Washington Insider- Tuesday

New Food Technology to Fight Over

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

Vilsack on Trump Immigration, Trade Policy, RFS Prospects

A policy split between incoming President Donald Trump and his pick for USDA Secretary may emerge, particularly on the issues of immigration and trade, current USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said in an interview with Bloomberg.

Vilsack said his successor at USDA may need to buck Trump on trade and immigration. Those issues on which the Republican candidate campaigned for more restrictive policies are too important for agricultural prosperity to ignore, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack argued. He added that less regulation and lower taxes, two areas farmer groups have welcomed as they look forward to a Trump administration, are less important.

The U.S. "can’t declare war on China and Mexico, our number-one and number-three partners, and not be for immigration, which provides us with our workforce," Vilsack said. "You can do away with the EPA tomorrow. You can do away with what you call the ‘death tax’ tomorrow. But if you don’t a have a market, and you don’t have a workforce, what difference will it make?"

Meanwhile, Vilsack said he believes the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) will survive a Donald Trump administration because ethanol is too well-established in rural areas to be dismantled.

"There’s going to be a lot of saber-rattling, but it supports too many jobs and too much rural infrastructure is set up for it," Vilsack said. "The Renewable Fuel Standard is solid,” he added.

President-elect Trump told the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association earlier in 2016 that the U.S. should increase ethanol mandates, but in September his campaign published a fact sheet calling for removal of the biofuel blending credit system. His campaign later reissued the fact sheet without the language opposing the system.

Vilsack said rural support for the rest of the RFS would be enough to withstand attacks on it from other quarters. "I think it will be very difficult for it to be repealed," he said.

US Hardwood Plywood Producers Initiate Antidumping Trade Dispute Against China

U.S. hardwood plywood producers have initiated an antidumping trade dispute against China, the first since Donald Trump’s victory.

The group is asking the government to impose punitive tariffs on imports they claim are threatening thousands of American jobs. The Coalition for Fair Trade of Hardwood Plywood has filed a petition with the U.S. Department of Commerce and the U.S. International Trade Commission asking the government “to stand with American workers and confront China’s unfair trade practices,” the group said in a statement.

The group alleges Chinese producers of hardwood plywood receive illegal government subsidies such as tax breaks and discounted materials which have enabled them to capture a growing share of the US market, according to the statement.

During the presidential campaign, Trump pledged to bring cases against China for “unfair subsidy behavior” and use “every lawful presidential power to remedy trade disputes,” including tariffs, even though this latest trade policy development had nothing to do with Trump.

Washington Insider: New Food Technology to Fight Over

Well, we have a lot of fights over food technologies underway now, but a somewhat different one is looming. The foodie culture has been extremely critical of all this, suggesting unspoken health threats which the science community says are largely imaginary.

More recently, a new criticism emerged from “food advocates” who are sure that genetic engineering hasn’t raised yields much and therefore is not worth the risk. This assumes, of course, that the millions of farmers who think the technology is worth its cost and rely on it heavily have somehow been duped for more than a decade.

Well, never mind—a new technology is arriving with brighter press credits than Monsanto and the New York Times seems thrilled. It reported recently that agricultural scientists have heroically overcome early skepticism to define a “bold approach to improve the food supply: they now can tinker with photosynthesis, the chemical reaction powering nearly all life on Earth.”

Also, perhaps the new idea has virtue because it was supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and now after several years of work funded by the foundation the scientists are reporting a remarkable result.

“Using genetic engineering techniques to alter photosynthesis, they increased the productivity of a test plant by as much as 20%, they said in a study published by the journal Science.” The Times called that a huge number.

The objective is not tobacco, of course, but that plant is a good stand-in to test for similar alterations in food crops. The scientists expect great things, although that may take time. In addition, the Times suggests that the political struggle over genetic engineering of the food supply could be diminished because the benefits could be so large—and that large gains in food production would be a game changer especially they help “alleviate poverty.” She cites Katherine Kahn, the officer at the Gates Foundation overseeing the grant for the Illinois research.

Of course, much more work is needed, according to Stephen Long, a crop scientist who works at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and at Lancaster University in England. He emphasized the long road that lay ahead before results “might reach farmers’ fields.”

Still, he thinks big. This genetic engineering could ultimately lead to what he called a “second Green Revolution” with huge gains in food production, like the original Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s.

Dr. Long thought crop yields might be improved by certain genetic changes, but encountered doubts by other scientists. Dr. Long and Krishna K. Niyogi from the University of California, Berkeley have gone a long way toward proving their point. A number other scientists are involved at the University of Illinois including Johannes Kromdijk of the Netherlands and Katarzyna Glowacka of Poland.

So, what they now have is a number of tiny plants incorporating the genetic changes sought. “We hope it translates into food crops in the way we’ve shown in tobacco,” Dr. Kromdijk said.

In the initial work, the researchers transferred genes from a common laboratory plant, known as thale cress or mouse-ear cress, into strains of tobacco. The effect was not to introduce alien substances, but rather to increase the level of certain proteins that already existed in tobacco.

When plants receive direct sunlight, they are often getting more energy than they can use, and they activate a mechanism that helps them shed it as heat, while slowing carbohydrate production. The genetic changes the researchers introduced help the plant turn that mechanism off faster once the excessive sunlight ends, so that the machinery of photosynthesis can get back more quickly to maximal production of carbohydrates.

The researchers simply accelerates the reactions, but with a surprisingly large impact. In test fields at the University of Illinois, they achieved double digit yield increases over normal tobacco plants grown for comparison.

The scientists also noted that, now that the principle has been established, it might be possible to find plant varieties with the desired traits and introduce the changes into crops by conventional breeding, rather than by genetic engineering. Dr. Long and his group agreed this might be possible.

Another thing; the genetic engineering approach may well be used in commercial seeds produced by Western agricultural companies. One of them, Syngenta, has already signed a deal to get a first look at the results. But the Gates Foundation is determined to see the technology make its way to African farmers at low cost.

The work is, in part, an effort to secure the food supply against the possible effects of future climate change. If rising global temperatures cut the production of food, human society could be destabilized, but more efficient crop plants could potentially make the food system more resilient, Dr. Long said. And, he noted, although we now have very low commodity prices, and people saying the world doesn’t need more food,” Dr. Long said. “But if we don’t do this now, we may not have it when we really need it.”

So, we have another technology of great promise, but dependent on political winds for broad acceptance. Producers should watch closely to see how this work proceeds, and how the inevitable opposition reacts as it emerges, Washington Insider believes.

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