Washington Insider -- Monday

EU Court Ruling on Ag Technology

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

Perdue Backs Trump On Trade

While firmly backing President Donald Trump's effort to pressure China to end unfair trade practices – even if it means short-term pain from US tariffs and subsequent retaliation – USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue said Trump is keeping his promise to protect US farmers in an op-ed for USA Today.

"In the Olympics, if opposing athletes continuously broke the rules while the officials let them get away with it," Perdue said Trump is basically doing what a U.S. coach would do – "raise a fuss." Trump's actions against China and others are "rightly calling out our competitors for unfair play."

He noted China and others unveiled retaliation "aimed disproportionately at American farmers," but added, "President Trump has pledged to stand by American farmers, and the Department of Agriculture is helping to fulfill that promise," with the recently unveiled $12 billion ag trade aid plan.

The ultimate goal for the Trump administration remains achieving a level trade playing field for all US producers, Perdue argued. "We will aid our producers in mitigating trade damages caused by retaliation, which is a short-term solution to give the president time to work on trade deals to benefit agriculture and all sectors of the American economy in the long run."

Further, Perdue blamed China for escalating trade tensions rather than stopping "their bad behavior." He said the aid plan unveiled this week "is a clear message that China cannot bully farmers to coerce the United States to cave in."

Finally, he reiterated what many producers, ag groups and others have, which is "that farmers prefer free trade over government aid." Perdue concluded, "What we are seeking is a level playing field, where our agricultural home team will always be the best competitors and have the best chance to succeed on the world market."


EU Signals No GMO Policy Shift re: Boosting US Soybean Imports

The announcement the European Union (EU) is prepared to import more soybeans from the U.S. may have played an important role in averting a trade war, but is probably more the reflection of a pre-existing economic reality than a new formal commitment.

The pledge by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker was seen as key to achieving a breakthrough in talks with U.S. President Donald Trump.

According to EU officials, the meeting took longer than expected because Trump demanded the EU open up its markets for agricultural products, which was a red line for many EU member states ahead of talks.

But after more than three hours of negotiations, Juncker agreed to additional U.S. soybeans exports to the EU, as this concession fell under the flexibility provided to him by national leaders before his trip to Washington.

"The EU is immediately going to buy a lot of soybeans from our farmers, primarily in the Midwest," Trump said at an unexpected press conference organized after the meeting.

“As far as agriculture is concerned, the EU can import more soybeans from the U.S. and it will be done,” Juncker said, echoing Trump’s remark.

However, it is difficult to see how this commitment will be implemented, as the US already has duty free-access to the European market for the commodity, with the only significant restriction being those for GM soya varieties.

At a press conference, a Commission spokesperson also struggled to explain how the arrangement would work in practice and did not go into details.

However, he explicitly excluded the possibility that the EU would alter its rules on genetically modified food products, stressing that the agreement “can never have a negative impact on our food safety standards”.

***

Washington Insider: EU Court Ruling on Ag Technology

Well, there’s a lot of interest as well as uncertainty regarding the future of ag technology these days. Perhaps the simplest issue is whether the European Union (EU) will ease its tough stance against GMOs as it implements its promises with President Trump about increasing imports of U.S. products. The answer apparently is that it won’t, observers say.

However, there’s much more going on. For example, the EU’s top court ruled last week that “gene-edited” crops are “genetically modified organisms” and must comply with the tough regulations it uses against plants made with genes from other species, the New York Times reported on Saturday.

This dismayed many scientists, the Times said. It worries that countries in the developing world would follow Europe’s lead, blocking useful gene-edited crops from reaching farms and marketplaces. The ruling may also further curtail exports from the United States, which has taken a more lenient view of gene-edited foods.

The Times report said the court decision raises a more fundamental question “because it exempted crops produced through older methods of altering DNA, saying they were not genetically modified organisms,” an assertion that left many scientists scratching their heads, the Times said. It then waded through a long history to explain.

Since the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago, all crop breeding has come down to altering the genetic composition of plants, it asserts. For centuries, farmers selected certain plants to breed, or crossed varieties in order to pass useful traits to future generations in a largely hit or miss process.

Then, in the early 20th century, scientists discovered genes and invented new ways to breed crops. Two lines of corn, for example, could be melded into hybrid plants that were superior to either parent. These created new, beneficial mutations and thousands of plant breeds in use today are the product of such “mutagenetic” processes.

By the 1970s, biologists learned to insert genes from other species into bacteria—and then used recombinant DNA to develop methods for inserting genes to improve plants. These were controversial because they not only produce proteins from their own genes but from the genes of other species, as well. That conflict is playing out very differently on opposite sides of the Atlantic.

In the United States, the National Academy of Sciences reviewed the science and found no evidence that gene-modified crops are any more dangerous than those bred conventionally. It advised the government to regulate them modestly. More than 185 million acres of GMOs were planted in the United States by 2017.

In Europe, by contrast, the European Union scrutinized the use of GMOs from the early stages of research to the marketplace with rules so tough that it grows almost no genetically modified crops--only 325,000 acres across the continent in 2017, the Times said.

Even more recent advances in science now are allowing researchers to remove a piece of a plant’s DNA or even rewrite short stretches of genetic material. This meant that instead of inserting foreign genes, scientists can “edit” DNA to create crops that make more, or fewer, proteins from their own genes, gaining advantageous traits.

In 2015, a French agricultural union and anti-GMO allies sued the EU on the grounds that gene-edited crops should be labeled as genetically modified organisms — and regulated as such.

Now, the court has agreed. It said that gene-edited crops were GMOs “within the meaning of the GMO Directive.”

Dana Perls, the senior food and agriculture campaigner at Friends of the Earth, praised the court for recognizing gene-editing as genetic modification.

While GMO skeptics worry that gene-editing may miss its targets and accidentally alter other stretches of DNA in an organism, other largely-U.S. experts including Jeffrey Wolt, professor of agronomy and toxicology at Iowa State University, were dismayed by the EU court ruling, the Times said.

Wolt points out that there are many opportunities in plant experiments to screen out unwanted mutations and that the chances of unexpected mutations in gene-edited plants are falling to low levels.

Wolt also criticized the EU court’s logic that denied a strong scientific reason to consider gene-edited plants to be GMOs while exempting crops created “in the old way” which it argued is “conventional” and “well tested.”

In March, the Department of Agriculture said it has no plans to regulate gene-edited crops as it does crops with foreign genes, so Crispr-edited crops are expected to move quickly into the American marketplace even as they likely will continue to be barred from import into Europe.

Wolt said that the only way to escape these contradictions would be for government regulators to stop focusing on mutagenesis, recombinant DNA, Crispr and other methods for making new crops. “It’s the products we should be concerned with,” he said.

So, we will see. The argument against GMOs is frequently made without any scientific evidence of issues of safety, but simply because the process seems somehow unnatural—a view most scientists reject. But, the issue persists and likely will continue to do so and possibly, will continue to interfere with markets and limit production in some areas. The Times doesn’t speculate whether Wolt’s solution will be adopted, but history indicates that the fight against genetic technology will continue to be bitter and difficult. This is a debate producers should continue to watch carefully as it emerges, Washington Insider believes.


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