Senate Ag Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R., Kan.) was a guest on today’s AgriTalk radio program with Mike Adams, where the conversation focused on GMO labeling issues and Senate action on a GMO labeling bill that passed the Senate Ag Committee last week. (In part, the bill amends the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946 by providing definitions for the national voluntary bioengineered food labeling standard).
Below is an unofficial FarmPolicy.com transcript of the AgriTalk discussion.
Mike Adams: Mr. Chairman, thank you for being with us. Let’s get right to your GMO labeling bill. How are things going in trying to come up with a compromise bill? How close are you?
Sen. Ag. Comm. Chairman Pat Roberts: Well, the good thing is that the leader has said that we’re going to take up this bill next week. Certainly before the break, we have to. Last week, the Senate Agriculture Committee voted on a 14-6 bipartisan vote to pass the Chairman’s mark–my mark–on the Biotechnology Labeling Solutions. So we passed the bill in the Senate [Ag Committee]. We are now working with my colleagues on the other side of the aisle to see if we can’t get a bill that, well, that can pass the Senate. So that’s where we are, and we will continue. We have to address the labeling concerns as soon as possible. We have to provide certainty well before July when the Vermont state labeling all would go into effect.
Adams: How do you get through the challenge of those that want mandatory labeling and those in your bill that is for voluntary? How do you find middle ground there?
Roberts: Mike, I think the answer is you have to persevere and do it very carefully, but we have the support– last count about 650 organizations from all across the food chain and agriculture–farmers, ranchers–and now you have people like lenders and other people waking up to the fact of what would happen. We could shut down the food supply in this country if we’re not careful.
There’s about 20-26 other states trying to do the same thing. It would be a hodgepodge of interstate commerce. You’d have to separate corn, wheat, soybeans, all sorts of really crazy things. So you just continue negotiations. I’m working with Deborah Stabenow of Michigan and other senators, especially the three that voted for the bill or the mark, in the Senate Committee. We just have to reach a bipartisan compromise. We’re working on that, and I think we can get it done.
Adams: So we keep hearing the term “pathway to mandatory labeling.” I mean, do you come up with something that starts off voluntary, but it winds up mandatory, or what is the path that you’re looking at here?
Roberts: Well, the path is just to get the bill done. We can leave–I’m not prepared to really talk about all of the details of the negotiations, but I’m just simply going to say we have to act now to ensure that the marketplace works. I know everybody’s concentrating on the issue of GMOs. We held a hearing earlier–actually last year–and it was a good hearing. We had the Food and Drug Administration. We had the Department of Agriculture and the EPA, and they said that our food is safe.
I think everybody on the committee understands that, and they also said that GMOs were safe. So I know that there’s a lot of concern with regards to this issue about GMOs and the right to know, but the issue is really to prevent one state from trying to dictate their labeling law with regards to the rest of the country. That labeling law is certainly not perfect by any means. It’s flawed, and we don’t want to go down that road. So that’s the real issue.
Adams: Would you expect when you finally get to the floor a lot of amendments before a final vote takes place?
Roberts: There may be a substitute from those that would prefer, you know, mandatory and that basically are listening to the folks who are concerned about GMO. I would not expect too many other amendments. We don’t want to open up the Farm Bill. We’re not going to do that. And so, we could raise a point of order on that. But again, you know, the whole issues–the whole issue is that we need to move. It’s like a giant wrecking ball coming right down through the food chain from farm to fork. So that’s what we need to do. We are working with all parties and the administration to see if we can’t get this so-called pathway.
Adams: Talking with the Chairman of the Senate Ag Committee, Senator Pat Roberts from Kansas. Mr. Chairman, have they given you any specific timeline on when this–your bill could come up for a vote on the floor?
Roberts: Well, time is of–is of real importance. This law would go into effect up in Vermont in July. So we know that we have to act. And so, the leader will schedule time on the floor. One thing about it, we want at least, you know, 20 Democrats to go along with us. I’d like to have everybody. I’d like to have a big vote in this regard. But if we’re not successful, those who voted against it will have to understand that they have the responsibility to explain to the American people why they–why we have a patchwork of labeling laws that could shut down our nation’s food supply. I mean, that’s just not, you know, we are not going to do that.
So that’s the worst side of it, but I think the good news is that when we must face this–and we must face this responsibility–it is the committee’s responsibility and every person on that committee. So when you have a timeline, people have to, you know, people have to reach a conclusion. So we’re working very hard. I hope to have some agreement by the end of this week.
