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Local ag leaders assess Mexico's biotech corn decree

QUEENSTOWN — Eastern Shore grain farmers are waiting to see how a trade dispute between the U.S. and Mexico will transpire in the coming weeks.

Senators, trade officials and the Biden administration are urging Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to change course on a proposed ban of biotech corn imports to Mexico. The vast majority of U.S. corn is biotech.

López Obrador announced in late 2020 that he would implement a decree banning biotech corn into the country beginning in early 2024.

A congressional briefing hosted by the National Corn Growers Association on Jan. 31 was held on the one-year mark from the decree’s effective date.

During the discussion, growers emphasized the ban would land a significant blow to the American economy.

The statements included praise from corn growers for the Biden administration’s most recent action, which took a tough position with Mexico over the proposed ban.

Local experts weighed in last week on possible implications of the ban. While most of the corn grown on the Eastern Shore goes directly to Delmarva’s poultry processors, its price is affected by global markets.

“Frankly, I think that the policy is going to be pretty difficult for Mexico to implement and stand behind,” said Lindsay Thompson, executive director of Maryland Grain Producers, a trade association based in Queenstown.

On Dec. 14, 2022, a bipartisan letter sent to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Ambassador Katherine Tai, U.S. Trade Representative, by U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., and 25 of her Senate colleagues outlined their concerns. The letter was not signed by Maryland Senators Chris Van Hollen or Ben Cardin.

The letter stated that Mexico’s actions “are unsupported by science and a breach of USMCA … would be detrimental to food security in Mexico, hurt U.S. agricultural sustainability, and stifle future agricultural technology innovations that would benefit both nations.”

“Mexico bought over 660 million bushels of corn last year, and banning biotech would mean that about 90% of the U.S. corn acreage would not be available for export to Mexico,” Thompson said.

A Jan. 31 NCGA press release stated, “According to forecasts, the ban on biotech corn would cause the U.S. economy to lose $73.8 billion over ten years in economic output along with 32,217 jobs annually with labor income falling $18 billion.”

U.S. trade representatives are urging Obrador to comply with the terms of the U.S. Mexico Canada Trade Agreement of 2020.

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration, the USMCA “includes cooperation on agricultural biotechnology which includes rules – for the first time in a U.S. trade agreement — to address all biotechnologies, including new technologies such as gene editing, to support 21st century innovations in agriculture.”

Farmer Jennie Schmidt of Sudlersville is an advisor with the U.S. Grains Council. A registered dietitian, as well, she wrote her master’s thesis on food and agricultural biotechnology “before GMO was controversial,” she said.

Schmidt cited the National Academy of Sciences’ “very extensive review of all the research available of the health implications, the environmental implications, every rock that they could turn over about the pros and cons of this technology.”

The 600-page report “basically summarized that this type of seed breeding within our food supply doesn’t have any additional risk than every other breeding technique — and there are several — could produce in our food system,” she said.

Having been in the “commercial pipeline now for almost 30 years, there’s no health or environmental concern with regards to this technology,” Schmidt said. “And 97% of farmers in the United States have adopted biotechnology in corn and soybean, predominantly in seed technology.”

Mexico is one of the top three biggest trading partners for the U.S., and the southern neighbor’s demand for yellow corn for livestock is high. White corn is used for human consumption.

In their Dec. 14 letter, the senators reminded Vilsak and Tai that, according to the USDA, “in 2021 the United States exported 16.8 million metric tons of corn to Mexico, A World Perspective analysis estimates that under the decree, approximately 14 million tons of United States corn exports could be displaced. This would create a shortage of needed corn that Mexico would not be able to make up in the short term. Further, in Mexico, the price of corn could increase by 19 percent, and the price of tortillas could increase by 30 percent.”

Food costs are driven in part by the expense of shipping grain, Schmidt said. The U.S. uses rail freight to transport corn to Mexico; shipping from other countries would therefore increase the cost Mexico would pay for corn.

From a nutritional standpoint, feeding animals grain to supply people with “highly nutritious, concentrated sources of protein” is an indicator of upward economic mobility, she said.

“Farmers definitely see genetic modification as a very important and beneficial technology,” Thompson said. One of its benefits is lessening the environmental impact characteristic of older agricultural practices.

“Genetically modified crops allow farmers to practice conservation practices like no-till and cover crops,” she said. Also, it’s making corn more efficient from a nutrient standpoint. The nutrient use efficiency, or the pounds of nitrogen that it requires to grow a bushel of corn has decreased with the advent of genetic modification. The more nutrients that are being taken up into the crop, the less nutrients are available for potential loss.”

On Jan. 10, Vilsak told reporters at the 2023 American Farm Bureau Convention in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the US will not compromise with Mexico over the proposed ban.

