“‘Periods of record warmth in the West and not enough precipitation during the rainy season cut short drought relief in California this winter and prospects for above-average temperatures this spring may make the situation worse,’ Jon Gottschalck, chief of the Operational Prediction Branch at the Climate Prediction Center, said in issuing its spring outlook.
“The center, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, also said rivers in western New York and eastern New England have the greatest risk of spring flooding in part because of heavy snowpack coupled with possible spring rain.”
Janet Hook and Kristina Peterson reported in today’s Wall Street Journal that, “House and Senate Republicans have resurrected efforts to curb spending for Medicare and other safety-net programs, releasing budgets this week that bring government entitlements back to the center of political conversation.
“The Senate GOP budget released Wednesday calls for saving $5.1 trillion over 10 years, including $4.3 trillion by repealing the Affordable Care Act and curbing entitlement programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and food stamps.”
The Journal article noted that, “Each chamber will vote on its own budget, before merging them and voting on a unified budget setting overall spending levels for the fiscal year. The policy proposals described in the budgets aren’t binding and stand little chance of becoming law under Mr. Obama, but they send a message about GOP priorities.”
Seung Min Kim and Jake Sherman reported yesterday at Politico that, “As budget season kicks off in earnest this week, defense hawks are clashing with fiscal hard-liners over military spending, Republicans are scaling back their deficit reduction targets, and Democrats are waiting in the wings to hammer GOP lawmakers with politically tough votes on education, infrastructure and health care.
“In the House, Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California and Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana are stuck between the budget-cutting demands of conservatives and the desire of defense hawks to provide the military with more robust funding. In the Senate, Republicans are already getting hit by Democrats after indicating they’ll target Medicaid and food stamps.
“The blueprints due out this week in each chamber will provide the first hard evidence of how aggressively the GOP intends to pursue its top stated priority of fiscal discipline. Though the budgets are partisan documents that won’t be signed into law, failing to marshal enough GOP support to pass one would be a debilitating setback for a party trying to prove it can govern after taking full control of Congress.”
The article noted that, “As some details of the Senate budget became clear last week, Democrats began their attack — pointing to savings that Republicans would like to extract from Medicaid and food stamps for the poor.
“‘Balancing the budget on the backs of working families who have borne the brunt of the recession makes no economic sense,’ said Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.).
“If the two chambers ultimately can’t come together on a budget, Republicans won’t be able to wield a powerful budget maneuver known as reconciliation, which would allow them to enact policy changes with 51 rather than 60 votes.”
The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture resumes hearings this week and will garner additional details regarding USDA budget requests from three Agency Under Secretaries.
On Tuesday the Subcommittee will hear from Kevin Concannon, Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services, and on Wednesday, Under Secretary for Rural Development Lisa Mensah will testify before the Subcommittee.
Michael T. Scuse, Under Secretary for Farm and Foreign Agriculture Service and Brandon Willis, the Administrator for the Risk Management Agency will be at the Subcommittee on Thursday.
Meanwhile, the Senate Appropriations Ag Subcommittee will hear perspective on USDA’s budget from Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsackon Tuesday.
Recall that last month Sec. Vilsack presented testimony at the House Appropriations Ag Subcommittee (February 25) , as well as the House Ag Committee (February 11) and Senate Ag Committee (February 24).
In addition to the USDA budgetary hearings, the full House Ag Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday on the importance of trade to U.S. agriculture, while the House Ag Conservation and Forestry Subcommittee will hold a hearing on Tuesday, “To review the definition of ‘waters of the United States’ proposed rule and its impact on rural America.”
As these hearings regarding the USDA budget and ag policy issues are going on this week, the House and Senate Budget Committees will also be holding important meetings that have potential ramifications for the Farm Bill.
More recently, Jordain Carney reported on Friday at The Hill Online that, “Senate committees are laying the groundwork for the budget next week.
“Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said this week that the Budget Committee will mark up a budget proposal on Wednesday and Thursday. Sanders, the ranking member of the committee, said Democrats will likely offer ‘very strong amendments’ during markups next week.”
And an update on Friday at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) Blog (“The Farm Bill Reloaded”) explained that, “The House Budget Committee is expected to markup the fiscal year 2016 budget resolution on Wednesday March 18. The Senate Budget Committee is expected to follow suit the next day. Assuming the measures pass out of committee they will be debated and voted on in the full House and Senate the following week.
