Washington Insider --Wednesday

The Hill Opinion Piece Slams Non-GMO Program

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

EPA's Wheeler Short on Specifics on Biofuels in Iowa Appearance

More "certainty" was the buzzword for acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler in his visit to the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines this week, but he offered few specific details on how to deliver that, particularly on the issue of the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS).

Standing alongside Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, Wheeler said the agency was going to come with a new proposal relative to the Waters of the US (WOTUS) rule "within the next 60 days." The certainty there, he said, would come with farmers not having to hire an attorney to understand what is and is not a wetland. Farmers will be able to "understand the law better to make their decisions."

On the RFS, Wheeler said it was an "important program, not just for the state of Iowa, but the entire country." Noting the Trump administration has made decisions on the Renewable Volume Obligations (RVOs) on time each year, Wheeler said, "that provides more certainty to the biofuels producers, American consumers and we're going to continue that." With Reynolds standing by him and nodding, Wheeler said the agency is "looking at the small refiner exemption ... and trying to provide more certainty around that."

He also said EPA is looking at the Reid Vapor Pressure (RVP) situation which is a key on being able to sell E15 year-round, saying they are looking "what we can do." But he told the Sioux City Journal and the Des Moines Register in interviews that he wanted to make sure the agency had the legal authority to allow the year-round E15 sales.

As for the small refiner waivers, Wheeler told the papers, “I know that’s been a point of contention. I want to provide more transparency about how we make those decisions.”


US Ambassador Says Trade Talks with China Continue

U.S. Ambassador to China Terry Branstad said in remarks in Iowa over the week that it is not clear how long the U.S.-China trade frictions will continue. “We are continuing to have discussions,” Branstad said. “I am trying to keep the leaders in Washington informed and do all that we can. We have had several meetings and we are going to continue to work on it.”

Branstad said U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has been in talks with Chinese officials over the past two weeks, so the countries are trying to negotiate. He also said that President Trump is justified in putting tariffs on imports of Chinese goods into the U.S. He says China is in worse financial condition than the U.S. due to the drop in that nation’s stock market and currency value.

Speaking at the Iowa State Fair, Branstad said it was unfortunate American farmers have been collateral damage in the trade war and he is unsure what it will take for China to finally cut a deal with the U.S.

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Washington Insider: The Hill Opinion Piece Slams Non-GMO Program

C. Dean McGrath, Jr. wrote to The Hill this week slamming what he called “GMO deception” in organic food advertising.

McGrath is an attorney and founder of the Washington, D.C. firm McGrath & Associates and is an adjunct professor of law at the Georgetown University Law Center. He was Deputy Chief of Staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, Deputy Assistant and Deputy Staff Secretary to President George H. W. Bush, and Associate Counsel to President Ronald Reagan. He also owns a farm with his brother and sisters in Nebraska.

He argues that FDA and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) are no longer actively enforcing laws against false and misleading marketing schemes. While the laws against phony food claims and misleading statements are still enforced in some areas, the FDA and FTC now treat one segment of the food and agriculture industry as if the laws do not apply, McGrath says.

That’s the $47 billion and growing organic food industry, where misleading health claims about conventional agriculture are almost universal – especially claims against genetically modified organisms, mostly grains.

For example, McGrath calls attention to the “seemingly ubiquitous” Non-GMO Project butterfly label appearing today on more than 50,000 products. The Project, with its ties to the organic industry, states on its website that its purpose is to help consumers avoid “high risk” products containing GMO “contamination.” To that end the Project provides, for a hefty price, testing and certification, none of which is government verified, and the right to stick their butterfly on your package.

The law is clear that most food claims made on websites come under FDA’s labeling guidelines. It is also clear that the assertions the Project makes on its website should be subject to FTC’s equally strict laws against misleading advertising.

The terms “high risk” and “contamination” are about as misleading as it gets, McGrath says. No matter how one feels about GMOs personally, the scientific consensus is clear: that GMOs currently on the market are every bit as safe to eat as foods produced by conventional breeding.

Furthermore, scientific and regulatory bodies around the world agree on this, including the World Health Organization, the European Food Safety Authority, the British Royal Society, the American Medical Association, the National Academy of Sciences, as well as the U.S. EPA, USDA, and the FDA itself, under both Democratic and Republican administrations.

Even FDA said in 2015: “The FDA is not aware of any valid scientific information showing that foods derived from genetically engineered plants… differ from other foods in any meaningful or uniform way.”

No other industry would be allowed to make claims that the FDA had already ruled baseless, especially if they were as transparent as the Non-GMO Project is about its real purpose. As its executive director, Megan Westgate, said in a Wall Street Journal article, the project’s real goal is to shrink the market for existing GMO ingredients and prevent new commercial biotech crops. In other words, to eliminate the competition.

FDA’s and FTC’s inaction is all the more astounding given that FDA has already written explicit guidance on GMOs. It calls a statement may be “misleading” if, when considered in the context of the entire label or labeling… it suggests or implies that a food product or ingredient is safer, more nutritious, or otherwise has different attributes than other comparable foods because the food was not genetically engineered.”

The FDA offers an example: “The labeling of a bag of specific types of frozen vegetables that states that they were ‘not produced through modern biotechnology’ could be misleading if, in addition to this statement, the labeling contains statements or vignettes that suggest or imply that, as a result of not being produced through modern biotechnology, such vegetables are safer, more nutritious, or have different attributes than other foods solely because the food was not produced using modern biotechnology.”

You can maintain any personal opinion you like about GMOs, McGrath says. You can voice it in the newspaper, on TV, in social media, or on any street corner you choose. But you are not allowed to make misleading claims in “commercial speech” – such as food labeling and product advertising – especially when you’re disparaging a competitor’s product.

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb promised this week on Twitter - under the heading "organic facts" - that he's going to "put out more detailed information on what different terms mean on food packaging." Unless this includes firm FDA action against misleading advertising, it's not enough, McGrath said.

FDA’s and FTC’s inexplicable inertia, to date, in this area essentially gives organic marketers a green light to continue turning consumer ignorance into fear and profit. But, allowing these GMO-disparagement claims to go unchecked is doubly corrosive. It not only deceives consumers, it undermines public confidence in the regulatory agencies charged with protecting human health and safety.

FDA, after all, is one of three agencies – the others being USDA and EPA – charged with ensuring the safety of GMOs. Processes and products proven safe after rigorous scientific and public review must be credited with actually being safe – otherwise our health and safety regulations mean nothing.

So, the anti-GMO war continues unabated, and can be expected to continue at least for the time being. And, increasingly, the toxic politics from advocate groups make it increasingly difficult to maintain the credibility of even federal food safety programs, a marketing threat producers should watch closely, Washington Insider believes.


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