Washington Insider -- Thursday

Purdue on the Importance of Biotechnology

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

US Gives Canada Two Weeks to Bring Food Safety into Compliance

Canada must comply with recommendations from an audit of the country’s food safety for meat, poultry and eggs or its exports to the U.S. will be blocked, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced.

The U.S. informed Canada 20 months ago that it needed to fix operational or procedural food safety weaknesses involving government oversight, sanitation and microbiological testing. The demand came after the U.S. completed an audit of Canada’s meat, poultry and egg systems during an in-country visit from May 28 to June 14, 2014, and found deficiencies.

The audit is based on visits to specific plants during which FSIS personnel found ceiling leaks, condensation and rust. Such sanitation issues caused FSIS to observe that Canada’s efforts are not equivalent to US standards. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has insisted that food safety is not being compromised in Canada and the improvements sought in the U.S. audit are being addressed.

The U.S. wants Canada to begin taking samples and testing multiple surfaces for Listeria monocytogenes in ready-to-eat meat processing plants. After a deadly Listeria outbreak in 2008 an independent report by Weatherill recommended increasing CFIA’s laboratory capacity, but left actual testing to processors. But processors in Canada test only food contact surfaces for Listeria monocytogenes, not other areas where it could take hold inside a plant.

CFIA noted in an email sent to the Toronto-based Globe and Mail that they have taken steps to address the issues outlined by the U.S. agency and pointed out there were no food safety risks to consumers. “It is important to note that none of the audit findings posed a food safety risk to consumers, including the identified sanitation issues,” CFIA said. “At the time of the audit, the CFIA inspectors were already addressing the sanitation findings outlined in the audit report and the establishments were already taking the required steps to fix the issues in question.”

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Future of Biodiesel Tax Incentive Program

The biodiesel tax incentive program expires at the end of this calendar year. Congressional sources signal that another extension is likely, but the timeline on when that takes place is murky. Contacts are not ruling out a one- or two-year extension in a post-election, lame-duck session of Congress, while others say this issue could be bumped to a new Congress in 2017.

Looking further out, this issue could be tied with tax reform efforts, notably corporate tax reform, some sources predict. Some lawmakers may want to use the revenue involved via the biodiesel tax incentive as a budget offset via tax reform.

Efforts to move the program to a producer rather than a blender incentive continue via the National Biodiesel Board and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. However, that would constitute a major change for the program and as was seen in 2015, that effort failed.

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Washington Insider: Purdue on the Importance of Biotechnology

The United States has long been proud of its dependence on science in the broadest possible range of matters, extending from weapons to medical services and including, prominently, food and nutrition. The nation invests billions annually on its land grant university system, as well as on private agri-business and research firms that provide technologies that support the provision of adequate and affordable supplies of food and fiber.

However, in a surprising development that likely gained much of its momentum from European and Asian failures to safeguard their food systems, advocates have been able to question the global safety of some technologies and are pushing to expand rules that already have widespread negative impacts on consumers.

The Europeans largely made the anti-technology movements possible by enshrining a so called precautionary principle in their safety reviews that untethered them from science. Thus, activists can insist on precautions or even bans without any defined threats.

So Europe today has widespread constraints on many kinds of technology that have repeatedly been found safe in repeated private and public studies both in Europe and the United States. US foodies have eagerly elaborated European concerns until today most US consumers say they have large or small worries about biotechnology, in spite of broad assurances and repeated findings by scientists that they are safe. Even foodies often agree that is true, but still want to block important technologies.

So, we have a crisis—the intuition of advocate groups versus the science provided widely by public and private institutions. Congress is struggling with ways to prevent costly regulatory interventions while scientists struggle to find ways to regain the high regard for their work they once enjoyed.

In this context, Purdue University shared the results of a study last week at USDA’s Outlook Conference on the importance of biotech to the U.S. food system that has attracted significant attention in the urban press.

The study noted consumer concerns about genetically modified organisms but attempted to evaluate “what life would be like without GMO foods.” Purdue emphasized findings by scientists that addressed the issue of biotech safety.

“You’re taking a gene from one organism and you’re putting it in another organism,” commented Purdue professor of Agricultural Science Wally Tyner. “It’s not something that people understand.” However, Tyner said what scientists understand about biotechnology isn’t scary at all.

Tyner basically stakes his reputation on the available scientific evidence and concludes that “so far that is not a problem, but what could be a problem, is what would happen to the United States if GMOs were banned from the country.”

Tyner thinks that loss would be enormous and lists several important impacts. “We’d have higher food costs around the world. We’d have more poverty. We’d have more pesticide use, and more harmful pesticides. And we’d have higher greenhouse gas emission so more contribution to global warming.”

He also offers a price tag for consumers for a bio-tech free environment. “The research shows without GMOs, consumers would pay somewhere between $14 and $24 billion more per year for food.” Tyner said.

After the USDA presentation, Purdue President Mitch Daniels urged leaders in science and agriculture to push back against those attacking biotech crops. He told the press that “A lot of people came up and said, ‘Yeah, go get ‘em.’”

Daniels said he discouraged that approach. “No, the point is you need to go get ‘em, you’re more credible than I am,” he said. With the population expected to grow to more than 9 billion people in 2050, Daniels says biotechnology crops are the best hope for the future.

“If we are going to feed a hungry world, we need them,” said Daniels. “Therefore, it’s not just anti-scientific, it’s inhumane, it’s callous, it’s heartless. For rich people to say, like Marie Antoinette, you know, ‘Find something else to eat.’“

Daniels said Purdue is leading the world in making food more abundant, safer and even more environmentally friendly. He hopes their example will lead to more knowledge and general acceptance of biotech crops and foods.

So, while the science community is beginning to take the threats against its credibility seriously, they have a long way to go. Polls show that anti-GMO sentiment among consumers is very, very high, especially across the blogosphere, an arena where the science community is not particularly equipped to contend.

Still, it seems that in the past, scientists have not really tried to defend their findings in the public sphere and on social media, so more aggressive public postures would seem to have potential to rein in at least some of the extreme claims by technology opponents, confrontations that should be watched closely by producers as they develop, Washington Insider believes.


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(GH/CZ)