Adams: Do you feel you’re close without giving away details of the negotiations? Do you feel like you’re making progress?
Roberts: Oh, I–yes. I think we’re making progress without question. I mean, the fact that we moved it 14-6 in committee was a good sign, and we’ll continue to negotiate in good faith, and we’ll see what happens.
Adams: Your 14-6 vote though was kind of, what, two or three contingent on changes being made. So they were kind of–it was just kind of a, “Yeah, we’ll go along with it now, but won’t at the end unless something–we see big changes or significant changes in the bill.” Is that right?
Roberts: Well, I don’t’ think that would happen. If I were a senator that voted “yes” to move the bill and then voted on the floor “no” I think it would be those 650 different organizations who are very active in this, and I know the advocacy groups are just as well. People in that situation, Mike, make a lot of “while I” speeches. You know, “While I am concerned about this or that.” We do have to move this bill. So I think that’s the attitude that we’re going to carry into these negotiations as we continue. We’ll be working today, and if necessary, tomorrow and the next day and the next day. And we will get this done.
Adams: Would you say though the overall feeling within Congress, although there may–there are disagreements over mandatory or voluntary labeling–but the overall feeling is a national label much better than the patchwork of states doing it?
Roberts: Well, Mike, that’s obvious. And the USDA has to define precisely what we’re talking about with regard to Agriculture Biotechnology. That’s the correct term, by the way, as opposed to GMO. This is Agriculture Biotechnology and whether it is safe all across the board. And the bill will actually tell the [USDA] that they have the responsibility to define precisely what we are talking about. That in and of itself is a tall order and will take the USDA a considerable amount of time. But without that national standard, as you pointed out, you could end up with–oh, right now, I think there’s at least 20-26 other states that would come up with their own label. That’s just not going to work.
Adams: Are you even getting into what would be on the label as far as the wording, as far as punctuation?
Roberts: No. That would be…
Adams: Or anything like that?
Roberts: No. Well, first, you’ve got to figure out what it is that is defined, and that is precise in our legislation. We want the USDA with all of their scientific expertise to come up exactly what we’re talking about. If you don’t do that, you’re going to be bringing every commodity, or for that matter, livestock or everything else into this–into this situation. That is a trail we don’t want to go down.
Adams: Would you have a vote if you’re not sure of having enough votes to pass it?
Roberts: I think the leader has expressed his desire to address this issue to at least signal that the Congress has done its job, and if the vote turns out all right, that’s the good news. If it does not, obviously repeated attempts would have to be made, but I would much prefer to have a bipartisan agreement before we go to the floor. That’s what we’re working on over time as of this entire week.
Adams: So it should happen soon, then, it sounds like.
Roberts: Yes, it will.
Adams: All right. Senator, thank you very much. We look forward to seeing what you come up with as far as a compromise bill that can get passed, and we’ll be watching closely. Hope to talk to you again soon. Thank you very much.
Roberts: You bet. Thank you for your, you know, for the opportunity. Bye, bye.
Mike McGinnis reported yesterday at Agriculture Online that, “In a reporters briefing Friday, at the Commodity Classic, Secretary Vilsack says that he is proposing mandatory labeling because in order to get anything done, 60 votes are needed in the U.S. Senate. ‘That’s the key,’ Vilsack says. ‘If you don’t get this requirement, then you create a situation where every company could decide for itself to do something, which could create confusion. Plus, you don’t want state laws that could potentially be at odds.’
“Vilsack wants to give the food industry some time to create a label. ‘You give the food industry some time to figure out how flexible the label needs to be, whether it’s a toll-free number for consumers, a website, a smart label, or something else. And then you use that time to educate people that this label is going to be available, and this is an opportunity for them to know about the food that they are buying.’
“Secretary Vilsack believes that the Senate would pass mandatory labeling if it was packaged this way. ‘I think the House will give it great consideration and the president will sign it,’ Vilsack says.”
DTN Ag Policy Editor Chris Clayton reported yesterday that, “On biotech labeling, Vilsack said he’s worried that ‘chaos ensues’ if Congress doesn’t act on biotech labeling legislation now in the Senate. His main goal is to ensure a bill gets 60 votes in the Senate that conveys consumers’ right to know what’s in their food without giving the wrong impression about the safety of biotechnology. He said food costs would rise and consumers could be unnecessarily concerned about their food if every state is allowed to create a different labeling scheme for foods with ingredients from biotech crops.
