid (D-Nev.) was cornered into the decision after a handful of Democrats and Republicans failed to be swayed by an 18-month effort in Congress to charge corporate polluters for releasing carbon dioxide. The move will likely leave a national climate bill passed by the House last summer lifeless.”

The majority leader will scramble instead to pass a modest measure with politically safe provisions addressing the BP PLC oil spill and energy efficiency in buildings and promoting the use of natural gas in big trucks, before the Senate adjourns for August recess,” the article said.

However, a Bloomberg news item from Friday stated that, “Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts said in an interview on Bloomberg Television’s ‘Political Capital with Al Hunt’ airing this weekend that Democrats still may take up a comprehensive climate-change plan after the November elections.”

Meanwhile, Elana Schor of ClimateWire reported on Friday at The New York Times Online that, “Over the past two years, cap-and-trade advocates used the threat of U.S. EPA climate regulations as a key driver in the push for climate legislation on Capitol Hill. Now, Democratic leaders face the challenge of renewed bipartisan interest in handcuffing EPA before it takes action.

“President Obama and many Democrats reveled six weeks ago in the successful defeat of a Senate bid to neuter EPA’s authority over emissions. But with the Senate climate bill dead, new momentum is building for legislation that would pre-empt the agency’s power under the Clean Air Act to regulate stationary pollution sources.

“‘The time has come to prevent the EPA from going forward next year with regulations on stationary sources,’ said Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), a co-sponsor of a bill forcing a two-year timeout on EPA emissions rules. ‘If Congress doesn’t act by this time next year, the EPA will.’”

And Darren Samuelsohn reported on Friday at Politico that, “President Barack Obama would veto legislation suspending the EPA’s plans to write new climate change rules, a White House official said Friday.

“Coal-state Democrats, led by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (W. Va.), Reps. Rick Boucher (Va.) and Nick Rahall (W. Va), are trying to limit the federal government’s ability to control greenhouse gases from power plants.”

The article noted that, “The coal-state proposals, which would block the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority for two years, would undercut what is widely seen as Obama’s alternative climate policy, now that Congress has punted on cap-and-trade legislation for the year. The Obama aide said the proposals won’t win the president’s signature if they managed to pass on Capitol Hill. Rockefeller’s bill is expected to reach the Senate floor at some point this year.

“In a press release on Friday, Rockefeller said he was ‘continuing to push hard’ for his legislation to suspend the EPA regulations ‘so that Congress, not federal regulators, can set national energy policy.’ The West Virginia Democrat also came out this summer against efforts to pass cap-and-trade legislation that would place mandatory limits on greenhouse gases.”

Biofuels

Philip Brasher reported on Saturday at The Des Moines Register Online that, “The sultry days of July in the nation’s capital haven’t been kind to Iowa’s biofuels industry.

The ethanol industry is fracturing and under attack inside and outside the Capitol. The industry’s 45-cent-a-gallon subsidy is due to end at the end of the year, but energy bills that could provide a means of extending the tax credit have been delayed, throwing the legislation’s future in doubt.

Mr. Brasher explained that, “Biodiesel producers, meanwhile, are wondering when they will get their subsidy back. The $1-a-gallon tax credit lapsed at the end of 2009.

“A renewal of the subsidy had been attached for months in Senate legislation to extend jobless benefits, but this week the Senate passed the unemployment provision on its own, leaving the biodiesel industry once more in limbo.”

The Register article noted that, “‘It’s going to be a very difficult climate,’ said Tom Buis, chief executive of the ethanol trade group Growth Energy.

“His group opened a division in the industry last week when it proposed to phase out the subsidy and use the money to retrofit service stations and convenience stores to sell higher blends of ethanol in their gasoline. The group hoped to include the plan in a broad energy bill that Democrats hoped to push through the Senate before the August recess.

“Other ethanol groups and the National Corn Growers Association opposed the plan, preferring instead to keep the subsidy. Senate leaders announced Thursday that they were scrapping, for now, a broad energy and climate bill and instead would consider a narrow bill addressing Gulf oil issues and increasing energy efficiency.

With the election approaching, ‘the odds are against’ any major energy bill passing, Buis said. In that case, the group favors extending the subsidy, he said.”

(FarmPolicy.com Note: Recall that at a Senate hearing last week on energy and rural development, Growth Energy Co-Chair General Wesley Clark made a similar remark about favoring the subsidy extension when he asked by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) about his perspective on ethanol tax credits in the absence of the Senate passing energy legislation, to listen to that exchange, click here. MP3- 2:09))

Mr. Brasher pointed out in the Register article that, “At 45 cents a gallon, the [ethanol] subsidy would cost about $6 billion next year at projected production levels.

“In the House, the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee is working on a plan to continue the subsidy for a year but cut it by 20 percent to 36 cents a gallon. Action on it also has been put off until September.

Another challenge for the ethanol industry: A 54-cent-a-gallon tariff on imported ethanol is set to expire this fall, and the Brazilian sugarcane ethanol industry is expressing optimism Congress will cut if not eliminate it.”

Meanwhile, The Washington Post editorial board indicated on Saturday that, “When Washington starts handing out cash, it can be hard to stop. See, for example, the decades of subsidies the government has showered on the corn ethanol industry. The fuel was supposed to free America from its dependence on foreign oil and produce fewer carbon emissions in the process. It’s doing some of the former and little of the latter. But corn ethanol certainly doesn’t need the level of taxpayer support it’s been getting. Lawmakers are considering whether to renew these expensive subsidies; they shouldn’t.”

Also this weekend, the editorial board at the Chicago Tribune stated that, “Congress finally is starting to recognize the high cost of filling up gas tanks with ethanol, the motor fuel made from corn. Billions of dollars in federal subsidies are on the chopping block.

