The term “massive farm bill” has been used repeatedly in the general media this week to describe the bills passed out by the Senate and House Agriculture Committees, and by “massive” they mean the farm portion of the bill, not the nutrition portion which accounts for 80% of the funding called for in the legislation.
“The Senate Agriculture Committee on Tuesday approved a massive five-year farm bill that would cut spending while also creating new subsidies for farmers,” reads the first sentence in an NPR story this week that was picked up and carried verbatim by many other news outlets.
The Senate bill cuts about $400 million out of almost $80 billion spent annually on food stamps, while at the same time cuts $5 billion a year in direct farm payments. The House bill makes deeper cuts in nutrition, about $20 billion over the life of the bill, while the programs for farmers take a hit of more than $18 billion.
“There will be some folks out in the countryside who will say ’80% of the bill is saving $20 billion and 20% of the bill is saving $18 billion, how can that be fair?’” said House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas meeting with farm broadcasters Wednesday just before the markup began. “This is the first real reform to the nutrition title in almost 20 years.”
The cuts to the nutrition title caused several members of the House committee to vote against the bill, and Lucas is well aware that will be one of the major sticking points when the bill gets to the floor of the House, which he believes will happen next month. “Whatever we do in the committee, many of the battles – whether it is over dairy, or sugar, or the size of the nutrition reforms, will be fought out again on the floor of the United States House,” he said to the farm broadcasters, echoing that sentiment after the bill was passed out of committee late Wednesday night. “We have an adventure ahead of us in June,” he said before banging the gavel to adjourn.
Agriculture groups seem quite willing to accept the disproportionate cuts for farm programs compared to nutrition programs because they want to see a bill passed that will finally allow them some kind of long term security to keep producing food and fiber for the country and the world. As long as there is just enough of a safety net to protect them from going bankrupt trying to do their job, farmers themselves are likely to agree that the bill is fair enough, but not at all “massive.”
As both the House and Senate Agriculture committees are marking up their versions of a farm bill this week, that was the number one issue for farm broadcasters meeting in the nation’s capitol for their annual Washington Watch.
“We absolutely want to get a farm bill done this year,” said Jon Doggett with the National Corn Growers Association. For corn growers, the top priority is risk management and crop insurance, which is why they joined with a number of other agriculture and environmental groups last week in hammering out a compromise to support tying conservation compliance and crop insurance but oppose means testing or payment limitations. “We worked out some common sense language that makes this a very workable program for growers that offers them plenty of opportunity that if they inadvertently get out of compliance they can quickly get back in,” he said. “In return, we have an assurance from the conservation community that they will be with us to protect the funding for crop insurance.”
Bills were introduced last week in the U.S. House and Senate that would require the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to “clearly label genetically engineered (GE) foods so that consumers can make informed choices about what they eat.”
The legislation would require clear labels for genetically engineered whole foods and processed foods, directing the FDA to write new labeling standards that are consistent with U.S. labeling standards and international standards.
To simplify, perhaps this wording would help: “This product may contain ingredients derived from safe modern biotechnology.” Just a suggestion.
For many farmers and ranchers, the federal agency that best exemplifies the cynical phrase “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you” is the Environmental Protection Agency.
During a Senate confirmation committee hearing last week, President Obama’s nominee for EPA Administrator admitted that the relationship between the agency and those working in agriculture could be improved.
“I think the agency has bridges to build with the agriculture community,” said nominee Gina McCarthy in response to questioning by Senator Deb Fischer of Nebraska about one particular rule that requires farmers to have an oil spill prevention plan in place to protect against water contamination. McCarthy said she looks forward to addressing the issue with Sen. Fisher and others because “I know just how hard the farming community protects their resources and I want to make sure that we have an opportunity to change the relationship between that community and the EPA.”
This week, EPA’s new senior Agricultural Counselor held a conference call with agriculture media to discuss how that might happen. Sarah Bittleman, who previously served as USDA’s Senior Advisor on energy policy, says she knows that there is a lack of trust in the agency on the part of farmers and ranchers.
“My job is to restore some of that trust,” she said, noting that it might be improved by working more closely with USDA, conservation districts and state departments of agriculture that have a better relationship with producers. “By partnering with these other folks who work so closely with agriculture, we can little by little grow a base of increased and better trust relationships,” Bittleman added.
Bittleman says her goal as EPA advisor is to serve rural America.
Without question, most Americans have probably wondered at one point or another where some members of the U.S. House of Representatives get their information. Prone to tossing about wildly inaccurate blanket statements, a segment of politicians aiming to bring down the Renewable Fuel Standard and our nation’s energy security are playing fast and loose with the truth.
