Washington Insider -- Monday

An Additional Challenge for Biotech Label Advocates

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

NMPF Raises Concerns with TTIP

Concerns with the regulatory barriers and geographical indicator provisions being discussed in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations were raised by The National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) at a Senate Finance Committee hearing on enforcement of past trade agreements.

“We don’t believe that TTIP is currently on the right track for a successful and truly market-opening conclusion when it comes to dairy,” NMPF CEO Jim Mulhern told the Senate Finance Committee during a March 3 hearing.

Technical and regulatory barriers being promoted by the European Union and its insistence on the use of GIs has NMPF concerned about the trajectory of TTIP talks and what an eventual TTIP agreement would mean for the US dairy industry.

“We’re frankly very concerned about the lack of progress in finding very specific solutions to address those issues in the TTIP negotiations to this point,” Mulhern said of the status of negotiations and NMPF’s concerns.

“[Free Trade Agreements] have created important new market access opportunities for [the American dairy sector] and we have worked very hard through our market development efforts to ensure that we are taking full advantage of them,” Mulhern noted.

NMPF said it will announce its official position on the recently completed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) this week. Ag industry groups have, for the most part, favored the TPP deal to date.


Budget Again Prompts Suspension of July Cattle Data

Publication of the July Cattle and the U.S. and Canadian Cattle reports, due to be released July 22 and Aug. 23, respectively, will be suspended, USDA’s National Ag Statistics Service (NASS) announced.

The Cattle report issued in July contains inventory numbers of all cattle and calves in the United States. The U.S. and Canadian Cattle report is a joint effort of Statistics Canada and NASS to report the number of cattle and calves by class and calf crop for both countries within one publication.

NASS published the January Cattle report on January 29, 2016, and will publish the U.S. and Canadian Cattle report, which uses data from the January Cattle report, on March 8, 2016.

“Before deciding to suspend these reports, we reviewed our estimating programs against mission- and user-based criteria as well as the amount of time remaining in the fiscal year to meet our budget and program requirements while maintaining the strongest data in service to U.S. agriculture,” the agency said. “The decision to suspend this report was not made lightly, but was necessary, given our available fiscal and program resources. We will continue to review our federal agricultural statistical programs using the same criteria to ensure we provide timely, accurate and useful statistics.”

The July report previously was suspended by USDA due to budget reasons, but the agency had restarted its publication. However, it’s clear that this is one of the first reports that NASS is ready to suspend in times of tighter budget conditions. It’s not clear whether there will be a push on Capitol Hill to boost resources for NASS to resume publication of the data as happened previously.


Washington Insider: An Additional Challenge for Biotech Label Advocates

In general, the Congressional debate on standardizing biotechnology labels has struggled to find substance. There is fairly wide agreement that genetically engineered crops do not constitute health hazards, although advocates say there are strong reasons to identify them. At the same time, individual state labels seem certain to mean confusion for the industry, without adding protections—and, likely would unfairly exempt local products, in many cases.

A somewhat unusual view emerged last week, as The Hill reported, in testimony by Margaret Zeigler, Director of the Global Harvest Initiative. Like others, she noted that if Congress does not act soon on a proposed national standard, a Vermont law will mean “a patchwork of labeling standards across the United States that will confuse rather than effectively inform consumers about the ingredients and nutritive value of their food.”

Her special contribution to the debate was to point out that the international community is recognizing that it has a large stake in “greater understanding of the benefits of biotechnology to meet world food needs while conserving natural resources.” She noted that that the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is working with a wide range of stakeholders on use of agricultural biotechnology to support agro-ecological approaches to sustainably increase productivity, especially for smallholder farmers.

She notes that FAO recently hosted some 500 participants including scientists, policymakers, civil society organizations and agriculture industry participants in discussions of ag problems and potential solutions. Foremost on the minds of the participants was creating sustainable food systems and improving nutrition in the face of climate change and a global population that will expand by 2.4 billion over the next 35 years.

Panelists shared how biotechnology and good agricultural practices are helping to conserve the environment while meeting the growing demand for food, feed, fiber and fuel, Zeigler said. She noted that a wide spectrum of current and emerging biotechnologies was discussed such as improved tissue culture in plants and new vaccine technologies in livestock. Use of molecular markers and genetic modification for crops are ways of boosting resilience to climate change, disease and drought, she said.

Biotechnologies are also used to fortify the nutritional content of staple crops like sorghum, making more Vitamin A, zinc and iron available in the food that 300 million resource-poor consumers eat every day across dryland zones of Africa, she reported. Other biotech benefits include improving the shelf life of agriculture products, thereby reducing food loss and waste, as well as harnessing natural microbes to reduce methane emissions from livestock.

Most promising is the fact that biotechnology has great potential to help smallholder farmers in developing countries produce more food per hectare, even in areas where drought, pests and floods have been continual challenges. Zeigler reported that tested technologies are available that can be customized for local agro-ecological conditions.

Zeigler sees the recent FAO symposium as the first step in a process that will continue in a number of countries and regions especially sees promise in the willingness of all participants to listen and to bridge the “trust gap” between all parts of the agriculture and food value chain — and across different methods of production. She suggests this will help realize the benefits of agricultural biotechnologies for farmers, consumers and our natural resource base.

It appears that Zeigler has added a rather new dimension to the biotech labels debate by suggesting that policymakers need to take care not to add confusion about highly productive new technologies that have the potential to help ag small holders, protect resources and improve food protections and nutrition for consumers. One aspect of the debate is that while labeling advocates tend to associate advanced technologies with large-scale farming, Zeigler’s note about the UN discussions can be seen as contesting that position.

Increasingly, the labeling debate appears to be driven by food advocates who see labels as a “precaution” against unidentified threats while sidestepping implications of consumer costs, nutritional benefits and better environmental protections. Zeigler appears to be arguing that the issue is much more complex than that and that there are other concerns regarding potential “market confusions” that ought to be considered.

Unfortunately, the debate now seems to be largely an exercise in political muscle-flexing and likely will be settled on that basis, if at all. Still, its outcome is important to producers, and should be watched carefully as it proceeds, Washington Insider believes.

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