Senators Elevate Biotech Talk

Bipartisan Group Calls on President Obama to Engage Xi on Biotech Approvals

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Biotech traits approved in the U.S. but not in export markets are a growing issue. (DTN/The Progressive Farmer file photo)

OMAHA (DTN) -- A bipartisan group of 42 senators wrote President Barack Obama on Thursday urging him to make biotechnology a priority when talking to Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is expected to arrive in Washington on Friday.

The letter went out as cabinet-level officials and business organizations from both countries got together for the first Strategic Agricultural Innovation Dialogue meeting to discuss some of the trade issues surrounding biotechnology and other topics.

John Gordley, who represents the American Soybean Association in Washington, said the SAID event on Thursday had a full agenda on a variety of trade and agricultural topics. One official in the Chinese Department of Agriculture called for the two countries to have a joint export working group on new technologies and biotechnology as well as a joint laboratory to look at seed technology. Chinese officials also brought up the idea of an exchange program for agricultural scientists and students.

Still, Gordley said there were no commitments on getting pending trait applications approved that could affect exports for different crops.

The 30 Republicans and 12 Democrats wrote a letter praising the Obama administration for efforts to increase dialogue with China on agriculture, but asked that the president prioritize biotech approvals with Xi during the official visit.

"Developing good public policy that promotes innovation and trade will better position our nations to meet critical food security, environmental and rural economic policy objectives, the senators wrote to the president.

Gordley noted Chinese officials on Thursday at the dialogue forum were surprised trade groups and senators would appeal to the president to take up these issues. "They were impressed this was such an important matter," Gordley said. "Whether or not that had any bearing on what the two presidents discuss or decide in their meeting remains to be seen, and probably won't be seen for a month or more."

Gordley said Chinese officials would not want to be seen as immediately responding to pressure from a U.S. industry.

The 42 senators on the letter were led by Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., and Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., both of whom sit on the Senate Agriculture Committee and Senate Finance Committee.

Getting such a bipartisan group to push on a trade agenda reflects both the level of frustration and growing importance the commodity industry faces with China as a customer. Biotech traits approved in the U.S. but not in export markets are a growing problem. The situation was a problem for Syngenta, which is now battling litigation from farmers. Industry groups have since tried to get the U.S. and China to create a better regulatory protocol.

Farm groups wrote the White House earlier this month asking the president to make biotechnology issues a priority for talks when President Obama sits down with Xi.

The senators in their letter expressed concern over the lack of momentum in talks with China. The senators noted the growing list of biotech traits waiting for Chinese approval. Delays in approval are "creating additional regulatory uncertainty, and undermining commitments made last year to bolster science-based agricultural innovation and trade," the senators wrote to the president.

As of now, there are seven biotech traits waiting final approval -- four for soybeans, two for corn and one for cotton -- and 26 other products that are in various stages of being analyzed by Chinese officials.

To "reinvigorate" last year's talks, the senators wrote that they want President Obama to "seek a commitment from President Xi to move forward with the queue of biotechnology products, including those awaiting final import approvals."

Additionally, the senators said the two presidents should reevaluate the value of agricultural dialogue, or in other words, make the SAID a priority.

China appears to be walking backward on biotechnology approvals. Earlier this year, China proposed adding socioeconomic factors as an issue to consider when choosing to approve a biotech trait. Another provision also eliminates any time constraints on the country's agricultural ministry before making final decisions. Those provisions were proposed in May when China notified the WTO about them.

China's biotechnology approval system has become slower and less predictable in recent years. China's agricultural ministry has specific time frames when companies can apply for import acceptance in the country, which can only occur after a company's product has been approved by at least one other country.

China's approval of biotech traits is particularly critical when it comes to soybeans. USDA expects China to import 79 million tons of soybeans in the 2015-16 crop year, of which roughly 30 million tons will come from the U.S. China accounts for roughly 63% of all U.S. soybean exports. Argentina and Brazil are the other two major suppliers.

As DTN also reported Thursday, China signed agreements with U.S. sellers to buy 13.1 million metric tons, or 484 million bushels, of U.S. soybeans worth $5.3 billion in a signing ceremony held in Des Moines. The agreement, made up of 24 individual contracts, amounts to the largest one-time soybean purchase in both value and price, according to the Iowa Soybean Association.

A link to the letter and the names of the senators who signed it can be found here: http://www.thune.senate.gov/…

Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com

Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN

(CZ/AG)

Chris Clayton