- FarmPolicy - http://farmpolicy.com -

Policy Issues; Crop Insurance; Egg Production; Climate; Biofuels; and Political Notes

Policy Issues- Corn Sweetener

Philip Brasher reported yesterday at the Green Fields Blog (Des Moines Register) that, “Soft drinks sweetened with corn may have a bigger impact on weight gain and other health issues than previously thought, if a study of fructose levels in sodas stands up.

“The study being published this week in the journal Obesity found that the sugar found in soft drinks may contain as much as 65 percent fructose. The corn sweetener level used in sodas is supposed to contain a nearly equal mixture of fructose and glucose, a similar ratio to that found in table sugar. Fructose tastes sweeter than glucose and fructose may be a larger contributor to weight gain because of the way the body metabolizes it, said the researchers at the University of Southern California. Fructose consumption also may be linked to high blood pressure and other health problems. The highest levels of fructose were found in Coca-Cola, Sprite and Pepsi products, both those sold in bottles and as fountain drinks.

“Representatives of the American Beverage Association and the Corn Refiners Association disputed the results. Maureen Storey, a senior vice president of the ABA, said it is implausible that the soft drinks would contain more than 55 percent fructose, the level found in the high fructose corn syrup used to sweeten them.”

Mr. Brasher pointed out that, “The study is raising concerns among some people outside the industry who have defended it from claims that corn sweetener was more harmful than sugar. Marion Nestle, a professor at New York University and authority on the food industry, has argued the corn sweetener couldn’t be worse than table sugar because both sweeteners were roughly equal parts fructose and glucose. Today she writes on her blog: ‘A percentage of 55 is not much different biologically than 50, which is why the assumption has been that there is no biologically meaningful difference between HFCS and table sugar. This study, if confirmed, means that this supposition may need some rethinking.’”

In related news, Mike Lillis reported yesterday at The Hill’s Healthcare Blog that, “Why, when faced with a childhood obesity epidemic, would the federal government continue to subsidize corn-based sweeteners suspected of contributing to the problem?

“That’s the question being posed Tuesday by several leading research physicians at Mount Sinai, who took out an ad in The New York Times asking why Congress subsidizes corn starch but not cauliflower.

“‘High-fructose corn syrup [HFCS] now represents 40 percent of the non-calorie-free sweeteners added to U.S. foods. It is virtually the only sweetener used in soft drinks,’ write Philip Landrigan, Mount Sinai’s dean for global health; Lisa Satlin, chair of the pediatrics department; and Paolo Boffetta, deputy director of the school’s Tisch Cancer Institute. ‘Because of the subsidies, the cost of soft drinks containing HFCS has decreased by 24 percent since 1985, while the price of fruits and vegetables has gone up by 39 percent.’”

Yesterday’s Hill update added that, “If Congress ever hopes to get the childhood obesity problem under control, health experts argue, a new look at farm subsidies will be vital.

“‘Curbing the obesity epidemic requires a multifaceted approach: education, increased physical activity, healthy school food, promotion of unprocessed foods — and a change in agriculture policy,’ the doctors write. ‘Coordinated national leadership is essential.’”

More generally with respect to the obesity issue, the Third Quarter issue of Choices magazine included a section titled, “Addressing the Obesity Challenge.”

One of the eight articles on this subject in the Choices issue, “Farm Policy and Obesity in the United States,” (Julian M. Alston, Bradley J. Rickard, and Abigail M. Okrent) indicated that, “Many commentators—including prominent economists, nutritionists, journalists, and politicians—have claimed that American farm subsidies have contributed significantly to the ‘obesity epidemic’ by making fattening foods relatively cheap and abundant, and that reducing these subsidies will go a long way towards solving the problem. These commentators often treat the issue as self-evident, and do not present either details on the mechanism by which farm subsidies are supposed to affect obesity, or evidence about the size of the likely impact. In this article we examine the consequences of U.S. farm subsidies—including indirect subsidies provided by trade barriers as well as direct subsidies—for prices of farm commodities and thus food products and caloric consumption patterns in the United States. We show that U.S. farm subsidies have had generally modest and mixed effects on prices and quantities of farm commodities, with negligible effects on the prices paid by consumers for food and thus negligible influence on dietary patterns and obesity. This result is consistent with some previous work by economists on the issue (see Alston, Sumner, and Vosti, 2008 and the papers they cite), but contradicts the mainstream view in the media.”

