Kudlow says U.S. expects China to start purchasing crops very soon

FILE PHOTO: White House chief economic advisor Larry Kudlow speaks with reporters on the driveway outside the West Wing of the White House in Washington, U.S. June 27, 2019. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said on Thursday the United States expects China to start purchasing crops and U.S. agricultural products soon and noted that trade talks between the two countries are ongoing.

The United States and China agreed last month to restart trade talks that stalled in May. President Donald Trump agreed not to impose new tariffs and U.S. officials said China agreed to make agricultural purchases, but those have not yet materialized.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

U.S. farmers experimenting with hemp as China trade war drags on

A sample of industrial hemp seeds is shown at a research station site in Haysville, Kansas, U.S., May 2, 2019. REUTERS/Julie Ingwersen

By Julie Ingwersen and David Randall

HAYSVILLE, Kansas (Reuters) – A growing number of U.S. farmers battered by low grain prices and the threat of a prolonged trade war with China are seeking salvation in a plant that until recently was illegal: hemp.

A cousin of cannabis plants that produce marijuana, hemp is used in products ranging from food to building materials and cannabidiol, or CBD oil, which is being touted as a treatment for everything from sleeplessness to acne to heart disease.

Interest in hemp picked up with the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill in December, which removed hemp from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration’s list of controlled substances and put it under the oversight of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Unlike marijuana, industrial hemp doesn’t contain enough of the psychoactive chemical THC to give users a high.

The new rules call for the USDA to award hemp planting licenses to farmers but the agency has not yet regulated the process, meaning individual states are still issuing the licenses.

Industrial hemp plantings this year could double from the 78,176 acres seeded in 2018, said Eric Steenstra, president of advocacy group Vote Hemp. In 2017, 25,713 acres were planted on pilot programs authorized under the 2014 farm bill.

The U.S. hemp market is growing along with supply. U.S. sales of hemp reached $1.1 billion in 2018 and are projected to reach $1.9 billion by 2022, according to Vote Hemp and the Hemp Business Journal, a trade publication.

The profit potential is high: A good yield of food-grade hemp, for instance, can net farmers about $750 per acre, said Ken Anderson, founder of Prescott, Wisconsin-based hemp processor Legacy Hemp. Hemp seeds can be baked in to bread or sprinkled onto cereal or salads.

“That’s a profit that blows corn and wheat and everything else out of the water,” he said.

By comparison, soybeans bring in $150 or less per acre, and sales of the U.S. crop to China have fallen sharply since the onset of the trade war last year.

Before they can cash in on hemp, however, U.S. farmers must learn the science of producing an unfamiliar crop and wrestle with shifting regulations and other uncertainties.

“Nobody has any experience whatsoever,” said Rick Gash, 46, a businessman in Augusta, Kansas, who plans to grow his first-ever hemp crop on a horse pasture on his old family property.

NEW FRONTIER FOR REGULATION

CBD oil, which is concentrated in the hemp plant’s flowers, made up an estimated 23 percent of hemp sales in 2017, according to the Hemp Business Journal.

While the USDA oversees hemp planting, regulation of hemp products mostly falls to The Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Though the agency has not approved food and supplements containing CBD, such products are widely available and the agency has done little to curtail their sales.

Furthermore, the FDA mainly has jurisdiction over commerce between states, meaning products developed and sold locally in states that have more tolerant laws for hemp products is legal.

“To date, the FDA has only gone after people making aggressive claims – cancer treatment claims, AIDS treatment claims and the like,” said attorney Jonathan Havens, former FDA regulatory counsel and current co-chair of cannabis law practice at Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr.

Other CBD products with no health claims or ‘soft’ claims have drawn no federal enforcement, he said, “causing many people to confuse availability with legality.”

The FDA said in a statement to Reuters it had developed a strategy to evaluate existing CBD products and create lawful pathways for bringing them to market. The agency knows some companies are marketing products containing hemp-derived compounds in ways that violate the law but has prioritized those making unwarranted health claims for enforcement action, the FDA said.

“Our biggest concern is the marketing of products that put the health and safety of consumers at greatest risk, such as those claiming to prevent, diagnose, treat, or cure serious diseases, such as cancer,” the agency said in the statement.

CBD ICE CREAM?

Despite the uncertainty, analysts at U.S. financial services firm Cowen & Co estimate that products with CBD as an ingredient will generate $16 billion in retail sales for humans and animals in the U.S. by 2025.

