Facebook icon Twitter icon Forward icon

GE salmon label, crop insurance and U.S.-Canada tension

Greetings on July 17,

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.

Senate bill would label GE salmon, block beef imports

Retailers would have to identify transgenic salmon as genetically engineered and imports of raw beef from Brazil and Argentina would be barred under the USDA/FDA funding bill approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee. The panel also approved language to prevent horse slaughter and to delay two school lunch reforms. The bill now faces a vote by the full Senate.

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski proposed the labeling provision, saying wild Alaska salmon - "the best in the world" - deserved distinction in grocery stores from a genetically engineered salmon under review by FDA. "It would be the first time a genetically engineered animal, species, is approved for human consumption," she said, but it was unlikely to carry a tag identifying its origins. The rider was approved on a voice vote with no dissent.

The House is expected to vote as early as next week on a bill that pre-empts state GMO-labeing laws and keeps labeling voluntary at the federal level. Proponents of the House bill say labeling laws stigmatize foods that are safe to eat and indistinguishable from conventional good.

Murkowski said there is a significant difference between crops that are covered by the House bill and the GE salmon. "Corn doesn't swim from field to field and propagate with other corn .... Fish move."

For two years, there has been speculation that the FDA is near a decision on the GE salmon developed by AquaBounty Technologies. Its AquaAdvantage salmon, a genetically engineered Atlantic salmon, reaches market size of 5-12 pounds (2-5 kg) faster than other farmed salmon - two years instead of the usual three. AquaBounty "has been fighting to bring AquAdvantage to market since 1993, two years after the company was founded," says Bloomberg.

Like GMO crops, the AquaAdvantage salmon is a subject of controversy. Groups such as Food and Water Watch are campaigning against FDA approval of "Frankenfish."

Appropriators also adopted language to prevent imports of beef from sections of Argentina and Brazil until the USDA conducts a risk analysis and updates a 2003 report on U.S. losses if there is an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. The USDA took the first step toward "fresh" beef imports from the two South American countries on July 2, during a visit by Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.

A similar provision on Brazilian and Argentine beef is part of the House version of the USDA/FDA funding bill. The House bill is silent on GE salmon. On a tie vote, the House Appropriations Committee defeated a proposal to block horse slaughter.

North Dakota Sen. John Hoeven successfully proposed a rider to keep limits on salt in school meals at their current levels and to allow a "hardship exemption" for schools that say it is too expensive to put more whole grains or that they cannot find an adequate supply of them. Similar language is part of the House funding bill. Hoeven said his provision would give schools more flexibility in meals.

Congress is due to overhaul U.S. child nutrition programs this year but has not begun drafting legislation yet. The programs cost $21 billion a year. School lunch and school breakfast are the largest of them.

Lawmakers also have a long way to go on the USDA/FDA funding bills. The Senate has not debated any of the 12 annual appropriations bills to fund the government for the fiscal year that opens on Oct. 1. The White House and the Republican-controlled Congress disagree over spending levels for the government and Republicans have attached policy riders to spending bills that the administration views as veto bait. A catch-all appropriations bill or a so-called continuing resolution, which would carry forward current funding levels, may become options in the fall.
   --Reporting by Chuck Abbott

To read a Senate Appropriations Committee statement and summary of the bill, text of amendments adopted by the committee, or for a webcast of the bill-drafting session, click here. The rider on beef from Argentina and Brazil, Section 743, is available here.

The FDA page on AquaAdvantage salmon is available here.

Analysts ask if crop insurance should be redesigned

The federally subsidized crop-insurance program grew dramatically over the past two decades. It covers 44 percent more acres and, with creation of revenue insurance, the average level of coverage climbed to 75 percent in 2014, a 17-point increase from 1996, according to economists Carl Zulauf of Ohio State and Dan Orden of Virginia Tech. When both factors are taken into account, the insured liability as a share of U.S. crop value more than doubled from 30 percent in 1997 to 73 percent in 2014, the economists write at farmdoc daily.

Net payments to farmers averaged $6.8 billion annually in recent years, partly because Congress decided that growers would pay a smaller share of the premium and the government would pay more. The premium subsidy is roughly 62 percent, so farmers pay 38 percent overall. "A common argument ... is that increasing subsidies would bring less risky farms into the risk pool," write Zulauf and Orden. "Since 1996, this cost-to-liability ratio has not decreased and, if anything, has increased.

