Yesterday, lawmakers on Capitol Hill held three separate hearings on important topics germane to U.S. farm and food policy. The hearings highlighted issues associated with biotechnology, biofuels and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.
Biotechnology, GMO Food Labeling
AP writer Mary Clare Jalonick reported yesterday that, “The food industry is likely to find a receptive Congress come January in its fight against mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods.
“Republicans and Democrats on a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee questioned Wednesday whether requiring a label on any packaged food including genetically modified organisms — or foods grown from seeds engineered in labs — would be misleading to consumers since there is little scientific evidence that such foods are unsafe. The food industry has made a similar argument.
“Congress has shown increasing interest in getting involved in the labeling debate as the food industry has faced a potential patchwork of state laws requiring it. The hearing previewed GOP efforts to push legislation next year that would reaffirm that such food labels are voluntary, overriding any state laws that require them. The bill, introduced by Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kansas, has the backing of the food industry.”
Ms. Jalonick pointed out that, “Even Democrats on the panel appeared concerned about the unintended effects of requiring a GMO labeling on food packages, though they stopped short of endorsing Pompeo’s bill.
“Rep. Henry Waxman of California, the top Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee, said he is concerned that labeling could be ‘inherently misleading.’ Rep. G.K Butterfield of North Carolina, a Democrat who represents a heavily agricultural district, said he is worried the costs of labeling would be passed on to consumers. Butterfield has co-sponsored the voluntary labeling bill with Pompeo.”
Rep. Butterfield also noted yesterday that, “In my former life I served as a trial judge down in North Carolina, and every day for 15 years I had to look at the evidence and had to decide the facts. That was my job description and I did it for 15 years. And I’ve tried to do that in this debate. And I’ve read large amounts of well informed publications over the last several months, and I for one, I’m just convinced that GE plants are as safe as any other foods.”
Yesterday’s AP article explained that, “Vermont became the first state to require the labels this year, passing a law in May that will take effect mid-2016 if it survives legal challenges. Maine and Connecticut passed laws before Vermont, but those measures don’t take effect unless neighboring states follow suit. Ballot initiatives that would have required labeling were narrowly defeated in California and Washington in the past two years, and an Oregon initiative on the ballot this year is in the midst of a recount.
“Currently, the FDA doesn’t require labeling for genetically modified foods. Michael Landa, head of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, testified that the agency believes that engineered foods on the market now are safe. The agency has a safety review process for GMO crops but it isn’t required.”
Subcommittee Chairman Joseph R. Pitts (R., Pa.) indicated yesterday that, “Mr. Landa, you state in your testimony that FDA has reviewed and evaluated data and information on over 150 genetically engineered foods. Based on these reviews and the data that has been compiled over the past 20 years, is the agency more or less confident today in the safety of the underlying technology?”
Mr. Landa noted that, “Its confidence remains strong. It has been and remains strong.”
Rep. John Shimkus (R., Il.) asked Mr. Landa, “For the genetically engineered ingredients in foods today, is there any evidence that they vary in their objective characteristics in any meaningful or uniform way?”
“No, not as a class,” Mr. Landa responded.
And Rep. Morgan Griffith (R., Va.) stated at yesterday’s hearing that, “You [Mr. Landa] indicated earlier that it was pretty much a consensus that this was not something that was dangerous, if I understood your testimony correctly, and yet I know there are a number of countries around the world that have concerns about products, and sometimes will ban our exports, if they think that there’s been some cross-pollination or something. Can you explain why they’re concerned?”
Mr. Landa stated that, “I think different countries have different regulatory systems. There are obviously different cultures with different attitudes towards different aspects of foods, from production, to consumption, to preparation and everything else, and I think that’s— ”
Rep Griffith: “Other than culture, have any of those countries had studies that indicated there was some danger to the human, to general human [consumption]?”
Mr. Landa: “Not to my knowledge, no.”
DTN writer Todd Neeley reported yesterday that, “Though EPA announced recently it would complete Renewable Fuel Standard volumes for three years in 2015, the agency official who heads the program told a House committee Wednesday she is not willing to say when the volumes for 2014, 2015 and 2016 would be finalized. Some members of the House Government Reform and Oversight Subcommittee on Energy Policy, Health Care and Entitlements pointed to the delay as reason for RFS reform.
