May 23 2013

Kathleen Merrigan on agriculture’s political problems

The Farm Journal reports on a speech given by Kathleen Merrigan, who recently stepped down as USDA Deputy Secretary, to  Crop Life’s 2013 National Policy Conference.     

Why did she step down?  ”Because it’s a hard job.”

Her speech dealt with problems faced by agriculture in today’s political climate.  She listed ten.  These begin with (1) immigration, (2) tax reform, and (3) food safety.

Number 9 was GMO labeling:

Merrigan described this as a sort of “whack-a-mole” problem. USDA and FDA haven’t allowed organic producers to put “non-GMO” on labels, but support is growing in some states, such as Washington, to require labeling. She says people want a verdict and she doesn’t expect the issue to go away. 

I don’t either.

May 22 2013

Civics lesson: SNAP amendments to the farm bill

I know the mere words “farm bill” are enough to put any sane person into a coma, but what’s happening in Congress can be quite entertaining if you don’t care what happens.

For example, the bill is so big and covers so much territory that just about every legislator introduces amendments (these are tracked by FarmBillPrimer.org).

Because SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) takes up 80% of farm bill funding to the tune of about $80 billion a year, lots of amendments deal with further decreasing the budget allocation or restoring amounts that have been cut.  So far, none of these has passed.

But legislators have other things they want SNAP to do.  For example, Senator Tom Coburn MD (Rep-Oklahoma) has introduced several amendments pertaining to SNAP, among them:

Amendment 1000 - Junk Food Purchases with SNAP: Requires the Secretary of Agriculture to approve state demonstration projects that limit the purchase of junk food under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Additional information here

 

Energy drinks, candy bars, sodas, ice cream, potato chips, fancy bakery cakes and cookies are all eligible foods under the program, as defined by statute…Few people would qualify these goods as “nutritional assistance.”

Amendment 1001 - Food Stamps: Returns the title of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to its original name, the Food Stamp program. Additional information here.   

Congress renamed the Food Stamp Program to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and made a name change to the underlying legislative bill governing food stamps. Given spending patterns and eligible purchases in the program, though, SNAP is anything but nutritious for recipients or the country as a whole. Instead of misleading the public as to its benefits, SNAP should be renamed its original title, the Food Stamp Program. This name…is also a reminder of the core goal of the program: to serve our nation’s most vulnerable.

Amendment 1002 - SNAP Promotion Limitation: Limits the amount of SNAP funding that may be used to promote increased participation and enrollment in the program to 1% of overall funds and prevents SNAP funding for soap operas and parties. Additional information here.

Giveaways, soap operas, and radio miniseries all may be solid advertising opportunities for private companies wishing to market a product. They are not, however, appropriate uses of taxpayer funds to advocate for greater enrollment in SNAP, which would even further drain the government’s already-depleted coffers.

 Want to take bets on whether the Senate, let alone the House, will pass any of these?
May 21 2013

FoodNavigator-USA’s enlightening interview: the industry POV on GMOs

I just read Elaine Watson’s lengthy interview on FoodNavigator-USA with Cathy Enright, the executive vice president for food and agriculture at the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO)—the trade organization for producers of GMO foods.

If you have any doubts about why the agbiotech industry has failed “to win hearts and minds about the merits of genetically engineered ingredients,” read this interview.

Ms. Enright’s comments are remarkable for their tone-deafness to the issues that so trouble ordinary people about GMO foods.

Here, for example, are few selected quotes from the interview:

  • Consumers are not worried about biotechnology in other areas of their lives…Take human insulin [injected by millions of diabetics every day], which is genetically engineered, or some cancer drugs. But when it comes to food, people are making emotional not factual arguments.
  • The food industry has let the debate be hijacked by a small group of well-organized and media-savvy advocacy groups with connections to the natural and organic industry, which has a vested interest in this debate.
  • There has been a sophisticated and coordinated attempt to create a sense of alarm about foods we have been consuming safely for decades.
  • We have a climate in the US now that is incredibly unfriendly to food biotechnology. Yet we need to dramatically increase the protein supply if we are going to feed everyone by 2050.
  • If the anti-biotech lobby gets its way, these new products (plus a host of others…) will be rejected by consumers before they even get to market.
  • We are not saying that people don’t have the right to know what’s in their food, but mandatory GMO labeling ‘prominently displayed’, as is proposed, is not informing people, it’s scaring people.  It’s saying these foods are different, unhealthy or unsafe, and that is just not true.

