Washington Insider-- Tuesday

Keeping Cuban Farms Organic

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

Pork Producers Support ‘CARB’ Recommendations

Recommendations for addressing antibiotic-resistant bacteria in a report issued last week by a White House advisory panel were welcomed by the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC), which said US pork producers having been doing their part to tackle the growing resistance problem.

The Presidential Advisory Council on Combatting Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria (PACCARB) recommended that federal agencies involved in the effort to address antibiotic resistant take a number of steps, including embracing a “One Health” approach that looks at the resistance issue from a human, animal and environmental prospective; improving coordination and collaboration among agencies; establishing partnerships with states and local agencies, tribes, private-sector organizations, commodity groups, philanthropic organizations and international bodies; providing economic incentives for developing and deploying new diagnostic, preventive and therapeutic tools to fight diseases; and committing sufficient resources to address the resistance problem.

PACCARB advocated that, at a minimum, agencies’ Fiscal 2016 funding levels be maintained. It also pushed for funding USDA efforts to conduct on-farm antibiotic-resistance surveillance. (USDA got no Fiscal 2016 money for surveillance.)

Beginning next year, pork producers no longer will be able to use antibiotics important for human medicine for promoting growth in animals, and they will be required to obtain a veterinary prescription for other uses of those same antibiotics delivered in feed and water. Additionally, the pork industry has invested more than $6 million to collect data related to and conduct research on the resistance issue, including on alternative antibiotic technologies, the effects of therapeutic antibiotic treatment on multi-drug resistant Salmonella and the environmental fate of antibiotics in manure.

The PACCARB report also looked at federal government efforts over the past six months to implement the national action plan to address antibiotic resistance, finding that good progress has been made, including establishing programs for requiring antibiotic stewardship in inpatient and long-term care settings; setting up a public-private partnership to support and accelerate clinical development of drugs, vaccines and diagnostics; and implementing the Veterinary Feed Directive rule related to feed and water uses of antibiotics for food animals.

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ERS: Non-GE Products on the Rise

Products certified not to contain genetically engineered (GE) ingredients have been increasing steadily since 2010, as private labeling through the Non-GMO Project have helped identify these products for consumers, according to the Economic Research Service (ERS).

The Non-GMO Project’s Project Verified label certifies that a food product was produced without the inclusion of any GE ingredients. USDA organic labeling also indicates a product is GE-free per the regulations that define the USDA organic certification.

The Project Verified label appeared on 12,500 products in 2014, up from just 1,000 in 2010. Around half of Project Verified products are also certified organic by the USDA as well. Project Verified products account for most non-GE labeled foods sold in the U.S.

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Washington Insider: Keeping Cuban Farms Organic

One of the key concerns regarding organic foods in the United States is their modest supplies and high production costs. Retailers are aware of the attraction of organics, but often put off by its relatively high cost.

In the near future, executives from major food companies, including Honest Tea, Stonyfield Farm and Global Organics plan to go to Cuba to look at its potential as a source supply of organic products. It is both close to many U.S. markets and has decades of farming experience without chemicals. The effort is part of a trip led by Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Maine Democrat who has her own organic farm. Celebrity chef Tom Colicchio also will go along.

“Cubans have this incredible opportunity,” Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack says. In addition, his department has been promoting the idea, adding that “there is no doubt that if they grow it, there would be a market for those organic products in the United States.”

So, some say organic production would seem to offer potential opportunity for both sides. U.S. food producers are already relying on imports from South America, Europe and Asia to keep up with U.S. demand for organic produce, dairy, meat and packaged foods. Since Cuban farmers have not been able to afford modern inputs since the early 1990s when the Soviet Union collapsed, if Congress lifted the Cuban embargo, they would have easy access to a market willing to pay premium prices for their goods.

Politico also notes there are hurdles to overcome “before organic Cuban oranges start appearing in Whole Foods” including moving the GOP-led Congress to end the Cuban embargo—something many believe will wait until Cuban President Raul Castro steps down.

In addition, there is the question of how competitive Cuban products might be, given its aging road and port system that would need updating to compete. In addition, Cuban products would have to meet U.S. food safety and pest standards and farms would need to be certified under the US organic program which has many other requirements in addition to controls on chemical use.

Still, Vilsack noted that there already is a USDA-approved private certifier operating on the island.

Like other Caribbean countries, Cuba has the ability to grow many of the tropical products widely sold in the United States. These include coffee and bananas, which are the top two U.S. organic imports, with mangoes not far behind. These three products accounted for more than $600 million worth of imports in 2013. However, Politico says there are other possibilities even including organic versions of other high-demand crops, especially corn and soybeans for animal feed.

A key factor is the continued growth of U.S. organic food sales which topped $39 billion in 2014, which now accounts for about 5% of food sales. However, organic farms account for less than 1% of domestic acreage largely because U.S. growers have been hesitant to spend the three years without using chemicals needed to get certified. As a result, food manufacturers and retailers have turned modestly to imports, bringing in some $1.4 billion worth of organic products in 2013, Politico says.

Big agriculture groups have been largely silent about the prospect of developing Cuba’s organic industry for export, Politico notes. U.S. corn, soy, wheat and other commodity groups are more focused competing for the more than 70% of its food Cuba now imports to feed its own people. Currently those products are coming mostly from South America and Europe.

Well, it remains to be seen how strong an option organics may be for producers who suddenly have new access to more effective tools to boost yields and production. At the same time, a sharp move by Cuban producers into U.S. organic markets could affect the US organic premiums many producers say are necessary to compete, and it could certainly give U.S. producers considering organic options a glimpse of such processes in real time.

So, organic production is yet another possible attraction for U.S. marketers and another dimension of the failed five-decade long effort by U.S. advocates to tie geopolitical objectives to trade—perhaps a new reality that should be watched carefully by those now crafting trade deals for Asia and Europe. Rather suddenly, the potential benefits of trade with Cuban have begun to be examined more publicly—a development that could have a positive impact on the increasingly politicized deals now on the table awaiting approval, Washington Insider believes.


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(GH/CZ)