Washington Insider-- Tuesday

The Fight Against Food Technology

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

EPA Expected to Slightly Boost RFS Corn-Based Ethanol Mandate

Declining gasoline prices are giving the EPA room to hike the mandate levels on ethanol relative to the coming announcement on the Renewable Fuel Standard. The Environmental Protection Agency is set to issue its Renewable Fuel Standard for three years no later than Nov. 30 (adding 2017 for biodiesel).

Cheaper gasoline equals greater gasoline demand and EPA can thus raise the requirements for the use of ethanol without exceeding the 10% blend wall.

The prior RFS mandate requirements were based on 2007 fuel consumption forecasts, and in the eight years since, gasoline demand has stalled instead of growing as predicted then.

The EPA’s proposal released in May would set renewable fuel mandates at 15.93 billion gallons for 2014, 16.3 billion gallons for 2015 and 17.4 billion gallons for 2016. The proposal reflects between 9% and 10% of gasoline volumes, the agency said then. Because gasoline demand is growing, EPA could raise those quotas in the final rule without forcing refiners to use more than 10% ethanol.

Representatives of the oil industry’s biggest trade group, the American Petroleum Institute, met with White House officials Friday to argue that ethanol quotas should be kept below the 10% level. “Americans aren’t consuming as much gasoline as Congress assumed they would when they wrote the legislation in 2007,” said Bob Greco, API’s director of downstream and industry operations. “That means current ethanol mandates push far more ethanol, far too quickly into gasoline than today’s vehicles can safely accommodate.”

Lawmakers remain divided on the issue. A bipartisan group of 184 House members recently sent a letter that calls on the EPA to set the final level for ethanol in 2016 at a level that would account for the blend wall. But last week House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., wrote to the White House urging it to push refiners to use more ethanol. Those producers say oil companies could provide ethanol blends of up to 85% if they were prodded to do so by the government. A rule that locks in the “blend wall” would be “counter to our efforts” in the 2007 law, they said.

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White House Asks Supreme Court to Restore Immigration Plan

As expected, the Obama administration asked the Supreme Court to reinstate its plan to give temporary relief from deportation to more than four million illegal immigrants, arguing that 26 states don’t have standing to challenge the plan.

The filing is an effort to get the case on the US Supreme Court’s docket for a hearing next June. If it was pushed back to the next Supreme Court term, the issue may not be resolved before Obama leaves office in January 2017.

Most observers believe the high court will take the case because of its national significance – only four of the nine justices’ votes are required for the court to hear it. The topic will continue to be a major issue during the presidential campaign to succeed President Obama.

The case, United States v. Texas, concerns a November 2014 executive action by Obama that allowed parents of citizens or lawful permanent residents to apply for a program sparing them from deportation and allowing them to work.

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Washington Insider: The Fight Against Food Technology

A basic fact of life in the world of food marketing is that a majority of consumers have come to mistrust food technology, especially anything remotely linked to genetics. So, it was a surprise this week when the Hill published a story that concluded that, “public health and environmental groups appear to be losing the fight against genetically modified ingredients.”

Their big news was sort of old news; that the FDA had decided that a genetically engineered Atlantic salmon was safe to eat and did not require a special label. That followed House passage of hotly contested legislation to keep states from issuing mandatory labeling laws for foods that contain ingredients from biotech crops. “Now the Senate is weighing its own options on the issue,” The Hill observed.

The fight has not been especially civil, the Hill noted. “The industry-backed Coalition for Safe and Affordable Food which has spent millions on efforts to block the mandatory labeling of GMOs, called consumers the big winners, and claimed that common sense and science prevailed when the House passed a uniform, national labeling standard bill,” CFSAF Spokeswoman Claire Parker said.

Anti-GMO groups vehemently refute any claims they’re losing ground in the battle to keep genetically engineered foods out of the consumer space and pointed to successful market campaigns that halted genetically engineered tomatoes and potatoes, and the commercialization of genetically engineered wheat and rice,” according to Andrew Kimbrell, founder and executive director of the Center for Food Safety.

After years of research and investment, he said, the only genetically engineered animal industry has been able to come up with is this “pathetic fish.”

The Hill pointed out that last March the FDA approved an apple that’s genetically engineered not to brown. And now, technology that boosts the growth rate of a salmon “signals more engineered food is on the way.”

“I would certainly hope the demonstration of a functional regulatory pathway that will allow these products to reach the market would encourage more products to follow,” said L. Val Giddings, senior fellow for the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

Biotech companies, he said, are already working on genetically engineered pigs, including one with higher levels of Omega 3 fatty acids to make bacon healthier and another that’s engineered to excrete less phosphorus to make it more environmentally friendly.

Giddings said these technologies provide real and reachable solutions for urgent problems.

Still, anti-GMO groups argue that state-level efforts are moving forward. And though the House passed a bill to preempt states from issuing their own mandatory labeling laws, the bill has yet to be offered in the Senate.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association, one of the biggest groups lobbying against mandatory labeling, says it is working with Sen. Debbie Stabenow D-Mich., and the Senate Agriculture Committee on legislation, although no deal has been struck on how to proceed. “Sen. Stabenow believes that for any solution to pass the Senate, it must establish a national system of required disclosure that would ensure consumers get the information they want about their food, while also solving the problem of a 50-state patchwork of regulations.”

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has been following the label issue, and is suggesting the use of “QR codes,” a type of readable code originally used to track automotive parts in Japan and South Korea. They can carry considerable information, but require consumers to use a reader like some form of smart phone.

Vilsack thinks these might provide information “without signaling there is anything wrong with a product,” but they seem unlikely to satisfy most labeling advocates who argue that they discriminate against the poor, or those in rural areas, or the elderly. Other critics say the QR codes won’t satisfy advocates who specifically want to signal that something is wrong with a product.

Upon close inspection, it seems that the fight over biotechnology and possible labels is about as intense as ever. At the same time, it is strange that so little attention is being paid to the fact that there are already widely available products without biotechnology —- USDA certified organic foods.

But, you say, organic foods cost more. And, it seems, they do, and so may foods with new labels about ingredients from biotech crops, a fact that has been emphasized in state-level label debates in the past.

So, the label debate is not over and the Hill likely is wrong about that. The fight is important and science and scientists’ views should carry more weight than they do now. One would hope that an idea for a nationally approved label will emerge; one that doesn’t vilify perfectly healthful foods, and one that doesn’t ignore science. In the meantime, the fight is likely to continue, Washington Insider believes.


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(GH/CZ)