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Challenging China's poultry ban, trade-talk endgame, and worst bird-flu day yet

Greetings on April 28,

The Ag Insider contains original reporting as well as a survey of top news on food, agriculture and the environment. Emails are welcome at chuck@thefern.org. I am on Twitter @chuckabbott1. If you received this briefing from a friend and wish to receive it directly, you can subscribe for free by clicking this link

Vilsack asks China to scale back ban on U.S. poultry

During a 45-minute telephone call, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack asked his Chinese counterpart to scale back the ban on imports of U.S. poultry imposed because of avian influenza in the western half of the country. Agriculture Minister Han Changfu demurred, saying Chinese law required a full-country ban, Vilsack told the North American Agricultural Journalists. "They will have a team come to the United States in the summer" to see firsthand U.S. biosecurity controls designed to spot outbreaks and prevent them from spreading.

China, a major customer for U.S. poultry, is among 11 countries that bar poultry meat from anywhere in the United States. Some 38 other countries block poultry from areas with bird flu but allow shipments from elsewhere in the country. "We haven't had any incidents on the East Coast," said Vilsack, so regionalized controls are appropriate. The USDA has estimated poultry exports will decline by 8.5 percent this year due to import prohibitions that stem from bird flu, and to the stronger dollar.

Han raised the issue of a U.S. ban on the import of chicken meat that is raised and processed in China, suggesting the issue was similar in principle to the Chinese barrier to U.S. poultry, said Vilsack. "I think it's different," he said, because the U.S. ban on chicken meat was a food-safety measure while China's ban on poultry imports was an animal-welfare issue.

China and the United States agreed last December to a dialogue on agricultural innovation as a way to resolve differing approaches to regulation of genetically engineered crops. Vilsack said he and Han discussed the agenda for the dialogue, which could occur in late summer or fall. China rejected hundreds of thousands of tonnes of U.S. corn last year because the cargoes included a GE variety not approved by Beijing. The United States has suggested China should begin its review of new GE strains while they are being developed rather than wait until a variety is approved by other nations and goes into cultivation.
    --Reporting by Chuck Abbott

TPP negotiators: "We're not finished yet"

Negotiators have made "significant progress" on the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, "but we're not there yet," chief U.S. agriculture negotiator Darci Vetter said ahead of a meeting between President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. She said the leaders would take stock of the agreement as it stands and discuss how to complete it. TPP would apply to nations that account for 40 percent of the global economy. Key issues in U.S.-Japan discussions have been automobiles and agriculture. The United States says Japan should open its agriculture sector to foreign competition. "I am very encouraged but we are not there yet," said Vetter in a session with North American Agricultural Journalists.

One of the remaining issues in TPP from the U.S. viewpoint is access to Canada's poultry, dairy and egg markets. Canada shielded those sectors from previous trade agreements and has yet to present an offer at the TPP discussions. The situation is somewhat similar to the U.S. goal of significant and meaningful concessions by Japan on rice, sugar, wheat, dairy, pork and beef. It will be difficult to close out TPP negotiations with Canada without action on poultry, dairy and eggs.
     --Reporting by Chuck Abbott

Worst bird flu count yet - 6.1 million chickens in Iowa

Initial tests indicate highly pathogenic avian influenza at five Iowa farms holding nearly 6.1 million chickens, said the Iowa Agriculture Department - the single worst day for bird-flu detection in the United States since outbreaks began last December in the Pacific Northwest. The virus, considered a low risk to humans, can kill a flock within 48 hours.

Iowa is the top state for egg production. Counting earlier cases, some 10 million chickens and turkeys in Iowa have been hit by the disease, about 9.5 million of them laying hens. "Within days, the virus has wiped out about about 20 percent of the 60 million egg-laying hens in Iowa," said the Des Moines Register. It said bird flu, reported from the Pacific Coast to Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin "has rattled the poultry industry and led to concerns that the growing toll could affect consumer prices for eggs, turkey and other poultry products."

There are two countervailing factors in assessing the impact of bird flu on U.S. consumers, said USDA chief economist Robert Johansson. On the one hand, the disease reduces U.S. output of eggs and poultry meat. On the other, the domestic supply would be larger because four-dozen countries have curtailed imports of U.S. poultry. "We'll be keeping an eye on both of those," said Johansson.