Hemp seed is pictured at a salad bar at Whole Foods Market in Evanston, Illinois, U.S., June 10, 2019. REUTERS/Julie Ingwersen

Hemp seed is pictured at a salad bar at Whole Foods Market in Evanston, Illinois, U.S., June 10, 2019. REUTERS/Julie Ingwersen

Companies are also making big bets: Kroger Co, the nation’s largest grocery chain, said on Tuesday it plans to sell CBD creams, balms and oils in nearly 1,000 stores across 17 states.

Unilever Plc’s Ben & Jerry’s ice cream chain said in a May 30 statement it planned to debut CBD-infused ice cream flavors as soon as consuming the oil is “legalized at the federal level.”

In Kentucky, which launched a pilot program for hemp in 2014, farmers who used to grow tobacco are finding hemp grown for CBD oil to be a profitable alternative with a better reputation.

“When I was growing tobacco, everyone said I was growing something that’s bad for your health,” said Brian Furnish, an eighth-generation tobacco farmer. “It’s fun to grow something that is making people feel better.”

Farther west, in the U.S. midsection where farmers are more familiar with commodity crops like corn and wheat and have been more scarred by the trade war, some see hemp as a rotational crop grown on a larger scale for seed and fiber, rather than for its labor-intensive CBD oil.

Entrepreneur Rick Gash, founder and CEO of the Hemp Development Group LLC, surveys a field where he plans to grow industrial hemp near his home in Augusta, Kansas, U.S., May 3, 2019. REUTERS/Julie Ingwersen

Entrepreneur Rick Gash, founder and CEO of the Hemp Development Group LLC, surveys a field where he plans to grow industrial hemp near his home in Augusta, Kansas, U.S., May 3, 2019. REUTERS/Julie Ingwersen

EXPENSIVE SEED, HARVESTING BY HAND

The Kansas Department of Agriculture began issuing licenses to growers this spring, allowing the crop to be cultivated in the state this year for the first time in decades.

Jason Griffin, a specialist at Kansas State University, remains skeptical of the crop’s potential and cringes when he hears descriptions like ‘gold rush’ to describe it.

Beyond navigating changing regulations, expensive seed is one of many challenges that pioneering hemp farmers will face.

Special equipment for harvesting hemp may also be required, although some growers have been able to re-purpose the combines they already own. The hemp plant’s flowers are typically harvested by hand, while hemp for fiber is grown in fields and must be cut mechanically and dried in the field before storage.

Farmers are particularly dependent on the end buyers of hemp, as there are few third-party brokers to sell it as there are for other cash crops.

“You can’t just go to the local grain elevator and ask what’s your cash price for hemp grain right now,” said Legacy Hemp’s Anderson.

He often cautions farmers not to plant seeds until they have a contract with a buyer because prices vary widely. Legacy Hemp signs contracts with farmers before the planting season.

Other farmers are concerned over the long-term prospects. Montana wheat farmer Nathan Keane is growing female hemp plants exclusively for CBD oil, starting in a greenhouse and transplanting each plant later by hand.

“Honestly, I think the CBD thing is going to be a bubble,” he said. “I will ride the wave but I’m really hoping the sustainability of hemp is going to be in the grain and the fiber.”

(Reporting by Julie Ingwersen and David Randall; Additional reporting by Richa Naidu; Editing by Caroline Stauffer and Brian Thevenot)

Thousands stranded, five killed, as heavy rain lashes south China

Residential houses and cars are seen submerged in floodwaters following heavy rainfall in Taihe county, Jian, Jiangxi province, China June 10, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer

SHANGHAI (Reuters) – Thousands of people have been stranded and at least five killed amid torrential rain throughout central and southern China, with authorities bracing themselves for at least another four days of downpours, state media reported on Tuesday.

The official China Daily said floods had wiped out 10,800 hectares of crops and destroyed hundreds of houses in the Jiangxi province by Monday, with a total of 1.4 million people affected and direct economic losses amounting to 2.65 billion yuan ($382.41 million).

In the region of Guangxi in the southwest, 20,000 households had their power cut and roads, bridges and other infrastructures were severely damaged, the China Daily said.

Rainfall in Jiangxi reached as much as 688 millimeters (27 inches), according to a notice by China’s meteorological administration. It said rain in parts of Jiangxi and Hunan had hit record highs for June.

