January 19, 2020

Tuesday Morning Update: Policy Issues; and the Ag Economy

Policy Issues

Lydia Wheeler and Tim Devaney reported yesterday at The Hill Online that, “The House Agriculture Committee will examine the costs and impacts of mandatory biotechnology labeling laws at a hearing Tuesday morning.

“Lawmakers are pushing for a federal law that would require manufacturers to label all genetically engineered foods and any food products that contain genetically engineered ingredients.

“The Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act, which Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) introduced in the House and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) introduced in the Senate, would direct the Food and Drug Administration to enforce the new rule.”

The Hill update noted that, “Some industry groups like the Snack Food Association say they support a federal mandate because complying with a patchwork of state laws would dramatically increase costs for manufacturers and consumers.

“‘The entire supply chain from sourcing to production to transportation would be negatively impacted,’ SNA CEO Thomas Dempsey said in an email to The Hill Monday afternoon.”

Yesterday’s update added that, “The Coalition for Safe Affordable Food has said that the bill would exacerbate the labeling conundrum by adding a federal mandate and penalties to an already existing patchwork of state laws and regulations.”

Also yesterday at The Hill Online, Lydia Wheeler reported that, “Consumer advocacy groups are asking Burger King, Wendy’s, Subway and Dunkin’ Donuts for commitments not to sell the genetically engineered apples and potatoes the Department of Agriculture approved for consumption last week.

“The groups — Friends of the Earth, Consumers Union, Center for Food Safety, Environmental Working Group, Food Democracy Now, Food & Water Watch, Green America, GMO Inside, Healthy Child Healthy World, Organic Consumers Association, Pesticide Action Network and CREDO — sent letters to the fast food chains on Friday.

“According to Friends of the Earth, McDonald’s and Gerber have said they have no plans to sell the genetically modified, or GMO, apples.”

Ms. Wheeler noted that, “The USDA said the genetically engineered apples, made by the Canada-based Okanagan Specialty Fruits Inc. and the potatoes from J.R. Simplot Co., based in Boise, Idaho, are as safe and nutritious as their conventional counterparts.”

Meanwhile, the Senate Ag Committee will hold a hearing this morning on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s ‘Waters of the Unites States’ (WOTUS) proposed rule. The House Ag Committee held a hearing on the same topic last Tuesday.

Also this morning, the House Appropriations Ag Subcommittee will hear USDA budget related testimony from Dr. Catherine E. Woteki, the Under Secretary for Research, Education and Economics.

This year, the House Appropriations Ag Subcommittee hearing has heard USDA budget testimony from Inspector General Phyllis Fong, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Chief Jason Weller, FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg, Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services, Kevin Concannon, Michael T. Scuse, Under Secretary for Farm and Foreign Agriculture Service, and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

The Senate Appropriations Ag Subcommittee has heard budget testimony from FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg and Secretary Vilsack.

In other news, Tennille Tracy reported yesterday at The Wall Street Journal Online that, “A white flaky fish that recently overtook cod and crab to become the sixth most popular seafood in the U.S. could soon disappear from American dinner plates.

Depending on whom you ask, the reason stems from either imported food safety concerns or a bureaucratic entanglement designed to protect the shrinking market share of American-produced catfish.

“The fish in question—pangasius—is produced in Southeast Asia, mostly in Vietnam, and often appears on restaurant menus as basa or swai.”

The Journal article noted that, “Seafood companies are bracing for a yearslong supply disruption as Vietnam works to meet the new USDA rules for export approval…[I]n 2008, Congress changed the food-safety laws so that the Agriculture Department would oversee catfish and pangasius, instead of the FDA. The driving force behind the change was Republican Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, one of the largest catfish-producing states in the U.S.

“Sen. Cochran’s office declined to comment.

That handoff doesn’t become official until the USDA issues a final rule over how it will proceed with its inspection of catfish and pangasius, a move that is expected in April. Generally the USDA requires a country to set up a regulatory system similar to the U.S., a standard that could take years to meet, seafood companies said. The FDA will continue to oversee all other seafood, such as shrimp and salmon.”


Agricultural Economy

Katie Micik reported yesterday at DTN that, “Crop farmers in the Midwest are no longer alone in their pessimism about the agriculture economy. Livestock producers and farmers in the south aren’t feeling good about their prospects either, according to the latest results of the DTN/The Progressive Farmer Agriculture Confidence Index.

“At 98.8, the pre-planting Agriculture Confidence Index is the most pessimistic since DTN began conducting the survey in April 2010, but it’s still fairly close to a neutral reading.”

Howard Blume reported in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times that, “Temperatures are expected to heat up toward the end of next week, signaling a dry, disappointing and foreboding end to the region’s rainy season as four years of low precipitation continue.”

