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Biotech; Policy Issues; Ag Economy; Biofuels; and, Political Notes

Biotech

Andrew Pollack reported on the front page of the Business section in today’s New York Times that, “Its first attempt to develop genetically engineered grass ended disastrously for the Scotts Miracle-Gro Company. The grass escaped into the wild from test plots in Oregon in 2003, dooming the chances that the government would approve the product for commercial use.

“Yet Scotts is once again developing genetically modified grass that would need less mowing, be a deeper green and be resistant to damage from the popular weedkiller Roundup. But this time the grass will not need federal approval before it can be field-tested and marketed.

Scotts and several other companies are developing genetically modified crops using techniques that either are outside the jurisdiction of the Agriculture Department or use new methods — like ‘genome editing’ — that were not envisioned when the regulations were created.

Mr. Pollack noted that, “The [Agriculture] department has said, for example, that it has no authority over a new herbicide-resistant canola, a corn that would create less pollution from livestock waste, switch grass tailored for biofuel production, and even an ornamental plant that glows in the dark.

The trend alarms critics of biotech crops, who say genetic modification can have unintended effects, regardless of the process.”

Today’s article pointed out that, “Even some people who say the crops are safe and the regulations overly burdensome have expressed concern that because some crops can be left unregulated, the whole oversight process is confusing and illogical, in some cases doing more harm than good.

“In November’s Nature Biotechnology, plant researchers at the University of California, Davis, wrote that the regulatory framework had become ‘obsolete and an obstacle to the development of new agricultural products.’

“But companies using the new techniques say that if the methods were not labeled genetic engineering, novel crops could be marketed or grown in Europe and other countries that do not readily accept genetically modified crops.”

The Times article indicated that, “Some researchers argue that using genome editing to inactivate a gene in a plant, or to make a tiny change in an existing gene, results in a crop no different from what could be obtained through natural mutations and conventional breeding, though it is achieved more quickly.

“‘Those are basically comparable to what you get from conventional breeding,’ said Neal Gutterson, vice president for agricultural biotechnology at DuPont Pioneer, a seed company. ‘We certainly hope that the regulatory agencies recognize that and treat the products accordingly.’”

 

Policy Issues

Christopher Doering reported on the front page of the Business section in yesterday’s Des Moines Register that, “Beginning in 2016, product labels for raw meat and poultry will have to more clearly include information on added solutions such as saltwater, the federal government said Wednesday.

“The labels will have to spell out, using specific words, colors, letter sizes and type styles, the percentage of an added solution and individual ingredients, the Agriculture Department said.

“‘Under current regulations, some product labels are misleading because they do not clearly and conspicuously identify to consumers that the raw meat or 11 poultry products contain added solution,’ USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service said in a document published Wednesday in the Federal Register, the government’s daily diary.”

The Register article noted that, “A 2012 survey by the USDA estimated that approximately 60 percent of all raw meat and poultry products sold contain added solutions.”

Lydia Wheeler reported earlier this week at The Hill Online that, “Following the release of a final labeling rule for added solutions in raw meat and poultry products, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) is urging the Obama administration to turn their attention to mechanically tenderized meat.

“DeLauro has been calling on the Department of Agriculture to finalize a rule, which will require meat packers to label beef that is mechanically tenderized, before the end of the year. Mechanically tenderized meat carries a higher risk of being contaminated with bacteria that causes food poisoning.

“‘These products are not currently adequately labeled so consumers do not know that they are different, present different risks, and require different preparation than whole cuts of beef,’ DeLauro said in a news release.”

The Hill article, which was posted on Wednesday, added that, “If the rule is not finalized by the end of the day today, food safety advocates say it won’t be implemented until January 2018 due to Food Safety and Inspection Service uniform compliance date requirements for labeling meat and poultry products.”

And in a separate article Wednesday at The Hill Online, Lydia Wheeler reported that, “The North American Meat Institute (NAMI) called the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s decision to remove lean meat from its description of a healthy dietary pattern ‘stunning.’

“‘The change was made behind closed doors during a lunch break at the final December 15 meeting,’ NAMI President and CEO Barry Carpenter said in a news release. ‘Actions made in haste behind closed doors are not rooted in science and do not make good public policy.’”

