As many people predicted, it’s looking more and more likely that the 2012 Farm Bill will actually be the 2013 Farm Bill. But the congressional saga is not yet done for the year.
The Senate passed its version of the Farm Bill in June, and the House Agriculture Committee passed its version of the bill in mid-July. The next step in a normal process would be for the full House to vote on the committee version, and then for the House and Senate to choose a conference committee to reconcile their versions of the bill. However, with the election looming, the House leadership decided to avoid holding a vote on the floor of the House in July. For the leadership, the problem was that the House might have actually voted down the bill, not to mention the prospect of ugly fights over amendments. Some Democrats will oppose the bill because of the deep cuts it makes in nutrition programs like SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) and some conservative Republicans will oppose it because those cuts aren’t deeper.
The current Farm Bill (passed in 2008) does not expire until September 30th, so it is theoretically possible for Congress to finish this process and pass a new bill when they come back into session in September. Alternatively, the “normal” approach would be to pass a one-year extension to the 2008 Farm Bill, and let the next Congress argue it out.
But other, more unusual, proposals have also been floated in order to enable the Farm Bill to pass this year without members of the House being able to vote on amendments. For instance, the House could pass a one-year extension of the Farm Bill, or some other simple shell bill, but the conference committee would then develop a bill based on compromises between the Senate version and the House Agriculture Committee’s version of the full Farm Bill. Although the full House would have to vote on the final compromise, this messy process would skip the step where members of the House who are not on the Agriculture Committee would have a chance to amend the bill. Congress might also pass a shortterm extension, just long enough to get past the election, and take the Farm Bill up during a lame duck session.
FARM BILL ISSUES
Unfortunately, there are a lot of things that should be amended in the House agriculture committee version. From gutting what little regulation currently exists for genetically engineered crops, to effectively abandoning countryof- origin labeling, the House bill is an ugly mess. How many of these flaws could get fixed on the House floor or during conference committee is far from clear.
Nonetheless, several sustainable agriculture organizations are pushing hard for Congress to pass a Farm Bill this year. The reason is that an extension of the 2008 Farm Bill would not cover several programs for beginning farmers, conservation and organic production, so these programs would lapse completely. These organizations have prioritized saving these programs over almost every other consideration.
This year’s widespread drought adds another layer of public and political pressure to the equation. The Farm Bill contains many of the programs designed to aid farmers and ranchers in a disaster. The Democratic leadership of the Senate is arguing that the best way to address the drought is to pass a full Farm Bill that includes disaster programs. The House’s approach, in contrast, was to pass a stand-alone bill in July that just dealt with disaster assistance. The House bill dealt mostly with programs to provide assistance to livestock producers who are not usually covered by crop insurance, and paid for it by cutting conservation programs. When Congress re-convenes in September, the Senate will have to decide whether or not to pass the House’s disaster bill, while the House continues to face the issue of whether or not to vote on the Farm Bill.
But this debate about short-term relief and the politics of the Farm Bill misses the big picture― why have so many farmers gone out of business despite the safety nets, and why are consumers facing higher prices for even low-quality food? Neither the House Committee version nor the Senate version addresses the fundamental problem, namely that government subsidies have created incentives for large-scale monocultures and industrial agriculture. Instead, both versions of the bill rely on a crop insurance program that sounds more palatable to the general public but changes very little in reality.
We used to have farm policies designed to try to smooth out some of the volatility of food markets without creating perverse incentives, by managing the supply of major commodity crops like corn, soybeans, wheat and other grains. These programs were dismantled in the 1980s and early 1990s, as discussed in the last issue of Wise Traditions. The first step in fixing this would be to create a grain reserve―a concept that dates back to ancient civilizations, which recognized the need (to which our current politicians appear oblivious) to have supplies of storable food in case of droughts or other disasters. Reserves can also be used to protect farmers when they have a great year, since overproduction drives down prices and can result in farmers going out of business just because of widespread crop success; with a grain reserve program, some of the bumper crop goes into the reserve to protect our food security and keep market prices from cratering. The National Farmers Union has a proposal for creating a farmer-controlled reserve program, but the current Congress has not even considered it. If the 2012 Farm Bill does indeed become the 2013 Farm Bill, we will have another opportunity to try to push for real reform to deal with the long-term problem of creating a stable food supply, rather than focusing on the latest crisis.
SPECIFIC FARM BILL AMENDMENTS
With no solid proposals to reform the fundamentals of the Farm Bill, our action alerts for the 2012 Farm Bill focused on a few specific amendments that could have helped our farmers raise nutrient-dense foods with less interference from the government.
Thank you to everyone who took the time to act on the action alerts! Your calls do make a difference. After analyzing the senators’ votes on the amendments discussed below, it appears that your calls turned several senators from likely “no” votes to “yes” votes. Even though the amendments did not pass, each legislator we influence brings us one step closer to winning next time.
