Washington Insider -- Wednesday

NYT Overview of GMO Safety

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

Trump, Mexican Official Trade Tweets On Border Measures

Mexico is rejecting the possibility raised by President Donald Trump that the U.S. could make border enforcement and immigration issues between the two countries a condition for a successful NAFTA 2.0 outcome.

"Mexico decides its immigration policy in a sovereign manner, and the migratory cooperation with the U.S. occurs through agreement with Mexico," Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray said on Twitter. "It would be unacceptable to condition the renegotiation of NAFTA to migratory actions outside of this framework of cooperation."

Earlier, Trump suggested via twitter that was a possibility. "Mexico, whose laws on immigration are very tough, must stop people from going through Mexico and into the US. We may make this a condition of the new NAFTA Agreement," Trump tweeted. "Our Country cannot accept what is happening! Also, we must get Wall funding fast.

Perdue Signals GMO Labeling Plan to Miss July Deadline

USDA is delayed in publishing the GMO disclosure rule as the agency continues to collect comments from other federal agencies interested in weighing in on the labeling proposal, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue said in Maryland last week.

USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) sent the proposed GMO labeling rule to the White House on December 26, but the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has exceeded the statutory 90-day review period, although USDA faces an aggressive timetable to finalize a rule by July 2018. Questions came in “one after another” on the GMO rule, Perdue said, and USDA tried to push OMB to release it so it could meet the July deadline.

“It looks like we’ll possibly be delayed a little bit past that. We’ll be out for public comment as soon as we take the interagency [comments],” he said. “This will help us put a rule out … as close to the final rule as possible. We’re not going to just throw something against the wall and hope it sticks. We’re trying to get this perfected internally and then allow the public to have their input into it.” He said the goal is to sync label changes with USDA and FDA, so companies don’t have to change labels twice. “I am absolutely confident we’ll be able to synchronize the labeling with FDA,” he said. FDA has delayed the compliance date for the new Nutrition Facts panel to Jan. 1, 2020 to give industry more time to update their labels and to harmonize with USDA’s GMO disclosure requirements.

Washington Insider: NYT Overview of GMO Safety

The New York Times this week is carrying an overview of GMO safety by science writer Jane Brody. Although the Times is often seen as representing the eastern center of foodie culture, it now says that while it is human nature to resist change and fear the unknown, and thus it is no surprise that genetic engineering of food and feed crops resulted in their resounding condemnation by many consumers. Some are even terrified of “eating an apple with an added anti-browning gene or a pink pineapple genetically enriched with the antioxidant lycopene.” She likens that as similar to her mistrust of “self-driving cars.”

Current food labels are confusing, the Times thinks, and many obscure “the small print” on many other foods stating “partially produced with genetic engineering,” a result of a 2016 federal law that mandated uniform labeling of all food products containing genetically engineered ingredients.

These are the result of public pressure and a confusing array of state rules, the Times says. But in spite of endorsing “the public’s right to know” and honest labeling of all products, in an important way, such labels are “very misleading.” NYT says.

Here’s why: farmers and agricultural scientists have been genetically engineering the foods we eat for centuries through breeding programs that result in large and largely uncontrolled exchanges of genetic material. What many consumers may not realize: For many decades, in addition to traditional crossbreeding, agricultural scientists have used radiation and chemicals to induce gene mutations in edible crops in attempts to achieve desired characteristics.

Modern genetic engineering is different. Only one or a few new genes with known functions are introduced into a crop, and sometimes the new genes come from an unrelated species. Thus, a gene meant to instill frost tolerance into, say, spinach, might come from a fish that lives in icy waters.

Then, it asserts the practical claim that “in the decades since the first genetically modified foods reached the market, no adverse health effects among consumers have been found.” This is not to say there are none, but as hard as opponents of the technology have looked, none has yet been definitely identified.

In addition, while about 90% of scientists believe GMOs are safe — a view endorsed by the American Medical Association, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the World Health Organization — only slightly more than a third of consumers share this belief.

It is not possible to prove a food is safe, the Times says. The fears of GMOs are still theoretical, like the possibility that insertion of one or a few genes could have a negative impact on other desirable genes naturally present in the crop.

Among commonly expressed concerns — again, none of which has been clearly demonstrated — are unwanted changes in nutritional content, the creation of allergens and toxic effects on bodily organs. According to an interview in Scientific American with Robert Goldberg, a plant molecular biologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, such fears have not yet been quelled despite “hundreds of millions of genetic experiments involving every type of organism on earth and people eating billions of meals without a problem.”

Meanwhile, a number of impressive benefits have been well established. For example, an analysis of 76 studies published in February in Scientific Reports by researchers in Pisa, Italy, found that genetically engineered corn has a significantly higher yield than non-genetically modified varieties and contains lower amounts of toxins commonly produced by fungi.

Both effects most likely stem from the genetically engineered resistance to a major insect pest, the western corn rootworm, which damages ears of corn and allows fungi to flourish. The researchers said that the change has had little or no effect on other insects.

Wider adoption of genetic engineering, especially in African and Asian countries that still spurn the technology, could greatly increase the food supply in areas where climate change will increasingly require that crops can grow in dry and salty soils and tolerate temperature extremes, as well as provide more benefits.

For example, Golden Rice, a crop genetically engineered to supply more vitamin A than spinach that could prevent irreversible blindness and more than a million deaths a year is still widely resisted.

As a result, gene modification scientists are focusing increasingly on building health benefits into widely used foods.

So, the Times concludes that consumers concerned about the growing use of GMOs might consider taking a more nuanced approach than blanket opposition. The Times, never reluctant to preach, urges that “rather than wholesale rejection, take some time to learn about how genetic engineering works and the benefits it can offer now and in the future as climate change takes an ever greater toll on food supplies; and, consider supporting efforts that result in safe products that represent improvements over the original and focusing opposition on those that are less desirable.

It seems unlikely that the Times, with its elitist views of food, will now have much effect on the longstanding label wars, nor is it likely to infuse a new standard of rationality that is mostly nonexistent. Still, the article is a positive sign in a fight that has had few such features in the past and should be watched closely by producers as it proceeds, Washington Insider believes.

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