One more time:  Whether or not GMO foods are the same as other foods, healthy, or safe, there are plenty of reasons for concerns about them, many of them quite rational.  The most obvious is transparency.  It’s time BIO recognized that it will never win the hearts and mind of the public until it labels GMO foods as such.

The sooner the industry does that, the sooner  the conversation about the merits of GMO foods can begin.

May 20 2013

What I’m reading about the farm bill: sarcastic, sober, troubling

The best recent analysis of what’s happening with the farm bill comes from Tom Laskawy on Grist.

For one thing, it has a great title: “Undead farm bill: Everyone’s favorite legislative zombie shuffles on.”

For another, it makes a troubling point: if Congress fails to pass a farm bill, the good parts go out with the bad.

Actually, the question really is whether Congress will ever pass a farm bill again. For the first time, those close to the legislative process are starting to have their doubts. And that may be a really bad thing.

Bah, humbug, you say! The farm bill is larded with bipartisan subsidies for the largest-scale farmers who grow commodities like corn, soy, and cotton. It’s also the bill that authorizes the federal crop insurance program, which has grown like gangbusters over the last decade. Last year (thanks to the drought) farmers received over $17 billion in insurance payouts — almost all of which benefited large-scale commodity agriculture. A chicken pox on all their coops!

That not an unreasonable reaction. But also at stake in the farm bill are billions of dollars for conservation programs that help farmers mitigate the environmental effects of their work, and pay them to set aside marginal farmland as wildlife habitat. It also contains millions in federal funds that support organic farmers, help younger and “new” farmers get their start, and prop up local food efforts, organic research, and farmers markets.

What’s good in the current farm bill draft?  The Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance (which represents growers of fruits, vegetables, nuts) summarizes:

  • Specialty Crop Block Grants funded at $72.5 million in fiscal 2014-2017 and $85 million in FY2018
  • Specialty Crop Research Initiative funded at $50 million in FY2014-15; $55 million in FY 2016-2017; and $65 million in FY2018
  • Coordinated Plant Management Program funded at $62.5 million in FY2014-2017 and $75 million in FY2018
  • Market Access Program and Technical Assistance for Specialty Crops fully funded at 2008 Farm Bill levels
  • Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program fully funded at 2008 Farm Bill levels
  • Section 32 specialty crop purchases at 2008 levels
  • DoD Fresh program fully funded at $50 million per year consistent with 2008 Farm Bill levels
Dan Flynn of Food Safety News compares the amount of time spent on the farm bill to the Korean War and explains the meaning of its  proposal to transfer “non-inspection” of catfish from USDA to FDA.

Here are the bills:

This is all so disheartening.  Eternal optimist that I am, even I am having trouble with this one.

May 17 2013

How to recognize industry groups in disguise

Michele Simon and the Center for Food Safety have just come out with a new report: Best Public Relations Money Can Buy: A Guide to Food Industry Front Groups.

 This report explains how how Big Food and Big Ag promote their agendas through organizations with consumer-friendly names such as the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, the Center for Consumer Freedom, and the Alliance to Feed the Future.

The report is guide to recognizing such groups for what they really are.

It’s great to have it.

Addition: Here’s Michele Simon’s discussion of her new report.

May 16 2013

The farm bill’s nutrition efforts: practically irrelevant to SNAP

SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is funded by Title IV in the farm bill, currently under consideration in Congress.   It accounts for about 80% of the total farm bill funding, and costs taxpayers about $80 billion a year.

SNAP is an entitlement, which means that everyone who qualifies gets benefits—unless Congress changes that.  So far, all it is doing is trying to cut budget.

Although SNAP is under the Nutrition title, little about the program is designed to improve the nutrition and health of participants.  But the farm bill has plenty to say about nutrition—just not for SNAP participants.

