Archive for August, 2011

Panel suggests science-based approach to biotech product approval process

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

The cost and time required to “deregulate” a new biotech product hurts the global competitiveness of American farmers, according to four experts drawn together for a panel discussion on the current state of ag biotechnology.

Ann Wright, undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs at USDA, led off the biotechnology discussion at Minnesota Agricultural Leadership Conference, which took place August 16 and 17 in Brainerd, Minnesota. Minnesota Corn Growers Association organized the event.

Joining Wright on the podium were Tracy Linbo, director of Biotech Affairs for Pioneer Hi-Bred; Keith Reding, lead representative of Monsanto’s regulatory policy group; and Jack Bernens, head of technology acceptance for Syngenta.

Biotechnology proved timely topic. The ISAAA–The International Services for Acquisition of Agri-biotech–recently reported that in 2010, crops modified by molecular methods were grown in 29 countries on more than 360 million acres, showing that farmers embrace biotechnology wherever and as soon as it becomes available.

Wright described the process the USDA must undertake to allow a new biotech product to hit the market. Wright’s office develops Environmental Assessments and Environmental Impact Statements for approximately five products a year. Twenty four products are currently in the midst of this process. Many more products would likely gain approval, but for the legal wrangling brought by opponents of genetically engineered products.

Such opponents use the provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)–a law passed during the Nixon administration–to force USDA to create vast environmental documents for any product that a company wants to introduce. Her office generated a 2,500-page document in support of a new herbicide tolerant alfalfa product.

“A study of biotechnology approvals looked at how long and how costly it is to commercialize a product,” Pioneer’s Linbo told the audience. “The average worldwide is 13 years and approximately $135 million dollars. In US, the average time it takes is 7 to 9 years. The process of dealing with key (overseas) market approvals draws it out even further.”

“The regulatory process and conversations around biotech are going to have to change some,” said Wright, with nods of agreement from the rest of the panel. Several noted that rather than any scientific basis, opposition to products like amylase corn, genetically engineered to increase ethanol yield from corn, comes down to an emotional aversion to GMOs–genetically manipulated organisms.

Monsanto’s Reding said, “Of those 24 products (currently in the process of deregulation), we have nine that are pending, including drought tolerant corn, soybean and canola products. We have spent a lot of time on alfalfa and sugar beets. We’ve spent four years for the legal challenge to Roundup ™ alfalfa.”

Farmers who could be using these products years earlier to boost their production and add value to it, are the victims of this misuse of the legal and regulatory framework, according to Reding. All agreed it is the consumer, whose food supply needs to keep pace with rapid expansion of human population, who suffer from the delay of these innovative products. Many of these products promise more efficient use of precious resources like water, or reduction of environmental impacts–through more efficient use of fertilizer and other inputs.

Reding described the current tactic used by environmental groups. A law called “Equal Access to Justice,” allows individuals or groups to file for government payment of the legal costs incurred in civil and regulatory lawsuits against corporations. These lawsuits, which can cost corporations millions to see through a full court process, are meant to elicit a settlement on behalf of the environmental activist group. Such groups then take these funds wrung from corporations to research and undertake further challenges under the NEPA law.

“We have the gold standard in terms of our regulatory process,” said Syngenta’s Bernens, referring to the thorough and rigorous scientific testing of products prior to approval. Bernens said, “That process is being challenged through our court system. What does that mean for us as a country?”

The conclusion of this rhetorical thrust: America is losing its competitive edge.

Bernens gave this example: “Syngenta has its Dipthera product, which offers breakthrough insect protection. Other countries are getting cultivation approvals before US farmers. That’s a change from where we used to be, when US farmers always had the first look at new technology.”

Wright noted that the USDA appreciates the efforts of Syngenta in particular to bring together a stakeholder group to discuss and hopefully reform the entire process to make it less burdensome.

Voices from academia are rallying to the cause. In an opinion piece recently published in the New York Times, Nina B. Federoff, noted that exhaustive governmental analysis around the world has overwhelmingly concluded that genetic engineering poses no risks in and of itself. Federoff declared that it is time to “relieve the regulatory burden” in the field of biotechnology.

“The European Union has spent more than $425 million studying the safety of genetically modified crops over the past 25 years,” Federoff wrote, she is a biology professor at University of Pennsylvania and a former science advisor to the US Secretary of State (2007-2010). Federoff concluded, “(The European Union’s) recent, lengthy report on the matter can be summarized in one sentence: Crop modification by molecular methods is no more dangerous than crop modification by other methods. Serious scientific bodies that have analyzed the issue, including the National Academy of Sciences and the British Royal Society, have come to the same conclusion.”