If confirmed, the Iowa cases, along with 90,000 turkeys in Barron County, Wisconsin, would push the U.S. total to 13.5 million chickens, turkeys and other poultry. The USDA listed poultry losses at 7.36 million birds from 77 cases. Minnesota, the top turkey-producing state, has recorded 50 of the outbreaks.

The new Iowa cases, which totaled more than 5 million hens, were both in Sioux County, in the northwestern part of the state, and included 3.8 million hens on a single farm (that matches the single largest U.S. case to date, also found in Iowa). Two egg flocks in O'Brien County, totaling 338,000 hens, and a pullet farm with 250,000 birds in Osceola County also were hit. KCAU-TV in Sioux City said the the two Sioux County farms are owned by Center Fresh Group.
     --Reporting by Chuck Abbott

"Prevented planting" crop policies waste billions of dollars

The "prevented planting" component of the federally subsidized crop-insurance program "is wasting billions of dollars while encouraging growers to plow up wildlife-sustaining wetlands" in the northern Plains, says the Environmental Working Group. In a report titled "Boondoggle," EWG says 65 counties in North and South Dakota generated indemnities for 14 years from insurance claims of excessive moisture that prevented the planting of crops. The actual situation, says EWG, is that farmers were trying to farm the "prairie potholes" that are seasonal wetlands - wet or flooded in the spring but dry land during the summer or fall.

Farmers in those 65 counties got $3.38 billion in prevented-planting payments over the 14-year period. An additional 29 counties in the Prairie Pothole region received crop insurance indemnities for 13 of the 14 years, says the EWG report.

The USDA's Risk Management Agency tightened its rules on availability of prevented-planting insurance in 2006, 2011, 2012 and 2014, says EWG, which is skeptical that the new rules will be very effective. It says RMA should work with the private sector to develop insurance policies for growers who want prevented-planting coverage that would not be subsidized by taxpayers. EWG also says "the best option for taxpayers and the environment would be to put an end to federally subsidized prevented-planting coverage for excessive moisture in the Prairie Pothole region."

"Let's Move!" could be lasting Obama legacy

The "Let's Move!" initiative of First Lady Michelle Obama to combat childhood obesity could have a lifetime beyond the Obama era, said executive director Deb Eschmeyer. The initiative has 10 project areas, such as gardens and physical exercise, with local supporters. "They were built for sustainability." Eschmeyer said she was working on plans for the next five years of activity by Let's Move! "This is not something that is going to end when they [the Obamas] leave" the White House, said Eschmeyer. She also opposed a rollback of school lunch reforms that were part of the 2010 child nutrition law. Congress is due to overhaul the 2010 law this year.

"Let's Move!" was an outgrowth of the decision to plant a kitchen garden on the White House grounds in 2009. Since then, 280,000 people have visited the garden, said Eschmeyer.

Counting calories more precisely

Some nutrition experts say the widely used method for calculating calories in food - burning a sample and measuring the change in temperature is a vessel of water - understates the energy provided by proteins, nuts and high-fiber foods by as much as 25 percent, said the New York Times. Researchers are beginning to take into account the energy that is actually delivered to the digestive system and subtracting the energy needed to break down the foods, or that is lost because foods are not fully digested. An alternate system has been devised by Geoffrey Livesey, who runs a nutrition consulting company in Britain. It would be more precise than the standard now in use, devised by a USDA scientist in the late 1800s. But it would be a huge administrative burden to adopt it globally.

More likely, a USDA official told the Times, would be revisions of calorie counts for foods for which calculations have the largest errors. The FDA says foodmakers are responsible for the accurate calculation of the caloric content of their products.

Corn planting falls behind five-year average

U.S. farmers have planted 19 percent of this year's corn crop, 6 points less than usual for the final week of April due to rain and a late spring, according to the weekly Crop Progress report. Among the major states, Iowa was 10 points behind average at 14-percent planted. Indiana has planted 3 percent of its corn land, compared to the usual 26 percent for this time of the year. In Illinois, 31 percent of the crop is in the ground, compared to the average of 37 percent. Minnesota, affected by dry weather, has 38 percent of its corn crop, nearly double its late April average of 20 percent.

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