Agriculture

Post image for Encouraging News about Honeybee Health

A recently released study in Europe reports some good news about honeybee health, which should prompt public officials to reexamine a recent ban on some agricultural products. “It’s the first major study of pests and diseases that affect honeybees. A lot of it seems very encouraging,” honeybee researcher Tom Breeze, says in a Reuters news story.

The study examines honeybee populations in Europe after recent disappearances of entire bee colonies during the winter—a phenomenon called colony collapse disorder—which began in 2006 and has continued to be a problem with large losses reported after the winter of 2012-2013.

After hives suffered considerable losses in some places in Europe, the EU took a knee jerk response by banning a class of pesticides that makes food production more affordable. Ironically, the ban is supposed to ensure agricultural productivity by protecting these pollinators, but elimination of crop protection products may undermine food production, and it’s not likely to solve colony collapse disorder.

The chemicals, called neonicotinoids, are systemic products that can be applied to seeds, which eventually produce plants that systemically can fight off pests without the need for regular spraying. There are many reasons to doubt claims that neonicotinoids cause, or significantly contribute to, colony collapse disorder in any case. For more details, read Jon Entine’s superb Forbes.com series on the topic, as well as the many articles posted on SafeChemicalPolicy.org.

This latest study adds another wrinkle to the debate, indicating that the problem is not as widespread as people think, and that other factors are in play, such as cold weather. It underscores why we need to continue to study the issue rather than push rash and unhelpful bans.

Specifically, it examines bee mortality during the winter of 2012-2013 when many beekeepers reported missing colonies.

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Earlier today, Reps. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) and G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) introduced a bill in the House that would establish federal standards for the labeling of genetically engineered (GE) foods and preempt a growing patchwork quilt of state action on GE labeling. The underlying motivation behind the “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2014” (H.R. 4432) is praiseworthy, so the congressmen deserve an A for effort. However, the execution leaves more than a little to be desired.

This year, an estimated 25, or more, states will consider legislation or ballot initiatives that would mandate special labeling for many GE foods. As I’ve written before, those proposals are bad policy, make no sense scientifically, would needlessly raise the cost of producing and selling safe, nutritious and wholesome food, and are arguably unconstitutional on several grounds. Nor would they give consumers any actual knowledge about what’s “in their food” – the ostensible purpose of those state measures.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s current policy requires foods to be labeled when a material difference has been made in their composition – and the labels must say what the actual change is, not simply what technique was used to make the change. So, in many ways, the FDA’s current policy does a far better job of telling consumers what’s in their food than a GE labeling mandate ever could.

By explicitly preempting state labeling laws and making clear that FDA policy on GE food labeling is the law of the land, H.R. 4432 would serve an extremely valuable function. And, because the packaged food items found in most grocery stores are the epitome of interstate commerce, ensuring that oversight of their safety and labeling be governed at the national level, rather than state-by-state, perfectly reflects the plan established by the framers of the U.S. Constitution.

Unfortunately, in order to attract support for this perfectly reasonable preemption measure, H.R. 4432 offers GE skeptics the enticement of increasing the FDA’s regulatory power. The proposal would grant FDA the authority to keep all new GE foods off the market until agency heads and the presidential administration they work for feel politically safe to grant approvals. Like most other “gatekeeper” regulatory agencies, the FDA would not even need to reject approval for products they don’t like. They would need only decline to make an approval or disapproval determination indefinitely.

Supporters point to a 180-day statutory deadline in the bill, which they argue will force the FDA to make timely approval decisions. But it’s worth noting that the FDA faces identical 180-day statutory deadlines for making approval/disapproval decisions on a host of other products, ranging from new pharmaceuticals and medical devices, to new veterinary drugs and new GE food animals. The agency disregards those deadlines on a routine basis because there is no triggering mechanism that automatically grants a producer the right to put safe and effective products on the market when a recalcitrant FDA refuses to act.

Want to know just how effective that 180-day deadline is? Just ask AquaBounty, the developers of a GE salmon that would help fish farmers deliver one of America’s favorite seafoods to market in a less expensive and more environmentally sustainable way. The FDA determined several years ago that the AquaBounty salmon was safe for consumers and the environment, but its approval has been held up by the Obama Administration simply because their supporters in the environmental movement object to the technology.

Reps. Pompeo and Butterfield do deserve credit for trying to resolve the growing problem of confusing, expensive, and scientifically meritless state labeling proposals for GE food. But, the “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2014” contains a serious flaw that will hopefully be corrected once the bill moves to committee.