Peterson says uncertainty is only certainty for next farm bill right now

‘Sequestration’–the across-the-board deficit cutting option may work out the best for Ag

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

Rep. Collin Peterson (D-7th District, MN) opened the 2011 Minnesota Agricultural Leadership Conference last week with a survey of the political landscape in Washington, DC. Congress, like the country it represents, is utterly polarized, he said.

The prospects for the 2012 Farm Bill became the focus of the talk, of great interest to this gathering of leaders of commodity and farm organizations, agricultural business representatives, political advocates, government officials and academics.

This was the second annual Minnesota Agricultural Leadership Conference, organized by the Minnesota Corn Growers Association and drawing leaders from Minnesota Farm Bureau, Minnesota Farmers Union, Minnesota Soybean Growers Association, Minnesota Pork Producers and Minnesota State Cattlemen’s Association, among others, along with representatives of Rice, Cotton and other commodity and agricultural advocacy groups from around the nation. The gathering took place in Brainerd, Minnesota.

Peterson said the negotiations surrounding the next federal budget and the reduction of the federal deficit will impact every aspect of government, including agricultural programs. As ranking (minority) member of the House Agriculture Committee and formerly its chairman, Peterson is in a position to know how agricultural programs will be affected.

President Obama and the Republican leaders made a stop-gap compromise: a super committee has been drafted to come up with a budget that will cut between $1.2 and $1.5 trillion dollars from the deficit. Agriculture, like other ‘jurisdictional’ committees, will lobby the super committee with ideas about what to cut (and what not to). The super committee has to make a formal announcement of its budget plan by November 23. Failing that, automatic, across the board cuts, known as “sequestration”, will go into effect.

“Sequestration may be the best outcome for agriculture,” Peterson told the group.

“The latest figure we’ve heard for sequestration is nine percent,” Peterson said. “The baseline for (farm support spending) is about $210 billion over ten years so that comes out to an $18 billion cut. That’s a lot less than figures we’ve heard from other plans, like $34 billion, or $49 billion in the Ryan Budget.”

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, released a budget proposal in April that claimed to find $6 trillion dollars in deficit reducing cuts.

Peterson noted that Congress is completely divided about how to solve the deficit–one side wanting to raise taxes, the other wanting to cut spending–and neither side shows any interest in compromise. In such an environment, Peterson said it is extremely unlikely that the super committee charged with finding the cuts, will be able to find anything that could pass Congress. Therefore, sequestration is the likeliest outcome, he said.

“I could solve the budget problem tomorrow,” Peterson told the crowd. “All we have to do is shut down the EPA for two years.”

This statement generated big applause. Numerous farm leaders over the course of the two-day conference referred to unreasonable environmental regulations as one of the greatest threats to independent family farming right now.

Beyond the unlikely event that Peterson can succeed in efforts to limit the scope of the EPA and cut its budget, he expressed support for a strong crop insurance program no matter what shape the next farm bill may take.

Important changes to crop insurance that resulted in major budget savings ($12 Billion dollars by some calculations) were accomplished under the 2008 farm bill, and Peterson said it is important to evaluate how all those changes impacted the system and to make further changes that will bring more crops under the umbrella of crop insurance and increase farmer participation. Peterson believes that, of all the options, crop insurance is the most politically acceptable form of government support that can be promised to farmers.

Sadly misinformed NASCAR commentator blames ethanol for loss of excitement

(A response to an article by Ryan O’Hara, published July 31, 2011, titled “Fuel Mileage Races Healthy For The Sport? What Needs To Be Changed?”  

<quotes>I have been receiving a lot of angry letters from fans all over about the extremity of fuel mileage races especially this season. [Editor’s note: “Fuel Mileage Races” is a term that means racers are not simply gunning their vehicles at top speed for the whole race but are employing a strategy that involves conserving fuel over the course of the race]

Now, why do you think that is?

I have an answer for you and it’s going to make every single corn farmer involved in this deal angry and it is ethanol. Now, what is ethanol? It is corn. This corn is turned into fuel through industrial fermentation, chemical processing, and distillation and is the main feedstock used for producing ethanol fuel in the United States, but it is mostly used as an oxygenate in the form of low-level blends because a full blend of this corn ethanol wouldn’t work.

Using ethanol to fuel these race cars is only making food prices skyrocket. Kenny Wallace doesn’t seem to understand that, but I can sympathize with him because American Ethanol is his sponsor and he is trying his absolute best to promote a complete waste of money. For those of you who have studied economics this is simple supply and demand. It is quite a simple concept. If you have low supply but a high demand, then prices go up. There is a low supply of corn because the federal government is converting it to fuel that is why prices are so darn high.