“‘I’m here today to say unequivocally they are safe to consume,’ he said. ‘There is no risk associated with them, and we need to make that clear to the consuming public.’
“Beyond generating fears among consumers, farmers and the food industry should be proud of the technology, reflecting the innovation of the country. ‘It’s something that’s going to allow producers to be more productive, but to do so with less inputs. It’s going to allow the producer to be an even better environmental steward,’ Vilsack said. Recalling a conversation he had with a biotech company executive, he said, ‘You need to aggressively market this not only to producers, but also to consumers. We need to be extraordinarily proud of American agriculture.'”
American Soybean Assn says GMO labeling bill in the Senate is the most important issue facing agriculture today. #Classic16
Michal Addady reported yesterday at Fortune Online that, “Want to know if your food contains genetically modified organisms? Hope that food companies feel like telling you.
“In a 14-6 vote, the Senate Committee on Agriculture approved a bill that makes GMO labeling voluntary, preempting any state or local initiatives that would have made it mandatory. The legislation will now make its way to the full Senate for consideration.”
Recall that the House passed legislation on this topic with a bipartisan vote of 275-150 last summer.
Meanwhile, a news release yesterday from former Senate Ag Committee Chairman Pat Leahy (D., Vt.) stated that, “Oregon’s Senator Jeff Merkley and Senators [Leahy], Jon Tester (D-MT), and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) Wednesday introduced legislation that would ensure that consumers can find GMO ingredient labeling on food packaging while ensuring that food producers are not subject to confusing or conflicting labeling requirements in different locations.
“The senators’ legislation presents an alternative to a Senate Agriculture Committee bill that would hide ingredient information from consumers by overturning state GMO labeling laws.”
The release explained that, “Specifically, the Biotechnology Food Labeling Uniformity Act would amend the Food Drug and Cosmetic Act to require manufacturers to disclose the presence of GM ingredients on the Nutrition Fact Panel in one of four ways:
– “Manufacturers may use a parenthesis following the relevant ingredient to indicate that this ingredient is ‘Genetically Engineered.’
-“Manufacturers may identify GM ingredients with an asterisk and provide an explanation at the bottom of the ingredients list.
-“Manufacturers may simply apply a catch all statement at the end of the ingredient list stating the product was ‘produced with genetic engineering.’
-“The FDA would have the authority to develop a symbol, in consultation with food manufacturers, that would clearly and conspicuously disclose the presence of GM ingredients on packaging.
“None of these options would require front panel disclosures or ‘warning’ statements intending to disparage GM ingredients.”
Speaking on the Senate floor yesterday, Sen. Merkley stated that, “I will be rising periodically to address issues that affect Americans across our country and that this Chamber should be addressing. This week I am using my speech to highlight the labeling of genetically modified foods. This is truly a ‘We the people’ versus ‘We the Titans’ battle because citizens routinely poll in very high numbers about their desire to know what is in their food, and they like the idea of being alerted when their food contains genetically modified organisms or GMOs, but that is not necessarily the consequence, as when we go through the legislative process, often the ‘We the people’s’ commonsense vision is lost in favor of pressures applied by powerful interest groups. We are in the middle of a debate like that right now. So that is why I thought it appropriate to rise at this moment to address this.”
Sen. Merkley added that, “Just yesterday in the Senate, the Senate Agricultural Committee voted out a law to block the rights of citizens to know whether GMOs are in their food. That is an outrageous—outrageous—bill. It would halt any progress in ensuring that consumers can simply and easily access information about GMO ingredients through labeling.”
“Blocking States from being able to provide information that those State legislators or those State citizens, by initiative, say they want, that is an overstepping of Federal authority to crush States’ rights on an issue important to citizens,” Sen Merkley said.
A complete transcript of Sen. Merkley’s remarks can be found here.
The Times stated that, “The Senate could soon join the House to try to make it harder for consumers to know what is in their food by prohibiting state governments from requiring the labeling of genetically modified foods. This is a bad idea that lawmakers and the Obama administration should oppose.
“In July, Vermont will become the first state to require the labeling of genetically modified food. Many food companies and farm groups say such laws are problematic because they could dissuade consumers from buying foods that federal regulators and many scientists say pose no risk to human health. But that is an unfounded fear and states should be free to require labels if they want to.