Much of the Senate version of the Nutrition Title is about continued funding for food assistance programs other than SNAP:

  • The Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP)
  • The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) which mainly works through food banks
  • The Department of Defense Fresh Program (fresh foods to schools and service institutions)
  • Agriculture Marketing Service pilot programs in states for to source local foods
  • The Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program (coupon exchange at farmers’ markets, roadside stands, and community supported agriculture programs).
  • A new Pulse Products Program that encourages sampling of a variety of beans and peas for use in school meal programs (I suspect some lobbying here).
  • A Healthy Food Financing Initiative to administer loans and grants to improve access to healthy foods in “food deserts.”
  • The Fresh Fruit and Vegetables Program to provide free fresh fruits and vegetables to low-income elementary school children
  • Grants to eligible nonprofit organizations to improve community access to food through school gardens programs and urban greenhouse initiatives
  • A new Service and Learning program funded at $25 million in which members work in K-12 schools to engage children in experiential learning about agriculture, gardening, nutrition, cooking and where food comes from. [Wow!  This one reads as if written to support FoodCorps---wouldn't that be terrific!]
  • Interagency taskforce to coordinate and direct programs that supply food to key nutrition programs like the Emergency Food Assistance Program and National School Lunch Program.

And here’s another one about the Dietary Guidelines for Americans of all things [whose bright idea was this?]:

  • Not later than the 2020 report [the Dietary Guidelines for Americans] and in each report thereafter, the Secretaries [of USDA and HHS] shall include national nutritional and dietary information and guidelines for pregnant women and children from birth.

The Senate bill does have one useful, if poorly funded, piece directed at the health of SNAP participants, and another aimed at retailers:

  • Grants to expand the purchase of fruits and vegetables by SNAP participants through programs like “Double Up Food Bucks.”
  • Requires retailers who accept SNAP benefit payments to stock a wider range of healthful foods.

The House bill does more or less the same with the addition of:

  • Grants for eligible nonprofit organizations seeking and developing innovative ways to improve community access to healthy foods.
The costs of these changes are not specified except in just a few cases.
Budget cuts are the big issue.

Small-farm activist Ferd Hoefner, policy director at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, said the quarrel over SNAP could rupture a long-standing partnership of rural and urban lawmakers who supported farm programs on the one hand, and public nutrition programs on the other.

“Is this the end of the farm bill coalition?” Hoefner said.

Is it?  I wonder if we will ever have a Congress that puts a little vision into this bill and writes legislation to solve some of our country’s agriculture, poverty, and health problems, interconnected as they are.

May 15 2013

The Ag Committees’ Farm Bill Title IV (food stamps): Mean-Spirited

SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program-–Title IV in the Senate and the House farm bills—is the elephant in the room because it takes up roughly 80% of the bill’s total cost to taxpayers.   SNAP benefits cost roughly $80 billion per year for 47.5 million participants.

Yesterday, the Senate Agriculture Committee passed its version of the farm bill with no amendments to its draft of  the Title IV Nutrition section.  The committee proposes more than $4 billion in cuts to SNAP over the next 10 years.

Joel Berg, Executive Director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger said of the vote:

Unfortunately…[the Senate Ag Committee] passed a bill that values foreign corporate welfare over feeding our children, seniors, and low-income working people. If this version of the Farm Bill becomes law, $4.1 billion in SNAP funding would be cut, and that would mean $90 less a month for 500,000 families already struggling to make ends meet.

For out-of-work American adults and their out-of-luck children, SNAP is a lifeline, the remaining survivor of the once effective safety net.

SNAP is an entitlement, which means that anyone who qualifies is eligible to receive benefits.  That’s how Congress set it up but with budget cuts the only issue of concern, the $80 billion annual cost of SNAP is a sitting duck.

That’s why these bills look so mean-spirited.

Apparently, Congress could not care less about making sure that the down-and-out have access to better and healthier food.

Instead, the emphasis is on reducing enrollments and preventing fraud.  Yes, fraud is a problem in SNAP, but a relatively small one.  And whether fraud is worth the time, energy, and hundreds of millions of dollars a year spent on its prevention is arguable.