Post image for Beekeeper Speaks Out against Anti-Pesticide Campaigns

Anyone worried about honey bee survival should read the piece by Canadian beekeeper Lee Townsend in the Guelph Mercury newspaper. In recent years, beekeepers have seen some of their hives disappear without much explanation, a phenomenon referred to as”colony collapse disorder.”

Green activists have used this situation to randomly initiate bans on various pesticide products in the name of saving the bees, and their latest target is a class of chemicals called neonicotinoids. But we can’t help the bees if we continue to address the wrong causes. As Townsend points out, honey bees do just fine in many places where neonicotinoids are used, such as Canada. This suggests that neonicotinoids are the wrong target. Not only will bans divert our focus from finding the real cause or causes of colony collapse disorder, it will harm the ability of farmers to produce food.

Reading Townsend’s entire article on this topic is highly recommended, but here are some highlights that you shouldn’t miss:

No, the newest and most preventable threat comes from the mistaken alliance some beekeepers are forming with environmental activist groups who would turn farmers into enemies and drive a wedge between the farming and beekeeping communities that depend on each other for their livelihoods. …

Unfortunately, we [public officials and bee keepers] haven’t been able to work together to find out what is really happening, in part due to the insertion of special interest groups like the Sierra Club. There is no denying that neonics, like any other pesticide, can be toxic to honeybees if misapplied. But these special interest groups have scared beekeepers, the public, and the media into believing these products are far worse than actual scientific data indicates. …

In addition, these special interest groups fail to acknowledge there are colonies in Ontario and Quebec that are exposed to neonics on both corn and soy, with zero problems. And look at Western Canada. On the Prairies, 70 per cent of Canada’s colonies forage canola without issue. We are even exposed to corn and soy, and except for four beekeepers in Manitoba in 2013, there have been no issues there either.

Clearly there is need for further research, including the health status of these colonies prior to neonic exposure and clear records of the management practices of beekeepers. Most non-beekeepers don’t realize that just as farmers use pesticides to keep pests off their crops, beekeepers use pesticides inside the hive to control for infestations such as varroa mites. There is nothing wrong with this, if it is done properly. But beekeepers should keep this in mind when they link arms with activist groups with a larger anti-pesticide agenda.

With the U.S. Senate’s passage February 4 of a farm bill by a vote of 68-32, a nearly $1 trillion (over 10 years) farm bill will govern agriculture policy for the next five years. The House had previously approved the bill last week. About 80 percent of the spending goes for food stamp and nutrition programs.

Even though this was the most contentious farm bill process in recent history, the results are pretty much the same: farmers will get their pork one way or another. The elimination of “direct payments” to farmers was touted by supporters of this legislation. Those are payments made to farmers even if they didn’t farm the land. All well and good. But instead of putting those expected savings back into taxpayers’ wallets, lawmakers diverted many of those funds to the new pork – expanded federal crop insurance – where the federal government (taxpayers) pays about 60 percent of the farmers’ premiums and most of the administrative costs of the crop insurers. There’s also no means testing for determining who gets crop insurance subsidies.

This bill also creates what’s called a “shallow loss” program for farmers, where farmers would receive insurance payments when their revenues drop below a certain percentage of previous years or when the prices for agricultural commodities drop below target prices. With farmers’ record revenues and recent high commodity prices, this program could end up costing much more than the estimates if revenues and prices drop.

The U.S. sugar program remains with its command-and-control structure that determines supply and demand. Under that program, domestic sugar historically has cost two to three times the world price, which translates into about $4 billion more per year that consumers pay and the loss of jobs in the confectionery and food industries.

Three of the most influential Republican Senators on agriculture issues – Sens. Grassley (Iowa), Roberts (Kansas), and McCain (Ariz.) — were included in the 32 who voted Nay.

The bill now goes to President Obama for his signature.

Post image for New Farm Bill Will Deliver the Pork to Farmers

Last night House and Senate conferees agreed on a nearly $1 trillion farm bill that would eliminate long-standing direct payments to farmers but beef up the heavily subsidized crop insurance program. Farmers are pretty happy about that because federal crop insurance covers farmers’ crop losses or revenue losses, while the government pays a high percentage of the premiums’ costs and underwrites most of the insurance companies’ administrative costs.

The five-year farm bill replaces the 2008 farm bill, which had expired and was extended because Congress could not reach agreement on components of a new bill.

