Washington Insider--Thursday

The Difficult March of Technology

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

Stabenow: Votes Will Be There For GMO Labeling Bill

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said the Senate probably won't vote on a GMO labeling bill this week, but "it will have the 60 votes" when it comes up likely after July 5. Stabenow is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture committee.

Senate Ag Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and ranking member Stabenow released their measure last week to create a mandatory, nationwide standard for labeling GMO foods. Stabenow must now convince Democrats who voted down a previous labeling bill in March that this version is the best possible outcome from the months of negotiations.

Meanwhile, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, said in a statement that he would put a hold on the bill. "The agreement announced by Sens. Pat Roberts and Debbie Stabenow would create a confusing, misleading and unenforceable national standard for labeling GMOs," Sanders said. "It would impose no penalties for violating the labeling requirement, making the law essentially meaningless."

Overcoming a hold could draw the legislative process well into July, Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said. Durbin voted against the March GMO labeling bill, but issued cautious optimism toward the new measure.

Congressional sources advise that the likely parliamentary procedure (a privileged motion) for the Senate GMO measure makes a perceived hold on the bill meaningless.

Countervailing Duties on Chinese Truck, Bus Tires Closer

Imports of Chinese truck and bus tires are closer to being subjected to U.S. countervailing duties after the Commerce Department preliminarily found the imports benefit from unfair government subsidies.

Commerce calculated preliminary subsidy rates of 17.06% for Double Coin Holdings Ltd. and 23.38% for Guizhou Tyre Co. All other Chinese producers and exporters received a preliminary subsidy rate of 20.22%.

Customs and Border Protection will now collect cash deposits on imports based on the preliminary rates. The investigation came at the request of the United Steelworkers union.

If Commerce makes a final determination the tire imports received unfair subsidies and the International Trade Commission finds they harm the U.S. industry, Commerce will issue a countervailing duty order. Commerce's final determination is expected on or around Nov. 10, and ITC's final determination is expected on or around Dec. 24.

Key would be if China were to "retaliate" and take trade actions against some other U.S. products in return.

Washington Insider: The Difficult March of Technology

In case you thought the fight over GMOs would end if a food label were approved, that probably won't happen. In fact, there is a new idea looming already and a new descriptor around that have the potential to re-energize many aspects of that fight.

Earlier this month, Bloomberg reported that a panel of experts assembled by the National Academy of Sciences had urged caution regarding "gene drives" and their use. This approach involves the addition of a genetic modification to an organism which is then passed to "all future generations, and eventually, to its entire species," Bloomberg said.

The panel urged caution and said "gene drives" should not be released into the environment without much more public engagement and very careful lab testing.

Apparently, there has been increasing talk of using the gene drive approach to rein in mosquitoes and other disease-carrying insects. However, Elizabeth Heitman, a medical ethicist at Vanderbilt University who co-chaired the panel, argued it "risks potentially irreversible ecological damage" and should be applied only with considerable caution.

"There have been huge breakthroughs in molecular biology, but we're so far out ahead of the ecological research," she emphasized.

For example, the environmental consequences could be severe if genetic material from a gene-drive organism inadvertently were transferred to another organism, the panelists found. Even if a gene drive works as intended, reversing its effects throughout an entire species may not be possible.

The panel agreed with the risk appraisal and recommended that any research on gene drives be done in a "phased" process, starting out in highly controlled lab settings and then possibly progressing to carefully monitored field trials.

The panelists also said given the potential implications of gene drives, the quality of the public outreach for these studies will be equally as important as the science itself. "Responsible science requires responsible scientists," Heitman said.

The panelists then went on to clarify that the currently planned use of genetically modified mosquitoes to combat the growing Zika virus outbreak and other mosquito-borne diseases, is a far different approach.

British company Oxitec Ltd. has received preliminary approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to conduct a field trial in the Florida Keys using male mosquitoes that have been sterilized through genetic modification. Since female mosquitos mate only once, the presence of sterile males is expected to reduce the insects' overall population.

While this male-sterile approach is controversial, it has been widely used in insect control operations and, as the National Academies panelists pointed out, does not involve "gene drives." There also has been talk of adding a gene drive trait to mosquitoes that would prevent them from producing any female offspring, according to Jason Delborne, a panelist and a professor at North Carolina State University. This could mean that mosquito populations could be reduced potentially to extinction levels, as this trait gets passed down from generation to generation.

But Delborne told Bloomberg that while the Oxitec mosquitoes are about to be used in field trials, gene drive mosquitoes are many years away from being ready to come out of a laboratory setting "and may never move past the theoretical stage."

To some extent, this discussion has a somewhat careless ring. It also harkens back to some of the discussions a couple of decades ago that suggested that all genetic modification techniques were just too powerful to ever allow to be approved.

Some people still believe that, but safe uses of many kinds have been found and others are in the works. Most of what the current labeling debate is about is not safety, but simply whether activists will be given the means to derail a technology that provides many beneficial attributes to a wide range of food products. The need to be sure that all of these are carefully monitored, managed and applied does not really challenge the basic idea.

Clearly, the "gene drive" approach for insects and animals, at least, seems to be on the far end of a risk spectrum that may in fact be too dangerous for almost all uses, but that really says nothing about most current GMO applications. The special NAS review seems to be a step in the right direction, and the new technology is clearly one that should be watched carefully by producers as this conversation continues, Washington Insider believes.

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