And it seems like no one is watching.
Just today, CNN Money released a story about how the price for many consumer goods fell. Based upon information released by the Labor Department on changes during March to the Consumer Price Index, the story explained that one major factor contributing to the decreased CPI was a drop in food prices at the grocery store.
“Prices on whole milk, potatoes, lettuce and pork chops all declined during the month,” the article stated. “But food prices at restaurants and cafeterias rose slightly.”
Yet, only days ago, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) introduced legislation that would remove corn-based ethanol from the federal Renewable Fuels Standard in 2014. Calling the RFS an “unworkable federal policy”, Goodlatte even noted that he plans to introduce legislation which would eliminate the RFS entirely.
How do the bill’s supporters justify this attack?
Fellow sponsor Jim Costa (D-Calif.) explained, “We can’t afford to keep putting food in our fuel tanks. It’s no longer just about agriculture or energy. It’s about putting food on our families’ tables.”
With food prices at the grocery story, presumably the most common place to purchase affordable food for our families’ tables, actually falling and a lower percentage of our income going to food than any other developed nation, how does this justification make sense?
Simply, no one is taking time to connect the dots.
Allegations are thrown out and accepted as fact without any real evaluation. Looking at the news in its totality instead of as a series of unconnected sound bites shows the inherent fallacies in basis upon which these legislators are putting forth a bill that would have a massive impact on our nation’s energy supply.
An attack on the RFS is an attack on legislation that has successfully decreased our dependence on foreign oil while moving our nation toward a renewable, more environmentally friendly fuel. Make no mistake, a step in this direction will have consequences that every American feels in one way or another. Whether it is by paying more at the pump next year or by breathing in more harmful pollutants, handing back the gains made through the RFS will harm American families.
Good policy may be complex. It may not make a snappy sound bite. It is what Americans must protect to ensure a better future for their families.
“I believe we will have a bill this year because we have to have a bill this year.”
That’s what Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said to agricultural journalists meeting in Washington DC. While he is confident there will be a “food, farm and jobs” bill sometime this year, he’s not sure about exactly when that might be. “I don’t know when Congress is going to act,” said the secretary. “I know what the ag chairs have said and that is that they’re anxious to get started now.”
That seems to be the general consensus among the policy watchers on Capitol Hill but that’s just about the same thing that was being said last year at this time. The committees were starting to work and the industry was feeling confident that the work would be getting done before the 2008 bill expired in September. Obviously, it didn’t happen.
Secretary Vilsack had two main reasons why we “have to have a bill” this year. “Producers need solutions and a five year plan to make decisions, but there are certain parts of the bill that will resolve sticky issues for us” the Brazilian WTO case regarding cotton being the primary example.
Of course, we had those same two reasons last year, but it was still okay to “kick the can” down the road for awhile. Hopefully it will be different this year. There has to be a point where the road dead ends.
Beginning in summer 2012, the prices of ethanol and corn reached levels where production costs at relatively simple ethanol plants exceeded revenue. These simple plants, which are not able to recover corn oil, make up a diminishing portion of the ethanol industry. Reacting to the market conditions, several ethanol plants temporarily shut down. By January 2013, the number of idled ethanol plants had grown to at least 20.
Relatively simple ethanol plants produce ethanol and distillers grains from corn. More advanced plants are able to recover other products, like corn oil, from a portion of the distillers grains. Ethanol plants with corn oil recovery units are able to earn more revenue, so they usually have higher profit margins than plants without corn oil recovery, even if their production costs are slightly higher.
According to the EIA report, corn oil recovery is one of several strategies that the ethanol industry is developing to improve margins. “Others involve switching to processes that are more advantageous under the renewable fuels standard (RFS). For instance, Aemetis in Keyes, California, is changing its feedstock from corn to sorghum and replacing its natural gas consumption with biomass. Other companies plan to produce butanol rather than ethanol, or integrate cellulosic feedstock, such as wood waste or corn stover (e.g., leaves, stalks, and leftover cobs after the corn harvest). These approaches allow their products to qualify as advanced biofuels under the RFS, a category that specifically excludes ethanol produced from cornstarch, which has been the dominant feedstock for the U.S. ethanol industry.”
Read more here.
Whether critics of biotechnology in agriculture are being intentionally obtuse or honestly believe that it is acceptable to rage against proven technology while basing accusations in willful ignorance, the current backlash against Section 733 of the Fiscal Year 2013 Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration and Related Agencies Appropriations Act has painted an inaccurate picture of the provision and panicked many sensible Americans. Anti-biotech vigilantes using a truly ridiculous combination of ominous implications and arguments based in their own carefully cultivated ignorance have misled the masses and, in doing so, furthered the lack of understanding that makes many fearful of their food.