The command-and-control sugar program remains in place, with its combination of controls on domestic supply, price supports, and restrictions on sugar imports. It has been estimated that the sugar program costs consumers up to $4 billion a year in increased costs, while driving many confectionery companies out of business or out of the country.

The bill would also continue U.S. country of origin labeling requirements for meat – COOL – even though the protectionist program is being challenged by Canada and Mexico as being discriminatory under World Trade Organization rules. COOL requires labeling that indicates where the animal was born and raised, where it was slaughtered and processed.

The conference agreement would include modest cuts to the food stamp program – about a one percent cut over 10 years or about $9 billion. Originally the House had pushed for more extensive cuts, but the Senate balked at those.

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Post image for Sugar — Congress’ Favorite Sweetener

The sugar lobby’s sweet contributions and their day-in-day-out lobbying means broad bipartisan support for continuing the U.S. sugar program in the 2013 farm bill, as The Washington Post noted in a wide-ranging article December 7. Sugar policy, consisting of price supports, restraints on domestic supply, and import controls, benefits mainly a small number of rich sugar producers at the expense of consumers and taxpayers, according to the article.

Historically, the program has resulted in domestic sugar prices substantially higher than the world price. Besides those sweet deals, the government also buys back sugar producers’ surplus so they don’t have to pay back federal loans. Then the U.S. Department of Agriculture sells that sugar to ethanol producers at a loss.

Numerous attempts have been made to rein in this egregious program, but the sugar industry’s intense and consistent lobbying and the huge contributions they make on both sides of the aisle almost guarantee them the program’s continuation.

The cost to consumers hits them in the pocketbook, as sugar is an ingredient in not just sweet treats, but in staples such as bread and processed food. The sugar program means about $3.5 billion in additional costs to consumers per year.

It’s estimated that the higher domestic prices for sugar has cost the confectionery, beverage, and food industries nearly 127,000 jobs between 1997 and 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, and has led to many candy companies moving their operations to other countries, such as Mexico and Canada. For every job saved in the sugar producing industry through the sugar program, about three jobs are lost in the confectionery and food industries, says Commerce.

As CEI noted in a coalition letter to the House and the Senate:

The U.S. sugar program is a classic public choice case of concentrated benefits and dispersed costs: of how special interests can trump the public interest. A small number of sugar producers receive enormous benefits, while the costs are spread across the U.S. economy, hitting consumers and the sweetener-using industries.

A protectionist meat labeling rule requires complicated labeling of beef, pork and poultry to indicate where the animals were born, raised, and slaughtered. Called country-of-origin labeling or COOL, the U.S. Department of Agriculture labeling scheme means that cattle from Canada moved to the U.S. for slaughtering, for example, will have to be tracked, segregated, and recorded to show that the meat is from cattle “Born in Canada, raised in Canada, and slaughtered in the U.S.” Meat products from animals born, raised, and slaughtered in the U.S. would have labels indicating that.

The rule particularly affects major U.S. trading partners, Canada and Mexico, which are part of an increasingly integrated system of meat production for those three countries. But the rule also hits domestic meat processors and retailers with higher costs of a tracking and record-keeping system from birth through raising, then through the meat processing and distribution systems.

The original COOL rule was part of the 2008 U.S. farm bill. It mandated that the “Made in America” label could only be used for meat products from animals that had been born, raised, and harvested in the U.S.  However, Canada and Mexico in 2009 brought a complaint to the World Trade Organization that the rule discriminated against those two countries and was a violation of the WTO rule on Technical Barriers to Trade. The WTO ruled in 2012 against the U.S. and determined that the COOL label requirements had a “detrimental impact on imported livestock because its record-keeping and verification requirements create an incentive for processors to use exclusively domestic livestock.” The WTO said the rule had to be rewritten to be compliant.

The revised USDA rule first went into effect in May 23, 2013, with the USDA allowing an extension to November 23, 2013. But its requirements for major trade partner Canada has led two Canadian government ministers to call for another WTO review to ascertain whether the revised rule is compliant and to publish a list of possible retaliatory measures against a wide range of imports from the U.S. In a statement accompanying the listing, the two ministers wrote:

Despite consistent rulings by the World Trade Organization, the U.S. government continues its unfair trade practices, which are severely damaging to Canadian industry and jobs.

Our government is extremely disappointed that the United States continues to uphold this protectionist policy, which the WTO has ruled to be unfair, and we call on the United States to abide by the WTO ruling.