The administration said rainstorms were expected to spread to Guangdong, Fujian, Jiangxi, Yunnan, Sichuan and Taiwan by Thursday. It also warned authorities to be on their guard against severe thunderstorms and the possibility of small rivers bursting their banks in coming days.

(Reporting by David Stanway; Editing by Paul Tait)

Millions in central U.S. brace for ‘life-threatening’ blizzards, potential floods

Floodwaters flow along a street in Pullman, Washington, U.S. in this still image taken from April 9, 2019 social media video. ELLIE STENBERG/via REUTERS

(Reuters) – A blizzard hitting the U.S. Rockies on Wednesday was forecast to move eastward over the next day, threatening to bring new flooding to the Plains states including parts of South Dakota and Missouri that are still recovering from last month’s inundation.

High spring temperatures will give way to heavy snow, gale-force winds and life-threatening conditions across a swathe of the central United States running from the Rockies to the Great Lakes, according to the National Weather Service.

“This is potentially a life-threatening storm,” Patrick Burke, a meteorologist with the NWS’s Weather Prediction Center in Maryland, said Wednesday.

A sign for shops is seen as floodwaters flow along a street in Pullman, Washington, U.S. in this still image taken from April 9, 2019 social media video. ELLIE STENBERG/via REUTERS

A sign for shops is seen as floodwaters flow along a street in Pullman, Washington, U.S. in this still image taken from April 9, 2019 social media video. ELLIE STENBERG/via REUTERS

A cyclone last month dropped heavy rains over that region, causing extensive flooding along the Missouri River and more than $3 billion in damage to property and crops in Nebraska and Iowa.

Pueblo, Colorado, hit 85 degrees Fahrenheit (30 Celsius) on Tuesday, but will drop down to 25F (minus 4C) by early Thursday. Similar temperatures are forecast in Denver.

The storm is expected to bring blinding, heavy wet snow across the region, likely downing trees and causing widespread power outages, widespread road closures and making driving treacherous, Burke said.

“It’s slow moving. It won’t push farther east until Friday,” he said.

Some areas of western Minnesota and southeast South Dakota were expected to get up to 30 inches of wet, heavy snow, the NWS said.

Two factors may limit the flooding effect, forecasters said. Thawed ground will be able to absorb more precipitation than last month’s frozen ground and a fall of heavy snow rather than rain will slow the runoff process.

Nearly 500 flights were canceled at Denver International Airport on Wednesday, about a quarter of its total schedule, according to FlightAware.com, an airline tracking website.

Airport officials said they had snow-removal crews in place.

The coming storm was expected to exacerbate flooding along the Missouri River in areas where dozens of levees were breached in March, exposing communities to future surges. The river was not expected to crest in areas of Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri until between three to five days after the storm.

The storm is expected to weaken and push off into the Great Lakes area and northern Michigan on Friday, bringing more rain and snow, the weather service said.

(Reporting by Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico, Rich McKay in Atlanta and Gina Cherelus in New York; Editing by Alison Williams and Susan Thomas)

Sanctions-hit North Korea warns of natural disaster brought by heat wave

FILE PHOTO: A North Korean flag flutters on top of a 160-metre tower in North Korea's propaganda village of Gijungdong, in this picture taken from the Tae Sung freedom village near the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), inside the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas, in Paju, South Korea, April 24, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea on Thursday called for an “all-out battle” against record temperatures that threaten crops in a country already grappling with tough international sanctions over its nuclear weapons program.

The resulting drought has brought an “unprecedented natural disaster”, the isolated nation said, warning against crop damage that could savage its farm-reliant economy, battered by sanctions despite recent diplomatic overtures.

“This high-temperature phenomenon is the largest, unprecedented natural disaster, but not an obstacle we cannot overcome,” the North’s Rodong Sinmun said, urging that “all capabilities” be mobilized to fight the extended dry spell.

Temperatures have topped a record 40°C (104°F) in some regions since late July, and crops such as rice and maize have begun to show signs of damage, the mouthpiece of the ruling Workers’ Party said in a front-page commentary.

“Whether the current good crop conditions, for which the whole nation has made unsparing investment and sweated until now, will lead to a bumper year in the autumn hinges on how we overcome the heat and drought,” it added.

Similar past warnings in state media have served to drum up foreign assistance and boost domestic unity.