On the Senate side, WAPF asked for your calls to support two long-shot amendments. The first, the DeMint Amendment, would have stopped mandatory Checkoff programs. There are currently eighteen mandatory “Checkoff” programs. Under these programs, anytime a farmer sells a cow or a gallon of milk or any other covered commodity, the farmer is legally required to pay a fee to industry-run organizations. These funds are used to pay for things such as the “Got Milk?” and “Pork, the other white meat” advertising campaigns. These advertising campaigns benefit primarily the retailers and grocery stores, yet the farmers are stuck paying the bills. When it comes to raw milk, the industry adds insult to injury by promoting only pasteurized milk products and even running ads against raw milk―but they still require raw milk farmers to pay to support those ads. The DeMint Amendment would have barred any Checkoff program from being mandatory, so that our farmers would no longer be coerced to support advertising efforts that are not in their interest.
The following Senators voted yes, supporting farmers’ choice: Ayotte (R-NH); Brown (R-MA); Burr (R-NC); Coats (R-IN); Coburn (ROK); Cornyn (R-TX); DeMint (R-SC); Graham (R-SC); Hatch (R-UT); Heller (R-NV); Johnson (R-WI); Kyl (R-AZ); Lee (R-UT); McCain (RAZ); McConnell (R-KY); Murkowski (R-AK); Paul (R-KY); Rubio (R-FL); Sessions (R-AL); Toomey (R-PA).
The second amendment WAPF supported was the Sanders Amendment to permit states to require that any food, beverage or other edible product offered for sale have a label indicating that the food, beverage or other edible product contains a genetically engineered ingredient. State efforts to require labeling of geneticallyengineered foods have been met with threats that the biotech industry will sue any state that dares pass such a law, and the Sanders Amendment would have explicitly recognized that states are not limited by federal law on this issue. The Sanders amendment would also have required the FDA and USDA to provide a report within the next two years to specify how much of our country’s food and beverages contain genetically engineered ingredients.
The following Senators voted yes: Akaka (D-HI); Begich (D-AK); Bennet (D-CO); Blumenthal (D-CT); Boxer (D-CA); Cantwell (D-WA); Cardin (D-MD); Feinstein (D-CA); Inouye (D-HI); Johnson (D-SD); Kerry (D-MA); Lautenberg (D-NJ); Leahy (D-VT); Lieberman (ID-CT); Manchin (D-WV); Merkley (D-OR); Mikulski (D-MD); Murkowski (R-AK); Murray (D-WA); Reed (D-RI); Rockefeller (D-WV); Sanders (I-VT); Tester (D-MT); Udall (D-NM); Whitehouse (D-RI); Wyden (D-OR).
Several other amendments that WAPF asked you to call about were blocked before coming to a vote. This was bad news for Senator Tester’s Seeds and Breeds Amendment (guaranteeing funding for non-GMO research) and Senator Paul’s Raw Milk Amendment (removing the ban on interstate transport of raw milk). However, it was good news when it came to Senator Feinstein’s amendment to impose new regulations on laying hen operations, which WAPF opposed. Although we recognize the problems with the factory farm conditions, Feinstein’s bill could have unintended consequences for pastured poultry farmers due to labeling and euthanasia provisions.
On the House side, we knew the House Agriculture Committee would be generally difficult for our issues, and the committee’s version of the bill includes several damaging provisions: essentially conceding to WTO pressure on County-of-Origin Labeling, undermining livestock market reforms, and fast-tracking approval of new genetically engineered crops. However, on the one amendment that WAPF supported, the committee did adopt a pared-down version, Representative Chellie Pingree’s amendment to help small-scale slaughterhouses. The approved amendment requires the USDA to submit a report to Congress on what needs to be done to meet the needs of small processors. Although it’s narrower than we had hoped for, it can be used to lay the groundwork for more reforms in the next legislative session.
Many WAPF members responded to the alert to call their congressman to express their opposition to the USDA’s new animal ID rule―thank you! Although Congress did not cut the funding for the program, the calls triggered several offices to inquire more about the issue and raise concerns with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). At the same time, a coalition of organizations is also urging OMB to send the rule back to USDA on the grounds that the agency has not addressed the real costs. We met with OMB staff in late June for a face-to-face discussion, and sixty-two organizations then sent a joint letter as follow-up. See page 78 for a few excerpts.
Typically, if OMB does not raise concerns about the costs or regulatory burdens imposed, a rule is finalized within ninety days after being sent to the OMB. At the time this article goes to press, over one hundred twenty days have passed since USDA sent the animal ID rule to OMB for review, and it has not yet been finalized. Under federal law, the OMB is not allowed to say more than the simple fact that the rule is going through the interagency review process, but the delay indicates that OMB is looking closely at some of the issues we raised.