The Hill article noted that, “But NAMI said the committee disregarded earlier evidence from control trials, which showed strong and consistent evidence that red and processed meat consumption is part of healthy dietary patterns…[T]he group is urging the committee to reconsider and add lean meats back into the description of a healthy dietary pattern.”

And with respect to potential regulatory changes, an item on Wednesday at The Hill Online reported that, “Livestock: The Department of Agriculture is considering a rule that would change how animals move to auction barns and buying station across state lines and abroad.

In an effort to try and better track diseases that are disseminated by animals, all livestock marketing facilities will be required to keep records of disease and pests, as well as control and eradication efforts.”

In other policy news regarding animal agriculture, AP writer Scott Smith reported yesterday that, “The new year is expected to bring rising chicken egg prices across the U.S. as California starts requiring farmers to house hens in cages with enough space to move around and stretch their wings.

“The new standard backed by animal rights advocates has drawn ire nationwide because farmers in Iowa, Ohio and other states who sell eggs in California have to abide by the same requirements.

“To comply, farmers have to put fewer hens into each cage or invest in revamped henhouses, passing along the expense to consumers shopping at grocery stores. California is the nation’s largest consumer of eggs and imports about one-third of its supply.”

The AP article explained that, “California voters in 2008 approved the law backed by animal rights advocates to get egg-laying hens out of cramped cages and put them by Jan. 1, 2015, in larger enclosures that give them room to stretch, turn around and flap their wings.

“State legislators followed with the companion piece in 2010 requiring the out-of-state compliance.

“In anticipation, egg prices have risen already, said Dave Heylen of the California Grocers Association, adding that the holiday season, cold weather across the country and increased exports to Mexico and Canada also contributed to a year-end price spike. He said he expected that supplies would remain adequate to meet demand.”

Mr. Smith added that, “Ken Klippen of the National Association of Egg Farmers said California’s egg law, in addition to driving up the cost at the grocery store and putting pressure on egg supplies, will result in more injuries to chickens because housing them in larger pens means they are more likely to run, breaking a leg or wing.

“‘You’re not going to help the chicken,’ he said. ‘You’re not helping consumers.’”

In broader policy news, Rebecca Shabad reported yesterday at The Hill Online that, “The federal budget is almost certain to be the central battleground between President Obama and the new Republican Congress in 2015.”

Ms. Shabad indicated that, “The president is required under the law to submit his budget proposal to Congress by the first Monday of February, which in 2015 falls on the second day of the month.”

The Hill article also pointed out that, “Following in Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) footsteps as House Budget chairman, [Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), the next chairman of the House Budget Committee] is likely to unveil a budget resolution in the spring that would direct appropriators to rein in federal spending.

“It’s possible that Price and the budget chairman in the Senate, Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), will release a joint proposal to keep the two chambers on the same page.”

And Carol E. Lee reported on the front page of today’s Wall Street Journal that, “The White House plans to pivot from President Barack Obama ’s reliance on executive actions in the coming year and invest more in a legislative strategy aimed at trying to advance key policy goals with the new, Republican-controlled Congress, senior administration officials said.

“The new approach reflects a White House acknowledgment that Mr. Obama has already taken some of the most significant executive actions in his arsenal as well as the idea that several of his top priorities might actually be more easily achieved without Democrats in control of the Senate, senior administration officials said.”

Ms. Lee pointed out that, “Mr. Obama’s aim is to draw only a few red lines on issues where he feels strongly, such as efforts to roll back his immigration policies, climate-change initiatives and key provisions of the health-care law, to leave maximum room for negotiating.”

The Journal article explained that, “White House officials said Mr. Obama will still take some executive actions over the next year, particularly on issues like climate change, where he and Republicans on Capitol Hill remain at odds. But his primary emphasis will be on a narrow set of policies where he might find agreement with Republicans, namely trade pacts, an overhaul of the corporate tax code and funding infrastructure projects.

“The White House’s legislative strategy will quickly be put to the test after the new Congress convenes next Tuesday. Mr. Obama, who is on vacation in Hawaii until Sunday, is expected to meet with congressional leaders the week they return to Washington.”