Section 733, in its essence, protects American family farmers who, due to frivolous lawsuits based in procedural arguments and directed at major corporations, could face serious economic harm. The provisions of this Act would assure farmers that they could plant and harvest crops developed through biotechnology already approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture under a temporary stewardship agreement in the event of litigation against the agencies decision.
In simple terms, Section 733 removes a potentially significant financial risk facing farmers. Today, the regulatory process for biotechnology leaves the family farmers who purchase seeds approved by their government vulnerable to costly losses should an activist group choose to legally challenge the government’s decision. Without this provision, these men and women, acting in good faith, become collateral damage in an ideological battle between those who embrace and eschew science.
The need for such protection has been made evident over the past several years as opponents of agricultural biotechnology have repeatedly filed lawsuits against the USDA on procedural grounds. In filing these suits, the anti-activists aim to disrupt the regulatory process and, in a broader fashion, undermine the science-based regulation of biotech ag products. These lawsuits strain USDA resources and delay the approval of new, innovative products America’s farmers need to grow abundant, affordable food and remain internationally competitive.
Furthermore, the anti-modern ag groups flaunt their use of the legal system as a weapon, openly admitting their intention of continuing to impede the availability of new products to the detriment of our nation’s farmers and consumers. In previous cases, these litigants have tied up the regulatory pipeline for years. Even when the Supreme Court has decided in favor of the defendants, these constant complainers continue creating controversy and threatening not only further delay but even the destruction of the crop grown by law abiding farmers.
While anti-activists may not understand sound science and live in constant denial of the overwhelming evidence that biotechnology is not only safe but is beneficial, they intrinsically understand how to engineer panic and fear. They expertly manufacture the perception of public outrage and then use it as grounds on which to attack a provision intended to protect America’s farm families from their assault on science. The scorched-earth mentality of their assault dictates that their ability to inflict collateral damage be maintained.
Don’t fall for the self-serving hype disguised as righteous indignation. Assaults on biotechnology in general and Section 733 specifically are assaults on America’s farm families.
Iowa Governor Terry Branstad publicly made the case for the Renewable Fuel Standard and for introducing higher ethanol blends into the market in an eloquently penned opinion piece that ran in the Washington-centric publication Politico. Citing examples of how biofuels have benefited his state and looking toward the future of the industry, Branstad issued this appeal to logic at a time when important biofuels policies face an increasing number of attacks.
In the piece, Branstad not only points to the successes seen in Iowa economically from ethanol production, but he also directly speaks to often-repeated concerns over the impact that higher ethanol blends have on auto engines.
“Cars run well on higher blends of renewable fuel,” he explained. “Iowa’s state trooper fleet runs on E85. Ethanol is higher octane and thus a more powerful fuel. That extra octane provides an advantage to our law enforcement ranks and the high-performing vehicles they rely on daily.”
Branstad’s appeal for a steady hand in guiding the way into an American future that sees the full benefits of biofuels calls upon readers to think through the issues at hand and realize the importance of both the RFS and higher ethanol blends.
“We must not forget that most successful industries and innovations do not mature overnight. Cellphones were around since the 1970s but not widely adopted until the 2000s. And automobiles did not replace horse-drawn carriages in just a few years,” he concluded. “The RFS has been a key driver in this industry’s progress. We should not, and cannot, turn back that progress now.”
The chairman of the House Agriculture Committee spoke to farmer and rancher representatives in Washington DC at National Ag Day activities on Tuesday, praising those who work in the agriculture industry.
“The fact of the matter is we’re a critical part of the national economy and the food safety net for the country and the planet,” Congressman Frank Lucas (R-OK) said in an interview after his address to National Ag Day attendees. “We’ve been so successful in agriculture that there’s a tendency to ignore us – and people will ignore us at the peril of their future.”
Lucas explained where Congress is right now on a new farm bill and when he hopes to have it finished. “We are finishing up the budget process in the United States House and the Senate is doing that too,” he said. “Before the end of September, before the one year extension of the ’08 farm bill expires, we’ll have a new one signed into law and on the books. That’s my goal.”
Lucas says there are other issues the House Agriculture committee has on its plate now, such as oversight of the commodity futures trading commission and keeping an eye on how USDA is handling sequestration, especially when it comes to keeping meat inspectors on the job.