Washington Insider -- Wednesday

Right to Farm Biotech Crops Restricted in Oregon

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

AGOA Talks: Substantial Progress, But Details Remain

U.S. and South Africa continue to negotiate in “extra time” on several trade issues, with substantial progress being signaled by some sources despite reports indicating no substantive movement has been seen on issues surrounding beef, pork and poultry trade between the two sides.

“We’ve made what both sides are acknowledging as considerable and discernable progress, including through the holiday period” where progress was made on several outstanding issues, South African Trade Minister Rob Davies told reporters in Pretoria. He detailed that there is now an avian influenza certificate on the South African side, rules for administration of the quota that was published Dec. 18 and have “for all practical purposes, concluded on the pork issue.”

As for beef trade issues, Davies said the latest issues there are focusing on whether the rules apply specifically to beef born and raised in the U.S. or whether they apply to beef coming into the U.S. from other countries. “We have submitted a proposal [that] we are waiting to hear the answer to,” he said, “that beef that comes in from neighboring countries which has been part of the United States’ herd for 90 days…that beef will qualify after a quarantine period of 90 days, that would qualify as though it was born and bred in the United States.”

However, Davies observed there is still an “outstanding matter” relative to salmonella. “There have been a lot of interactions between our veterinary authorities on the question of salmonella, really the levels for tolerance for salmonella and the procedures that would follow the detection of any salmonella.”

Davies said that work will continue because the end of negotiations would mean that certain products that are currently enjoying access under AGOA would be excluded. The products that could be affected include citrus, macadamia nuts, canned fruit, wine and avocados, according to officials.

While the two sides had a “deadline” of Dec. 31 to reach a deal under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), another session is set for Jan. 6, Davies informed. Specifically, Davies said a key to the negotiations would be whether it is a partial exclusion for a period of time and if no solution was found, that would be ramped up.

Should there be a partial exclusion and a deal is reached, Davies said the understanding is that it would be a quick reversal to remove the exclusion.

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USDA/HHS Miss Deadline for Final Dietary Guidelines

The Obama administration missed the deadline to issue final dietary guidelines. USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) originally said the final Dietary Guidelines for Americans would be out by the end of 2015, but that was before Congress approved a $1.1 trillion spending bill.

The appropriations bill calls for the USDA, within 30 days, to hire the National Academy of Medicine to conduct a comprehensive study that includes an analysis of how the Dietary Guidelines can better prevent chronic disease, how evidence is assembled and evaluated, and whether a full range of scientific viewpoints are considered.

“At a minimum, the process should include: full transparency, a lack of bias, and the inclusion and consideration of all of the latest available research and scientific evidence, even that which challenges current dietary recommendations,” according to the language accompanying the measure.

An HHS spokesperson said that the agency is required to release the guidelines by Jan. 31 and that they will meet that revised deadline. “We are making final preparations, and after consideration, determined that the best time to release the new dietary guidelines was January, given Americans’ focus on healthy eating and exercise around the New Year,” the HHS spokesperson said.

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Washington Insider: Right to Farm Biotech Crops Restricted in Oregon

The Washington Post is reporting this week that Jackson County, Oregon, has joined the small but growing number of “GE-free zones," which are areas that prohibit the cultivation of genetically engineered crops. This is “at least the eighth county in the country to create such an ordinance,” and efforts are underway to pass similar measures in other places, the Post says.

In December, a federal judge approved a consent decree protecting the zone, which had been challenged by two farmers of genetically engineered alfalfa on the argument that the ban violated Oregon state law. Their argument was rejected by a federal judge in May who upheld the GE-free zone, but allowed the alfalfa farmers to keep their crop for the remainder of its useful life.

Advocates say the GE-free farming zones are necessary to protect non-GE crops from “genetic drift” from nearby modified products, a risk conventional farmers say properly should be borne by non-GE producers, since it arises from their choice of crops and locations.

The Post article says that there have been few large-scale studies of economic losses due to this type of contamination and cites Jennifer Kuzma, professor and director of the Genetic Engineering and Society Center at North Carolina State University. She notes that concerns about coexistence between biotech and non-biotech farmers are a growing issue.

“I think it’s a serious issue and a lot of ethical questions come up about who reaps the benefits and who bears the cost of insuring a lack of contamination,” Kuzma said. “We’ve heard arguments on both sides, with organic farmers saying that they’re largely responsible for creating any buffer zones. Sometimes they’ll delay planting so the crops don’t pollinate at the same time as a (genetically modified)farmer’s crops do.”

The Post article basically argues that since there is “currently no national guidance on the separation or coexistence of GE and non-GE agricultural zones, individual localities, such as Jackson County, have started taking matters into their own hands.”

This is a popular view since in addition to Jackson County, five counties in California, and at least one in Washington, Hawaii and another in Oregon, have enacted similar ordinances and more may be on the way. Costilla County in Colorado, for instance, is currently pushing for a GE-free zone, although the ordinance has not yet been enacted.

But such regulations rarely occur uncontested. For example, shortly after the Jackson County ordinance received enough signatures for the ballot, the state of Oregon passed an emergency bill barring any other counties from regulating genetically-engineered agriculture.

The issue remains a knotty one on the scientific side as well. Scientists have largely concluded that genetically modified organisms are safe for human consumption and frequently benefit the environment, in spite of the fact that many members of the public remain skeptical and continue to push for more transparent GMO labeling.

As a result, the economic concerns of farmers who wish to keep their crops GE-free is “another facet in an already thorny and ongoing debate,” the Post says. And, it thinks the issue is not likely to become simpler anytime soon. “I think these issues are only going to grow in intensity as organic or non-GM foods become more and more popular,” Kuzma said. She thinks these contamination issues deserve more open and transparent discussion and broader participation.”

Well, maybe so, but USDA’s organic program participants have been discussing similar problems for some time without much success.

Part of the problem is that the non-biotech brand is seen as valuable to farmers who use it, just as the technology is valuable to producers who use that and arguments by advocates about health or environmental threats have not been substantiated.

The issue in Oregon involved another prominent ag concern, and that is the effectiveness of State “Right to Farm” laws. In the recent federal court case in Oregon, the United States District Court for the District of Oregon said that it considered whether the Jackson County Ordinance violates the Oregon Right to Farm Act, and that it does not.

The court reasoned quite narrowly that the purpose of Right to Farm was to protect farms and farming practices from urban encroachment, and that this protection does not give free license for a farmer to use any farming practice. The court reasoned that the purpose of the current ordinance is to prevent damage to non-GMO farmers from genetic drift, so it fell within the Right to Farm Act exception and, therefore, did not violate the Act.

The decision likely came as something of a shock to conventional producers in Oregon, in part because the court also took into account state and local political sentiment against biotech contamination. So, as the Right to Farm statutes are currently being used in Oregon, they may not provide anywhere near as much protection as their advocates once thought, Washington Insider believes.


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(GH/CZ)