Washington Insider -- Friday

Tensions Over Big Business Links to Alarmism

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

Senate Confirms Lighthizer as US Trade Representative

Senate confirmation of Robert Lighthizer to be the next U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) came Thursday via a 82-14 vote.

The nomination had been held up for months on the question of a waiver for him to serve as USTR since he had represented a foreign government years ago in a trade matter against the U.S. The waiver was included in the omnibus Fiscal 2017 spending plan approved recently.

This marks the final cabinet-level office that was yet to be filled in the Trump administration and will now bring the administration's notification to Congress on the intent to renegotiate NAFTA with Canada and Mexico.

Mexico Explains Trade Deficit With U.S.

Mexico’s government filed an 11-page report to the U.S. Commerce Department trying to explain the U.S.-Mexico trade deficit, saying in large part it is because of the massive supply chains that have formed as a result of NAFTA.

"Mexico is the main supplier for many U.S. industries, and this supplier relationship naturally creates trade deficits," Mexico said in its comments. "Imports from Mexico enable U.S. manufacturers to remain competitive in global markets, enhancing their ability to export to other countries and to provide American consumers with high quality goods at more competitive prices."

A revival in U.S. manufacturing was also cited by the Mexican government’s in boosting its trade deficit — from $54.6 billion in 2013 to $63.2 billion in 2016. The development, Mexico said, fed demand for more intermediate goods to be used to make larger, finished products in the U.S. Some 75 percent of Mexican exports to the U.S. are inputs to the U.S. production process, the report detailed.

Mexico defended NAFTA's impact on jobs in the U.S., stating that U.S. manufacturing employment grew in the first seven years of NAFTA, but only started declining after China's entry into the WTO. "American manufacturing jobs depend on Mexican manufacturing jobs and vice versa, since workers on both sides of the border work together in the production of goods to successfully compete in global markets," the comments noted.

Washington Insider: Tensions Over Big Business Links to Alarmism

Julie Gunlock is policy director at the Independent Women's Forum and runs the organization's Culture of Alarmism Project. She wrote recently in the Investors’ Business Daily regarding Cargill’s decision to partner with the Non GMO Project and offers some pointed criticism. She thinks the Cargill decision “misinforms consumers about GMO safety” and masks the Project’s purpose of ridding the American marketplace of genetically modified crops.

The Non GMO Project runs a verification program which charges companies to test food products for the presence of GMOs and awards those companies a non-GMO verification label that can be placed on food packaging, Gunlock reports.

For its part, Cargill claims their decision came in response to demands from customers for GMO-free products. Gunlock says she doesn’t doubt Cargill’s rationalization, but complains that it could have provided this verification independently and without aligning with a “radical anti-GMO activist organization that tries to stoke public fear about GMOs.”

She argues that consumers should be aware of some key facts “that they won't find in Non GMO Project's materials,” and which she provides. Thousands of studies have confirmed the safety of GMOs and the world's leading health organizations — the American Medical Association, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the European Union, and the World Health Organization, to name only a few — have all declared that GMOs are safe for human and animal consumption.

If GMOs were really a significant threat to human health, we'd have seen evidence by now, she thinks. “Yet people and farm animals have been consuming GMOs since 1996 with no adverse impacts on their health; in fact, life expectancy has risen during that same time period,” Gunlock says.

The vast majority of food produced and consumed in the U.S. contains GMOs, she notes. For instance, 92% of corn, 94% of soybeans, 90% of canola and 95% of sugar beets are grown using GMO seed and GMOs are present in roughly 80% of processed foods.

Removing GMOs from store shelves won't do anything to improve public health, she argues, but it would have a negative effect on the average American's food budget. According to a 2010 Iowa State University study, removing GMOs from the marketplace would boost costs of key ingredients and cut average global yields for many crops. Removing GMOs from processed foods would also costs jobs as some food products would simply cease to exist and food companies would shrink, reducing staff and offering fewer products to the American consumer.

GMOs have also improved the lives of farmers in developing nations, Gunlock says. For instance, in India, with the introduction of Bt cotton in 2002, one group of female farmworkers saw their incomes rise sharply. Because farmers were able to plant more crops, employment rates across the board increased, she says.

GMOs have also helped reduce agrochemical use and, because of increased yields, have allowed for the preservation of land for uses other than farming.

Yet, despite all of this positive news, misinformation and fearmongering about GMOs persists. Activist groups like the Non GMO Project deserve much of the blame, she thinks.

And, there’s more; one reason GMOs continue to be vilified and is simply the unwillingness on the part of food companies, like Cargill, to help educate consumers about the GMO process. Food companies' willingness to place the Non GMO Project's verified label on their products is an important example of this complacency, she argues.

Cargill's main error was to focus solely on pleasing one customer, the subset of shoppers looking for non-GMO food products, while forgetting an important business partner — the farmers that choose to sell Cargill their GMO corn. These farmers understandably bristle at the idea of working with a company that sidles up to an organization demonizing their farms, she says.

Cargill's claim that it cares about its customers and wants to respond to their demands is noble, she says, but thinks Cargill also has a duty to their partners — in this case, the American farmer — to expose radical activist groups that actively work to misinform and frighten consumers about safe agriculture and food manufacturing processes.

One of Cargill's mottos is "helping farmers prosper." Cargill should remember this motto in their efforts to build coalitions, she argues. Partnering with an activist organization that seeks to destroy the biotech industry, harm farmers and limit consumer choices will do nothing to advance this worthwhile goal.

Well, it will be interesting to see how Cargill responds in the future to farm group complaints about its link with the non-GMO group. Certainly the foodie-driven war on GMOs will continue, and perhaps assume an even higher profile as USDA works to satisfy Congressional requirements for labels on foods containing GMOs.

So far, there seems to be little indication of a decline in efforts to stigmatize GMOs, but the new administration can be expected to be at least a little less sympathetic to anti-GMO efforts. Thus, the ongoing food label fight will be important for to producers to watch closely as USDA produces its recommendations and plans for implementation in the coming months, Washington Insider believes.

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