FOOD POLITICS

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Thursday April 26, 2018

Politics has grown schizophrenic

Despite the reality that Republicans swept the November 2016 elections, winning not only the presidency and both houses of the U.S. Congress, but also gains that put them in control of both legislative chambers in 32 of the 50 states, with veto-proof majorities in 17, along with 33 of 50 state governors, the political climate is far from consensual. A growing rift over several issues that many might have considered already settled long ago will continue in 2017, amounting to what could rightly be called political schizoprhenia. Even in Nebraska, areas of hot disagreement will continue to strain some former alliances, including:

Immigration. President Trump's promised overhaul of U.S. immigration law, including strengthening the southern border with Mexico to prevent illegal immigration and to increase enforcement efforts to detain and deport illegal immigrants, has put him at odds with much of his support base in American agriculture.

As a result of the chronic labor shortage U.S. farms face, it's been estimated that as many as one in four U.S. farmworkers are foreigners without legal documentation. A 2012 USDA study predicted that tightening border enforcement and cleaning up the federal government's temporary visa program for farmworkers could have significant negative impacts on U.S. farms, in particular, fruit and nut growers, vegetable producers and nurseries. A similar study underwritten by the American Farm Bureau in 2014  found changes most similar to what President Trump has proposed would cause unacceptable harm to American farms. Farm Bureau called instead for policies that would permit workers with experience in agriculture but no legal status to stay. Trump's popularity in rural America notwithstanding, success for Trump's southern wall is likely to require a big gate be included.

Trade. Despite that widespread support by farm states for Trump, who ran on promises of renegotiating trade deals to favor American business and bring back manufacturing to this country, the reality is that the farm economy—and surrounding communities, as in Nebraska—is increasingly dependent on world trade. With net farm income projected to be down nearly 40 percent over the last three years, according to a USDA report from late December, farmers will continue to be dependent on export markets to support depressed prices and declining profits at home. According to current estimates, about one-third of all U.S. farm income comes from exports. Yet, Trump spent much of his campaign attacking multilateral trade deals that support U.S. agricultural exports, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership proposal, which American Farm Bureau estimated would have added $4.4 billion annually to the U.S. agricultural economy. Economic analysis conducted by Nebraska Farm Bureau last year showed that virtually every county in Nebraska would have benefited from the agreement, which would likely have increased agricultural cash receipts by more than $378 million a year.

Loss of those trade deals need not be all bad, if the new administration moves agressively toward one-on-one trade agreements that benefit the United States, as Trump also promised. But for now, Steve Nelson, Nebraska Farm Bureau president, said his organization was disappointed with Trump’s decision.

Food companies driving proxy farm regulation. Perhaps no better example of how food politics have been turned inside out exists than this: Even as big-business food companies adopt and promote high-profile positions that require their farmer-suppliers to agree to self-regulate practices ranging from environmental sustainability to animal-welfare, Scott Pruitt, Trump’s pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, has openly attacked many of the previous administration's environmental and animal-welfare regulations. Pruitt sued the EPA in 2015 over the proposed Waters of the United States rule, which would have placed regulation of ditches and small creeks under EPA control as "navigable waters." He also helped write Oklahoma's ballot question 777 last year which would have required courts to recognize the rights of farmers in that state to farm as they see fit.

Taxes and the budget. The Nebraska state government's projected $911 million budget shortfall as this year's legislative session opened spells continued division over how to solve the funding shortfall, often making for an uncomfortable fit among otherwise natural political allies. While farm groups push for a reduction in what they believe to be crippling local property taxes, businesses are urging the state not to hide a continuing overall high tax climate by simply shifting those taxes onto a state level, where accountability could be lower.

A wrap-up of 2016 political food issues

As shoppers across Nebraska sit down to the Thanksgiving meal, traditional and not-so-traditional, take a minute to reflect on the numerous ballot initiatives this fall aimed directly at changing the nature and make-up of that table. Highlights include:

Facts about ethanol fuel standard

Atop news that consolidation was occurring in the ethanol-refining business, as two Nebraska ethanol plants went on the block as part of bankruptcy proceedings against Abengoa Bioenergy, Investor's Business Daily marked the 11th anniversary of the federal Renewable Fuel Standard with an editorial from the oil industry demanding its end. Signed into law by President George W. Bush as part of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the Renewable Fuel Standard requires refiners to blend increasing amounts of biofuels into new options for consumers at the pump. Despite sparking billions of dollars in U.S. investments and helping reduce dependence on foreign oil, the RFS remains an obviously complex and contentious issue, as the IBD editorial testifies. Clarity around RFS is important to retailers not only because of the implications for grocer's food costs, but also because of questions of whether ethanol mandates increase or decrease the cost of the gasoline most grocers now rely upon for sales or rewards programs.

What is livestock friendly?

More than a decade after Nebraska's legislature began creating “livestock friendly” designations for counties, those counties that have participated have gained more cattle ranches and lost fewer hog farms than counties that have not sought the state designation, according to a new study by University of Nebraska ag economists.