“While the chairmen of the two Committees have kept details of their proposed budget bills very close to the vest, it is widely expected that they will include ‘budget reconciliation’ instructions to various committees of Congress, including the Agriculture Committees. Budget reconciliation is a congressional process used primarily as a means of reducing government spending for mandatory programs.
“It is still unclear exactly what the reconciliation instructions to the Senate and House Agriculture Committees will be, but it has become increasingly clear that there will be instructions to the Agriculture Committees.”
The NSAC update added that, “The rumor in D.C. is that the Committees will be instructed to cut $20 billion, over 10 years, from the 2014 Farm Bill. This amount would be eerily similar to the House’s original 2013 proposal for $20 billion in cuts to the food stamps or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
“Whatever the dollar figure is, it doesn’t come with any dictates on what programs to cut. It will be up to the two Agriculture Committees to determine what parts of the farm bill to cut.”
Also on Friday, Kimberly Leonard reported at USNews Online that, “The days of mystery meat and soda-dispensing vending machines may be gone, but that doesn’t mean that the new era of school meals and snacks hasn’t come without its own challenges.
“Nutrition guidelines for schools, which have gradually gone into effect since Congress passed the Michelle Obama-backed Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010, can be logistically and financially difficult for already strapped district budgets.”
The article noted that, “In response, earlier this month 1,000 members of the School Nutrition Association, which represents school cafeteria workers and companies that supply food and equipment to districts, lobbied Congress for more funding and flexibility when it comes to school meals.
“Critics have called out the group for attempting to roll back quality nutrition standards, but the members maintain they are asking for a more realistic approach.”
William Mauldin reported on Sunday at The Wall Street Journal Online that, “Sweeping trade deals of the past—with Canada and Mexico in 1993, for instance, or China in 2000—presented big upsides and big risks for a broad swath of U.S. companies.
“By contrast, the trade bloc President Barack Obama is trying to hammer out with 11 Pacific countries shows how much smaller both the benefits and perils of trade liberalization have become.
“Complicating the pact’s path, meanwhile, are a host of accompanying fights over issues like environmental regulations and drug-pricing rules.”
The Journal article stated that, “Washington already has trade agreements with more than half the countries in the TPP, among them Singapore, Australia, Peru and Chile… Administration officials and business groups are saying the TPP would lower traditional barriers at the border but also open up U.S.-dominated services industries, boost intellectual-property protection for Hollywood movies and Silicon Valley software, and set rules on the international free flow of data, foreign investment and the environment. A successful deal would also lower regular agricultural and food barriers in Japan and other countries, raising profits for American farmers, an increasingly small but influential part of the electorate.”
Christopher Doering reported in Sunday’s Des Moines Register that, “Congress is wrestling with whether to grant President Barack Obama authority to negotiate potentially lucrative trade deals that could be a boon to an Iowa economy already dependent on trade to support thousands of jobs and pump millions of dollars into the state each year.
“Exports provide a major boost to Iowa’s economy, helping a host of industries ranging from agriculture and construction equipment manufacturers to bioscience and aerospace companies.
“The state shipped a record $15.1 billion in goods and services last year — up sharply from $6.4 billion a decade ago, according to the Commerce Department’s International Trade Administration. Trade now supports more than 80,000 jobs in the state.”
The article noted that, “Without trade, [Gov. Terry Branstad] said, the state’s unemployment rate of 4.1 percent in December would likely be higher, while agriculture, manufacturing and other industries in Iowa would be far less profitable.”
Sunday’s article added that, “Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said recently that agricultural exports have been among the biggest beneficiaries of trade, representing 9.2 percent of the record $1.64 trillion in U.S. goods exported in 2014, compared to 6.6 percent in 2000. Overall, exports are equal to about 30 percent of U.S. farm sales.
“‘Without exports, American agriculture would not be a particularly profitable venture,’ he said.”
“McDonald’s will phase out chicken raised with antibiotics that are important to human health over two years to allay concern that use of the drugs in meat production has exacerbated the rise of deadly ‘superbugs’ that resist treatment, Reuters reported last week. Within days, retailer Costco Wholesale Corp told Reuters it aims to eliminate the sale of chicken and meat raised with human antibiotics.
“KFC is owned by Louisville, Kentucky-based Yum Brands Inc, which has no publicly stated policy on antibiotic use in the production of meat it buys. Chick-fil-A, another chicken restaurant chain that competes with KFC, says about 20 percent of the chicken it serves is raised without any antibiotics, and that its entire supply chain will be converted by 2019.”