Ethanol also doesn’t get as much mileage as gas along with the incredible amount of corn needed to produce 1 gallon of fuel. Did you know that each gallon of ethanol needs over 1,700 gallons of water? That is mostly for growing the corn! This also leads to soil erosion and produces about 6 to 12 gallons of noxious organic effluent. Yeah. Not good.

The state of Minnesota found out how unreliable it was the hard way. In January of 2008, Minnesota forced all of their public school buses to use full blown ethanol. There was no blend. Well these geniuses back in Minnesota didn’t do enough research to realize this stuff turns into a gel when it freezes. Hello!! This is Minnesota in January!! The buses couldn’t start and many young kids were treated for hypothermia all across the state. And I forgot to mention over 26 pounds of corn is needed to produce 1 gallon of this crap…<end quotes>

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Our Take:
When it comes to baseball, some people like grand slam fests and other people like pitching battles.

We don’t know if E15 makes fueling strategy more important than the previous fuel used in the racing series, or if this really translates into racing that is less exciting somehow. We are confident, however, that engineers will tweak NASCAR vehicles and the advantage of fuel strategy will disappear in favor of flat-out high speed.

We also know that change is difficult. But sometimes, we think everyone will agree, change can be worth it. America now makes more ethanol than we import oil from Saudi Arabia. The closer we get to energy independence, the better. There’s nothing wasteful about that kind of change.

We are concerned that Mr. O’Hara has bought into a lot of superficial criticisms of ethanol without delving into the truths when it comes to food and energy. We are also concerned that nearly every fact and figure he marshals in his argument is wrong.

O’Hara bemoans the price of food. USDA estimates food costs for Americans will rise between three and four percent in 2011. The Consumer Price Index–the composite of the prices for everything a consumer buys–for the 12 months ended in June was 3.6 percent inflation. Yes, we all wish a Coke still cost a quarter, and wouldn’t it be great if you could buy a steak for a buck, but how realistic is it to want food prices to remain the same while the cost of everything else is rising?

We know Mr. O’Hara places the importance of NASCAR before all else, but does he really believe the fuel consumed in all the NASCAR races in the course of a year–is it even a million gallons? Could that drop in the bucket of the US transportation fuel market (140 billion gallons plus annually) cause even a ripple in the price of anything? Thinking about the supply of food and energy, you have to remember that the ethanol industry is producing nearly 15 billion gallons per year. Corn farmers bring in 365 million tons of grain each fall harvest. Trust us, the E15 used in NASCAR events doesn’t make a dent in anything.

O’Hara says a “full blend of ethanol wouldn’t work anyway.” He needs to get out and visit with the Indy 500 racers–they have been running on E100 for several years now.

The writer says it takes 1700 gallons of water to make a gallon of ethanol. Across much of the Corn Belt, farmers depend on rain to grow their crops–so there is zero groundwater input when growing the corn. A Minnesota ethanol plant uses an average of four gallons of water to produce a gallon of fuel.

“Six to 12 gallons of noxious organic effluent” — not sure what he means here. The wastewater released by ethanol plants contains nothing noxious–the US EPA and state pollution control agencies require very strict permits for all releases. We’re not sure if it will become the trend, because ethanol wastewater is not noxious, but in California, where vigilance in environmental causes is unparalleled–there is a zero wastewater-emissions ethanol plant.

Farmers take their performance as seriously each crop season as NASCAR drivers take theirs. Conservation of soil and other resources is a point of pride for many farmers and the record confirms it–soil erosion per acre is dropping due to the diligence of farmer stewardship.

We hope Mr. O’Hara is a lot more accurate in his reporting on NASCAR events than he is in recounting the starting difficulties of a few Minnesota school buses in the winter of 2008. First, those buses were not running 100 percent ethanol. They were running B2 biodiesel — that’s 98 percent fossil-source diesel and two percent biodiesel oil made from soybeans.  Secondly, and perhaps most important, subsequent investigation found that the fuel was gelling in the fuel lines not because of the biodiesel component, but because of a problem with the regular diesel component of the fuel. The situation was resolved quickly and all diesel fuel sold in the state of Minnesota continues to include two percent biodiesel, and runs the commercial vehicles that depend on it without difficulty, every season of the year.

