Washington Insider-- Thursday

What About Globalization and Ag Technology?

Here's a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN's well-placed observer.

German Cabinet Approves Draft Law Banning GMO Crops

The German cabinet has approved a draft law banning cultivation of crops with genetically modified organisms (GMOs), government sources told Reuters.

Germany had announced in September 2015 that it will ban cultivation of crops with GMOs under new European Union (EU) rules allowing member states to opt out of their cultivation.

An EU law approved in 2015 cleared the way for new GMO crops to be approved after years of deadlock. But the law also gave individual countries the right to ban GMO crops even after they have been approved as safe by the European Commission.

Under the draft German law, applicants seeking EU approval to cultivate GMO crops will be asked by the German government to remove Germany from the area in the EU where the crops are approved for growing. If this is refused, a ban on growing the GMO crop in Germany can be imposed even if the EU approves the plant strain as safe to cultivate.

Difficulties Securing EU-Canada Trade Deal Did Not Kill TTIP: EU Officials

The U.S.-European Union (EU) Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) trade deal was not killed off in the process of securing the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem said October 30.

Malmstroem refuted claims that TTIP had to be sacrificed to secure ratification of CETA. "Not at all. We just had a TTIP negotiation round a couple of weeks ago," she told journalists while attending the EU-Canada Summit in Brussels. During the summit, EU and Canadian officials signed the CETA pact.

The regional parliament in Belgium's Wallonia region previously blocked CETA ratification but agreed to give up its opposition October 28 following frantic negotiations to salvage the deal. The leader of Wallonia, Paul Magnette, at that point said. "TTIP has clearly died" as a result of Wallonia's demands on the Canadian agreement.

While Malmstroem disputed that characterization, she conceded that TTIP will still take some time to complete. "There's no realism in concluding TTIP now. There's an election in the U.S. We need to wait to resume until we have a new administration in place. TTIP is advanced, but it's not a done deal," she said.

The European Commission (EC) is in charge of negotiating the trade deal and is ready for new rounds of TTIP negotiations during the lame-duck session of Congress until President Barack Obama leaves office in January. "I don't want to speculate in any more rounds. [beyond that] It depends on what the new administration will look like," Malmstroem said, adding she expects a five to six-month pause in negotiations once a new president takes office.

Washington Insider: What About Globalization and Ag Technology?

Depending on your political views, you may not be surprised that criticism of press reports is up sharply these days. For example, the political campaign against trade rests heavily on the assumption that trade costs jobs, although it seems increasingly clear that most job losses in manufacturing came from technology rather than trade. Thus the "preferred" remedies, isolation and protections, may not help solve the problem at all.

There was another such "revelation" this week when the New York Times took aim at GMOs on the grounds that their "promised" yield increases have not happened. For example, amid a lot of commentary, the Times cites a professor from New Zealand's University of Canterbury who compared trans-Atlantic yield trends. Western Europe, he said, "hasn't been penalized in any way for not making genetic engineering one of its biotechnology choices."

Agri-business leaders and some farmers in the United States and Europe found a lot to criticize about the article, including that it "cherry-picked" data. In addition, article might have noted that the technology was never intended to focus only on yields. It was promoted for a broad range of consumer benefits including, prominently, the capacity to make plants into pharmaceuticals. U.S. technology advocates also argue that the regional yield comparisons are too broad to be meaningful.

And, while the New York Times may not believe GMOs promise future benefits, others with a very great deal at stake apparently do and the NYT had reported that recently. It appears that Chinese producers are eager to gain access to GMO technology. "China has ambitions to be a major player in genetically modified food. One of its state-run companies is vying to acquire Syngenta, the Swiss agricultural company, for $43 billion, which would make it China's largest foreign purchase ever, the Times said.

China also is ramping up R&D spending to support a nascent homegrown industry. In a 2013 speech, Xi Jinping, the country's president, told his audience, "We can't let big foreign companies dominate our GMO crops market."

The report focuses on the fact that many Chinese officials see GMO science as a way to bolster production, but also highlights opposition from those who worry that genetically modified food might be "another Chinese food scandal in waiting."

These concerns are real, said William Niebur, chief executive of Origin Agritech, a Chinese genetically modified seed developer and a partner with DuPont. However, the report notes that China already grows and buys "plenty of genetically modified crops," but not for direct consumption. Chinese farmers grow genetically modified cotton, and meat and dairy companies buy genetically modified corn from abroad to feed pigs and cattle and GMO seeds are allowed for growing papayas.

In addition, unapproved GMO crops are likely being planted without government approval. Greenpeace said it found that domestic corn crops in northeastern China contained genetically modified material.

Unapproved GMO food can be found elsewhere in China's food supply, said Jiajun Dale Wen, an energy and environment researcher at Renmin University. For example, many papaya seeds planted in China's southern island of Hainan are not the kind approved by the government, while genetically modified rice can be found in some fields, she said.

Now, Chinese farmers have "little time to dream about the GMO future that the government has planned. In fact, it cites Chinese farmers as being "valuable to GMO proponents" who say that although they do not know much about genetically modified seeds, they are willing to learn.

Well, farmers have famously sharp pencils and in spite of the Times' skepticism, they have specific reasons for using GMO technologies and tend to defend their decisions vociferously when challenged.

While it is true that ag is somewhat off the main beats the Times covers, it is the world's largest industry and is in the midst of a complex, worldwide revolution involving machinery, genetics, information and management that deserves better press treatment than it receives. It has already reduced the impacts of food cultivation on the environment—for example, deep plowing is phasing out and cultivation has become less intense overall, replaced by better chemicals and better information. The ag tech revolution will be an essential element in the fight against global warming.

So, the anti-GMO movement now is increasingly pushing back against products that could help consumers, including Golden Rice that helps prevent blindness, among many others. Expectations for ag technology always included cautions regarding its use and regulation and these certainly remain. But it has become a valuable tool with many uses that has promise to become even more valuable in the future and one urbanites should notice more, Washington Insider believes.

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