Washington Insider--Tuesday

Who Got There First?

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

House Panel Continues Work on National GM Labeling Proposal

The House Agriculture Biotechnology Subcommittee this week is scheduled to consider legislation introduced by Reps. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., and G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., that would expand the USDA's role in labeling genetically modified food. The measure currently has 65 co-sponsors, including 11 Democrats, and would prohibit labeling genetically modified ingredients if the Food and Drug Administration determines they are safe to eat.

The Pompeo-Butterfield measure faces competing legislation introduced by Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., that would mandate that food containing ingredients from biotech crops disclose that information to consumers. The DeFazio bill has 45 co-sponsors.

Both bills have emerged due to the widespread concern that a patchwork of state labeling schemes would be unworkable for farmers and the food industry and confusing for consumers. With as much as 90% of corn, sugar beet and soybean crops being genetically modified, and more than 70% of processed foods contain ingredients derived from biotechnology, labeling, should it become mandatory, would soon become ubiquitous on grocery story shelves.

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EPA Promotes Water Quality Trading to Help Reduce 'Dead Zone' in the Gulf of Mexico

States in the Mississippi River watershed should consider using "water quality trading" as an effective approach to help reduce the size of the oxygen-depleted "dead zone" caused by hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Hypoxia, or low oxygen levels in the water, is caused by rapid algae growth fueled by excessive nutrient discharges, mostly from agricultural sources but also from industrial and municipal facilities. These algae die and decompose, depleting oxygen levels and suffocating aquatic life and "dead zones." The U.S. Geological Survey has attributed a majority of the nutrient loading in the gulf to agriculture.

Both EPA and USDA have been promoting the use of water quality trading as a cost-effective approach to reducing hypoxia among the task force states and others as well. Water quality trading involves nutrient reduction credits generated by one source through various approaches such as technology or best management practices that can be sold to another source that may not be able to achieve reductions as efficiently.

When a similar system was proposed as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions –– called "cap-and-trade" –– by employing a market-based approach to control pollution, Congress shot down the idea, with many members calling the underlying provisions a "tax." Whether a similar water quality trading system can become popular with farmers and others in the Mississippi watershed –– or even make it through Congress –– remains to be seen.

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Washington Insider: Who Got There First?

There is a long-lived strain of national pride in claims about who invented, discovered, or popularized this invention or that one. As an example, look at the depth of feeling over who should be credited with the origins of manned flight.

This feeling sometimes leads to odd results, such as the Russian efforts to claim "firsts" for all manner of things. And, there are more than a few who think Henry Ford got his ideas for the assembly line from Cincinnati's hog butchers.

Now, the Washington Post is hammering Google with the gut clenching claim that it didn't even lead the self-driving vehicle revolution, that it in fact came from John Deere.

WaPo says Google gets lots of press for its bubble-shaped self-driving car, "though it's still years from the showroom floor." But for years John Deere has been selling tractors that practically drive themselves for use on American farms," it says. The Post cites Jason Poole, a 34-year-old crop consultant from Kansas who is able to "run his John Deere tractor until 2 a.m. thanks to technology that left most of the driving up to a computer. We kind of laugh when we see news stories about self-driving cars, because we've had that for years," Poole says.

WaPo admits that the self-driving technology being sold by Deere and some of its competitors is less technically complex than the fully driverless cars that big tech companies and car manufacturers are working on, and points out that tractors are still supposed to have a driver behind the wheel, even if they never touch it.

Still, the newspaper thinks the company started to transform farming in America and abroad: John Deere is selling auto-steering and other self-guidance tech in more than 100 countries, Cory Reed, vice president of the company's Intelligent Solutions Group told the Post. And, it notes that some farmers "aren't shy" about their enthusiasm for the technology and upload videos showing it off online. Still, the systems come with some new risks, including concerns that they could be hacked.

There is a difference, WaPo says. Farm-equipment operates almost exclusively on private land, so machinery companies have been able to bring products to market much quicker than consumer automakers, and without the same level of regulatory scrutiny. And, another reason that the future reached the farm first is pure necessity in the form of a labor crunch in rural America.

Similar forces are pushing self-driving tech into other industrial sectors at a pace that outstrips the consumer market. For example, self-driving semi-trucks are seen to be just around the corner, and already are being rolled out for mining and oil operations in remote parts of the world.

Deere isn't the only company selling this kind of technology, the Post admits; its main competitor, Case IH, markets similar systems as do several lesser-known companies and there is a fully autonomous tractor prototype that looks like "a golden boxy tank, but without a seat for a driver."

At the same time, WaPo sees a downside to this technology: its cost. Outfitting a new tractor with top-of-the-line auto-steering, navigation and guidance tech could cost upwards of $20,000. , In addition, there also are activation and subscriptions fees if producers want to use the company's satellite or radio signals.

Still, the Post argues that while there are numerous concerns about self-driving vehicles on public roads, tractor makers have shown that much of the technology needed is already here. "All of the things we're doing on the farm will find their way into the consumer market in the coming years," Reed said.

Of course, the approving report by WaPo is not the same as the scrutiny likely to be received from the foodies at the New York Times and various California media — who already think farming is factory-like in its threat to the social good. It may be that at some point in the future there could be calls to label products that were produced by farmers using self-driving equipment. After all, it's difficult to know where assertions of the public's "right to know" may end, Washington Insider believes.


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(GH/CZ)