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Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack speaks briefly before signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with U.S. dairy leaders, in 2013. Photo by Lance Cheung.

Vilsack Rumored to be VP on Clinton’s Ticket, Ceres Investors Sue Over Land O’Lakes Sale, First Legal Cannabis Crop in Florida, more

July 15, 2016

Congress Passes GMO Labeling Bill Amid Mixed Reactions, Heads to Pres. Obama’s Desk

The recent GMO labeling bill, which reflects an eleventh-hour compromise between Senate Ag Committee Chairman Pat Roberts and ranking member Debbie Stabenow, passed the House by a 306-117 vote on Thursday in favor of the bill. This means that Vermont’s statewide mandatory labeling bill could be preempted as soon as next week provided President Obama inks the legislation instead of serving up a veto. Although the legislation’s passage is being hailed by many industry groups as a success, the bill is only the beginning. A series of rules and regulations will need to be developed, proposed, commented on, and finalized. Opponents of the legislation still refer to it as the “Deny Americans the Right to Know Act,” or DARK Act, criticizing it for relying on smartphone-based QR codes to provide consumers with information about the contents of their food. Such a method alienates low-income groups without access to smartphones or the ability to call certain hotlines designed to provide more information, they say. Opposition groups have rallied behind the petition, and there are call center efforts urging concerned consumers to call the White House and plead that President Obama to veto the bill. Stay tuned.

Reports Hint That Secretary Vilsack Could be Clinton VP Pick

Rumors were swirling this week that US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack is on a shortlist of potential Vice President picks for Hilary Clinton’s ticket. The former Iowa Governor makes an appealing pick due to his potential to draw rural white voters away from Trump, sources suggest. Vilsack also has a record of supporting the Clintons for several decades and seems to be closer to the presidential nominee than any of the other individuals being considered for the second-in-command spot. His job record is also fairly impressive, having served President Obama’s agriculture agenda and rural development projects with overall success for the last eight years. The other potential VP candidates include Labor Secretary Tom Perez and Senators Tim Kaine and Elizabeth Warren.

Surterra Harvests First Legal Therapeutic Cannabis Crop in Florida

Florida patients will soon be able to take advantage of the first legally harvested medical cannabis crop in Florida. Cannabinoid research and development company Surterra Therapeutics has completed the first legal harvest of therapeutic cannabis in the State of Florida. This means Surterra is one step closer to having therapeutic cannabis products available to eligible patients throughout Florida. “All we need now is the Department of Health to give us the green light to start oil extractions from the harvested plants and we can have products ready for statewide delivery to patients in just a few weeks,” said Susan Driscoll, president of Surterra Therapeutics, in a recent statement about the harvest. Harvesting the cannabis plant is the initial step in the oil extraction process. The plant is cut at the root, and the leaves and stems are removed. Then, the remaining flower is both hand and machine trimmed, dried, and then ground a fine powder to prepare for the oil extraction phase. For the next step, Surterra has requested authorization to extract the oil from the Florida Department of Health’s Office of Compassionate Use. If permission is granted, Surterra will complete the extraction process and use the cannabis CBD oils in their products. 

The First Round of Comments on the National Organic Program’s Proposed Animal Welfare Standards Reveal Industry Frustration

The National Chicken Council is one of the recent industry groups to join some other organizations in challenging the National Organic Program’s proposed animal welfare standards. The NCC, which represents vertically integrated poultry producers including big names like Perdue and Tyson, takes specific issue with the proposed rules outdoor access and space requirements among other provisions. Under the proposed rules, porches would not satisfy the outdoor access requirement. But NCC and other poultry groups, including Cal-Maine Foods, the largest egg producer in the US, urge the NOP to consider what they describe as the very real threat of disease and contamination if birds are allowed to stroll around outdoors. It was only a short while ago that a serious epidemic of avian influence wiped out around 70 million birds in the US. Also this week, the National Cattleman’s Beef Association challenged the proposed rules by claiming that the USDA lacks authority to create animal welfare standards while also characterizing the rules as vilifying conventional livestock raising methods. “As consumer questions about the organic program have obviously motivated this proposed rule, NCBA is concerned that USDA condones the notion that organic production should be viewed as a better production method,” the NCBA stated in their comment, which you can peruse here.

Ceres Faces Shareholder Lawsuit Challenging Company Sale to Land O’Lakes

California ag biotech company Ceres is facing a shareholder lawsuit challenging the company’s recent sale to major dairy cooperative Land O’Lakes for $17.6 million. Before the transaction went down, the seeds and traits company was in the process of restructuring the company to change its focus from biofuels to food crops. In their complaint, the shareholders allege: “Despite the financial strength of the company and its position as a premier player in its field, the defendants have entered into the merger agreement with Land ‘O Lakes, depriving stockholders the opportunity to participate in the growth of the company they have loyally invested in,” the lawsuit reads.

Advocates Demand Online Access for SNAP Benefits

A number of advocates and even celebrities like fitness femme Jillian Michaels are demanding that legislators support a bill to expand access to SNAP—the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—so that recipients can use their benefits to ordering food online. With some reports estimating that nearly 24 million Americans reside in food deserts, online food ordering may prove a viable option to help them access better options. Thrive Market, a West Coast online organic grocery startup, is one of the entities spearheading the effort, which has bagged up almost 40,000 signatures in just 14 days.

Nutrition Labels Coming to Some Alcohol Bottles

The Beer Institute, a trade group that represents some of the largest brewers, has adopted voluntary standards for the disclosure of nutrition information on bottles and cans of brew. The “Brewers Voluntary Disclosure Initiative” encompasses roughly 80 percent of the suds that Americans swill each year. The effort is designed to ride the recent wave of increased transparency in food production, which many consumers are starting to demand.

The ‘Good Food’ Campaign Hopes to Inject a National Food Policy Discussion in the White House Battle

A new national advisory board of 14 diverse members will help Plate of the Union, a campaign effort created by Union of Concerned Scientists, Food Policy Action, and HEAL Food Alliance, has been tasked with making sure that the national food system is a meaty topic during the impending presidential race. The effort calls upon the next US leader to develop a food system that “rewards farmers and farming practices that protect our environment, provides dignity and fair wages to workers, and ensures that all Americans have access to healthy food.” The effort will focus on both Republican and Democratic Party Convention while also dropping breadcrumbs along the campaign trail. Members of the board include good food advocate Rep. Chellie Pinigree (D-ME), organic dairy Stonyfield chairman Gary Hirshberg, celebrity chefs, and other advocates.

Other News That’s Fit to Chew

  • Bayer has sweetened its takeover bid for Monsanto to $54.7 billion in cash just two months after its first offer, on Bloomberg.
  • Producers who want to switch to organic, but don’t have the cash to cover the pricey process, are getting help from General Mills and Kellogg, on NYT.
  • The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has started a new National Academy of Sciences prize for research in the food and ag sectors totaling $100,000 and housed with The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research. Read more here.
  • Big Food is busy gobbling up natural, and organic brands as Danone SA shells out $10.4 billion for a WhiteWave Foods Co. takeover, on Wall Street Journal.

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