Also, a news release this week from Cargill indicated that, “Dr. Stephanie Cottee joins Cargill animal welfare team with global responsibility for poultry.
“She will be based in Guelph, Ontario, Canada and report to Dr. Mike Siemens, PhD, Cargill’s head of animal welfare based in Wichita, Kan. Dr. Cottee’s appointment is effective immediately.”
And Reuters writers Tom Polansek and P.J. Huffstutter reported yesterday that, “A case of bird flu confirmed Wednesday in the heart of America’s poultry region, is certain to mean more export restrictions, increasing U.S. supply and likely forcing the world’s biggest poultry companies to trim prices.”
The article noted that, “The USA Poultry & Egg Export Council said it expects 30 to 40 additional countries to impose new trade restrictions on U.S. poultry and eggs in the $5.7 billion export market. Additional limits could come from Mexico, the top U.S. chicken importer, which already is blocking poultry imports from Minnesota, Missouri and California due to bird flu, the trade group said.
“Previous cases of avian flu in other states triggered China and South Korea to recently impose bans, still in effect, on U.S. poultry imports. Last year, they accounted for about $428.5 million in export sales of poultry meat and products, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data.
“Other countries have banned exports from only states or counties with positive cases of avian flu.”
Chris Kirkham reported yesterday at the Los Angeles Times Online that, “The short-term economic impact of the recent labor standoff at West Coast ports will be small, according to a new economic forecast, but the ports face a long-term struggle to remain competitive in the rapidly changing realm of global trade.
“Many businesses in California, particularly those tied to agriculture, suffered from missed orders and produce spoiling on docks. But many other shipments were simply delayed rather than lost entirely, according to the quarterly UCLA Anderson Forecast.”
And Ann M. Veneman and Dan Glickman, who respectively served as Agriculture Secretary for George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, indicated in a column this week at The Hill Online that, “As former secretaries of Agriculture, we know firsthand the importance of international trade to America’s farm and ranch families, to our nation’s rural communities, and to the U.S. economy as a whole. There’s no other sector of the U.S. economy where the link between trade and prosperity is clearer than in agriculture.”
The column noted that, “Key to our ability to negotiate and implement market-opening agreements has been enactment of trade negotiating authority. This authority, now called trade promotion authority (TPA), ensures U.S. credibility to conclude the best deal possible at the negotiating table. TPA also ensures common negotiating objectives between the president and Congress, and a continuous consultation process prior to final Congressional approval or disapproval of a trade agreement.
“That’s why we, together with all living former secretaries of Agriculture, recently signed an open letter urging Congress to reinstate Trade Promotion Authority to allow the president to effectively negotiate job-supporting trade agreements as other presidents have done.
“With TPA, the United States will be able to pursue trade agreements that support high-paying U.S. jobs while helping America’s farmers and ranchers increase U.S. exports and compete in a highly aggressive globalized economy. TPA will signal to our TPP partners that Congress and the administration stand together on the high standards our negotiators are seeking.”
Corey Paul reported on Monday at the The Odessa (Tex.) American Online that, “[House Ag Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (R., Tex.)] said when he was appointed chairman in January that his chief priority was launching a review of the country’s Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or food stamps, criticizing a lack of oversight for the $80 billion annual program.
“Conaway said Monday that review is underway and that he does not want his fellow legislators to make cuts to the program before he is finished.
“‘I’m trying to maintain this idea that we don’t have any preconceived reforms in mind right this second, and we want to let those percolate out of the review itself,’ Conaway said. ‘One of the fights I’m having with the budget is to make sure they don’t do things there that would taint the water.’”
Meanwhile, with respect to the commodity title of the Farm Bill, Reuters news reported yesterday that, “Government support for U.S. grain farmers under the new five-year farm bill will peak with the coming 2015 crop, the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute said in a new report.”
The article noted that, “‘Payments under 2014 farm bill programs increase when crop prices fall,’ FAPRI said in its 2015 U.S. Baseline Briefing Book. The think tank estimated that $3.9 billion in ARC and PLC payments for last year’s 2014 crop would be made after fiscal 2016 begins on Oct. 1.
“‘ARC spending is greatest in 2015/16 but declines in later years as the moving averages that determine benchmark revenues adjust,’ FAPRI said. ‘Projected average ARC and PLC payments peak with the 2015 crop at about $6.5 billion but decline to $3.4 billion for the 2018 crop.’”