But this is about politics, and it’s possible that the new anti-fraud measures may be a small price to pay for hanging onto the bulk of the benefits.

As the Senate summary puts it:

The Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2013 strengthens the integrity and accountability of federal nutrition programs. The legislation ensures that every dollar be spent responsibly so that those who need help can get it. The bill cracks down on fraud and abuse, while strengthening efforts to get food assistance to those most in need.

The proposed bill:

  • Cracks down on trafficking (and allocates $12 million per year for that purpose)
  • Prevents lottery winners from receiving benefits
  • Prevents college students from misusing benefits
  • Limits SNAP eligibility for college students
  • Prevents utility allowances from influencing size of benefits

The House summary says: “FARRM makes common-sense reforms, closes program loopholes, and cracks down on waste,fraud, and abuse saving the American taxpayer over $20 billion.”

  • Ensures all households meet the asset and income tests stated in SNAP law before they can receive benefits.
  • Updates financial resource limits to more accurately reflect low-income households.
  • Restricts categorical eligibility to only those households receiving cash assistance from Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), or other state general assistance programs.
  • Stops states from giving recipients utility benefit payments that increase SNAP benefits.
  • Ends SNAP benefits for lottery or gambling winners.
  • Prevents traditional college students from receiving SNAP.
  • Requires states to verify SNAP benefits are not paid to deceased individuals.
  • Requires states to verify that beneficiaries are not receiving payments in more than one state.
  • Prevents SNAP benefits from being used to pay for substantial bottle deposits when contents are dumped and bottles returned for refunds..
  • Prohibits counting medical marijuana as an income deduction for SNAP benefits.
  • Ensures illegal Immigrants do not receive SNAP benefits.
  • Prevents USDA from promoting the SNAP program through outreach via television, radio and billboard advertisements.
  • Prohibits USDA from entering into agreements with foreign governments designed to promote SNAP benefits.
  • Requires states to report outcomes on education and training programs for SNAP recipients.

Yes, most of these sound reasonable, although eliminating outreach seems like a really bad idea.  But do they represent the most serious problems with SNAP?

Where is congressional will to meet the needs of the poorest members of our society?  This is about cost-cutting and power politics.  It is not about taking care of the most vulnerable members of society, among them 23 million children.

Tomorrow, I’ll talk about the useful parts of this legislation—those focused on improving the health of SNAP participants—and why SNAP benefits are so contentious in this Congress.

In the meantime, the House Ag Committee does its version of the farm bill starting at 10:00 this morning.

May 14 2013

Attention policy wonks! It’s farm bill time again.

The Senate and House released their versions of the farm bill last week.  By size (1102 v. 576 pages) and extent of budget cuts ($23 billion v. $40 billion), these are  incompatible. I’m guessing that getting them passed and reconciled will require major compromises—hard to imagine for this dysfunctional Congress.

The Congressional Budget Office, according to the Hagstrom Report, estimates that the Senate bill will cost $955 billion from 2014 to 2023, and the House bill will cost $940 billion—but roughly $100 billion a year for the next 10 years.   Much is at stake.

The Senate Ag Committee is discussing its bill today (click here for details).  The House Ag Committee does this on Wednesday (click here).

To get up to speed, here are the relevant documents on the Senate side:

And here are the parallel documents on the House side:

As a reminder of what the farm bill is all about, see my previous posts on the subject from November 14 and November 26 2012.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), ever optimistic, has produced a report, The Healthy Farm: A Vision for U.S. Agriculture, identifying ways that the farm bill could—if there were any political will—support an agricultural system focused on producing abundant, affordable, and healthy food and on protecting the environment (also see its interactive healthy farm and take action sites).

During the coming days, I’ll take a stab at interpreting key pieces of the proposed bills.  Stay tuned.

2:00 p.m. addition: Jerry Hagstrom says the Senate Agriculture Committee has approved the farm bill by a vote of 15 to 5. Senators Roberts, McConnell, Johanns, Thune and Gillibrand voted no.  OK.  Now let’s see what the House does tomorrow.

Addition #2: Follow the amendments on FarmBillPrimer.org: Senate and House.

 

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