“It’s about time. With the national debt soaring, the government needs to wean the biofuel industry from its dependence on federal subsidies. Biofuels have always sounded better during the Iowa caucuses than they have performed in reality.”

And today, The Wall Street Journal editorial board opined that, “The best refutation of the theory of the survival of the fittest is probably the corn ethanol lobby, whose annual $6 billion in federal subsidies have managed to outlive both its record of failure and all evidence and argument. So while we doubt another devastating study will result in any natural selection, recent findings from the Congressional Budget Office deserve more attention all the same.

“CBO reveals that it costs taxpayers $1.78 in ethanol ‘incentives’ to reduce U.S. gasoline consumption by one gallon—or nearly two-thirds of the current average retail gas price. CBO also estimates that cutting carbon emissions by one metric ton via ethanol runs to $754. To put that number in perspective, the budget gnomes estimate that the price for a ton of carbon under the cap-and-tax program that the House passed last summer would be about $26 in 2019.”

In other news, Andrew Pollack reported in today’s New York Times that, “Dozens of companies, as well as many academic laboratories, are pursuing the same goal — to produce algae as a source of, literally, green energy. And many of them are using genetic engineering or other biological techniques, like chemically induced mutations, to improve how algae functions.

“‘There are probably well over 100 academic efforts to use genetic engineering to optimize biofuel production from algae,’ said Matthew C. Posewitz, an assistant professor of chemistry at the Colorado School of Mines, who has written a review of the field. ‘There’s just intense interest globally.’”

The Times article added that, “Algae are attracting attention because the strains can potentially produce 10 or more times more fuel per acre than the corn used to make ethanol or the soybeans used to make biodiesel. Moreover, algae might be grown on arid land and brackish water, so that fuel production would not compete with food production. And algae are voracious consumers of carbon dioxide, potentially helping to keep some of this greenhouse gas from contributing to global warming.

“But efforts to genetically engineer algae, which usually means to splice in genes from other organisms, worry some experts because algae play a vital role in the environment. The single-celled photosynthetic organisms produce much of the oxygen on earth and are the base of the marine food chain.”

And Bloomberg writer Rudy Ruitenberg reported on Friday that, “Africa can grow biofuel crops on a ‘significant scale’ without damaging food production or natural habitats, researchers said.

“A study of biofuel production in Senegal, Mali, Tanzania, Kenya, Zambia and Mozambique found enough land is available to ‘significantly’ raise cultivation of sugar cane, sorghum and jatropha for energy production without reducing food output, the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa, or FARA, said in a statement today.”

The Bloomberg article pointed out that, “In less developed African countries, yields may be tripled by ‘improved management practices,’ potentially freeing up land for energy crops, the researchers said. Farmers in Nigeria produce about 1.8 metric tons of corn a hectare (2.47 acres), less than half the world average and under a fifth of U.S. yields, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Biofuel production may prompt investments ‘that could help unlock Africa’s latent potential and positively increase food production,’ Rocio Diaz-Chavez, a research fellow at Imperial College London who led the study, said in the statement.”

In other news regarding corn, Ross Boettcher and Joseph Morton reported in today’s Omaha World-Herald that, “The country is consuming less added sugars overall and turning up its nose at high fructose corn syrup in particular. Estimated per capita consumption of high fructose corn syrup hit its peak around 1999, when Americans ate and drank about 45 pounds of it per person, according to estimates by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s economic research service.

“Since then, the annual number has been falling, and dipped to a little less than 36 pounds per person in 2009.

“‘It does appear that we are turning away from added sugars altogether, and that’s especially true of the high fructose corn syrup,’ said Stephen Haley, an agricultural economist with the research service.”

Today’s article stated that, “The change in consumer sentiment has Omaha-based ConAgra Foods changing recipes and labels for some products and corn farmers in Nebraska and Iowa working to change what they say are misperceptions about corn syrup sweetener.

The debate has pitted ConAgra, fighting for consumer approval, against farmers, battling to keep the corn sweetener market strong for the long term.

“The rising anti-sweetener sentiment has been spurred by a slew of studies, articles and books that highlight the health concerns of too much sugar consumption, as well as what seems to be a never-ending list of foods that now contain the corn sweetener.”

The World-Herald writers pointed out that, “Other experts say the evidence is still mixed. They see little difference between the sweeteners, and simply urge moderation in the consumption of any added sweeteners.

Industry representatives complain that the corn-based sweetener is getting a bum rap and that it’s hurting corn growers and processors, who have started advertising campaigns aimed at changing public perceptions. The subject was on the minds of corn growers when representatives visited Washington earlier this month to talk to members of Congress.”

Food Safety

In an opinion column published this weekend in the New York Times, Eric Schlosser noted that, “Almost one year ago, the House of Representatives passed the Food Safety Enhancement Act with bipartisan support. A similar bill, the F.D.A. Food Safety Modernization Act, was unanimously approved by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in November. This legislation would grant the Food and Drug Administration, which has oversight over 80 percent of the nation’s food, the authority to test widely for dangerous pathogens and improve the agency’s ability to trace outbreaks back to their source. Most important, it would finally give the agency the power to order the recall of contaminated foods — and to punish companies that knowingly sell them.

“This bill is supported by an unusual set of advocacy groups: the American Public Health Association, Consumers Union, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the United States Chamber of Commerce and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, among others. Last week, a poll for Consumers Union found that 80 percent of Americans want Congress to empower the F.D.A. to recall tainted foods.

“You’d think that a bill with such broad support, on a public health issue of such fundamental importance, would easily reach the floor of the Senate for a vote. But it has been languishing, stuck in some legislative limbo. If it fails to gain passage by the end of this session, Congress will have to start from scratch again next year.”

Keith Good

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