When is biotechnology not GMO? WHen it's GEO

Passage by both houses of Congress this month of the first nationwide law to require foods containing genetically modified ingredients to be labeled was supposed to quell the anti-GMO "food transparency" voices and pre-empt the feared financial disaster that patchwork state-to-state labeling laws could bring with it.

Yet the ink had hardly dried on the 63-to-30 Senate bill, which split Nebraska’s U.S. Senators who argued in voting both for and against that they were doing so to protect farmers, before critics complained it didn't go far enough to guard against the "unknown dangers" of genetic modification. Their issue now? "Genetic editing."  It turns out this more-promising form of biotechnology, known as "genetically edited organisms," likely won't fall under the requirements of the new federal legislation.

Here's the difference:

Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are organisms that have had their genetic material altered by artifically inserting genes from a different species into them. The most famous (or infamous, depending on your stance) example—now shown to be mostly urban myth—was Monsanto's reported attempt to insert genetic material from flounder into tomatoes in order to increase their frost tolerance. That's the kind of shock value biotechnology opponents built into the term "GMO" in order to further their demands for labeling legislation and other regulatory controls.

GEOs are organisms that have had a portion of their DNA altered without including foreign genetics. Made possible by the modern ability to "map" all genes in an organism and identify which of those control both negative and positive traits, genetic editing has proven itself in research and human medicine. Now, aided by easy and cheap technology like the most common, known as Crispr-Cas9, GEO is now being tested in agriculture to precisely edit plant and animal genes to control pests, improve important production traits, and even improve environmental impact.

Unlike past technology that often inserted entire genes or long DNA strands into organisms, Cirspr-Cas9 uses special protein enzymes to snip out only the specific DNA segment that controls the trait in question, replacing it with "knockouts" that repair the DNA minus the specific segment, causing it to either nullify unwanted traits or express desired ones. For instance, phytate is a compound common in corn that reduces a pig's ability to absorb the mineral phosphorus. As a result, much of the phosphorus in pig feed passes through the animal without being used, ending up as a potential pollutant in streams and lakes. Using genetic editing, researchers have been able to snip out the specific gene that causes the final step in phytate production in corn, interrupting the process and creating a corn that will improve phosphorus use and therefore reduce phosphorus pollution.

A recent commentary in the journal Nature Genetics by molecular geneticists from China's Agricultural Genomics Institute argues important differences between GMO and GEO technology mean they should not be regulated the same. As the journal's editors point out in an editorial in the same issue, "A distinction must be established, particularly in the public sphere, between [the two]."

"There is no reason to regulate [GEO]s with gene knockouts or nucleotide variants that either have been documented to exist within crop species or closely related wild species or that can reasonably be expected to arise by spontaneous mutation," the Chinese researchers write. "Because such genetic stocks could in principle...be generated by conventional breeding or random mutagenesis, they should be considered the same as those used in conventional breeding, which are not regulated."

"The potential benefits of [GEO]s should not be impeded as a result of misinformation, so disclosure and education are the best ways to promote sound policies," the journal editors urge. "Scientists will be more trusted if we deploy technology where it is most needed."

In late June, more than 100 Nobel laureates went even further, publishing a letter reprinted by the Washington Post extolling the benefits of biotechnology, demanding Greenpeace end its campaign targeting biotechnology, and calling it a "crime against humanity" to stand in the way of GMOs needed in agriculture to prevent global starvation.

“The scientific consensus," the laureates' letter in the Post said, "is that gene editing in a laboratory is not more hazardous than modifications through traditional breeding and that engineered plants potentially have environmental or health benefits, such as cutting down on the need for pesticides."

But the kind of concensus the scientists call for remains elusive, if comments on the House floor from Representative Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) during debate on the new labeling legislation are any indication. McGovern argued the law is “not what’s in the interest of the American consumer, but what a few special interests want. Every American has a fundamental right to know what’s in the food they eat.”

The Huffington Post echoed the theme, saying the labeling law "is likely to only breed more consumer skepticism about GMOs" because it doesn't simply say whether or not a food is “made with genetic engineering.”

“It's very simple," Representative McGovern argued in his floor speech. "The best approach would be a clear and easy-to-understand label or symbol, not some crazy QR code that only creates more hassle and confusion.”

But as Farmer Goes to Market has reported before, this latest confusion over terminology regarding biotechnology is no less nonsensical than the entire broad-brush "GMO" term. An Oklahoma State survey, for instance, showed that more than 80 percent of Americans support mandatory labels on "foods containing DNA.” All foods, except perhaps bottled water, contain DNA. Similar work by the same researchers found consumers were nearly equal in their desire for GMO labeling as they were for labeling fruit ripened by the process of using atmospheric ethylene, the common and completely safe ripening process using the same effect you take advantage of when you put a banana in a paper bag to ripen it quicker. Their conclusion? When you start including vague terms on a label, it introduces a level of concern that may have little or nothing to do with the real risks of the process or ingredient being labeled.

The legislation now sits on President Obama's desk. Obama is expected to sign it.

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