Washington Insider -- Monday

Mon. Dec. 31 Washington Insider New GMO Labels Proposed

Trump, Xi Speak By Phone As US-China Trade Talks Continue

Optimism about a prospects for a trade deal between the U.S. and China was voiced by President Donald Trump after a phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The call came as the U.S. prepares to send a delegation to China in early January for face to face trade talks.

"Just had a long and very good call with President Xi of China," Trump posted on Twitter Dec. 29. "Deal is moving along very well. If made, it will be very comprehensive, covering all subjects, areas and points of dispute. Big progress being made!"

Following the call, Xi was quoted in Chinese state-media as saying he and Trump agreed to work towards "stable progress" as relations between the two nations remain at a "vital stage." During the upcoming trade discussions, Xi said he hopes "that the two teams will meet each other half way, work hard, and strive to reach an agreement that is mutually beneficial and beneficial to the world as soon as possible," the state-run Xinhua news agency reported.

Talks between the U.S. and China are at a critical point, with about two months remaining in the 90-day trade truce announced by Trump and Xi after their meeting at the G20 summit in late November. At the time, Trump agreed to hold off on increasing tariffs on around $200 billion in Chinese goods, while China said it would resume purchases of U.S. soybeans and temporarily lower retaliatory tariffs on U.S. automobiles.

Trump Still Mulling NAFTA Cancellation To Force USMCA Approval

The Trump administration continues to consider cancelling the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as a tactic to force Congress into approving its proposed successor, the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA).

"It could be that he withdraws [from NAFTA] before [USMCA ratification] even reaches Congress," said Marc Short, former White House director of legislative affairs. "I think there is a high probability of that, yes."

A formal withdrawal from NAFTA would create a hard deadline of six months for Congress to approve the USMCA or face the prospect of new tariffs on a sizeable chunk of the roughly $1.2 trillion worth of annual trade between the U.S., Canada and Mexico. "Congress will have a choice of the USMCA or pre-NAFTA, which worked very well," Trump said following a signing ceremony for USMCA earlier this month.

In private, U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Robert Lighthizer has reportedly signaled reservations about such a strategy. Publicly, Lighthizer's office is expressing confidence the new agreement will be approved. "We are very confident that Congress will approve USMCA," said Emily Davis, a spokesperson for the USTR, in a statement provided by the White House. "From the beginning, Ambassador Lighthizer has worked closely with Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate on the renegotiation of this agreement."

Mon. Dec. 31 Washington Insider New GMO Labels Proposed

Well, you may have thought that the trade war amid the government shutdown was the only game in town, but it seems the regulators never sleep. USDA released the final federal GMO labeling rule last week and it was immediately slammed as a disaster by EcoWatch, among others.

EcoWatch criticized “industry-friendly Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue” who asserted in a press statement that the new standard for foods produced using genetic engineering (GE or GMO) would boost "the transparency of our nation's food system" and ensure "clear information and labeling consistency for consumers about the ingredients in their food."

Groups such as the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, and even food giants like Nestlé, say it does nothing of the sort.

"It is obvious that this rule is intended to hide, not disclose, information about genetically modified foods," said IATP senior attorney Sharon Treat.

Among the concerns being raised is that the rule, published Friday in the Federal Register and with implementation set to begin in 2020, refers not to the widely recognized phrase "genetically-modified food" but rather "bioengineered (BE) food."

"USDA's prohibition of the well-established terms, GE and GMO, on food labels will confuse and mislead consumers," said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director at the Center for Food Safety.

To make the required disclosure, food producers have four options: text on the label; a friendly-looking symbol; an electronic or digital link that would take consumers to a website explaining the ingredients; or a text message sent to consumers' mobile phone or similar device. According to Food & Water Watch executive director Wenonah Hauter, the symbol suggests "to consumers the product is natural and sustainable, when genetically engineered foods are anything but."

The option for the use of electronic codes, meanwhile, discriminates against those without access to a smartphone, tablet, or reliable internet access, and while the companies would also need to provide a telephone number for a consumer to call, that is onerous, the groups say.

Moreover, says the NonGMO Project, many products that deserve a label won't have to get one: Highly processed ingredients, many products of new genetic engineering techniques such as CRISPR and TALEN, and many meat and dairy products will not require disclosure. Animal feed is not covered by this law; meat, eggs, and dairy from animals fed a GMO diet will not require a disclosure.

In light of such “loopholes,” Dana Perls, senior food and agriculture campaigner at Friends of the Earth U.S., summed up the new rules as "a disaster."

"No one should be surprised that the most anti-consumer, anti-transparency administration in modern times is denying Americans basic information about what's in their food and how it's grown," argued Scott Faber, senior vice president of government affairs for the Environmental Working Group.

"At a time when consumers are asking more and more questions about the use of genetic engineering," Faber continued, "today's rule will further undermine the technology by sowing greater confusion among Americans who simply want the right to know if their food is genetically modified -- the same right held by consumers in 64 other countries."

This probably is not the last word on this fight and the long-standing GMO labeling effort. Many food advocate groups have said that they really would like something more negative included, in spite of the fact that they also admit that their focus is not really about risk since there is little or no evidence that such risks exist.

Instead, they seem to be pushing to include “social goals” concerning things like “sustainability” or even unspecified “precautions” such as those used in Europe to dampen demand for GM technology, an approach the administration is unlikely to support.

The industry, by contrast, sees this skirmish as yet another war on agricultural and food technology, one that is damaging to low-income consumers among others and which is unjustified and should be constrained in its application in order to avoid severe negative impacts on the sector. This is a fight producers should watch closely as it continues, Washington Insider believes.

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