“The Senate Agriculture Committee is considering a bill by its chairman, Pat Roberts, Republican of Kansas, that would prohibit state labeling laws. The committee is likely to approve it, primarily with Republican votes. The House passed a similar bill last summer along party lines.”
Today’s editorial indicated that, “There is no harm in providing consumers more information about their food. A study published in the journal Food Policy in 2014 found that labels about genetic modification did not influence what people thought about those foods. Some companies are deciding on their own to increase the information they provide to consumers without fear of losing sales. Campbell Soup said last month that it would begin voluntarily disclosing whether its soups, juices and other products had genetically modified ingredients. Around the world, such labeling is commonplace, with 64 countries requiring it, including all 28 members of the European Union, Japan, Australia, China and Brazil.”
Concluding, the Times said: “Usually, Republicans in Congress are eager to give states more power to set policy in areas like environmental protection, health care and social services when they think that legislatures and governors will weaken regulations or cut spending to help the poor. In this case, however, they want to take power away from states that want to impose new rules that their residents support. The only thing these lawmakers seem to favor consistently is protecting corporate interests.”
There are several key agricultural related hearings taking place this week on Capitol Hill.
On Wednesday morning, the House Appropriations Ag Subcommittee will hear budget related testimony from Kevin Concannon, the Under Secretary for USDA’s Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services. Al Almanza, USDA’s Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety will testify before the Ag Subcommittee on Wednesday afternoon, while the Food and Drug Administration’s Acting Commissioner Stephen Ostroff will be before the Subcommittee Thursday morning.
Jason Weller, Chief of USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service will finish the week in front of the Ag Subcommittee where he will testify on budget related matters Friday morning.
Meanwhile, the House Ag Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday morning where the full Committee will explore the state of the rural economy; Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack will provide testimony at this briefing. Related background regarding the condition of the U.S. ag economy is available here.
And on Thursday, the Senate Ag Committee will hold a business meeting to consider the Chairman’s Mark on Biotechnology Labeling Solutions- background on this bill, which “would prevent states from requiring labels on genetically modified foods,” is available here.
Also this week, USDA’s Economic Research Service will update its monthly Food Price Outlook on Thursday, and Wednesday, USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service will release its Crop Values Annual Summary. This report contains the marketing year average prices and value of production of principal crops.
AP writer Mary Clare Jalonick reported yesterday that, “A Senate committee is moving forward on legislation that would prevent states from requiring labels on genetically modified foods.
“Vermont is set to require such labels this summer. Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts of Kansas released draft legislation late Friday that would block that law and create new voluntary labels for companies that want to use them on food packages that contain genetically modified ingredients. The Senate panel is scheduled to vote on the bill Thursday.”
The AP article explained that, “The bill is similar to legislation the House passed last year. The food industry has argued that GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, are safe and a patchwork of state laws isn’t practical. Labeling advocates have been fighting state-by-state to enact the labeling, with the eventual goal of a national standard.
“Senators have said they want to find a compromise on the labeling issue before Vermont’s law kicks in.”
The interview, which focused on the Farm Bill, trade, regulations, and biotech issues, was recorded last week and was conducted before a group of Farm Bureau members from Missouri, Minnesota, Iowa, and Texas.
House Ag Committee Ranking Member Collin Peterson (D., Minn.) was a guest on Monday’s AgriTalk radio program; the conversation with Mike Adams focused on the Farm Bill, trade, regulations, and biotech issues.
The interview that aired on Monday’s program was recorded last week and was conducted before a group of Farm Bureau members from Missouri, Minnesota, Iowa, and Texas.
This is an unofficial FarmPolicy.com transcript of that discussion.
Mr. Adams: Last week in Washington, D.C., had an opportunity to talk with Congressman Collin Peterson, Ranking Member of the House Ag Committee. We talked about a number of issues, starting off with how he feels it’s going with the new dairy program, and was he happy with the signup.
Rep. Peterson: Well, I think relatively. You know, I think we could have had a higher turnout, but—or signup—but coming off one of the best years in dairy for a long time, and I think people looking at what’s going to happen this year, kind of figuring, well, might be payments, there might not, so they decided, some people decided to forego it. I think you’re going to see a lot more people sign up, the way things are looking, for next year.