“Janet McCabe, EPA acting assistant administrator for air and radiation, was asked by members of the committee to account for the delays and what Congress needs to do to help improve the process. Staffing is not an issue, she said, as EPA has three to four full-time staff and at least as many part-time staff assigned to the RFS, including employees at other federal government agencies.”
The DTN article noted that, “Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla., said he doesn’t understand why EPA doesn’t appear to have a schedule for completing the RFS.
“‘What I find unrealistic is you say we don’t have any timelines,’ he said. ‘We’re just asking a simple question — what’s the date?’
“McCabe responded, ‘We’re in the process of getting on schedule.’”
Timothy Cama reported yesterday at The Hill Online that, “Lawmakers vented their frustration at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Wednesday over its repeated delays of the annual ethanol mandate.”
CFTC- Commodity Futures Trading Commission
Vicki Needham reported yesterday at The Hill Online that, “A top Senate Democrat argued Wednesday that the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) needs more resources to effectively regulate derivatives and maintain market stability.
“Sen. Debbie Stabenow (Mich.), chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said the 2015 spending bill released on Tuesday underfunds the agency and tacks on new restrictions at a time when the regulator is being asked to do more work.”
The Hill article noted that, “During a hearing on the oversight of the agency, [Chairwoman Stabenow] said that the Dodd-Frank financial law aimed at boosting CFTC’s effectiveness in overseeing and regulating the massive derivatives market isn’t getting any help from congressional appropriators.”
Yesterday’s article added that, “The hearing focused on CFTC’s plans to complete its responsibilities under Dodd-Frank.
“‘Failing to properly fund the commission leaves our families, farmers, ranchers and businesses vulnerable to bad actors,’” [Chairwoman Stabenow said].
A news release yesterday from Sen. Pat Roberts (R., Kan.) noted that, “[Sen. Roberts] today said the [CFTC] had work to do to address regulatory overreach and will need to do more in the future to recognize the concerns of all market participants including farmers and ranchers.”
Jake Sherman and John Bresnahan reported yesterday at Politico that, “The margin could be razor thin, but House Republicans think they will pass their funding bill before the government shuts down Thursday.
“Top aides and lawmakers on the GOP whip team privately say they believe between 150 and 175 Republicans will support the $1.1 trillion, nine-month government funding bill. And senior House Democrats predict that some of their members will help make up for the Republican defections to get the bill across the finish line.
“House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and his staff have been in contact with Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) throughout the whole process, despite Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) public proclamation that Democrats were worried about provisions tucked into the bill that would loosen Wall Street regulations and campaign finance laws.”
Bloomberg writers Heidi Przybyla and Erik Wasson reported yesterday that, “House Republicans say they will have the votes to pass the bill without support from Pelosi because other Democrats, including retiring Representative Jim Moran of Virginia, are willing to back it.
“House Speaker John Boehner told reporters yesterday he looks ‘forward to it passing with bipartisan majorities in the House and the Senate in the coming days.’”
Ashley Parker and Robert Pear reported in today’s New York Times that, “The objections [to the omnibus] mean that Congress will probably need to pass a short-term funding measure to keep government operations running beyond Thursday — the current deadline — while the final disputes are sorted out, even as Republicans expressed confidence that the spending agreement would ultimately be approved.”
Ramsey Cox reported yesterday at The Hill Online that, “Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) praised the bipartisan, bicameral government funding bill.
“‘This means no government shutdown and no government on autopilot,’ Mikulski said on the Senate floor Wednesday. ‘This is a monumental achievement.’”
More specifically with respect to the omnibus budget measure, Tennille Tracy reported yesterday at the Washington Wire blog (Wall Street Journal) that, “School food workers have been complaining for months about the breakfast and lunch standards being rolled out by the Obama administration. Now, Congress has seen fit to give them a break.
“Tucked inside the spending bill unveiled Tuesday night, dubbed the Cromnibus, are two tweaks to the school food standards. One freezes the existing limits on sodium, which were scheduled to ratchet down over time, and another gives states the ability to waive whole grains standards for schools that are struggling.”
Justin Sink reported yesterday at The Hill Online that, “The White House dismissed the provisions in the spending bill.
“‘In light of the efforts to roll back school nutrition standards, we consider the minor adjustments to the standards a real win for kids and parents,’ Sam Kass, the executive director of the first lady’s ‘Let’s Move!’ initiative said in a statement.”
David Rogers reported this week at Politico that, “Elsewhere, Republicans appeared more circumspect. In the case of nutrition and school lunch standards promoted by first lady Michelle Obama — a clear flash point — the House retreated to compromises crafted by Senate Democrats.