The Biden administration began talks with Mexican officials in late 2022, and Mexico offered a revised decree. In mid-January, President Biden dispatched senior aides from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the office of the U. S. Trade Representative to Mexico City to meet with officials in the López Obrador administration.

In a statement following the meeting, USTR and USDA officials said the revised decree offered by Mexico to date was not sufficient. The officials said they made it clear to their Mexican counterparts that they are considering all options, including taking formal steps to enforce the issue under the USMCA.

Employee of the Year award winners and Teacher of the Year finalists announced

CENTREVILLE — The finalists have been announced! Queen Anne’s County Public Schools’ Superintendent, Dr. Patricia Saelens, officially recognized the 2023 Employee of the Year award winners and Teacher of the Year finalists last week. Each of the nine staff members receiving the honor were surprised at their schools with certificates and acknowledgements captured by QACTV and presented by Saelens and Assistant Superintendent Dr. Marcia Sprankle.

Employee of the Year Winners for 2023 are:

Outstanding Leadership Award — Principal Susan Walbert, Church Hill Elementary

Outstanding Student Service Award/Coach — Coach David Stricker, Queen Anne’s County High

Outstanding Support Employee — School Assistant Junell Nash, Matapeake Middle

Outstanding Specialist Award — Math Specialist Katie Coursey, Centreville Elementary

Outstanding Bus Driver Award — Nancy King, Bus 1710 Grasonville Elementary and Stevensville Middle

The four finalists for Teacher of the Year are: Kayla Kairis, Sudlersville Middle; Thomas Hayman, Centreville Middle; Erin Connolly, Matapeake Middle and Andrea Schulte, Kent Island High School.

All will be recognized and given their awards at the annual awards gala on March 30.

QA county commission hears about skate park, animal services

CENTREVILLE — Commissioner Jack Wilson delivered a stern warning about a steep increase in mandatory education expenditures during his comments at the Queen Anne’s County commission meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 28, in Centreville.

Wilson referred to a meeting the prior night about the upcoming implementation of the Blueprint for Learning education law and other possible state initiatives.

“Some of the bills coming out in Annapolis are just so far-fetched. A common denominator amongst a lot of them is that they are going to have a two year life span with the state supporting them and funding them, and then the state will pull their funding away,” Wilson said.

He said his experience with previous initiatives with similar programs showed the burden for funding would be shifted to local government. “That’s going to become a county unfunded mandate two years from now,” he said.

Wilson said he hoped many of the ideas would stall before becoming law. “With the school funding going where it’s going in the next couple of years, and just keep piling that on — it’s going to get tough in terms of budgetary constraints,” he said.

Other business included Chief of Animal Services Kelly Hamilton’s report to the commissioners, her first of her tenure in that position.

“We’re not just dogs and cats,” Hamilton said, “although you can see that’s the bulk of what we do take in.”

Hamilton said stray animals were the largest share of animals taken in, for a total of 412 strays out of 1029 in 2022. Owner surrenders accounted for 304, returned adoptions included 60, and other types of intake included transfers in from other counties and animals brought in by animal control.

Dogs accounted for 336 of the total, while cats were 626. An assortment of animals made up the other 67, including a chinchilla.

Beginning in April 2022, Animal Services no longer took in feral cats, unless they are sick or injured, she noted. Healthy feral cats are now put in the Trap/Neuter and Release program, in which cats are vaccinated, microchipped and neutered before being released back to the familiar territory where they were captured.

Hamilton said the organization qualifies as a “no kill” shelter due to the 97.6% live release rate.

Hamilton said efforts of the animal services department to reach out to the community were ongoing, and she thanked community members for their ongoing generosity in sending donations.

Parks and Recreation Director Steve Chandlee also presented the commissioners with an update on the county’s facilities and ongoing programs.

Chandlee included a report on the county’s effort to build a new skatepark. He shared information gathered in the community outreach effort by the company contracted to building the skate park, the American Ramp Company.

In a week’s time, Chandlee said a survey about a prospective park received 335 responses, including 247 on the first day of the survey.

Of the more than 300 respondents included 68, 12 to 18-year-olds replied with the largest responding majority being young adults and parents in their 30’s and 40’s.

“This is going to be a project that has a lot of community involvement, and hopefully we can get the majority of what people want,” Chandlee said.

The commissioners discussed the potential site for the skate park, the property across the street from the business park adjacent to Cockey Lane.

Chandlee responded from his experience as a Parks and Recreation employee about the stake park the county had several years earlier. He said the earlier iteration was flawed because of its secluded location.

Chandlee said skate culture has changed, and that the demographic shift in the skate community was demonstrated in the variety of the ages of the survey respondents.