And that’s one good thing about the dairy program: you don’t have to lock in for five years, you can sign up every year. And given what’s been going on, I think I’m not as worried as I was about us not having the program in there to try to limit production, if it gets out of control. It looks like that’s not going to be necessary anyway, so that was a maybe a fight we didn’t need to have.
Mr. Adams: We’ve had a lot of talk here this afternoon about trade. You have expressed some concerns about trade deals, and making sure that we’re protected. When you see what’s happening with TPP and the ongoing debate over TPA, what are your thoughts?
Rep. Peterson: Well, you know, I opposed NAFTA vigorously, and we had it defeated for a while. We were told, at the time, that we were going to have twice as many ag exports in NAFTA as we had imports, and what I predicted ended up happening—we had twice as many imports as we had exports under NAFTA. We had a problem in sugar that we’ve somewhat resolved now, but we had to work through that.
So one of my big issues with the TPP is that we finally solved some of the problems that were caused by NAFTA, and if we don’t solve it in the TPP, we’ll never solve it. And one of the biggest problems is dairy. And it’s Canada dairy. A lot of people aren’t focused on this, and a lot of people don’t even know about it.
But in the NAFTA, we allowed the Canadians to keep their supply management system. And so if you dairy farm in Canada, you are making a lot of money, considerably more than you make in the United States. Also, when we try to sell dairy products to Canada, there’s a tariff, but when they sell to us there’s no tariff. So the result of that has been, because the Canadian system can’t grow, and they’re making all this money in these co-ops, we now have the Canadian co-ops in Quebec owning—they’re No. 1 and 3 in ownership of dairy processing in the United States. That’s the effect of what we did.
And it’s got to be fixed, or at least get on a path to be fixed, in this deal for me to support it. So that’s one of my main issues. Also it applied—poultry and eggs are also supply managed in Canada. I’m not as familiar with the economics of that as I am of dairy. But that’s the big issue.
Another big issue is getting access in the Japanese market for beef and rice. Now, Froman sat in my office and said we will get a pathway or get changes in the Canadian supply management system, and we will get access to the Canadian rice and beef market or we won’t have a deal. And I said, well, you’re saying to me that we’re not going to have a deal, because I am very skeptical that the Canadians will be able to agree to anything in the supply management area.
Mr. Adams: RFS. We’re waiting for that announcement from EPA. Are you getting any feeling one way or another where they’re going with it?
Rep. Peterson: I don’t know. I’ve had so many meetings with the White House, with the EPA. You know, we have some speculation, I guess, but it could be wildly off. I don’t know, it just looks to me like maybe they’re going to lock in for three years and around 14.4 billion, but I really don’t know. We’re going to have to wait and see what they come out with.
I hope they don’t screw up the ethanol industry. That would be…you know, we’ve finally been able to balance the marketplace in corn and get the pricing situation at a more reasonable level. But if they screw up the RFS and we lose ethanol in this country, we’ll be back to $2 corn, and that ain’t gonna work very good with the prices that we got, land and inputs right now.
Mr. Adams: Is this EPA out of control?
Rep. Peterson: Yes. [Laughter.] [Applause.] Well, and, you know, the problem is they don’t understand a lot of these issues. They just don’t. This Waters of the U.S., I’ve had Gina McCarthy in my office three times. She thinks she’s helping you. I just want you to know. And she sincerely believes that, that she’s somehow or another clarifying the wetland determinations with what she’s doing.
And she doesn’t know enough about all the problems that we’ve been through to understand that what they’re doing is putting, actually, one more chink in the thing that we never will get this determined, you know, so I don’t know. It’s…I don’t know what you do to fix this, but it’s a big problem.
Mr. Adams: We were talking with the Chairman earlier. Is this Congress willing to step in and stop funding things like WOTUS if they keep pushing it?
Rep. Peterson: Yeah, I think so. I think the first thing we’re going to try, as I understand it, is to use the Congressional Review Act, which has never been used, but it was put in place some years ago, with my support, that says that the Congress can stop a rule within 60 days after the final rule is published. So the first thing that I think we’re going to try to do is we’re going to bring it up under the Congressional Review Act. I think we can pass…or stop it in the House. I don’t know about the Senate, but, you know, hopefully we can do it over there, too.
If we aren’t able to do that, then we’re going to try to deal with it in the Appropriations Committee, somehow or another. We have a bill, you know. We’re going to try any way we can. We’ve got to stop this. This is a bad idea.