“I think the message was a precautionary one to minimize any impact on daily life,” said Dong Yong-seung, who runs Good Farmers, a group based in Seoul, capital of neighboring South Korea, that explores farm projects with the North.

But the mention of unprecedented weather, and a series of related articles, suggest the heat wave could further strain its capacity to respond to natural disasters, said Kim Young-hee, a defector from North Korea and an expert on its economy at Korea Finance Corp in Seoul.

The warning comes after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un announced in April a shift in focus from nuclear programs to the economy, and held an unprecedented June summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in Singapore.

Since then, the young leader has toured industrial facilities and special economic zones near the North’s border with China, a move experts saw as a bid to spur economic development nationwide.

“He has been highlighting his people-loving image and priority on the economy but the reality is he doesn’t have the institutions to take a proper response to heat, other than opening underground shelters,” added Kim, the economist.

GOOD CROP CONDITIONS

Drought and floods have long been a seasonal threat in North Korea, which lacks irrigation systems and other infrastructure to ward off natural disasters.

Last year, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation warned of the North’s worst drought in 16 years, but late summer rains and privately produced crops helped avert acute shortages.

There appear to be no immediate signs of major suffering in the North, with rice prices stable around 62 U.S. cents per kg through the year to Tuesday, a Reuters analysis of data compiled by the Daily NK website showed.

The website is run by defectors who gather prices through telephone calls to traders in the North, gaining a rare glimpse into the lives of ordinary citizens.

Crops are good this year because there was little flooding to disrupt the early spring planting season, said Kang Mi-jin of the Daily NK, based in Seoul.

“They say nothing remains where water flowed away, but there is something to harvest after the heat,” Kang said, citing defectors. “Market prices are mainly determined by Chinese supplies and private produce, rather than crop conditions.”

The October harvest would reveal any havoc wreaked by the weather, Kim Young-hee added.

North Korea suffered a crippling famine in the 1990s when a combination of bad weather, economic mismanagement and the demise of fuel subsidies from the Soviet Union all but destroyed its state rationing system.

However, rationing has slowly been overtaken by an increase in foreign products, mainly from China, and privately produced food sold in North Korean markets, a factor experts say U.N. reports overlook.

The neighbors are in talks to help the North modernize its economy, step up disaster response measures and expand forests in a follow-up to April’s historic summit between Kim and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in.

Across the border, temperatures hit 39.6°C (103.28°F) in Seoul on Wednesday, their highest since weather authorities began monitoring in 1907. The heat has caused 29 deaths and injuries to more than 2,350 people, health officials have said.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin, Editing by Soyoung Kim and Clarence Fernandez)

Snowstorm, high winds, targets northern U.S. Plains, may stall spring planting

By Julie Ingwersen

CHICAGO (Reuters) – A blizzard is expected to bring high winds and 12 inches (30 cm) of snow or more to parts of South Dakota and Nebraska on Friday and Saturday, an agricultural meteorologist said on Thursday.

The snowfall, along with cold temperatures in the wake of the storm, could delay the planting of corn and spring wheat in the Dakotas and Minnesota into May.

Nebraska and Minnesota were the No. 3 and 4 corn producers last year in the United States, the world’s top supplier of the feed grain, and South Dakota was No. 6. For spring wheat, North Dakota and Minnesota are the top two U.S. growers.

“In addition to adding on to the snow pack in the northern Plains, it’s also a persistently cold pattern going forward,” said Joel Widenor, meteorologist with the Commodity Weather Group, adding, “It’s going to make it tough to dry out the soil.”

The storm should dump 6 to 12 inches (15 to 30 cm) of snow across parts of South Dakota, Widenor said. The National Weather Service projected 12 to 18 inches across northern Nebraska and posted blizzard warnings for both states.

“At this point, it seems like it’s going to be out into May before we get our first chance at some warming,” Widenor said.

He noted that in a typical year, farmers in the Dakotas, Minnesota and Nebraska by mid-May are at least halfway finished with seeding corn and spring wheat.

RAIN CHANCES IMPROVE FOR SOUTHERN PLAINS

Forecasting models indicated that another storm late next week could bring much-needed rain to the southern U.S. Plains winter wheat belt, although meteorologists were skeptical.

“The models definitely shifted wetter today versus where they have been the last couple days. But we are still very low confidence on that,” Widenor said.