“School districts are promised more flexibility in meeting requirements for some items such as whole grain products. But this is far less than the broad waiver that had been promoted in the House.”
On the issue of the Clean Water Act, Philip Brasher reported yesterday at Agri-Pulse Online that, “The Clean Water Act provisions in the massive fiscal 2015 spending agreement are likely to do little to slow an effort by farm groups to kill a proposed rule defining the law’s jurisdiction.
“The bill, which is headed to floor votes in the House and Senate in coming days, is silent on the proposed rule. The bill does include a provision ordering the administration to adhere to the existing farming exemptions from the law’s Section 404 permitting requirements.”
Also yesterday, Alex Guillen and Elana Schor provided a detailed look at a provision in the omnibus regarding “two types of sage grouse;” and, a news release yesterday from the COOL Reform Coalition stated that, “The COOL Reform Coalition applauds Congress for including in the FY 2015 omnibus appropriations bill a directive for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Trade Representative to report recommendations no later than May 1, 2015 to Congress that will assure U.S. Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) requirements for meat products comply with U.S. trade obligations. The omnibus bill is expected to pass Congress this week.”
A news release yesterday from Rep. Rodney Davis (R., Il.) stated that, “[Rep. Davis], a member of the U.S. House Committee on Agriculture, today was named Chairman of the Subcommittee on Biotechnology, Horticulture, and Research for the 114th Congress.”
Meanwhile, on the issue of some large school districts “switching to antibiotic-free chicken,” a statement this week from Tom Super, National Chicken Council vice president of communications, indicated in part that, “All chicken meat is ‘antibiotic-free.’ If an antibiotic is used on the farm, federal rules require the antibiotics to have cleared the animals’ systems before they can be processed. For approved antibiotics, FDA and the USDA have extensive monitoring and testing programs to make sure that food at the grocery store or in schools does not contain antibiotic residues.”
Jesse Newman reported yesterday at The Wall Street Journal Online that, “Grain and soybean prices fell Wednesday as concerns about ample global supplies outweighed projections by the U.S. government for tighter-than-expected domestic stockpiles of several major crops.”
Bloomberg writers Jeff Wilson and Megan Durisin reported yesterday that, “Corn futures fell after the U.S. government raised its outlook for global supplies as an expanding grain glut drives down global food costs. Soybeans declined for the first time in six sessions.
“World corn stockpiles will be 192.2 million metric tons, up from 191.5 million forecast last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said today. The agency increased its outlook for global production, citing bigger crops in Europe and China. The USDA raised its forecast for global soybean production, and expects inventories to reach an all-time high.”
A news release yesterday from University of Missouri Extension noted in part that, “Farmland prices have likely peaked, but expect cattle prices to continue upward.
“That was the message from Ron Plain, University of Missouri Extension agricultural economist, in his keynote address at the 2014 Missouri Livestock Symposium in Kirksville.”
The update added that, “Plain says farmland prices depend on interest rates and returns that can be generated by that land. Interest rates are steady but returns per acre have declined as crop prices have dropped.
“‘With the high crop prices we saw the last few years, we bid up cropland and it’s probably as high as it’s going to go for now,’ Plain says. ‘For cropland prices the peak is here because we’ve cut corn and soybean prices in half.’”
David George-Cosh and Jesse Newman reported in today’s Wall Street Journal that, “Canadian grain exports to the U.S. have fallen sharply as railways expand the more-lucrative cross-border crude-oil shipments, a shift that Canada’s farmers say is pushing their crops to lower-priced overseas markets.
“The shift of Canadian grain abroad is likely to prop up prices for U.S. farmers and consumers, analysts say. In particular, wheat growers in states such as North Dakota and Minnesota could see higher bids for supplies from U.S. buyers with less access to cheaper wheat across the border.”
Los Angeles Times writer Richard Marosi, on the front page of yesterday’s paper, provided the second installment in a four-part series looking at agricultural working conditions for some farm workers in Mexico.
Also yesterday, Reuters writer Krista Hughes reported that, “President Barack Obama plans to advocate for a bill allowing the administration to negotiate trade deals and fast-track them through Congress with no amendments… A Reuters examination of lawmakers’ voting records and trade views suggests passage is not a done deal even though Republicans, considered more supportive of trade, won control of both chambers of Congress in November’s election.”