Washington Insider-- Friday

Bloomberg on Organics and Health

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

Trump's NAFTA Goals Released

The Trump administration released how it wants to renegotiate NAFTA in an 8-page draft letter to Congress that is close to the Obama administration's trade policies.

"The persistent U.S. trade deficit in goods trade with Canada and Mexico demands that this administration take swift action to revise the relationship to reflect and respond to new 21st century challenges," the administration stated in the letter.

The draft letter, attributed to acting U.S. Trade Representative Stephen Vaughn, provides some information about how Trump hopes to use the renegotiation to bring manufacturing jobs to the U.S., but provides no estimate of how many jobs it expected the revised pact to help create.

The administration has not yet formally transmitted the letter and changes could occur in the text. The delay is because some Democrats on a Senate advisory group are refusing to sit for a statutorily required meeting — which must happen before the administration sends its NAFTA notification — until Robert Lighthizer is confirmed as US Trade Representative, a process which could take a few more weeks.

Regarding U.S. farm and business groups worried about losing exports they already enjoy under the 23-year-old agreement, the draft letter said the administration will "seek to maintain and expand current market access" between the three countries. It also signaled its intention to "reduce or eliminate non-tariff barriers to US agricultural exports," an indication that Canada's supply management for dairy and poultry will be a major target in the talks.

The letter as expected indicates U.S. negotiators will seek changes in the "rules of origin" that dictate how much of a final product must be made from material produced in the U.S., Canada and Mexico to qualify for duty reductions under the pact. But it provides no indication how those rules would be changed, except to say it would seek revisions to "ensure that the agreement supports production and jobs in the United States … without creating unnecessary obstacles to trade."

The letter also signaled that the Trump administration wants to strengthen U.S. trade remedy laws under the pact by seeking a "safeguard mechanism" that would allow the U.S. or other NAFTA countries to temporarily reimpose tariffs in response to an import surge.

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Senate Ag Committee Forwards Perdue Nomination to Full Senate

Members of the Senate Agriculture Committee voted to favorably Thursday report nominee Sonny Perdue to serve as the next USDA Secretary.

Perdue may now be considered by the full Senate for confirmation.

"I'm pleased our Committee has made swift strides to move Governor Perdue's nomination closer to the finish line," Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said. "Our farmers and ranchers have been waiting too long for this important position to be filled. We need to get Governor Perdue down to USDA to get to work. Rural America is ready."

The voice vote to approve the nomination of Perdue marked the support of all panel members present except Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., voted "no" on the nomination over Perdue's stand on food stamps. Also, Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., Sonny Perdue's cousin, abstained.

Timing of full Senate action on Perdue's nomination remains in question as chamber will be focused on the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to serve on the US Supreme Court. And, the chamber will take a two-week break upon completing its business April 7.

There are no issues expected relative to Perdue being confirmed by the full Senate, but timing is the major question.


Washington Insider: Bloomberg on Organics and Health

The search for more healthful food is important to all consumers and has led to a recent Bloomberg article on choices and actual benefits. The article highlights the use of information about the "scary chemicals used by agribusiness to keep your apples worm-free," and that this generates the fear that makes organic produce lucrative.

In exchange for more money, Bloomberg says, consumers are told they can have pesticide-free peace of mind. The report points to the recent report from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) that released its annual ranking of the best ("Clean Fifteen") and the worst ("Dirty Dozen") conventional produce with regard to pesticide content.

Strawberries and spinach were awarded the top two spots in this year's Dirty Dozen — more than 98% of samples tested positive for pesticide residue. One sample of strawberries, the report states, came with 20 different pesticides, while spinach samples had on average double the amount of pesticide residue by weight as any of the other crops reviewed.

The guide advises consumers of conventional foods to try to stick with the Clean Fifteen: these fruits and vegetables, including sweet corn, mangoes, eggplant, and cabbage, had the fewest pesticides present and in the lowest concentrations. The guide also helps shoppers feel as if they are saving money safely: "You don't need to cough up extra cash for already expensive avocados, for example, because only 1 percent had detectable pesticide."

But experts in pesticides and toxicology say this approach oversimplifies a complicated issue. Just because pesticides are on an apple doesn't mean the apple is dangerous. Bloomberg suggests the EWG survey muddies what is a much more important message for American consumers: eat more fruits and vegetables. Period.

In fact, Bloomberg suggests that emphasizing the perceived threat of pesticide residue could be dissuading some consumers from buying fruits and vegetables at all. And that's really not healthy.

One critic of the list is Carl Winter, director of the FoodSafe Program at the University of California, Davis. In 2011, he co-authored a study concluding that the level of pesticides consumers were exposed to via the Dirty Dozen was negligible. What's more, he found that organic produce had some pesticide residue, too. And finally, the group reported, EWG's methodology "does not appear to follow any established scientific procedures."

Other studies do support the EWG — to a point, Bloomberg says. In 2011, three reports showed prenatal exposure to organophosphates had a measurable impact on a child's neurological development, including lowering their IQ. The studies showed that prenatal exposure to organophosphates (as opposed to consumption of food tainted by it) is likely to have long-term, deleterious impacts on children.

In other words, Bloomberg says, working in a field or living in a home where pesticides are sprayed isn't the same as eating a fruit or vegetable with just a little bit of residue, and even less after it's been washed or cooked or both. Winter points to the old toxicologist adage: "It's the dose that makes the poison."

In addition, testing shows that organic produce sometimes also has pesticide residue, both chemicals approved for use in organic agriculture and those coming through drift, irrigation and other kinds of "inadvertent contamination," Winter said in a 2012 study, "Pesticide Residues in Imported, Organic and 'Suspect' Fruits and Vegetables."

In 2010, for example, the California Department of Pesticide Regulation analyzed 137 organic produce samples and found 20 of them, or 14.6%, had pesticide residue. Winter's conclusion: organic produce has lower levels of pesticides than conventional produce, but none of it is worth worrying about.

As for long-term buildup, Winter says the studies that set allowable levels take that into account and are done over long periods of time. "Our typical exposure is often [far] lower than levels that show no effect in lab animals who have been fed the chemicals on a daily basis throughout their lifetime."

Observers suggest that the EWG list remains helpful for consumers despite its shortcomings. However, one misperception about the value of organic foods, according to Michael Joseph, chief executive of Green Chef, a certified organic meal kit company, is that consumer pesticide exposure is the overriding concern. Eating organic means supporting an industry that uses less harmful chemicals, and that's good for soil health, minimizing runoff into waterways.

But Winter said lists leveraging the fear of pesticides might be doing harm to the most vulnerable.

In a study published in late 2016 in Chicago, one reason people avoided buying fruits and vegetables was because of publicity about pesticides levels in non-organic options including assertions that organics weren't more nutritious and that both may have safe, low levels of pesticides. Citations of the Dirty Dozen list "elicited the greatest number of people choosing less likely to purchase any type of fruits or vegetables."

Put simply, Bloomberg says fear of pesticides can drive people away from fruits and vegetables in general and even EWG recognizes that's a bad result. "Eating conventionally grown produce is far better than skipping fruits and vegetables," the group said in its 2016 report.

So, this is a fight over "proper consumer advice" that is far from over, but likely will lead to further questions of how guides are prepared—and, what their conclusions really mean. Certainly, such scrutiny should be evaluated carefully before taking the recommendations to heart, Washington Insider believes.


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