We are happy that Kenny Wallace has become a very visible spokesman for ethanol, publicizing the partnership between NASCAR and American ethanol–it joins two great American products–farm-based energy and performance car racing. We hope misinformed sour grapes, who seem to want to blame ethanol for bad judging in some racing events, don’t taint the views of race fans who can see for themselves that ethanol is a high performance fuel.

Activist farmers score victory for common sense trucking regulations

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (USDOT) announced last Thursday that it would pursue no new trucking regulations for the agriculture industry at this time.

The announcement comes in the wake of a major grassroots campaign, with members of many farmer organizations, including Minnesota Corn Growers Association, communicating with lawmakers and officials at US Department of Transportation, to explain how proposed new rules would have adversely affected farmers. FMCSA said it received more than 1700 comments on the regulations, the majority of them favoring no new regulations.

“This is a major victory, and it goes to show how powerful it is when average citizens speak their minds and tell government officials about the unfair impacts of proposed regulations,” said Greg Schwarz, a farmer in Le Sueur and president of Minnesota Corn Growers Association. “We all should take a lesson from this and remember what we can do and how we can affect the outcomes of issues very important to farming just by each one of us taking on the responsibility to be an advocate for agriculture.”

These farmer advocates are not opposed to current regulations that provide for inspections to insure the safety of trucks and semi-trailers used to bring farm products to market. However, the proposed regulations would have required a commercial drivers license–the same rigorous licensing required in order to operate overland trucks for interstate shipping of products–not only for trucks but also farm machinery.

“There were two main worries with this,” said Curt Watson, a farmer in Renville and former president of MCGA, who took a leading role in the grassroots push to oppose the new rules. “Since CDLs are only available to drivers age 21 and older, this would prevent many capable older teens from playing the important role in their family farm operation of being an equipment operator. Also, farm labor at harvest and various other points of the growing season can be in short supply. To impose a CDL requirement would further strain the system and prevent farmers from moving grain and equipment in a timely way.”

The guidance statement released by US Department of Transportation is intended to make it clear to all states that they should not impose any additional requirements on farmers.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a press statement: “We have no intention of instituting onerous regulations on the hardworking farmers who feed our country and fuel our economy,” said Secretary Ray LaHood. “Farmers deserve to know that reasonable, common sense exemptions will continue to be consistently available to agricultural operations across the country, and that’s why we released this guidance.”

Governor Dayton opens Farmfest forums with remarks on renewable energy, trade and regulatory streamlining

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

Governor Mark Dayton appeared at Farmfest, the largest outdoor agriculture trade show in the upper Midwest, on Tuesday, August 1 and made remarks that opened the annual series of forum discussions conducted over the three day event. Over the noon hour, Dayton served as a guest announcer along with Lynn Kettleson, on the Linder Farm Network radio broadcast.

Dayton sketched out his rural roots–his family started its noted retail empire in Worthington, Minnesota–and talked about how important agriculture is to the state of Minnesota: “Agriculture and food processing represents 367,000 jobs in Minnesota–that’s more than any other sector except manufacturing. It’s one out of every five jobs in the state.”

The governor acknowledged the depth of the financial crisis at the state government and said the budget bill passed for this biennium merely “kicked the can down the road.” Permanent solutions to an imbalance of spending and revenue would have to be sought, and he intends to continue to pursue a plan to increase taxes on the state’s top earners so that programs he considers vital do not get cut.

Dayton announced that he will lead a trade delegation to Korea in September and that plans for a trade mission to China are coming together, perhaps in October. In conversation with US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Dayton was told that Korea and Vietnam represent great opportunities to expand US agricultural markets. Agricultural products are a huge export for the state.

Tom Schiefelbein, Kimmel, Minnesota, president of Minnesota Cattlemens’ Association, asked the governor what he intends to do about Minnesota’s regulatory environment. Sheifelbein called state and federal regulations on farming “painful” and noted that they represent a true impediment to farmers who want to grow their businesses enough to be able to bring their adult children in as partners. Instead, regulations enforce a kind of stasis, he said.

Dayton noted that he and the Minnesota Legislature agreed on the goal of streamlining regulation and that the heads of Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and Department of Natural Resources had embraced that goal as well. He concluded by offering the audience his home telephone number and promised that he would personally bring any regulatory difficulty on behalf of a farmer to the appropriate officials for review and resolution.

The governor, who spent six years as a US Senator for Minnesota, described the efforts of the huge oil lobby to try to defeat farm based energy, but that ethanol and biodiesel came out on top. He noted that Big Oil is at it again, but he is hopeful about the future of renewables and he plans to push for the expansion, especially of biomass-based renewable fuels. Feedstocks like switchgrass, Dayton said, would not directly compete with the animal feed market.