Today’s article added that, “Another early indicator will be the president’s fiscal 2016 budget request, which is due in February. The budget request reflects the White House’s priorities and often sets the tone for the year. Last year, Mr. Obama abandoned any overtures toward working with Congress and instead put forth a budget document that Republicans declared dead on arrival.”

 

Agricultural Economy

Joseph Serna, Emily Foxhall and Carla Rivera reported on the front page of yesterday’s Los Angeles Times that, “An extreme cold front descended on Southern California in time for the New Year, bringing freezing temperatures and unusually low snow levels as well as powerful winds that left two people dead on Catalina Island, where boats in Avalon Harbor were pushed ashore.”

The article noted that, “California’s lucrative citrus crop has so far escaped damage, but growers were likely to employ heat and wind machines and other protective measures as temperatures were forecast to drop into the low and mid-20s in Fresno, Tulare and Kern counties Wednesday and Thursday nights, said Bob Blakely, vice president of the California Citrus Mutual.”

Also, NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center tweeted this week that, “Dec 30: Drought trimmed slightly in extreme northwest CA #CAdrought http://www.drought.gov #DroughtMonitor” (related graph).

In transportation news, USDA’s weekly Grain Transportation Report, which was released yesterday, noted in part that, “Service issues gradually improved during late November and December as congestion on the railroads began to decrease and the number of grain cars originated increased. U.S. Class I railroads originated 25,290 railcars of grain for the week ending December 20, the third consecutive week of grain carloadings above 24,000 railcars, which has not occurred since October 2010. The current backlog of grain cars is 8,354 past due on BNSF as of December 20 (14 average days late), 2,070 past due on Canadian Pacific as of December 21 (27 average days late), and 6,064 past due on Union Pacific as of December 21 (17 average days late).”

And in trade news, a recent article at The Japan Times Online reported that, “Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Barack Obama are expected to meet in 2015 and reaffirm the bonds between their two countries on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.

Tokyo and Washington are likely to hold a bilateral summit, where they will considering compiling a joint document that will outline the two countries’ intention to expand their alliance, senior Japanese and U.S. government officials said.

“The two sides are set to resume their work soon after New Year’s holidays to arrange Abe’s visit to the United States sometime in the first half of 2015 for talks with Obama. Abe’s U.S. visit for a meeting with the U.S. leader would be the first since February 2013.”

The article added that, “The timing of Abe’s U.S. visit will likely depend on when the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade negotiations between Japan, the United States and 10 other countries are concluded.

The significance of the visit would vary considerably depending on whether it will come before or after the conclusion of the TPP talks, a senior U.S. Department of State official said.

Assuming the TPP talks are concluded successfully, the Japanese and U.S. governments are examining an option of arranging Abe’s visit during Japan’s Golden Week holiday period between late April and early May.”

 

Biofuels

Angela Chen reported on Wednesday at The Wall Street Journal Online that, “Biofuel company Pacific Ethanol Inc. agreed to buy Aventine Renewable Energy Holdings Inc. for about $190 million in stock, a deal that would make the company the fifth-largest ethanol producer in the U.S.

“With the deal, which comes amid a sharp gas-price slump, Sacramento-based Pacific Ethanol, already the largest producer of low-carbon fuels in the western U.S., would expand its reach into the Midwestern and Eastern markets currently served by Illinois-based Aventine.”

 

Political Notes

Jonathan Easley reported earlier this week at The Hill Online that, “Rumors are swirling in North Dakota that Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D) might run for governor in 2016.

“‘Both sides of the aisle have been talking about this possibility for some time,’ said Chad Oban, the executive director of the Democratic Party in North Dakota. ‘I have no idea if she’s considering it, or if it’s just the state rumor mill.’”

Mr. Easley noted that, “In an email to The Hill, her spokeswoman Abigail McDonough said that Heitkamp right now is ‘focused on her work to fight for North Dakotans in the U.S. Senate.’”

“Heitkamp ran for governor in 2000 but lost to John Hoeven (R), who spent 10 years in the governor’s mansion and is now her colleague in the Senate. Hoeven is up for reelection in 2016, and his representative told The Hill he intends to run for reelection,” the Hill article said.

Keith Good