More broadly, yesterday’s FAPRI update stated that, “Lower prices have resulted in a large decline in crop producer income and could result in significant federal spending under new programs established by the 2014 farm bill. After reaching record levels in 2014, most livestock sector prices are also expected to decline in 2015. As a result, net farm income is projected to fall sharply.”
“Average projected corn prices recover to $3.89 per bushel for the 2015/16 marketing year in response to reduced U.S. production. Wheat and soybean prices both fall in 2015/16, to $5.17 per bushel and $9.29 per bushel, respectively, given continued large global supplies,” FAPRI said.
Meanwhile, Marcia Zarley Taylor reported yesterday at DTN (link requires subscription) that, “U.S. crop farmers have just weeks left to make their five-year farm program decision. For most, the March 31 choice will be narrowed between ARC-County and Production Loss Coverage (PLC). Many corn-soybean growers in the northern Corn Belt see good reason to go with what they call the ‘surer thing’ of ARC payments, DTN interviews have found.
“Even in counties that experienced bumper yields in 2014, growers may face little or no ARC payments in 2014 but still are banking that ARC will outpay PLC for 2015 and beyond. For example, McLean County, Illinois, averaged an amazing 217 bpa corn yield in 2014, so stands to collect no ARC payments, the University of Illinois estimates. However, with a return to average or below average yields in 2015, ARC-County payments could jump to $78/base acre in 2015.”
In other news, Lydia Wheeler reported on Friday at The Hill Online that, “The U.S. Department of Agriculture is giving schools $5.5 million in training grants, in addition to the $25 million being allocated this year for new kitchen equipment, to help districts prepare healthier meals.
“‘Our kids today are growing up in a very competitive economy and in this competitive economy it’s going to be very important for them and their country to be on top of their game,’ Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said Friday.”
Beena Raghavendran reported on Saturday at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune Online that, “In Moorhead, to qualify for government cash assistance, residents must have lower incomes than people living right next door in Fargo, N.D.
“This discrepancy upsets U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, a Democrat whose Seventh Congressional District includes Moorhead. Some Minnesota residents make slightly too much to receive benefits by Minnesota law while their counterparts making the same income across the state line are getting help. It’s a problem echoed across the country because states set their own cash benefit standards.
“‘We have to work on how we treat different people differently in different parts of the country,’ Peterson said.”
The article added that, “The House Agriculture Committee — where Peterson is the highest ranking Democrat — just began its review of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, formerly known as the food stamp program, to address a glaring problem: Though unemployment has fallen since the recession, numbers of food stamp recipients have remained constant.
“Some Republicans wonder whether the program is increasing its recipients’ dependency on welfare.
“Peterson understands the concern, but he doesn’t think the food stamp program should be touched — at least for now.”
The article indicated that, “‘I don’t think we should do anything because we did the farm bill and it’s a five-year bill and they [Republicans] had their chance and it didn’t get done,’ Peterson said.
“The committee’s GOP Chairman Rep. Michael Conaway, of Texas, said there may be a legislative proposal to tackle food stamp inconsistencies.
“‘What we don’t want is for this program to hold people back from achieving their potential,’ he said.”
Julie Harker reported late last week at Brownfield that, “Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster and plaintiffs from five other states have filed an appeal in the case of the California egg legislation they are fighting. Last October, a district judge in California tossed out their lawsuit against California’s Proposition Two, which requires eggs produced in California and elsewhere to meet that state’s new enlarged-cage standards for egg laying hens. Koster tells Brownfield Ag News, ‘The egg case is a very important case. A lot of people have made fun of us for bringing this case and yet, increasingly as egg prices are now soaring because of the acts of the California legislature, they are recognizing that we were right to bring this case.’”
Meanwhile, The Washington Post editorial board indicated on Saturday that, “Farmers and ranchers have often argued they are not responsible for the rise of antibiotic resistance and have balked at change. The McDonald’s decision is certain to get their attention and cause change by market incentives. Also, as chicken producers adapt and learn how to keep their flocks healthy without the routine use of antibiotics, the know-how they develop may spread. Of course, the McDonald’s decision is good marketing, too — consumers say they want it. More power to the marketplace.