We are preparing to launch the next phase of the WTO dispute settlement process on the new U.S. rule, which we had hoped to avoid by the United States living up to its trade obligations.

The Canadian government, with the full support and active engagement of Canadian industry, has fought against this unfair treatment, which is also hurting U.S. industry and consumers.

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Post image for Sugar Policy Drives Out Candy Companies

“Cheaper sugar sends candy makers abroad” says a headline in today’s Wall Street Journal (gated). The article noted that increasingly U.S. candy makers are moving their production to other countries because federal price supports keep domestic sugar prices way above the world market price.

Candy companies, such as Atkinson Candy Co., said it moved 80 percent of its production to Guatemala. “It wasn’t like we did it for profit reasons. We did it for survival reasons,” said the president of the family-owned Texas company. And confectioners aren’t the only ones affected by high sugar prices. Besides candy makers, general food producers feel the crunch of high sugar prices, as sugar is an ingredient in breads and baked goods, many canned and preserved fruits and vegetables, and other canned goods. The U.S. Commerce Department found that for every one job saved in the sugar industry because of the U.S. sugar program about three jobs were lost in the candy-making industry.

These food producers blame U.S. sugar policy for keeping the prices high through a system of domestic supply and import restrictions and price support programs that historically have kept U.S. sugar prices double or triple the world price.

And that’s not likely to end soon. The current agriculture bills in the House and the Senate both maintain the costly sugar program, and earlier proposals to reform the system were narrowly defeated.

CEI has long been involved in attempts to reform the sugar program. See here and here and here for more background on the issue.

frozen-chickenSupporters of big government are taking advantage of a Salmonella outbreak linked to raw chicken to condemn Republican lawmakers and scare consumers about the government shutdown. But, despite the outcries from the media, Americans shouldn’t be overly concerned with the shutdown’s effect on food safety. In fact, the shutdown notwithstanding, our food is as well monitored as ever.

How could that be, you might ask? Isn’t this Salmonella outbreak proof that the shutdown has caused things to slip through the cracks? Well, actually, no.

Meat and poultry slaughterhouses are inspected by USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service, a division essentially unaffected by the shutdown. Federal law requires slaughterhouses to have an inspector on-site at all times in order to conduct business, so those inspectors were on the job and functioning normally when the tainted chicken made it to market. So, the underlying cause of the Salmonella outbreak has nothing to do with the shutdown, it has everything to do with the long-ago outdated way the FSIS performs its job.

FSIS inspectors mainly rely on a “poke and sniff” test to inspect facilities and products. Although testing for the presence of bacteria and other contaminants is done, it is generally performed by slaughterhouse employees and inspectors look at the result. The primary job of an inspector is to conduct a visual inspection of every single animal carcass and guess as to how clean it is. But, while some impurities can be seen, bacteria and viruses cannot. So, visual inspections can lead to misperceptions about how sanitary a facility really is. That’s why this outbreak could occur even with FSIS on the job.

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A ongoing battle in court and public opinion rages in California over the environmental status of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta (both rivers meet, and flow into San Francisco Bay; a rather rare type of system seen in only a handful of places around the world, like the Ganges–Brahmaputra).

The status of a small fish called the Delta Smelt, as well as salmon, have led to less water allowance for Central Valley agriculture via California’s great waterworks infrastructure, an ongoing shock to the most productive agricultural region in the world.

There’s little free market in water anywhere, but we can reconcile that over time via a tad more “separation of water and state.” I testified in the Water and Power Subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives Water and Power Subcommittee this week on these concerns. The specific vehicle was H.R. 3176, the Reclamation States Emergency Drought Relief Act.

My written testimony is linked here (prepared in just a couple days so please excuse typos!); and oral remarks appear below.

I am Wayne Crews, VP for Policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and I thank the committee for the invitation to address federal drought relief funding and planning.
I come at this issue from the perspective of one who spends most time on tech and frontier industry policy issues, including compiling an annual federal regulation report called Ten Thousand Commandments.

Given environmental barriers to urgently needed water in the West, I completely understand the desire for the funding in H.R. 3176; and granted, the dollars sought are trivial in context of current budget battles.

But I caution against fostering any further “Declaration of Dependence” on federal dollars in any sector.

The regulatory reforms and infrastructure liberalization actually needed for plentiful, adaptable, environmentally conscious western water should dominate attention.

The good news is, water is not getting more scarce overall; it’s an earthly constant.

The bad news is, we artificially interrupt access to water. So management and allocation of that constant supply does matter.

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