"This observation raises a policy question: Should crop insurance be a smaller program targeted to a well-defined set of farmers rather than seeking to be a program for all farms? Other risk management options exist, including self-insurance, and may be a more efficient use of a farm's and society's resources. The right size and structure of crop insurance needs exploration," say the economists, who note that crop insurance has become the largest source of federal farm supports.

Farmers bought policies covering nearly 295 million acres of crops with an insured value of $110 billion last year.

In related news, Missouri's attorney general filed a lawsuit against the USDA to get more time for growers to report their plantings for crop insurance coverage, reports DTN. The lawsuit says farmers will unfairly be denied coverage without a longer grace period. Record rainfall has delayed planting in the state.

U.S.-Canada tensions rise over agricultural trade

The United States is frustrated with Canada "because it believes Ottawa promised greater foreign access to its dairy and poultry markets as a condition of joining" the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks, "and yet has offered nothing," reports the Toronto Globe and Mail. The newspaper says the friction has exposed "a fundamental disagreement" over expectations when Canada joined TPP talks in 2012. According to its sources, the United States wants to address issues left on the sidelines during NAFTA negotiations - poultry and dairy - and believes Canada promised to put them on the table. Canada is adamant that it made no such concessions when it joined the TPP sessions. U.S. officials hope to wrap up TPP discussions during a meeting in Hawaii at the end of July.

Canadian dairy and poultry producers are protected from foreign competition by tariffs of up to 300 percent on imports, says the Globe and Mail. "A rise in imports could mean cheaper chicken, milk and cheese for consumers but could also destabilize Canada’s carefully calibrated supply management system, which tightly regulates the price and production of milk, chicken and eggs."

Quality, quantity of key crops imperiled by human impact

Changing environmental conditions around the world "could negatively impact the health of millions of people by altering the amount and quality of key crops," according to two studies from the Harvard School of Public Health. One study, to appear in The Lancet, "found that decreasing numbers of food pollinators such as bees - falling in part due to pesticide use and destruction of habitats - could lead to declines in nutrient-rich crops that have been linked with staving off disease." The second study, to appear in Lancet Global Health, says "increasing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) could lead to lower levels of zinc in food and thus to greatly expanded zinc deficiency." Zinc is a key nutrient for maternal and child health.

Bees and other insects that act as pollinators play a central role in 35 percent of global food production and are directly responsible for 40 percent of micronutrients, such as vitamin A. In the study on zinc, researchers estimated how rising levels of greenhouse gases would affect nutrients found in food crops. Previous studies have shown that elevated levels of carbon dioxide reduces the amount of nutrients in crops.

The Lancet article, “Effects of decreases of animal pollinators on human nutrition and global health: a modelling analysis,” is available here.

The Lancet Global Health article,“Effect of increased concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide on the global threat of zinc deficiency: a modelling study,” is available here.

As California drought bill goes to Senate, the pressure is on Feinstein

On a largely party-line vote of 245-176, the U.S. House passed a Republican-backed bill "that is unlikely to break the long-standing partisan stalemate over how to fix the drought" in California, said the Los Angeles Times. "Even if the bill makes it through the Senate, where it would need to pick up several Democratic votes to pass, the White House has indicated President Obama would veto it. But it does ratchet up pressure on Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who many hope will be able to craft a successful compromise bill in coming weeks." Environmentalists say the bill would reduce protection for endangered fish in order to send more water to farms and cities.

The USDA declared the five counties in northeastern Washington State as a drought disaster area, along with five counties in Idaho, 14 counties in Montana and one county in Utah, reports Capital Press. The designation reflected the turnaround since early spring, when the water outlook was good. "The region, however, went through heat waves and received little spring rain."

A USDA tally of drought disaster designations nationwide is available here.

German agency backs safety of glyphosate

The widely used herbicide glyphosate "could get a new life in Europe after being deemed safe by a key assessment largely based on classified industry papers," says the Guardian. The European Food Safety Agency is deciding whether to extend the chemical's license for use within the European Union. The Guardian says the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessments "has drawn contrary conclusions" from the WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer, which decided early this year to list glyphosate as "probably carcinogenic to humans." The German report says there is "very limited evidence of carcinogenicity in mice" exposed to glyphosate, and a spokesperson for the institute said a different WHO working group concluded that glyphosate was not a risk. The institute "relied heavily on unpublished papers" from a task force that supports re-licensing of the herbicide, says the Guardian.

Did you enjoy FERN's Ag Insider by Chuck Abbott? Please consider donating to FERN to help produce more in-depth reporting on food, agriculture and environmental health.