Washington Insider--Friday

Nobel Laureates Push Greenpeace on Golden Rice

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

FDA Critical of GMO Bill in Comments to Lawmakers

Parts of the Senate legislation creating a nationwide labeling standard for genetically modified foods are "problematic" and could "raise confusion," the Food & Drug Administration said in comments to lawmakers.

FDA examined the draft GMO bill released June 23 by Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. The agency said the bill's definition of bioengineering is narrow and would leave out some foods made with genetic engineering.

FDA also said that USDA rules implementing the bill may compete with FDA's own required labels for space on small packages.

The legislation defines bio-engineered food as having "genetic material that has been modified through in-vitro recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) techniques." FDA said that definition would leave out some foods made with ingredients produced from GE crops, such oil from soy, certain starches and purified proteins because they no longer contain genetic material. Another part of the bill would limit its coverage to foods where genetic modification "could not otherwise be obtained through conventional breeding or found in nature." FDA said that language may further limit the scope of the bill. "It may be difficult to demonstrate that a particular modification could not be obtained through conventional breeding (or even that it could not occur in nature)," FDA said.

FDA made clear that the use of genetic engineering in foods has not presented safety concerns, and that the agency does not see a need for GMO disclosure on food packaging.

Still, it said the provision in the draft bill allowing companies to disclose GMO ingredients using a symbol or an internet link printed on the package, which consumers would need to look up to find more on the food's GMO content, would be "in tension" with FDA's statute and regulations, which require on-package disclosure. "To avoid potential conflicts, the drafters could make clear in this bill that it will not affect FDA's labeling requirements in the future," FDA said.

Some think this FDA view could give ammo to Senate opponents of the GMO labeling compromise measure which is expected to come up for a vote next week in the Senate.

Barriers for US Trade Highlighted in World Bank, ITA Reports

Potential trade barriers facing U.S. exports, including technical barriers and the ease of doing business in export markets, were discussed in reports from both the International Trade Administration (ITA) and another from the World Bank, released this week.

The ITA report analyzed the impact of technical regulations on U.S. exports. Based on notifications from the World Trade Organization Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) Committee, the report found that 91.7% of U.S. exports in 2015, $1.3 trillion, were potentially affected by foreign technical regulations put in place over the past 10 years.

"This report demonstrates the pervasiveness of technical regulations and their potential to affect U.S. exports," acting U.S. Undersecretary of Commerce for International Trade Ken Hyatt said in a statement following the report's release. "Regulations and testing and certification procedures that diverge from international standards -- especially in ways that are unnecessarily trade-restrictive -- can create challenges for U.S. exporters."

WTO members must notify their organization under the Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade before they issue a regulation that doesn't meet relevant international standards or for which there are no existing international standards.

Meanwhile, the World Bank Logistics Performance Index (LPI), release June 28, measured the difficulty of doing business within various countries.

The ease of doing business within a country was ranked based on six categories, including the timeliness of shipments, quality of trade and transport infrastructure and efficiency of clearance processes by border control agencies.

The U.S. ranked 10th this year in ease of doing business, following seven European countries, Singapore and Hong Kong. Germany claimed the top spot for the third time in a row, while the U.S. score has dropped each year since the first edition of the report in 2007.

The U.S. fared poorest on logistics metrics related to international shipments and customs, which the report said are the "ease of arranging competitively priced shipments" and the "efficiency of the clearance process (speed, simplicity and predictability of formalities) by border control agencies."

Ratification of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) would improve the rankings of countries in both assessments spokesmen for both the ITA and the World Bank agreed.

Washington Insider: Nobel Laureates Push Greenpeace on Golden Rice

It has long been surprising that environmental activists often oppose GMOs that have the potential for substantial environmental and human benefits, even including reduced pesticide use and reduced tillage.

Now, however, a group of "more than 100" Nobel laureates has written Greenpeace to urge an end to its opposition to "Golden Rice," which has the potential to reduce Vitamin-A deficiencies causing blindness and death in children in the developing world, supporters say.