We still haven’t—in Minnesota, I don’t know about the rest of the country—but we still haven’t resolved the blue dots and yellow dots from the ’85 Farm Bill. We’ve still got people out there that haven’t gotten determinations from that. And we’ve got four agencies deciding what a wetland is, and in Minnesota we’ve got a wetland law at the state level, so you’ve actually got five people, and you can’t ever figure out what the bottom line is. So, you know, we don’t need this. This is just going to be a big problem.
Mr. Adams: We have a major lawsuit in Iowa over runoff. Regardless of how this turns out on this particular one, is this the future, we’re looking at this type of litigation and threat of litigation moving forward for farming?
Rep. Peterson: I don’t know. I mean, we…the way we’ve set up some of the, you know, the NEPA law, National Environmental Policy Act, you know, these things that have been put in place back in the ‘70s, Endangered Species, these things need to be overhauled, because they’re basically set up to help people that want to sue and try to change the policy through lawsuits and so forth, and there just needs to be more balance put into it.
Frank Lucas and I last week passed the Science Advisory Act for the EPA, and there was another bill that Lamar Smith had on the secret science bill that we passed last Congress, too. You know, in the EPA, I mean, I had the local guy back home come to the Rotary Club and go after me because I was trying to get a balanced, scientific advisory committee at the EPA, that this was going to destroy the environment.
And I said, well, this advisory committee has no authority to do anything, they’re strictly advising the administrator; why wouldn’t you want to hear all points of view? Why would you want to limit it to a bunch of egghead professors, which is what they’ve done, and three-fourths of the people that are on this advisory committee are getting grants from the EPA to tell them what they already want to hear. And then you wonder why the thing is screwed up? You know, but anyway. [Applause.]
Mr. Adams: One more question and we’ll turn it over to the audience.
Rep. Peterson: I’m not running for President. [Laughter.]
Mr. Adams: Yeah. [Laughs.] Well, we cleared that up. Okay, all right. Biotech labeling. National standards or leave it up to the states?
Rep. Peterson: Well, we need a voluntary label, national. We need to preempt these states from setting their own, you know, own laws. The last thing we need is to have 50 different states have 50 different labels. That’s not workable. And we had a good hearing yesterday. We got some people criticized it.
But, you know, the reality is, you know, I’ve told some of these big companies that if Vermont is successful with this appeal to their lawsuit, and they are allowed to go ahead with their labeling law, I wish that these big companies would just not sell to Vermont, and let them understand what the effect of what they’re doing is.
The same thing in California. I don’t want them to fix the egg problem. If those people created that problem, and I hope they run out of eggs, and I hope eggs go to 20 bucks a dozen, you know, so people figure out what’s going on, you know, so… [Applause.]
Mr. Adams: Congressman Collin Peterson, Ranking Member of the House Agriculture Committee, speaking last week before a group of Farm Bureau members from Missouri, Minnesota, Iowa, and Texas.
“The final day for farmers to update their crop acreage and yield history, the first step to qualify for the new subsidies, will be extended to April 7. The farmers had already had the deadline to update their acreage data extended by one month to March 31.”
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack was a guest on today’s AgriTalk radio program with Mike Adams where the discussion focused, in part, on the Farm Bill, trade issues, and the proposed Dietary Guidelines. An unofficial FarmPolicy.com transcript of the discussion with Sec. Vilsack is available below.
Sec. Vilsack says program signup going well but an extension is still a possibility. Decision would come by end of this week.
Mr. Adams: Welcome back. We’re at USDA, talking now with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. We appreciate your time, Mr. Secretary. We know you have a lot going on. We just have a limited amount of time, so we want to touch on as many areas as we can. We have a deadline coming up next Tuesday for signup in the farm bill. We just talked with Deputy Secretary Harden, who said you monitor the signup. Are you happy with the way it’s going?
Sec. Vilsack: I am, Mike. We’ve got 95% of the acres reallocated and yields adjusted for 95% of the farms that we expect to participate in that part of it, and about 85% have already made elections on ARC and PLC, which is a significant increase. We’re seeing day-to-day two or three or four percent increase, so we are very pleased with where we are.
And we want to remind folks that if you don’t sign up before the end of the deadline, then the election will be made for you, you’ll be in the PLC program, but you won’t be entitled to benefits in 2015, so we really encourage people to get this work done. And all you need to do is get on the registry, get your appointment set up, and that qualifies.
