Washington Insider -Wednesday

Feeding Future Populations

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

US Trade Deal with South Korea Falling Short: VP Pence

The U.S. trade relationship with South Korea is “falling short,” with the free-trade deal between the countries under review, Vice President Mike Pence said today.

“We’ll pursue trade that is both free and fair,” Pence said during remarks at a U.S. business chamber gathering in Seoul. “And that’ll be true in all our trade relationships, including KORUS,” he said, a reference to the U.S.-South Korea deal. “We’re reviewing all our trade agreements across the world to ensure they benefit our economy as much as they benefit our trading partners,” Pence said. “We have to be honest about where our trade relationship is falling short. Most concerning is the fact that the U.S. trade deficit with South Korea has more than doubled since KORUS has come into effect.”

During Pence’s comments in Seoul (he is now in Japan), he called the trade gap with South Korea a "hard truth,” with "too many" barriers to entry for U.S. businesses. South Korea, the U.S.’s sixth-largest trading partner, avoided being tagged a currency manipulator by the U.S. Treasury, though it remains on a watch list of nations deemed at risk of engaging in unfair conduct. The U.S. has not named any country a manipulator since 1994.

"Our businesses continue to face too many barriers to entry, which tilts the playing field against American workers," Pence said at an event with about 100 U.S. and Korean business representatives, according to a pool report. He added the countries need to "level that playing field," saying "we will work with you" as we "reform KORUS in the days ahead." In a tweet, Pence added: "Most concerning is the fact that the [U.S.'s] trade deficit with South Korea has more than doubled since KORUS came into effect."

Pence also praised South Korea's level of foreign direct investment in the U.S. as well as the scale of U.S. services exports to the country, the pool report said.


Senate Democrats Up for Reelection in 2018 Building War Chests

Senate Democrats who may face the most challenging 2018 reelection contests are building major campaign bank accounts as they benefit from an outpouring generated by the party’s desire to challenge Trump.

The 10 Democrats expected to defend seats in states that Trump won in November collectively raised about $18.8 million during the first three months of the year, based on information from the campaigns and public records.

That is more than double the $8.3 million they netted in the same quarter six years earlier. The group’s total campaign bank balance is about $32 million, up from $17.4 million at this time in 2011.

Washington Insider: Feeding Future Populations

Digital Trends (DT) often carries far-out, technical stuff and is currently featuring a heavy theme. It focuses on “shoring up the current model of global food production” which can’t meet food needs without a radical “transformation,” DT says. However, it sees a range of “innovative new solutions” that farmers, scientists, and entrepreneurs are building to make sure that nobody goes hungry.

DT focuses initially on corn, which it says has a long history of genetic changes, and notes that “even as corn helped create civilizations, they helped create corn.” Compared to the wild plant some ten thousand years ago, modern corn is a “super mutant.” It reflects selective breeding although that is “painstakingly slow and imprecise.”

No longer. New gene editing tools like CRISPR/Cas9 let modern scientists hack into genomes, make precise incisions, and insert desired traits into both plants and animals. Changes that took years, decades, or even centuries, can now be made in a matter of months. This alarms some, DT says. Some consumer rights advocates fear the new tools will be used to maintain the status quo of an industry based primarily on corporate profit.

DT thinks there is no comparison to genetically modified organisms. Gene editing involves “intentional changes to DNA” to create an organism with specific traits. GMOs have genes from different species that achieve desired traits. “The difference may sound trivial but experts think it could help calm the concerns associated with GMOs.” DT says cites Rachel Haurwitz, co-founder of Caribou Biosciences, who argues that “We’re looking to use CRISPR…to achieve the same outcome as we can get from traditional breeding, just faster.”

In fact, DT says, CRISPR emerged straight from nature to become the most popular and powerful gene editing tool used today. In the late 1980s, scientists found that when certain bacteria come under attack from viruses, they use special enzymes to cut, copy, and save a bit of the viral DNA. Later, if the intruder returns, the bacteria can quickly recognize it and react to defend itself.

Then, researchers realized this system could be used to cut and edit the DNA of any organism, not just viruses. Not only is this technique far cheaper, faster, and more precise than conventional genetic modification, it avoids many (if not all) of the issues raised by skeptics, whose main concerns point toward the creation of “transgenic” organisms. CRISPR involves DNA of one species and uses a trait that already exists naturally--as is now commonly done to produce food products by genetic selection.

In 2015, a scientist at Penn State wrote to ask USDA if his work was regulated since it used CRISPR to knock out a gene in white button mushrooms. The group wanted to know whether its mushrooms could be sold legally.

USDA responded that “APHIS (USDA) does not consider CRISPR/Cas9-edited white button mushrooms…to be regulated,” it wrote in an open letter. Later, researchers at DuPont Pioneer published a study about a strain of corn engineered with CRISPR to be more resistant to drought.

As the global population grows and the food demand increases, farmers around the world also face challenges from changes in the climate that make caring for plants and livestock increasingly difficult. The article points out a number of cases where improved products were developed using the CRISPR technique.

Still, many food advocates worry that CRISPR will be used primarily for patenting foods in ways that fit in existing corporate profit models. DT says it sees many possible ways where that can be avoided.

One would be to edit the DNA of bulls from productive breeds to make them more temperature and disease tolerant in tropical climates, and then introduce them into native herds to reproduce and spread their productive genes. Alternatively, the DNA of indigenous bulls could be edited with genes likely to improve productivity. “Right now the trend in those countries is that there’s linear growth in livestock numbers,” a researcher pointed out. “That’s not sustainable.”

Researchers are also using CRISPR to save dying and endangered species. This month a research paper was published showing they could develop surrogate hens that could help raise endangered species of birds.

In addition, in Florida an invasive disease known as citrus greening is decimating the state’s important orange industry, Now, University of Florida scientists are using CRISPR to develop varieties of orange trees immune to the disease, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

For many scientists, the GMO discussion is over and they are even more insistent that CRISPR is safe, and believe that there’s really no big difference between [gene editing] and conventional breeding.

So, we will see. If the science can actually produce products consumers can’t live without, the debate likely will be over, although some foodies will still hate “factory farms.” Otherwise, consumers will test the products little by little, even as some keep the issue alive—possibly, even at more attractive prices. However, this is a development producers should watch closely as it proceeds, Washington Insider believes.

Want to keep up with events in Washington and elsewhere throughout the day? See DTN Top Stories, our frequently updated summary of news developments of interest to producers. You can find DTN Top Stories in DTN Ag News, which is on the Main Menu on classic DTN products and on the News and Analysis Menu of DTN’s Professional and Producer products. DTN Top Stories is also on the home page and news home page of online.dtn.com. Subscribers of MyDTN.com should check out the US Ag Policy, US Farm Bill and DTN Ag News sections on their News Homepage.

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