Washington Insider -- Friday

Biotech and Developing Countries

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

Obama to Travel to Cuba in March

President Barack Obama will travel to Cuba next month, in the first such visit by a sitting American president in 88 years, when Calvin Coolidge in 1928 visited the island nation 90 miles from Florida.

The trip would come 15 months after the U.S. and Cuba announced plans to restore ties after a diplomatic freeze lasting more than 50 years.

Top Commerce, Treasury and State Department officials are meeting privately with their Cuban counterparts in Washington for talks aimed at expanding business ties.

Last summer, the U.S. and Cuba reopened embassies in their respective capitals for the first time in five decades. Since then, the countries have worked to re-establish long-severed trade and travel links. The Obama administration recently announced it would begin accepting bids by US airlines to fly direct to Cuba.

And on Feb. 16, it approved the first American-owned factory to be built there since Fidel Castro took power in 1959. The Obama administration announced last month that it was relaxing more restrictions on business with Cuba, including allowing U.S. banks to provide direct financing for the export of any product other than agricultural commodities, which are still walled off under the embargo.

Meanwhile, Republican objections to President Barack Obama’s efforts to broaden relations with Cuba likely could resurface in the Fiscal 2017 appropriations process, judging from a letter sent to Obama from a Senate appropriator on Feb. 17. Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., who sits on the State-Foreign Operations appropriations subcommittee, raised questions about the president’s moves to normalize ties with the island nation, citing religious freedom. “I am concerned by Cuba’s lack of attention to protecting religious liberty and human rights. As such, I request that the Administration reconsider any further steps to normalize relations with Cuba or financially benefit their oppressive government,” Lankford wrote.

Acknowledging in his letter that relations with the country already had significantly changed, Lankford said the administration should “use this new relationship to encourage the Cuban government to respect the religious liberty and human rights of their citizens.”

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Farmers Strongly Support Crop Insurance: Survey

Farmers very strongly support the U.S. crop insurance system and see it as a vital risk management tool for their operations, according to a survey conducted by the Crop Insurance Professionals Association (CIPA) and released at the annual crop insurance convention in Indian Wells, California.

The survey respondents were composed of more than 1,300 farmers, growing 20 different crops in 26 states and who are customers of CIPA.

Some key findings highlighted from farmers responding to the survey:

· 96% oppose funding cuts to crop insurance like the one recently proposed in the White House’s Fiscal 2017 budget request;

· 97% oppose reopening the 2014 Farm Bill to change crop insurance;

· 94% oppose the Assisting Family Farmers through Insurance Reform Measures (AFFIRM) Act, a legislative proposal introduced last year to reduce crop insurance benefits and limit coverage options;

· 97% prefer that crop insurance be administered by the private sector instead of the government;

· 93% said their banks demand crop insurance coverage before extending needed operating capital; and

· 99% noted that current low commodity prices and extreme weather make crop insurance coverage a necessity.

Opinions related to crop insurance opponents were also solicited in the survey. CIPA found that just 1% of farmers agreed with findings by a Center for Rural Affairs (CAR) report that gave crop insurance a failing grade for effectiveness. When asked to give a letter grade for crop insurance, almost six in 10 farmers gave it an A and 36% gave it a B.

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Washington Insider: Biotech and Developing Countries

There have long been discussions in ag science circles of the real and potential impacts of the European anti-technology movements, especially on developing countries. This week Agri-Pulse is reporting on a recent study by the Washington-based Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) that includes some dramatic estimates of the extent of those impacts.

The report concludes that developing country farmers could see productivity and income accelerate with genetically improved seeds but are blocked by “unduly restrictive regulations and trade barriers” stimulated by European-led activist campaigns that influence UN bodies and flout scientific evidence.

In addition, it estimates that restrictions on biotech agriculture will cost developing nations as much as $1.5 trillion in forgone economic benefits through 2050 if not rolled back.

The report also argues that because farmers in developing nations often cannot afford other methods for improving productivity, such as advanced farm equipment and expensive pesticides, biotech seeds that resist insect pests or improve weed control are the most affordable way to abundant and higher quality crops.

It notes that while anti-biotech policies in sub-Saharan Africa “work to perpetuate underdevelopment and poverty,” the technology has been welcomed by poorer nations elsewhere. “An estimated 16.5 million small-scale farmers in 20 developing countries planted biotech crops on 230 million acres (53% of the total) in 2014, the report finds.

For example, ITIF says India’s 7.7 million smallholders increased their income by $16.7 billion and China’s enjoyed $16.2 billion greater income from biotechnology because they were able to reduce pesticide applications by 50% on corn, cotton, soybeans and canola.

Globally, biotech crops have reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22% and increased farmer profits by 68% during the 20-year period of 1995 to 2014, the group estimates.

The report further concludes that, “Despite the strongly positive track record of biotech-derived crops for farmers, consumers, and the environment, there is still a significant opportunity to continue expanding their use to address the ever-increasing demand for food, animal feed, and industrial fiber. It is critical that restrictive regimes blocking GMOs be rolled back as rapidly as possible, so farmers everywhere can take advantage of the productivity-enhancing benefits of biotech innovation.”

It also describes campaigns against genetically modified organisms, originating primarily in Europe, that have created significant obstacles to development and adoption of biotech crops.

Although suppression of the technology raises food costs in Europe, it can “disproportionately hurt those nations with the greatest need for more productive agriculture – particularly the developing nations of sub-Saharan Africa.”

“Over the past three decades, a number of… groups have pressed successfully for restrictions or bans on the growth or import of crops and foods improved through biotechnology,” ITIF asserts.

“These restrictions lower farmers’ productivity and raise food prices – not just in the countries where the campaigns originate, but also in nations that avoid GMO crops so they can export to countries with policies banning or limiting GMOs.”

It adds, “Concerted efforts led by European countries, multinational organizations like UN Global Project for Development of National Biosafety Frameworks, and anti-GMO advocacy-groups have denied the benefits of agricultural biotechnology and suppressed its diffusion. If not for this, the level of adoption in developing countries, particularly in Africa, which has closer trading ties with Europe, would no doubt be far higher, given the current adoption rate of GMO seeds wherever farmers do not fear export limitations.”

The main point made by the study is not new, but it adds new dimensions to assessments of the impacts of anti-technology policies—and, recognizes that these have strong political support in spite of the lack of any scientific basis even though hundreds of European and U.S. studies have carefully examined thousands of cases.

Could the same anti-science policies emerge here? They already are stirring in the so-far unsuccessful efforts to curb production of GMO-based beet sugar in favor of low-tech cane-based products, and in efforts to require discriminatory labels for GMO-containing products under mandatory state policies that are close to implementation in some Northeastern states. Congress is working on the issue, of course, but results seem to be falling short, so far.

The main problem is that political advocacy and catchy slogans are outpacing outreach efforts by science and industry. And, far more consumers are worrying about “possible” health impacts from

GMO, even without scientific evidence, then are willing to concede the growing economic and other benefits from technology.

So, this is a really tough fight and its outcome may well rest on the capacity of the U.S. industry to insist on science-based rules and policies and to push back hard on against any whiff of the “precautionary principle” that fuels the arguments of European social advocates. It is a fight producers need to watch carefully, Washington Insider believes.


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(GH/CZ)