Washington Insider -- Wednesday

The National Research Council on GMOs

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

Senate Subcommittee Advances FY 2017 Ag Funding Bill

A Senate subcommittee Tuesday approved appropriations legislation cutting $250 million in discretionary funding for agriculture programs, sending it to the full panel.

The Senate Ag Appropriations Subcommittee approved on a voice vote $21.25 billion in discretionary funding for its Fiscal Year 2017 agriculture funding bill, a decline from the previous year. The bill funds USDA, the Food and Drug Administration and other programs. Lawmakers offered no amendments. The full committee will meet May 19 to mark up the legislation.

The bill includes $1.5 million that meets the Obama administration’s request to pay for USDA staffers in Cuba. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack has said the money would fund five people, a mix of staffers from USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). The APHIS staff would identify pests and issues that could affect US exports or potential Cuban imports.

Subcommittee Chairman Jerry Moran, R-Kan., said the Senate Agriculture Appropriations bill could go to the floor in June, but said that was his estimate. The full House Appropriations Committee approved its Agriculture spending bill (HR 5054) in April. It is unclear when it may go to the House floor.

Glyphosate Probably Not Carcinogenic: UN Agencies

The widely used herbicide glyphosate and two insecticides, diazinon and malathion, are unlikely to pose carcinogenic risk to human beings when exposed to the body in dietary form, according to a joint report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO).

The agencies issued their findings May 16 in a joint report following a week-long meeting in Geneva.

The determination that the chemicals are safe contradicts a 2015 report by WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) which classified glyphosate, diazinon and malathion as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

A "large number" of genotoxicity studies were conducted over the past five years to measure the chemicals' effects on living mammals, and results from these studies informed the conclusions of FAO and WHO. The joint report also looked several new studies that were not considered in the 2015 IARC report.

“In view of the absence of carcinogenic potential in rodents at human-relevant doses and the absence of genotoxicity by the oral route in mammals, and considering the epidemiological evidence from occupational exposures, the Meeting concluded that glyphosate is unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans from exposure through the diet,” the report said.

The report was released as the European Commission's committee that handles is scheduled to discuss re-licensing glyphosate in the EU.

Washington Insider: The National Research Council on GMOs

A relatively large study released Tuesday by the National Research Council found that genetically engineered (GE) crops caused no subtle or long-term effects on human health or the environment. As you might expect, the blogosphere is ablaze with comments about conspiracies and undue influence but the fact is that the well-respected group’s report creates a new hurdle for those who argue that there are as yet undiscovered threats from genetically modified organisms, (GMOs). Not true, the NRC says.

“Studies with animals and research on the chemical composition of GE foods currently on the market reveal no differences that would implicate a higher risk to human health and safety than from eating their non-GE counterparts,” NRC said. “Though long-term epidemiological studies have not directly addressed GE food consumption, available epidemiological data do not show associations between any disease or chronic conditions and the consumption of GE foods.”

Of course, this won’t end the fight, but NRC does carry some weight as the research arm of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

The report points to evidence suggesting crops genetically engineered to resist insects actually benefit human health by reducing insecticide exposure and poisonings.

Not everything about GMOs is rosy, NRC says and notes that growing immunity by both insects and weeds is a problem that needs attention, and it recommends that regulators focus on the product and not the process when issuing new rules.

Then, the NRC reverted to use of its political “ten foot pole” with the conclusion that it does not believe the mandatory labeling of foods that contain genetically engineered ingredients is justified to protect public health, but that such an issue “involves social and economic choices that go beyond technical assessments of health or environmental safety.”

“Ultimately, it involves value choices that technical assessments alone cannot answer,” NRC said.

Opponents of genetically modified organisms were generally left with a reduced stock of ammunition against GMOs, but were quick to criticize the study. Food & Water Watch claims biotech companies fund NRC and that one-sided panels of scientists conducted the study.

“Many groups have called on the NRC many times to reduce industry influence, noting how conflicts of interest clearly diminish its independence and scientific integrity,” the group’s Executive Director Wenonah Hauter said in a statement that included the well-worn criticism.

In this case, NRC fired back quickly with a strong statement saying that no money was used from biotech companies to conduct the study and that the scientists involved were carefully vetted for any financial conflicts of interest that would have impaired their objectivity or created an unfair competitive advantage for any person or organization.

Actually, the truth seems to be that GMO opponents ceded health issues in the label fight some time ago, arguing simply that information about GMO content is a consumer right that needs no health or safety justification.

In fact, perhaps the main issue in this fight is consumer cost as label rules lead producers to lower efficiency to avoid discriminatory labels. A number of companies are test-flying innocuous labels that hint at GMO use, but lack anything much like specifics -- but, some important companies are shifting back to low-tech production to avoid loss of control of their labels.

In the meantime, Senate ag committee members are continuing to tiptoe around the issue and likely will not take decisive action until solid information on food cost impacts is introduced by one side or the other. This probably means that “Vermont rules” are likely to come into play—introducing a considerable period of label chaos. So, this fight is still relevant in spite of the new study with significant implications for markets and products and it continues to be one producers should watch carefully as it proceeds, Washington Insider believes.

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