The region’s hard red winter wheat has struggled with months of drought. The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Monday rated 30 percent of the overall U.S. winter wheat crop in good to excellent condition, compared with 32 percent the previous week and 53 percent a year ago.

Widenor said his firm’s current forecast called for about half of the Plains hard red winter wheat belt to receive 0.25 to 1 inch of rain from the storm arriving April 20, with the other half, including west Texas, western Oklahoma and southwest Kansas, missing out.

(Reporting by Julie Ingwersen; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

World has just months to stop starvation in Yemen, Somalia: Red Cross

People queue to collect food rations at a food distribution center in Sanaa, Yemen March 21, 2017. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – The world has got just three to four months to save millions of people in Yemen and Somalia from starvation, as drought and war wreck crops and block aid across the region, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said on Wednesday.

The agency said it needed $300 million to fund its work in those countries and other trouble spots in South Sudan and northeast Nigeria.

“We have probably a window of three to four months to avoid a worst case scenario,” Dominik Stillhart, the ICRC’s director of operations worldwide, told a Geneva news briefing.

“We have a kind of perfect storm where protracted conflict is overlapped, exacerbated by natural hazard, drought in particular in the Horn of Africa that is leading to the situation we are facing now,” he said.

More than 20 million people are facing famine in Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan and northeast Nigeria, say aid agencies.

Cholera, which can be deadly for children, is on the rise in Somalia, while an average of 20 people in Yemen are dying each day from disease or war wounds, ICRC officials said.

The ICRC appealed for $400 million for its operations in the four countries this year, but has received only $100 million so far, it said.

The United Nations has appealed for about $5.6 billion, bringing total funding needs to $6 billion, Stillhart said.

“There are significant needs and of course there are serious concerns in terms of having funding available sufficiently fast in order to avert what I said was a large-scale starvation,” he said.

“In 2011 the response was too slow and too late leading to starvation of 260,000 people in Somalia alone,” he warned.

Robert Mardini, ICRC regional director for the Middle East, said that an ICRC team who provided aid to wounded refugees after a helicopter attack killed more than 40 on their boat off the Yemen coast last Friday had collected “evidence”.

The evidence and ICRC concerns were shared with the Saudi-led coalition as well as the Houthi side, he said, declining to give more details.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, editing by Tom Miles)

Brazil races against time to save drought-hit city, dying crops

cracked ground in Brazil

By Anthony Boadle

CAMPINA GRANDE, Brazil (Reuters) – The shrunken carcasses of cows lie in scorched fields outside the city of Campina Grande in northeast Brazil, and hungry goats search for food on the cracked-earth floor of the Boqueirao reservoir that serves the desperate town.

After five years of drought, farmer Edivaldo Brito says he cannot remember when the Boqueirão reservoir was last full. But he has never seen it this empty.

“We’ve lost everything: bananas, beans, potatoes,” Brito said. “We have to walk 3 kilometers just to wash clothes.”

Brazil’s arid northeast is weathering its worst drought on record and Campina Grande, which has 400,000 residents that depend on the reservoir, is running out of water.

After two years of rationing, residents complain that water from the reservoir is dirty, smelly and undrinkable. Those who can afford to do so buy bottled water to cook, wash their teeth with, and even to give their pets.

The reservoir is down to 4 percent of capacity and rainfall is expected to be sparse this year.

“If it does not fill up, the city’s water system will collapse by mid-year,” says Janiro Costa Rêgo, an expert on water resources and hydraulics professor at Campina Grande’s federal university. “It would be a holocaust. You would have to evacuate the city.”

Brazil’s government says help is on the way.

REROUTING THE RIVER

After decades of promises and years of delays, the government says the rerouting of Brazil’s longest river, the São Francisco, will soon relieve Campina Grande and desperate farmers in four parched northeastern states.

Water will be pumped over hills and through 400 kilometers of canals into dry river basins in Ceará, Rio Grande do Norte, Pernambuco, and Paraíba, the small state of which Campina Grande is the second-biggest city.

Begun in 2005 by leftist president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the project has been delayed by political squabbles, corruption and cost-overruns of billions of dollars.

Brazil’s ongoing recession, which economists calculate has shrunk the economy of the impoverished northeast by over four percent during each of the past two years, made things even worse.

Now, President Michel Temer is speeding up completion of the project, perhaps his best opportunity to boost support for his unpopular government in a region long-dominated by native-son Lula and his leftist Workers Party.