Mr. Adams:So you do not anticipate, at this point, the need or even the consideration of an extension of that deadline in any way?
Sec. Vilsack:We’re going to look at this from day to day. I’ve talked to our team about maybe the opportunity for flexibility. But given the pace of what we’re seeing, it may not be necessary.
Mr. Adams:But that’s still a possibility?
Sec. Vilsack:It’s still a possibility.
Mr. Adams: Okay, so we’ll watch that as far as as we get closer to that deadline next Tuesday. When would you make that call if there was an extension?
Sec. Vilsack:Probably the end of this week.
Mr. Adams:And of this week.
Mr. Adams: Okay, all right. While we’re here, let’s also talk about trade, because that’s a very hot issue, the talk of TPA and how that impacts, of course, deals like TPP. Where do you think that stands, and getting that message out about the importance of TPA? Because there still seems to be a reluctance by some to go with that. How important is it?
Sec. Vilsack: Mike, farmers need to get engaged in this conversation. They need to make sure their members of Congress and their senators understand how important this is for them personally and for agriculture generally. Thirty percent of our ag sales trade related, roughly equivalent to our net farm income, so if we don’t have export opportunities, we’re not going to make as much money.
This TPP opportunity is a huge opportunity to expand to an increasing middle class in Asia—five hundred and twenty-five million consumers, middle class consumers today in Asia. In just 15 years it’ll be 3.2 billion. It’s a huge opportunity for us. We anticipate $123 billion impact on our overall economy from TPP. Ag is roughly 9% of exports. You can do the math. So we’re talking about hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars of opportunity. This is critically important.
Last point. If we don’t do this, China will. I’d rather have us lead the effort on labor, and environment, and enforcement mechanisms, and IP protection, and agriculture than having the Chinese lead that effort.
Mr. Adams: A concern about Japan. Will they come down on their tariffs? Will they play ball with the other partners in this? What are you hearing?
Sec. Vilsack:We’ve had progress with Japan. Still work to do. Our Canadian friends less flexible and less willing to negotiate. Part of it, I think, is that we don’t have TPA in place. Those that we’re negotiating with are assuming that, under the current situation, any trade agreement would be subject to modification or amendment by Congress. That’s 535 people that could weigh in on this. We can’t have that if we want to conclude these negotiations in a timely way. We need to get Trade Promotion Authority done.
Mr. Adams: I want to talk about these proposed dietary guidelines. A lot of concern, especially in the livestock industry, that red meat is going to be phased out of the school lunch programs. You’re going to be very much involved in making these final determinations. You have said it’s about health, it’s about nutrition, not about environment. What can you tell us about how this process is going to play out?
Sec. Vilsack: Well, the first thing is we extended the comment period because we want to make sure people have an opportunity to weigh in on this. And I want to reassure people who are listening to this program and reassure the ag community that I understand what my job is. My job is not what the experts on the panel, Scientific Advisory Panel, had. They had freedom to basically opine about a lot of different things. And some of the things that they brought up are appropriate to have discussions about, perhaps not in the context of dietary guidelines, but in the context of overall where are we headed in agriculture.
My job, based on the statute, based on the law, I took an oath to follow the law, follow the Constitution. That oath basically says even if I want to talk about other things, I have to look at dietary and nutrition. That’s what we ought to be deciding these guidelines on, and that’s what I intend to make sure that I do. Obviously I can’t speak for the full process because Secretary Burwell’s got a very important role to play as well.
Mr. Adams: You’ve come out with the definition “actively engaged” as far as those that can receive farm program benefits. Senator Grassley says it’s a step in the right direction. He would like to see it go farther. Tell us about how you came up with this particular definition and who you see it applying to.
Sec. Vilsack:I think we’ve probably hit it just about right because the folks who wanted more strict restrictions are not happy, the folks who feel maybe we’ve gone a little bit too far are not happy, so I suspect we’ve hit it right. Look, Congress directed us to do this, but also limited us in terms of what we could do. It said you can’t do this relative to family farms, you don’t have to do it relative to corporations, so all that’s left are joint ventures, limited partnerships and general partnerships, roughly 1,500 operations throughout the United States. There we said the default position is one actively engaged manager.