The group is urging Greenpeace and its supporters to "re-examine the experience of farmers and consumers worldwide with crops and foods improved through biotechnology, recognize the findings of authoritative scientific bodies and regulatory agencies, and abandon their campaign against 'GMOs' in general and Golden Rice in particular," the letter states.

The campaign was organized by Richard Roberts, chief scientific officer of New England Biolabs and, with Phillip Sharp, the winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize in physiology for the discovery of genetic sequences known as introns.

"We're scientists," the group wrote. "We understand the logic of science." It's easy to see what Greenpeace is doing is damaging and is anti-science," Roberts told the Washington Post. "Greenpeace initially, and then some of their allies, deliberately went out of their way to scare people. It was a way for them to raise money for their cause."

Roberts said he endorses many other activities of Greenpeace, and that he hopes the group, after reading the letter, would "admit that this is an issue that they got wrong and focus on the stuff that they do well."

Greenpeace has not yet responded to requests for comment on the letter. It is only one of several groups that opposes GMOs, but it has a "robust global presence," the Post says.

The list of signatories had grown to 107 names by Wednesday morning, Roberts said and that, by his count, there are 296 living laureates.

Nobel laureate Randy Schekman, a cell biologist at the University of California at Berkeley, told the Post, "I find it surprising that groups that are very supportive of science when it comes to global climate change, or even, for the most part, in the appreciation of the value of vaccination in preventing human disease, yet can be so dismissive of the general views of scientists when it comes to something as important as the world's agricultural future."

The letter asserts that scientific and regulatory agencies around the world have repeatedly found crops and foods enhanced through biotechnology to be as safe as those derived from any other method of production, and that "there has never been a single confirmed case of a negative health outcome for humans or animals from their consumption." GMO crops have repeatedly been shown to be less damaging to the environment, and a boon to global biodiversity, it said.

The World Health Organization estimates that 250 million people suffer from vitamin A deficiency, including 40% of the children under five in the developing world. UNICEF data indicate that one to two million preventable deaths occur annually as a result of VAD, the leading cause of childhood blindness globally affecting 250,000 - 500,000 children each year. Half die within 12 months of losing their eyesight, the group says.

Opponents of GMOs have said these crops may not be safe for human or animal consumption and have not lived up to expectations. They argue that the technology "contaminates non-'GE' environments and future generations in an unforeseeable and uncontrollable way."

In its article on the letter, Post repeats the often-said statement that "virtually all crops and livestock have been genetically engineered in the broadest sense; there are no wild cows, and the cornfields of the United States reflect many centuries of plant modification through traditional breeding. Genetically modified crops started to become common in the mid-1990s; today, most of the corn, soybeans and cotton in the country have been modified to be resistant to insects or tolerant of herbicide," it says.

This debate between mainstream scientists and environmental activists isn't new, and there is little reason to suspect that the recent letter from the Nobel laureates will make a big difference. But Columbia University's Martin Chalfie, who shared the 2008 Nobel in chemistry for research on green fluorescent protein, said he thinks laureates can be influential on the GMO issue.

Chalfie notes that while the Nobel laureates may not be special, they often are more visible -- and "... it behooves us, that when we feel that science is not being listened to, that we speak out."

In fact, there is a need for scientists to reassert their relevance in this and similar debates which increasingly have become entirely political. Polls say nearly all consumers are skeptical of GMOs, for example, while almost all scientists say they are safe. Congressional efforts to create food labeling bills that would supercede state GMO label laws are being done, at least in part, to protect against consumers shunning foods once a GMO label is on them.

Recent food contamination outbreaks highlight the danger of concentrating on health food images, at the expense of well-established safety procedures, food safety experts say. So, the laureates' efforts in the GMO debate seem positive for their potential child health benefits, even though they are long overdue, Washington Insider believes.

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