In early March, Temer plans to open a canal that will feed Campina Grande’s reservoir at the town of Monteiro. The water will still take weeks to flow down the dry bed of the Paraíba river to Boqueirão.

With the quality of water in Campina Grande dropping by the day, it is a race against time.

Professor Costa Rêgo says the reservoir water will become untreatable by March and could harm residents who cannot afford bottled water.

Helder Barbalho, Temer’s minister in charge of the project, says the government is confident the water will arrive on schedule.

“We have to deliver the water by April at all costs,” he said.

CLIMATE CHANGE

Climate change has worsened the droughts in Brazil’s northeast over the last 30 years, according to Eduardo Martins, head of Funceme, Ceará state’s meteorological agency.

Rainfall has decreased and temperatures have risen, increasing demand for agricultural irrigation just as water supplies fell and evaporation accelerated.

Costa Rêgo blames lack of planning by Brazil’s governments for persistent and repeated water crises, shocking for a country that boasts the biggest fresh water reserves on the planet.

The reservoir supplying São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city and a metropolitan region of 20 million people, nearly dried up in 2015. The capital, Brasilia, resorted to rationing this year.

In Fortaleza, capital of Ceará and the northeast’s second largest city, the vital Castanhão reservoir is down to 5 percent of its capacity.

While that city will also get water from the São Francisco project, it will not arrive until at least year-end because contractor Mendes Junior abandoned work after being implicated in a major corruption scandal.

“Water from the São Francisco river is vital,” Ceará Governor Camilo Santana told Reuters. He said the reservoir can supply Ceará only until August.

After that, the state must use emergency wells and a mandatory 20 percent reduction in consumption to keep Fortaleza taps running until water arrives.

RATIONING

Ceará has had to cut back on irrigation, hurting flower and melon exporters, cattle ranchers and dairy farmers. They stand to flourish when the transfer comes through, but quenching the thirst of the cities will take priority.

In Campina Grande, a textile center, companies including industry leaders Coteminas and Alpargatas have curtailed expansion plans and drastically cut back consumption by recycling the water they use.

There, too, new water will first go towards solving the crisis in Campina Grande and surrounding towns. Only then will officials think about agriculture.

“First we have to satisfy the thirst of urban consumers. Only then can we think of producing wealth,” said Joao Fernandes da Silva, the top water management official in Paraíba.

Rationing has particularly hurt poorer urban families. Many have no running water or water tanks and instead store water in plastic bottles.

For those who have waited decades for the São Francisco transfer, they will believe it only when they see the water flow.

Brito said he and his neighbors survive on the social programs that were the hallmark of Lula and his Workers Party administration. Though tainted by corruption allegations, Lula remains Brazil’s most popular politician ahead of presidential elections next year.

“Without the Bolsa Familia program, we would be dying of hunger,” said Brito, who believes shortages could persist even after the river transfer. “It’s political season again, so they promise us water, just for our votes.”

(Additional reporting by Ueslei Marcelino and Sergio Queiroz; Editing by Paulo Prada, Daniel Flynn and Bernadette Baum)

U.S. lists first bumble bee species as endangered

bumble bee on flower

By Steve Gorman

(Reuters) – The rusty patched bumble bee, a prized but vanishing pollinator once familiar to much of North America, was listed on Tuesday as an endangered species, becoming the first wild bee in the continental United States to gain such federal protection.

One of several species facing sharp declines, the bumble bee known to scientists as Bombus affinis has plunged nearly 90 percent in abundance and distribution since the late 1990s, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The agency listed the insect after determining it to be in danger of extinction across all or portions of its range, attributing its decline to a mix of factors, including disease, pesticides, climate change and habitat loss.

Named for the conspicuous reddish blotch on its abdomen, the rusty patched bumble bee once flourished across 28 states, primarily in the upper Midwest and Northeast — from South Dakota to Connecticut — and in the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec.

Today, only a few small, scattered populations remain in 13 states and Ontario, the Fish and Wildlife Service said.

The agency in September listed seven varieties of yellow-faced, or masked, bees in Hawaii as endangered. But Bombus affinis is the first bumble bee species to given that status, and the first wild bee of any kind to be listed in the Lower 48 states.

Bumble bees, as distinguished from domesticated honey bees, are essential pollinators of wildflowers and about a third of all U.S. crops, from blueberries to tomatoes, according to the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, which petitioned the government for protection of the insect.