“This is the latest in a string of developments that suggest, at last, a more serious approach to the problem of antibiotic resistance, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say leads to 2 million illnesses and 23,000 deaths a year in this country alone. The Food and Drug Administration has asked antibiotic manufacturers to stop selling the drugs for growth promotion in farm animals (although the FDA would permit continued use for disease prevention) and is giving veterinarians more control. Meanwhile, President Obama has proposed to double funding for combating antibiotic resistance, and the White House has mapped out an ambitious strategy. Bacteria have been evolving and adapting for many years, so it is encouraging to see the government and private sector doing more to address a major public health threat.”
Also, Jesse Byrnes reported on Sunday at The Hill Online that, “Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Sunday vowed that Republicans would figure out a way to handle the nation’s debt ceiling in order to avoid a government shutdown.
“‘The debt ceiling will be handled over a period of months,’ he said on CBS’s ‘Face the Nation’ when asked if Republicans would vote to lift the debt ceiling. ‘The secretary of the Treasury has a number of what we call ‘tools in his toolbox,’’ he added.”
In trade related news, an update on Saturday at The Japan Times stated that, “Japan and the United States failed to bridge the gap over tariff issues related to agricultural and auto trade as they wrapped up working-level bilateral talks associated with Trans-Pacific Partnership multilateral free trade negotiations on Friday.
“Hiroshi Oe, Japan’s deputy chief TPP negotiator, told reporters after the two-day meeting that there still remain some thorny issues.”
The article added that, “Of the unresolved issues, Japan and the United States will hold talks on agricultural tariffs on the sidelines of a meeting of chief negotiators from all 12 members in the TPP talks set for Monday through Sunday in Hawaii.”
Vicki Needham reported on Sunday at The Hill Online that, “Labor unions and other groups opposed to free-trade policies are ramping up a spring offensive against the White House and congressional Republicans with new trade legislation set to emerge in the coming weeks.
“The AFL-CIO along with other groups this week trumpeted how trade promotion authority (TPA) will rubber stamp agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that they say would hurt American workers by leading to job and wage losses.
“Hundreds of members from the various groups canvassed Capitol Hill, bringing their anti-fast-track message to more than 100 congressional offices. It’s just the latest push from the left to stop the Obama administration’s push for TPA or fast-track, which would prevent trade deals from being amended by Congress.”
A news release Friday from Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R., Tex.), Vice Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, indicated that he “….introduced H.R. 1267 this week, a bill that would make it easier for farmers, custom harvesters, and agricultural producers to safely transport the fuel they need for a day of field work. Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN), Ranking Member of the House Agriculture Committee, joined Neugebauer in introducing the bill. In the Senate, a companion bill was introduced by Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS), Chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), and Senator Jerry Moran (R-KS).”
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.”
Jacob Bunge reported in today’s Wall Street Journal that, “U.S. regulators for the first time are proposing limits on the planting of some genetically engineered corn to combat a voracious pest that has evolved to resist the bug-killing crops, a potential blow to makers of biotech seeds.
“The measures proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency represent a bold step to thwart the corn rootworm, a bug that ranks among the most expensive crop threats to U.S. corn farmers.
“The plan is aimed at widely grown corn varieties sold by Monsanto Co. , the first to sell rootworm-resistant corn, and rival seed makers including DuPont Co. and Dow Chemical Co. Such corn seeds have been genetically modified to secrete proteins that are toxic to destructive insects, but safe for human consumption, helping to reduce farmers’ reliance on synthetic pesticides.”
A House Ag Committee news release yesterday stated that, “Today, Chairman of the Agriculture Committee K. Michael Conaway (TX-11), Nutrition Subcommittee Chairwoman Jackie Walorski (IN-2), and Livestock and Foreign Agriculture Subcommittee Chairman David Rouzer (NC-7) sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell raising concerns about recommendations received from the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC).
“‘Members of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee greatly exceeded their scope in developing recommendations,’ Chairman Conaway said. ‘The Secretaries share responsibility for these flawed recommendations because they failed to keep the Committee focused on nutritional recommendations and away from areas such as sustainability and tax policy, which are outside of the Committee’s purview. At a time when consumers are already subjected to conflicting and often contradictory nutrition and health information, the dietary guidelines must provide the public with realistic, science-based recommendations. Given the grave concerns that have been raised, more time is needed for public comment, and those comments should be fully reviewed and considered.’”
Also yesterday, House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture Chairman Robert Aderholt (R., Ala.) turned his attention to the Dietary Guidelines during a hearing where FDA Administrator, Dr. Margaret Hamburg, presented budget related testimony.