The article indicated that, “The rainiest months in Southern California are December through March. Since Oct. 1, downtown L.A. has recorded 7.4 inches. About 12.8 inches would be considered normal. The total in March has been a paltry .87 inches.

“No relief is in sight, said Bill Patzert, a climatologist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“‘Let’s get right down to it: We’re done. By April, usually, rainfall drops off dramatically,’ Patzert said. Just as importantly, the state’s snowpack, a source of runoff that fills reservoirs, has continued to shrink.”

George Skelton stated in an opinion column in yesterday’s L.A. Times that, “Maybe, however, it’s time for state government to consider regulating crops based on their water needs as California’s drought lingers menacingly and we head into the uncertain future of global warming.

“After all, we think nothing of telling other landowners what they can put on their property.”

Mr. Skelton added that, “We don’t allow a new housing tract to sprout unless the developer can identify a source of water. We zone everything in urban areas — requiring government permission to build a house, a strip mall, a factory or a refinery.

“Yet, a farmer can plant whatever he pleases, even if surface water is flowing at a trickle and the aquifer is collapsing.”

Chuin-Wei Yap reported yesterday at The Wall Street Journal Online that, “A fight over a small maker of crop seeds in China last year sheds light on how Beijing plans to secure its food resources: by building an answer to Monsanto Co.

“The world’s second-largest economy needs a seed developer that can hold its own in the country’s $17 billion seed market against global agribusiness giants including DuPont Co. and Syngenta AG.”

The Journal article pointed out that, “Last year state-backed Hunan Xindaxin Co. launched an unsolicited $60 million bid for Origin Agritech Ltd., a Nasdaq-listed seed developer that controls the rights to China’s first genetically modified corn.

“Agritech eventually rejected the bid in November. But the Beijing company’s top executives believe Xindaxin is readying another attempt as China looks to find a national champion that can keep foreign giants at bay while significantly increasing the country’s spending on research and development.”

Reuters news reported yesterday that, “China will no longer chase bumper grain harvests and instead make safer foods a priority and boost imports as it bids to tackle its rural environmental problems, government officials said.

The shift in emphasis suggests authorities are willing to forgo their obsession with agricultural output growth. Achieving bumper harvests has long been considered a political necessity for the world’s most populous country, particularly after Mao’s 1958 ‘Great Leap Forward’ industrialisation campaign led to widespread famine.”

The article noted that, “‘In our current grains policy, one of the most important ideas is to speed up the transition in the way we boost grain output,’ said Han Jun, deputy director of the Office of Central Rural Work Leading Group, the country’s top decision maker on rural policy.

“‘In the past we were exhausting our resources and environment in pursuit of yield, and now we have to focus equally on quantity, quality and efficiency and particularly the quality of grain output growth, environmental protection and sustainable development,’ Han told the China Development Forum on Saturday.”

Meanwhile, Reuters writer Tom Polansek reported yesterday that, “The U.S. government is developing a vaccine to protect poultry from new strains of avian flu that have recently killed birds from Arkansas to Washington state.”

“Progress toward creating a vaccine has not previously been reported. The H5N8 and H5N2 flu strains have infected birds in eight states since December, prompting key overseas buyers to limit imports of U.S. poultry,” the article said.

Jacob Bunge reported late last week at The Wall Street Journal Online that, “Glyphosate, a herbicide widely marketed by Monsanto Co. and other companies, likely has the potential to cause cancer in humans, a World Health Organization agency said Friday.

“The determination, published by researchers for the International Agency for Research on Cancer in a U.K. medical journal, is likely to fuel further debate over the safety of the heavily used agricultural chemical, which Monsanto sells under the Roundup brand.”

Mr. Bunge noted that, “Glyphosate is the most-used herbicide in the U.S., according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Farmers have ramped up its use over the past two decades with the advent of genetically modified crops, including corn and soybeans, which can withstand sprayings of the chemical. Herbicide-tolerant biotech plants were grown on 94% of U.S. soybean fields and 89% of U.S. corn fields last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.”

The Journal article added that, “Monsanto, among the world’s largest sellers of glyphosate and the biggest seed maker by sales, contested the finding, saying that glyphosate is safe if used as recommended by its label and that decades of extensive study have proven its safety. The company said the research agency didn’t establish any link between glyphosate and an increase in cancer, and that IARC researchers disregarded dozens of scientific studies that showed glyphosate poses no human-health risk.

“‘This has been validated in over 160 countries for over 40 years,’ said Philip Miller, vice president of global regulatory affairs for Monsanto. ‘They’ve come to the conclusion time and time again that this is non-carcinogenic and safe for human health and the environment.’”

Keith Good

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