Pollination services furnished by various insects in the United States, mostly by bees, have been valued at an estimated $3 billion each year.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature ranks the rusty patched as one of 47 species of native U.S. and Canadian bumble bees, more than a quarter of which face a risk of extinction.

Government scientists point to a certain class of pesticides called neonicotinoids — widely used on crops, lawns, gardens and forests — as posing a particular threat to bees because they are absorbed into a plant’s entire system, including leaf tissue, nectar and pollen.

Bumble bee populations may be especially vulnerable to pesticides applied early in the year because for one month an entire colony depends on the success of a solitary queen that emerges from winter dormancy, the wildlife service said.

Listing under the Endangered Species Act generally restricts activities known to harm the creature in question and requires the government to prepare a recovery plan. It also raises awareness and helps focus conservation planning for the imperiled species.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Sandra Maler)

U.S. GMO food labeling bill passes Senate

A customer picks up produce near a sign supporting a ballot initiative in Washington state that would require labelling of foods containing genetically modified crops at the Central Co-op in Seattle, Washington October 29, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Redmond

By Chris Prentice

(Reuters) – The U.S. Senate on Thursday approved legislation that would for the first time require food to carry labels listing genetically-modified ingredients, which labeling supporters say could create loopholes for some U.S. crops.

The Senate voted 63-30 for the bill that would display GMO contents with words, pictures or a bar code that can be scanned with smartphones. The U.S. Agriculture Department (USDA) would decide which ingredients would be considered genetically modified.

The measure now goes to the House of Representatives, where it is expected to pass.

Drawing praise from farmers, the bill sponsored by Republican Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas and Democrat Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan is the latest attempt to introduce a national standard that would override state laws, including Vermont’s that some say is more stringent, and comes amid growing calls from consumers for greater transparency.

“This bipartisan bill ensures that consumers and families throughout the United States will have access, for the first time ever, to information about their food through a mandatory, nationwide label for food products with GMOs,” Stabenow said in a statement.

A nationwide standard is favored by the food industry, which says state-by-state differences could inflate costs for labeling and distribution. But mandatory GMO labeling of any kind would still be seen as a loss for Big Food, which has spent millions lobbying against it.

Farmers lobbied against the Vermont law, worrying that labeling stigmatizes GMO crops and could hurt demand for food containing those ingredients, but have applauded this law.

Critics like Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, say the bill’s vague language and allowance for electronic labels for scanning could limit its scope and create confusion.

“When parents go to the store and purchase food, they have the right to know what is in the food their kids are going to be eating,” Sanders said on the floor of the Senate ahead of the vote.

He said at a news conference this week that major food manufacturers have already begun labeling products with GMO ingredients to meet the new law in his home state.

Another opponent of the bill, Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon, said it would institute weak federal requirements making it virtually impossible for consumers to access information about GMOs.

LOOPHOLES

Food ingredients like beet sugar and soybean oil, which can be derived from genetically-engineered crops but contain next to no genetic material by the time they are processed, may not fall under the law’s definition of a bioengineered food, critics say.

GMO corn may also be excluded thanks to ambiguous language, some said.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) raised concerns about the involvement of the USDA in a list of worries sent in a June 27 memo to the Senate Agriculture Committee.

In a letter to Stabenow last week, the USDA’s general counsel tried to quell those worries, saying it would include commercially-grown GMO corn, soybeans, sugar and canola crops.

The vast majority of corn, soybeans and sugar crops in the United States are produced from genetically-engineered seeds. The domestic sugar market has been strained by rising demand for non-GMO ingredients like cane sugar.

The United States is the world’s largest market for foods made with genetically altered ingredients. Many popular processed foods are made with soybeans, corn and other biotech crops whose genetic traits have been manipulated, often to make them resistant to insects and pesticides.

“It’s fair to say that it’s not the ideal bill, but it is certainly the bill that can pass, which is the most important right now,” said American Soybean Association’s (ASA) director of policy communications Patrick Delaney.

The association was part of the Coalition for Safe and Affordable Food, which lobbied for what labeling supporters termed the Deny Americans the Right to Know, or DARK Act, that would have made labeling voluntary. It was blocked by the Senate in March.

(Reporting by Chris Prentice in New York; Additional reporting by Karl Plume in Chicago, Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles and Kouichi Shirayanagi and Eric Beech in Washington; Editing by Marguerita Choy and Ed Davies)