During the discussion portion of yesterday’s hearing, Chairman Aderholt noted that, “Let me switch over to dietary guidelines. The Department of Health & Human Services, and of course FDA is a part of that, has a lead role in developing the dietary guidelines for Americans in 2015. The Secretary of Agriculture appeared before this subcommittee, was sitting where you are sitting just about a week ago. He made a commitment to adhere to the statutory directive for developing the dietary guidelines for Americans. And as he put it, and this was his quote, “I know my role and I will color within the lines.”
Chairman Aderholt went on to ask Dr. Hamburg: “Can we get an assurance from the Department of Health & Human Services that the final report would include only nutrient and dietary recommendations and not include environmental factors and other extraneous material?”
Nick Miroff reported on Tuesday at The Washington Post Online that, “Cuba policy sometimes makes strange bedfellows, which is how a man like Thomas Marten, a burly Illinois soybean farmer with a bushy red beard, had come to Havana to make a statement about the principles of free enterprise. ‘As a Republican, I believe in trade for the betterment of all people,’ he said, as he rushed to another business meeting with communist officials. ‘Prohibiting it is something that hurts us all.'”
The Post article noted that, “Over the years, no country in the world has triggered more U.S. government penalties and fines on private businesses than Cuba, and Marten had come to Havana with nearly 100 other American farmers, farm lobbyists and former U.S. agriculture officials looking to throw a little weight behind a new push against those sanctions.
“Calling itself the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba, the group isn’t shy about its interest in selling more American food to the communist government, but its members also appear sincerely interested in helping the island’s small farmers after decades of technological isolation and the disastrous legacy of state-run agriculture.”
Mr. Miroff explained that, “The Cuba effort isn’t a new one for the farm lobby. But after Obama’s announcement, it had produced a new enthusiasm, said the group, telling foreign reporters and television cameras from Cuban state media that supporters of the embargo in Congress were ‘a minority.’
“Lawmakers have offered new proposals to lift U.S. trade and travel restrictions on Cuba, but it’s unclear whether Republican leaders will allow the measures to come up for a vote.”
The Post article added that, “American food sales to the island peaked at more than $700 million in 2008, according to trade figures. That made the United States one of Cuba’s largest trading partners at the time, despite the sanctions.
“But because the U.S. sanctions limit the sales to a cash-only basis and bar U.S. banks from financing the sales, Havana has increasingly looked elsewhere to cover its import needs. Last year the Castro government spent less than $300 million on U.S. food, mostly frozen chicken and soybeans.
“Cuba has stopped buying U.S. wheat entirely, and rice shipments have plunged as well, the farm group said.”
Last month, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.) introduced the Freedom to Export to Cuba Act with Senators Mike Enzi (R, Wyo.), Ag Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.), Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.), Pat Leahy (D., Vt.), and Dick Durbin (D., Il.). “This bill lifts the trade embargo on Cuba and knocks down the legal barriers to Americans doing business in Cuba.”
And a recent editorial in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune noted that “Klobuchar, who often pushes relatively noncontroversial legislation, is to be commended for taking on such a divisive issue. Forging the consensus needed for passage will be difficult, but this is a battle worthy of her skills.”
Also last month, Sen. Klobuchar traveled to Cuba with with Senators Claire McCaskill (D., Mo.) and Mark Warner (D.,Va.).
Yesterday, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture heard testimony regarding the USDA’s Marketing and Regulatory Programs.
In his opening statement, Subcommittee Chairman Robert Aderholt (R., Ala.) indicated that, “USDA is requesting a total of $987 million in discretionary resources in FY 2016 for the mission area, a decrease of $12.5 million from the 2015 enacted level…I am particularly concerned that USDA has requested scarce discretionary resources for lower priorities. For example, APHIS has requested an increase to enhance implementation of the Lacey Act provisions. I have trouble supporting such an increase at the expense of higher priority and more effective animal and plant health programs, many of which the agency has proposed to decrease.
“With the overall spending caps still in effect, I anticipate that the Subcommittee’s funding levels will remain relatively flat at best.”
Ed Avalos, USDA Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs noted yesterday that, “To strike the balance between rigorous scientific review and timely entry to the market of genetically engineered crops, USDA streamlined and improved the process for making determinations on petitions involving biotechnology. Because of the enhancements, we reduced the length of the petition review by more than 600 days when we can use the environmental assessment process. With this improvement, we estimate that the cumulative number of actions taken to deregulate biotechnology products based on a scientific determination will increase from a cumulative total of 87 actions in 2011 to an estimated 119 in 2016.”
