Washington Insider-- Wednesday


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

Klobuchar Will Run Again for Senate

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., will run for reelection in 2018, ruling herself out for Minnesota’s next race for governor.

In an interview with the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Klobuchar acknowledged that many DFLers (Democratic-Farmer-Labor) asked her to run for governor instead of Senate reelection. But she said it is not the right time to walk away from Washington. She will run for a third term, rather than compete to replace Mark Dayton as governor in 2018. “I really looked at the moment in history and I feel like my job is there,” said Klobuchar, who was first elected in 2006. “The fact that I’ve been able to get through the gridlock many, many times means that you can’t just walk away when it’s an ugly time. It means you have a duty and obligation to keep doing your job. It may sound Pollyanna but it’s what I decided.”

In the next Congress, which starts January 3, Klobuchar secured the top Democratic spot on the Senate Rules Committee. That will give her a voice in changing Senate rules. She is the second-ranked Democrat on the Agriculture Committee and also serves on the Judiciary Committee, the first stop for Supreme Court nominees and the attorney general nominee.

EPA Extends Comment Period on REGS, Point of Obligation Proposals

EPA has announced it will extend the public comment periods for its Renewable Enhancement and Growth Support (REGS) proposed rule and its proposed denial to change the point of obligation under the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS).

The original 60-day comment period on the proposed REGS rulemaking was set to close January 17. According to EPA, it received a joint request for an extension on December 9. That request was filed by the American Soybean Association, Corn Refiners Association, Global Renewable Strategies and Consulting, LLC, Growth Energy, Iowa Biodiesel Board, Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, National Biodiesel Board, National Renderers Association, Renewable Fuels Association, and U.S. Canola Association.

Within the request, the petitioners asked for an extension in order to have more time to evaluate the implications of the REGS rule. The EPA said that in light of the large number of revisions proposed in the REGS rulemaking, it will extend the comment period for 30 days. The new deadline to file written comments is February 16.

EPA also issued a 30-day extension period of the comment period associated with its proposed denial of petitions seeking to change the RFS point of obligation. According to EPA, it received a request from the Small Retailers Coalition on December 13 asking for an extension to allow its members to provide thorough comments and data. In light of the importance of the point of obligation issue, the agency said it will extend the deadline to file written comments.

The comment period, which was originally scheduled to close January 23, will now be extended through February 22.

This now firmly puts both of the matters into the hands of the incoming Trump administration and may serve as one of the first tests or signals from the group on how they will approach biofuels policy.

Washington Insider: CRISPR Nears

As we look back over the 2016 year in food and agriculture, it is tempting to think that the food label war, at least, could be calming down, especially since Congress pre-empted states’ food label requirements. However, that would be mostly wrong, according to Food Dive which is now providing an extensive description of a new food technology called CRISPR. The technology has been around for a while but now is causing industry officials to rethink important aspects of their future.

CRISPR is a technique that allows scientists to edit plant and animal genomes with unprecedented precision, efficiency, and flexibility. Food Dive says the past few years have seen a flurry of “firsts” with CRISPR, from creating monkeys with targeted mutations to preventing HIV infection in human cells. Recently, Chinese scientists announced they applied the technique to nonviable human embryos, hinting at the technology’s potential to cure genetic disease. Much of this potential is still unclear and will be so for some time.

What is clear is that CRISPR is one of the fastest, most precise and impactful methods for genetic engineering ever seen, Food Dive says, and notes that the big name genetic firms like Monsanto and DuPont have been working hard this for more than a year and are already growing CRISPR-edited corn and wheat plants, among others, in field trials. They report that they have been using CRISPR on plants and animals to include mushrooms that don’t brown as quickly in the refrigerator, drought-tolerant corn and virus-resistant pigs.

The increasing number of publications on the CRISPR/Cas system, the rising number of patents and the additional funding allocated for CRISPR research are all signs that CRISPR will be a core piece of the machinery in the future of bioengineering, Food Dive says.

What’s more, the technology faces a far different regulatory world than do conventional GMOs. For example, USDA has already ruled that it will not regulate CRISPR based foods because the technology does not involve inserting new genes into organisms, as today’s recombinant DNA technology does, but rather snips pieces of an organism’s existing genes.

Manufacturers do not have to wait for CRISPR to “happen” to the food industry, either, Food Dive says, because it’s already here. Companies could begin producing and selling mushrooms that don’t brown, meat that is more tender and cabbage that is more flavorful before long. In fact, it’s happening in places like China, where technologies very similar to CRISPR have been in play in the food industry already, the group says.

However, there still is an ongoing regulatory discussion, Food Dive says, regarding whether CRISPR-edited foods are “non-GMO” as USDA says. Organic certification groups also do not certify foods that have been edited using CRISPR.

Still, the food industry “doesn’t have a good foundation from which to build,” Food Dive says. Existing GMO regulations are already sorely outdated. The definition of a genetically modified organism is under debate and scrutiny. The group argues that the food label debate is more likely to be engineered around protecting special interests than actually coming up with responsible ways to keep consumers informed while allowing the food industry to adopt new technologies.

Food Dive argues that “manufacturers have to first define the technology, then recognize that labels still matter.” This, it thinks, could be a huge opportunity for the food industry to embrace CRISPR as a fundamentally good thing focused on high priority consumer needs, but “it can’t be shrouded in mystery.”

Consumers today won’t stand for that. Support for the technology will be stymied just as quickly and fiercely as support for GMOs has been in the past if companies aren’t upfront about their use of CRISPR.

So, we will see. It is clear that the industry is nearing the capacity to produce numerous new products with highly desirable attributes more efficiently than can be done with available GMO technology, but that building demand for these will take marketing skill and considerable luck. CRISPR certainly could mean enormous changes for the industry including increased demand growth, but exactly how all this will unfold remains to be seen, and should be watched carefully by producers as it evolves, Washington Insider believes.

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