Policy Issues- Peanuts

A news release issued yesterday by the Georgia Peanut Commission stated that, “Peanut leaders met with U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack recently during his visit to South Georgia. He met with peanut leaders at the American Peanut Shellers Association office in Albany, Ga. Growers, buying points, shellers, manufacturers, U.S. Department of Agriculture officials along with local and state officials greeted the Secretary. U.S. Congressman Sanford Bishop hosted the meeting.

“Armond Morris, chairman of the Georgia Peanut Commission, spoke on behalf of Georgia’s 4,500 peanut farmers. Morris expressed concern to the Secretary for not including disaster assistance for peanuts in counties where assistance was provided to other commodities including rice, soybeans, cotton and sweet potatoes.”

The news item added that, “Morris encouraged the department to increase peanut butter purchases for federal nutrition and food aid programs, and to continue offering storage and handling in the next farm bill.

“‘We hope you will work towards a good, strong healthy 2012 farm bill,’ Morris says. ‘We would like to continue the direct payments and programs of the 2008 farm bill so we can keep the economy moving throughout the peanut belt in Georgia and keep people employed.’”

Crop Insurance

A news release yesterday from USDA’s Risk Management Agency (RMA) stated that, “Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today announced that [RMA] has awarded $9.6 million in Partnership Agreements to provide producers with opportunities to learn more about managing risk in their businesses, which provides an important educational opportunity for limited-resource and underserved farmers and ranchers. Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services Deputy Under Secretary Michael Scuse announced the awards on Vilsack’s behalf at the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture’s Annual Crop Insurance Conference.

“‘The partnerships we are announcing today will provide community-based opportunities for underserved, small and limited-resource producers to be better managers in an inherently risky business,’ said Scuse.”

Egg Production

A news release yesterday from the United Egg Producers stated that, “The vast majority of commercial egg production around the world continues to be in traditional cage housing, according to the latest statistics reported by the International Egg Commission (IEC) and released today by the United Egg Producers, America’s largest cooperative of egg farmers nationwide.

Approximately 85 percent of eggs worldwide are produced in traditional cages, according to the IEC report. Thirty of the 35 countries which the IEC surveyed had more than half of their eggs produced in modern cages, and 15 of the 35 countries produced more than 90 percent of their eggs in cages. Seven countries produce all of their eggs in cages, according to the report, including Mexico, China, Brazil, India, Turkey, United Arab Emirates and Iran. These countries would be in an ideal position to profit by increasing their export of eggs to the United States if egg cage housing restrictions are enacted here, as some animal rights activist groups have proposed. The United States produces 95 percent of its eggs in modern cage housing, and only 5 percent in cage-free or other non-cage type systems.

Gene Gregory, president of United Egg Producers, says that despite pressure and bullying tactics by some animal rights groups, the overwhelming majority of American consumers continue to prefer regular eggs from modern cage housing systems rather than cage-free. ‘Americans vote every day with their wallets, and regular eggs from modern cage housing systems win every time by a landslide ratio of 95 percent.’”

Climate Issues

The Wall Street Journal editorial board opined today that, “Anyone who cares about the U.S. economy is breathing easier now that cap and tax appears to be on the political garbage barge, but don’t be so sure. The White House is still pursuing its carbon agenda through regulation, albeit with almost no public attention, and a new study shows the damage that is already being done.

“Yesterday the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, a highly regarded federal energy advisory body, released an exhaustive ‘special assessment’ of this covert program. NERC estimates that the Environmental Protection Agency’s pending electric utility regulations will subtract between 46 and 76 gigawatts of generating capacity from the U.S. grid by 2015. To put those numbers in perspective, the worst-case scenario would amount to a reduction of about 7.2% of national power generation, and almost all of it will hit coal-fired plants, the workhorse that supplies a little over half of U.S. electricity.”