Now if you’ve got a complex or a large operation, you might be able to make the case, if you were to adequately document that case, to have more than one, but you can’t have any more than three. And I think that’s a reflection of the flexibility that we need relative to the nature of agriculture generally, but also tightening up what was a very significant loophole where we had ten, 15, 20 different people saying because I was on a conference call and made a decision to buy this or that, or to plant this or that, I’m somehow actively engaged. We want to get it back to a system that we can defend.
Mr. Adams: We’re almost out of time. Coexistence. Can we achieve that, do you think, in agriculture?
Sec. Vilsack:I think we have to. Now I may be the only person in America that believes that, but look, GMOs are here to stay. We need them if we’re going to feed the world. Organic is a high value proposition. If we want young people to get engaged in this business and be able to do it from scratch, organic is a way to do it without having to buy 1,000 acres and have the capital costs associated with it. So to me coexistence is about making sure that all options are on the table for folks.
Mr. Adams: Very good. So we watch this week for any announcements on the deadline for the signup, but right now you feel pretty good about the way it’s going.
Mr. Adams: Very good. Thank you, Mr. Secretary.
Sec. Vilsack: Thanks, Mike.
Mr. Adams: Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, as we wrap up our broadcast here at USDA.
Note: Thanks very much to the many readers who have expressed how much they have enjoyed the FarmPolicy newsletter over the years. The numerous Emails and tweets from readers about the newsletter ending next week have been extraordinarily gracious and very much appreciated.
Philip Brasher reported yesterday at Agri-Pulse that, “Republicans and Democrats slammed the Agriculture Department over allegations of abuse at a livestock research facility in Nebraska and accused agency officials of stonewalling lawmakers’ requests for information.
“‘It sounds like it was a house of horrors that was going on there,’ said Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Fla., referring to allegations about the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center contained in a New York Times article published in January.
“Rooney, one of several members of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee who grilled USDA officials about the issue, said the allegations cast the cattle industry in a bad light. The idea that the research highlighted in the article was undertaken at the industry’s request was ‘bull-you-know-what,’ Rooney said.”
“Lawmakers are pushing for a federal law that would require manufacturers to label all genetically engineered foods and any food products that contain genetically engineered ingredients.
“The Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act, which Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) introduced in the House and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) introduced in the Senate, would direct the Food and Drug Administration to enforce the new rule.”
An update on Friday at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) Blog stated that, “This week the House and Senate Budget Committees each passed their Fiscal Year 2016 budget resolutions on party line votes.
“Each Committee’s resolution will now go to the floor of the House and Senate for consideration. This will likely take place next week with final passage targeted for the end of the week.”
The NSAC update explained that, “Budget resolutions provide the blue print for the appropriations process that will take place in the coming months. They set binding top line spending caps for the House and Senate Appropriations Committees.
“Budget resolutions may also include ‘budget reconciliation’ instructions, which instruct certain Committees to meet specific deficit-reduction targets through reductions in mandatory spending. Only the House Budget Committee’s version contains reconciliation instructions to the Agriculture Committee.”
Donnelle Eller and Jennifer Jacobs reported on the front page of Sunday’s Des Moines Register that, “Nine GOP White House contenders did their best to sound more compelling and better-versed on farm-related matters than their competitors Saturday as they were quizzed during an unusual showcase of agriculture policy on the presidential campaign trail.”
The Register writers explained that, “Unlike the raucous, free-wheeling political rock concert that was the freedom summit, which was hosted by conservative Republican U.S. Rep. Steve King, [moderator and pork and ethanol entrepreneur Bruce Rastetter], a mainstream Republican, kept tighter control on the conversation. He staged a living-room-like setting with leather chairs and a vase of tulips and conducted interview-style question-and-answer sessions on renewable fuels, the wind energy production tax credit, normalizing trade with Cuba, biotechnology, illegal immigration, water pollution from farm runoff and other topics.
“The mood in the crowd of about 900 was warm but mostly subdued as they heard from, in order: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, former New York Gov. George Pataki and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. Despite the free tickets and free lunch, a third of the seats were empty by afternoon.”
Sunday’s article noted that, “The Republicans’ stances differed little except on the Renewable Fuel Standard, a federal mandate that outlines how much ethanol and biodiesel must be blended annually into the country’s fuel supply. Most said they understand and accept the need for the mandate, at least until it can be phased out. Santorum and Huckabee in particular passionately defended it.
“But Pataki expressed vocal opposition to the RFS, as did Cruz, whose answers were met with applause.”