This topic came up in the discussion portion of yesterday’s hearing; Chairman Aderholt inquired: “Last year you reported that you were only able to reduce the backlog of 22 petitions by six. Your testimony this year states that you are nearly through the list of backlogged petitions. Can you provide us some more details on the status of the backlog and what progress you’ve been able to achieve?”
Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service Administrator Kevin Shea offered more details, and explained that, “You might recall a year ago I pledged to you we would cut the backlog of 16 by at least half, and I’m proud to say that the fantastic men and women who work in our biotechnology review program have indeed exceeded that goal, and there now only six of those 16 remain, so that means we reduced it by more than half.
“I would say this also, when we began our business process improvement just a few years ago, 2012, there were 23 re-regulation requests in the backlog. Since then 11 [more] requests to come in, so there were a total of 34 regulation requests. There are only six left. We got 28 out of 34 done. There are only six remaining. We’re going to get those done, we think, by the end of this fiscal year.
“And so now we have the system in equilibrium. We can handle the amount that come in. And not only can we handle them, we can handle them quicker. It was taking us three to five years to do these things. We are now down to 15 to 18 months. Our goal is no more than 15 months, and I think we’re going to achieve that as well.”
In a speech yesterday at the 2015 National Anti-Hunger Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack discussed the SNAP program and announced “more than $27 million in grants to fund innovative projects designed help end childhood hunger.”
Also yesterday, at the School Nutrition Association’s 2015 Legislative Action Conference, a separate venue in Washington, D.C., Sen. John Hoeven (R., N.D.) announced “that he plans to introduce the Healthy School Meals Flexibility Act later this week or early next week. The legislation would provide permanent flexibility to school districts in complying with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new school nutrition requirements.”
On Monday, USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) updated its monthly Amber Waves publication; the March edition contained two particularly interesting articles on nutrition related policy. The first looked at the number of school districts serving “local” food, while the second addressed the potential of restricting sweetened beverages purchases through the SNAP program– an especially timely article considering the House Ag Committee’s ongoing top-to-bottom overview of the program (Committee SNAP hearing summaries here and here).
Arthur Delaney reported yesterday at the Huffington Post that, “The Republican Party’s new point man on food stamps, Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), insists that he doesn’t want to cut nutrition assistance benefits. Instead, Conaway is leading a multiyear review of the program, just to make sure it’s the best it can be.
“But it might not be up to Conaway. Republicans could push food stamp cuts this year through a parliamentary process known as ‘reconciliation.’
“The GOP has discussed using reconciliation as a way to repeal Obamacare or to do tax reform. Now, some Democrats and food stamp advocates are warning that the Republican-controlled Congress could use the obscure budget maneuver to reduce food stamp assistance.”
A news release on Friday from USDA’s Farm Service Agency stated that, “Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced today that a one-time extension will be provided to producers for the new safety-net programs established by the 2014 Farm Bill, known as Agriculture Risk Coverage (ARC) and Price Loss Coverage (PLC). The final day to update yield history or reallocate base acres has been extended one additional month, from Feb. 27, 2015 until March 31, 2015. The final day for farm owners and producers to choose ARC or PLC coverage also remains March 31, 2015.”
Also on Friday, Senate Ag Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R., Kan.) stated that, “‘USDA heard the concerns directly from producers earlier this week at our first Committee hearing and took action as a result,’ Chairman Roberts said. ‘I would encourage all producers to visit their local FSA office as soon as possible to make sure they have enough time and information to make these important decisions.’”
Reuters writer Christine Stebbins reported on Friday that, “Crop insurance price guarantees for U.S. corn, soybeans and spring wheat in 2015 will fall 10 percent or more based on futures settlement prices for February, grain analysts said on Friday.
“The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Risk Management Agency (RMA), which oversees the multibillion-dollar crop insurance program, by law uses the average price in February for harvest-time grain futures contracts to set the ‘floor’ price that private insurers must guarantee farmers who sign up…[B]ased on Friday’s futures closes, the RMA is expected to set the floor price for corn at $4.15 a bushel, down 10 percent from last year’s $4.62, and for soybeans at $9.73 a bushel, down 14 percent from last year’s $11.36.”