The Journal added that, “The larger point is that instead of debating a carbon program on the merits, the Obama Administration is now trying to impose the same burden step by step on the sly. At this point, the only way voters can stop the EPA is to install a check in one of the other branches of government. Election Day is Tuesday.”

Biofuels

In a letter to the editor in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack stated that, “Your editorial ‘The Ethanol Bailout’ (Oct. 18) challenging the ethanol industry and the Environmental Protection Agency sidesteps the critical role the ‘blend wall’ decision will play in building a sustainable green economy in America.

“The EPA’s decision to allow the increased use of ethanol in some automobiles is scientifically sound and follows a comprehensive review of extensive testing and other available data on E15’s impact on engine durability and emissions. What’s more, it will help ensure that the existing corn ethanol market acts as a successful stepping stone to a national biofuels industry that is creating jobs in every corner of the country using regionally appropriate feedstocks grown by American producers.”

Sec. Vilsack added that, “This week, I am outlining the Department of Agriculture’s strategy to assist in developing a biofuel industry powered by feedstocks produced in every corner of the country. We are coordinating the best science, technology and infrastructure solutions to help advance profitable biofuels produced from a diverse range of feedstocks. That includes addressing some of the issues raised in your editorial.

“Don’t forget, the petroleum industry receives billions of dollars in tax breaks each year from the federal government.”

Political Notes- Senate

DTN Political Correspondent Jerry Hagstrom reported yesterday (link requires subscription) that, “It would be hard to find another senator who has used her power in Washington to deliver as much for her state as Blanche Lincoln, the Arkansas Democrat who chairs the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee.

But this year, even with the chairmanship, Lincoln is facing an uphill battle to win re-election in a race against Rep. John Boozman, R-Ark. Even Lincoln admits she is behind in the polls, although she also says she believes she will win the election because Arkansans will examine her record before they vote.

In the 2008 farm bill debate, Lincoln defended cotton and rice subsidies against attacks by the Environmental Working Group and northern groups that believe southerners get an unfair percentage of the crop subsidies. After Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, left the chairmanship of the agriculture committee, Lincoln became the first Arkansan in history and the first female to chair the committee.”

Mr. Hagstrom explained that, “Lincoln is still making the case to Arkansas farmers that she is a centrist who stands up to power in Washington but also finds ‘common ground’ necessary to achieve goals, like passage of a farm bill.”

David Catanese reported yesterday at Politico that, “Beleaguered Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln says she would be in a dead heat with Republican Rep. John Boozman if it were not for the draining Democratic primary challenge she fought off this spring.

“Speaking to Arkansas Public Radio in Little Rock on Monday, the chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee appeared to blame Lt. Gov. Bill Halter and the swarm of outside groups that backed his insurgent bid for her current perilous political position.”

In a related article, Gary Fields reported in today’s Wall Street Journal that, “In a campaign season branded by voter anger, Arkansas Republican Rep. John Boozman has built a commanding lead while taking a low-key approach in his U.S. Senate campaign.

“Mr. Boozman talks in a soft-spoken drawl about his experiences as a University of Arkansas football player, and about opening an optometry practice in Rogers, Ark., when a local banker extended a loan to him.

“Absent a miraculous recovery by his opponent, Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln, Mr. Boozman is expected to join the incoming class of GOP lawmakers as the state’s second Republican senator since the 1870s.”

Meanwhile, Robin Bravender reported yesterday at Politico that, “With Sen. Blanche Lincoln facing a double-digit deficit in her reelection bid but Democrats favored to maintain control of the Senate, the Agriculture Committee is likely to be under new leadership come January.

Michigan’s Debbie Stabenow is seen as the front-runner to replace Lincoln, but that’s not a given. Nebraska moderate Ben Nelson might win the post as a consolation prize for staying in the Democratic Party, or Kent Conrad of North Dakota could abandon his budget chairmanship to take the helm.

