Washington Insider-- Thursday

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

TPP Update: US to Help Vietnam on Food Safety; Japan to Resume Action on TPP in July

Financial assistance to help Vietnam comply with a new USDA catfish inspection program and five other ag related areas will be provided by the U.S., according to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack.

The catfish program was finalized in Nov. 2015 and provides for USDA oversight of catfish exporters in Vietnam and elsewhere. The program entered into force during March and has an 18-month phase in period for exporters to come into compliance. Opponents of the program claim it is redundant as the Food and Drug Administration already checks catfish.

Also, $750,000 in funding would be provided by the U.S. to Vietnam to assist in paying for technical assistance in five additional areas in which Vietnam requested support.

The program is not meant to be a trade barrier, Vilsack said. “We don't see this as a barrier. We see this as an assurance of quality, which is frankly in the best interest of everyone,” he told reporters.

U.S. offers of assistance come as Vietnam prepares for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) accord to come into force. Both the U.S. and Vietnam are members of the TPP pact which would eliminate tariffs as high as 7.2% levied against Vietnamese seafood imported to the U.S.

Meanwhile, in Japan, legislation to implement TPP won’t be approved by Japan’s Diet before the current legislative session ends June 1, according to ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) members. The LDP hopes to resurrect implementation legislation at a special session of the Diet, to be convened sometime after the July 10 House of Councilors elections.

Debate in the Diet’s TPP Special Committee over implementing legislation hit a snag over a dispute by opposition lawmakers who want access to confidential TPP negotiation documents.

But the other major issue that has shifted the schedule is the series of earthquakes in southern Japan. That has prompted officials to opt to focus instead on disaster relief legislation ahead of the July elections.


Dannon Will Label for GMOs by Dec. 2017

Dannon Co. in the U.S. will start labeling products for the presence of GMO ingredients by December 2017 and will wean its farmers off GMO corn and other feed by the end of 2018.

For the July 1 labeling deadline in Vermont, Dannon will relabel products only for that state, according to a company spokesperson.

Dannon also will "evolve" all products from its three flagship brands – Dannon, Oikos and Danimals – toward the use of fewer ingredients that are all more natural and non-GMO starting this July. Dannon-owned companies Stonyfield Farm and HappyFamily already are GMO-free.

"As most of the cattle feed in the USA is genetically modified today, and since Dannon’s direct sourcing enables cooperation with farmers on experimenting and innovating in the upstream supply chain, Dannon is working with cow feed suppliers and its farmer partners to start planting non-GMO feed commodities as soon as possible to fulfill its needs," a company statement said. "Once those alternative solutions are implemented, the products from the three brand families will contain milk from cows entirely fed with non-GMO feed no later than the end of 2018."

The corporate statement acknowledges the promise of GMO technology, but adds, "In today’s world environment, some suggest that this global model – which brings apparent simplicity and short term efficiency – may become the source of a systemic risk for global food security, as not sufficiently taking into account long term farmers’ autonomy and natural biodiversity, with uncertain long term consequences on soil fertility and carbon, water usage, and fossil energy efficiency.

This comes as lawmakers in the U.S. Senate continue to discuss the issue of GMO labeling without any resolution reached yet to allow legislation to proceed.

Washington Insider: Another View on Consumers’ Take on Food Technology

One of the most puzzling aspects of the fight over GMO labels is the strong opposition from consumers, in spite of scientists’ conviction that the technology is fully as safe as conventional approaches.

This week, the Wall Street Journal carried a sophisticated opinion piece by Oklahoma State professor Jayson Lusk, who raises basic questions about the poll results widely cited to support the view that consumers oppose GMOs. The pollsters didn’t dig deeply enough, he says.

The poll results are deeply dubious, he says, since most consumers know so little about the issue. He cites his own survey results of large groups who supported what Lusk calls, “an absurd hypothetical policy mandating labels for foods containing DNA” —which was approved by some 80% of respondents. A follow-up survey asked about whether the statement “all vegetables contain DNA” was true or false. More than half, 52%, said “false.” The correct answer, of course, is “true.”

He goes further and reports that when consumers are questioned on how they want the issue of GMO labeling to be decided, they do not turn to politicians or their fellow citizens, but “a strong 61% majority preferred to put the matter to experts at the Food and Drug Administration.” He thinks this has been “borne out at the ballot box: To date, referendums on mandatory labeling have been held in five states, and none has passed,” Lusk says.

Even worse, Lusk says the debate overlooks “a deeper debate about the future of our food system” which really is heavily driven by “romantic traditionalism,” a desire for food that is purportedly more in line with nature. So, he points out how different today’s food is from that eaten even a few hundred years ago. At that time, carrots were purple before random mutations and selective breeding led to their signature color during the 16th century in the Netherlands which later claimed the new varieties were to honor King William of Orange.

Broccoli, kale, cauliflower and brussel sprouts all emerged from the same wild plant. Potatoes and tomatoes originated in the Americas and were never eaten in Europe and Asia until after the New World was discovered. Today we eat more and better than ever, precisely because we did not accept only what nature provided, in spite of what the foodies often claim.

Biotechnology has the potential for similar improvements, but only if we are willing to embrace them and not let critics block new innovations, Lusk argues. He points to golden rice, which is genetically engineered to provide vitamin A to malnourished children.

Lusk thinks that there are impressive examples of biotech progress that can be appreciated already. “If you’ve eaten cheese lately or taken insulin, thank a scientist. Cheese-making requires rennet, an enzyme that was once extracted from calf intestines but is now made by genetically modified bacteria or yeast. Insulin used to be drawn from cow pancreases but is now made in a lab by GMO microorganisms. Crops that resist insects and tolerate herbicides have created real benefits for farmers, which are passed along to consumers via lower prices, he says.

And, he argues that the “next generation of innovation” is just around the corner: apples that will not brown, potatoes that produce fewer carcinogens when fried, staple crops in the developing world fortified with micronutrients, field crops in the Midwest that require less nitrogen fertilizer. He concludes that “one day soon, when the fad against GMOs fades, retailers might be clamoring to add the tag: 'proudly produced with genetic engineering.'”

It is interesting to hear from a technology supporter willing to confront deeply ingrained public opinion. However, no matter how convinced he is that voters won’t support labels that discriminate against GMOs because they haven’t on some occasions in the past seems to be rapidly approaching a crucial test this summer – and the wind seems to be blowing in the foodies’ direction at the moment.

Whether the politicians in the Senate can see their way clear to prevent confusing rules that work against powerful food technologies remains to be seen, but it seems increasingly likely that the labeling issue will provide a serious test of the US commitment to the science necessary to provide abundant and affordable food for the growing global population. It is a fight that producers should watch closely as it proceeds, Washington Insider believes.

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