Washington Insider -- Tuesday

The Global Energy Balance Network

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

McConnell Postpones Immigration Reform Until 2017

Republicans have been talking about the need to reform the country's immigration policies since at least the early days of President George W. Bush's first term. And the previous Senate actually managed to pass a bipartisan bill that would have taken a significant step toward an overhaul of what many consider a broken system. That measure died in the last Congress when the House declined to consider the Senate's proposal.

It is now clear that the subject will not be taken up until January 2017, at the earliest, judging by remarks delivered at a news conference last week by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. McConnell told reporters the Senate would not undertake immigration reform during the current Congress, and he echoed the sentiments of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who maintains that congressional Republicans do not trust that President Obama would carry out the provisions of any new immigration law.

However, there is a bright side to all this. By suspending discussions about immigration policy for the next 16 months, McConnell and Boehner have provided presidential candidates from both political parties a wonderful opportunity to spell out in detail what they would propose, assuming Congress at some point will feel comfortable taking up the issue.

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Legislation Will Require EPA to Evaluate Danger of Algae Blooms to Humans

The Senate last week passed legislation that would require the Environmental Protection Agency to take action to protect drinking water from harmful algae blooms. Specifically, the measure would require the agency to develop and submit a plan to Congress within 90 days of enactment to evaluate the toxin's risk to human health and to recommend feasible treatment options to mitigate any adverse public health effects.

The House approved the bill last February, and it has been sent to the White House for the president's signature.

The legislation was introduced in January in response to an August 2014 algae bloom that shut down the drinking water system in Toledo, Ohio, for three days, affecting more than 400,000 people. A similar large algae bloom is expected in Lake Erie this summer, likely resulting in the production of toxic compounds called cyanotoxins. The legislation would require EPA to publish a list of harmful cyanotoxins, summarize their known adverse health effects and issue health advisories for them.

The legislation does not give EPA any responsibility or authority to determine what is causing algae blooms or to take regulatory steps to prevent them. It does task EPA with recommending "feasible treatment options, including procedures, equipment, and source water protection practices, to mitigate any adverse public health effects of algal toxins" once they are detected. Whether resident in and around Toledo will find this solution to be adequate should become known if the algae bloom forecast for Lake Eire this summer becomes a reality.

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Washington Insider: The Global Energy Balance Network

Well, there is a new issue in the food business these days: Coca-Cola is providing financial and logistical support to a new nonprofit organization called the Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN), which promotes the argument that Americans are not paying enough attention to exercise.

A long article in Monday’s New York Times says that Coke has made a substantial investment in this new group and to projects supported by its founding members, Dr. Steven Blair, a professor at the University of South Carolina whose research over the past 25 years has formed much of the basis of federal guidelines on physical activity, and Gregory Hand, dean of the West Virginia University School of Public Health.

The group's president, James Hill, is a professor at the University of Colorado’s School of Medicine.

The Times article says that this is not a new effort for Coke which has donated money to build fitness centers in more than 100 schools across the country. It also sponsors a program called "Exercise is Medicine" to encourage doctors to prescribe physical activity to patients. “And when Chicago's City Council proposed a soda tax in 2012 to help address the city's obesity problem, Coca-Cola donated $3 million to establish fitness programs in more than 60 of the city's community centers.”

If this sounds like good news, the Times disagrees. It suggests that Coca-Cola is backing a new "science-based" solution to the obesity crisis that focuses less on cutting calories and more on exercise. The idea, the NYT says, is to promote views of “influential scientists who are advancing this message in medical journals, at conferences and through social media. The GEBN will provide financial and logistical support to promote the argument that weight-conscious Americans are overly fixated on how much they eat and drink while not paying enough attention to exercise.

The article quotes several experts who say the belief that physical activity can offset a bad diet ignores “evidence that exercise has only minimal impact on weight compared with what people consume.” And, it points out that this clash over the science of obesity “comes in a period of rising efforts to tax sugary drinks, remove them from schools and stop companies from marketing them to children.” Over the past decades, it says, consumption of full-calorie sodas by the average American has dropped by 25%.

Marion Nestle, the author of the book "Soda Politics" and a highly regarded professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, was especially blunt, the Times said: "The Global Energy Balance Network is nothing but a front group for Coca-Cola. Coca-Cola's agenda here is very clear: Get these researchers to confuse the science and deflect attention from dietary intake."

The group's president, Dr. Hill says that weight loss involves a combination of complex factors and that his group's goal was not to play down the role of diet or to portray obesity as solely a problem of inadequate exercise. "If we are out there saying it's all about physical activity and it's not about food, then we deserve criticism," he said. "But I think we haven't done that." The Times clearly disagrees and says so in its article.

“While people can lose weight in several ways, many studies suggest that those who keep it off for good consume fewer calories. Growing evidence also suggests that maintaining weight loss is easier when people limit their intake of high glycemic foods such as sugary drinks and other refined carbohydrates, which sharply raise blood sugar,” the article concludes.

So, the Coke initiative is being accused of attempting to add confusion to a problem that has more than enough confusion on its own. Certainly, support for exercise is a good thing, and one that deserves support. However, if the objective of the GEBN turns out to be to reduce emphasis on the role of diet in the obesity epidemic, the effort can expect to encounter very substantial opposition — as the Times suggests.

Clearly, this is an important issue, and one producers should watch carefully as it evolves, Washington Insider believes.


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(GH/CZ)