The vacancy is a prime opportunity for Midwestern lawmakers looking to gain political currency, especially with the possibility of a multibillion-dollar farm bill coming in 2012.”

Yesterday’s article added that, “Sources close to the panel say the Michigan Democrat [Sen. Stabenow] is well-liked by her colleagues and earned their respect during the last round of farm bill negotiations by bridging the interests of states with commodity crops and those with specialty fruit and vegetables.

But because Michigan isn’t your typical Big Ag state, some observers say Stabenow might face opposition from powerful industry lobbies.”

“Democratic leadership could also skip Stabenow and use the spot as bait to keep Nelson from switching parties;” the Politico article said, while adding that, “The committee’s most senior Democrats aren’t expected to vie for the spot. Patrick Leahy of Vermont is chairman of the Judiciary Committee; Tom Harkin of Iowa gave up the Agriculture chairmanship to take the helm of the health panel when Sen. Ted Kennedy died; Conrad oversees the Budget Committee; and Max Baucus of Montana sits atop the powerful finance panel.

But Conrad might feel some pressure from his state’s massive agricultural interests to take the chairmanship.”

Political Notes- House Ag Committee Members

Samuel King reported on Monday at WSFA12News Online that, “Congressman Bobby Bright and his Republican Challenger, Montgomery City Councilwoman Martha Roby answered questions on a wide range of issues facing the Second Congressional District during a debate at the WSFA 12 Studios Monday night. The district covers 16 counties in South Central Alabama.” [Rep. Bright serves on the House Ag Committee and the race has been classified as a “Toss-up.”]

Monday’s report indicated that, “Bright also brought up the man who would be speaker if the Republicans win control of the House – Minority Leader John Boehner. He said Boehner opposed the farm bill, and would be harmful to Alabama farmers.

“While Boehner did oppose the last farm bill, there is no clear indication that Republicans would cut farm subsidies if the party gains control of Congress.”

Bennett Roth reported yesterday at Roll Call Online that, “Republican Chris Gibson has catapulted ahead of Democratic Rep. Scott Murphy in the race for upstate New York’s 20th district, according to an independent poll released Tuesday.

The survey found Gibson leading Murphy 51 percent to 42 percent, reversing a 17-point deficit from last month, according to the poll by the Siena College Research Institute.”

Rep. Murphy is on the Ag Committee and the race is called a “Toss-up.” The Roll Call article added that, “The district is one of several upstate New York districts won by Democrats in the past two cycles that the Republican Party and outside conservative groups have targeted this year. It’s also one that Roll Call recently moved from Leans Democratic to Tossup.”

With respect to the Toss-up race in North Dakota, Kasie Hunt reported yesterday at Politico that, “How much trouble is Rep. Earl Pomeroy [who is on the House Ag Comm] in? The nine-term Democrat is running an ad introducing himself to voters and acknowledging how angry they are. ‘I’d like to introduce myself. I’m not Nancy Pelosi. I’m not Barack Obama. I’m Earl Pomeroy,’ he says in a closing ad up Tuesday. ‘I know I’ve disappointed you with a vote here or there,’ he says. ‘Thanks for the chance.’”

The Politico article also noted that, “GOP nominee Austin Scott, who’s running against Rep. Jim Marshall [who is on the House Ag Comm], won’t have his dirty divorce laundry aired before the Nov. 2 election. A local Democratic activist sued to have the records made public, but on Tuesday a judge delayed the hearing until Dec. 6 after Scott’s ex-wife asked for more time to respond to the request.” This race is currently called a “Toss-up.”

And Ms. Hunt also noted in her Politico article that, “Maybe Rep. Walt Minnick [who is on the House Ag Comm] doesn’t have this one in the bag. A new poll reports that GOP tea party favorite Raul Labrador has closed a double-digit deficit and now trails by just 3 points.” This race is currently described as “Leans Democrat.”

***

WGN Radio Host Max Armstrong discussed some of the election implications for agriculture and farm policy in an interview Saturday with Mark Maslyn, the executive director of public policy at The American Farm Bureau Federation. To listen to an edited portion of this discussion, just click here (MP3- 4:14).

Keith Good