LABELING GMO’S: THE CALIFORNIA BALLOT INITIATIVE
With state legislatures and governors caving to pressure from biotech companies, the tactic of taking the issue straight to the voters has become one of the few hopes for mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods. California Proposition 37 would require clear labels letting consumers know if foods are genetically modified and barring companies from labeling foods that contain GMO’s as “natural.”
Unsurprisingly, companies like Monsanto and DuPont and their trade associations are fighting the proposition tooth and nail. Conventional food groups, such as the Grocery Manufacturers of America, have declared the defeat of this consumer-right-to-know provision one of their “top priorities.”
The controversy over Proposition 37 has brought new attention to the issue of “corporate organics” and so-called “natural” brands because many of these companies have joined forces with the biotech industry to fight labeling. The reality is that many natural and organic brands are actually owned by the handful of huge companies that control so much of our food supply. These companies don’t support organic or natural food products―they have simply purchased the brands in order to grab a share of what they view as a lucrative niche market. These companies often sell more food that has GMO ingredients than organic food and don’t want consumers to have a choice about the GMO. They especially don’t want consumers to know what is actually in their so-called “natural” products.
Most people assume that “natural” foods don’t have genetically engineered ingredients, but that is false. For example, Kashi, which proclaims its passion for “healthy, all-natural foods,” has GMO soy in its ingredients. Kashi is owned by Kelloggs, the multinational food manufacturing company that has contributed six hundred twelve thousand dollars to defeat Prop 37 and keep GMO labels off their products.
Even some certified organic brands have played the same shell game. Honest Tea, for example, is USDA-certified organic, but is owned by Coca-Cola, which has contributed more than one million dollars to defeat GMO labeling in California. Coke also owns Odwalla, which produces “all-natural juices” and “nourishing protein bars,” and supposedly supports sustainable agriculture.
Silk carries the “Non-GMO Project Verified” seal on its soy milk, coconut milk and almond milk products. Both Silk and the Horizon Organic brand tell their customers that the brands oppose GMOs. Yet both are owned by Dean Foods, which has contributed two hundred fiftythree thousand dollars to defeat GMO labeling.
Seeds of Change, the organic seed and food company, is owned by candy giant Mars, which contributed one hundred thousand dollars to defeat GMO labeling. General Mills, which owns Cascadian Farms Organic, Muir Glen, and Larabar, contributed five hundred twenty thousand dollars. Smucker, which owns R.W. Knudsen and Santa Cruz Organic, contributed three hundred eighty-seven thousand dollars.
In contrast, a few companies that are truly committed to organic and natural health have donated to support Proposition 37 and consumers’ right to know. These companies deserve a special thanks for their commitment: Nature’s Path, Dr. Bronner’s, Lundberg, Amy’s, Clif Bars, Annie’s Homegrown, Nutiva, Organic Valley, Glutino, Earth Balance, Udi’s Gluten-free, Late July Organic, OrganicVille, Sambazon, Eden and Earthbound Farm Organic. In addition, Dr. Mercola has donated eight hundred thousand dollars, and individuals from across the country have donated over seven hundred thousand dollars to the Organic Consumers Association’s Fund for this campaign.
Whether you live in California or not, Proposition 37 will affect your food supply. The corporate giants are determined to defeat it because mandatory labeling of GMOs in California would inevitably create huge pressure for nationwide labeling. If you live in California, take some time to volunteer to help spread the word in your community. And for those elsewhere in the country, you can also help by reaching out to anyone you know in California, as well as donating to the campaign.
To see how much money different companies have donated, both for and against Proposition 37, go to http://cal-access.ss.ca.gov/Campaign/Measures/Detail.aspx?id=1344799&session=2011
For more information on the California Right to Know campaign, visit http://www.carighttoknow.org.
EXCERPTS FROM LETTER TO THE OMB ON ANIMAL ID
Contrary to assertions made by the USDA, the proposed rule exceeds the threshold to be recognized as economically significant. The cost of the proposed rule to the U.S. cattle industry alone is far in excess of $100 million, and there will be additional significant costs to ancillary cattle-related businesses (such as sale barns and veterinarians) and to small-scale poultry farmers and backyard poultry owners.
As proposed, the ADT rule would ultimately require that every bovine that crosses state lines be tagged with an official form of identification. The identification number would have to be recorded on a certificate of veterinary inspection (CVI). Businesses such as livestock sale barns and veterinarians would have to keep records of the official identification for each animal for five years. The implementation of these requirements would occur in two phases, beginning with dairy cattle and cattle over the age of 18 months (commonly referred to as “breeder cattle”) and then covering cattle under that age (commonly referred to as “feeder cattle”).
In estimating the costs, USDA made several deeply flawed assumptions, discussed below.
The estimate that it would cost only eighteen cents in labor costs to apply the tag is based on the claim that it takes only one person one minute to tag a cow. But cattle are living animals, not inanimate objects. Cattle do not always run quickly and quietly through chutes, nor do they stand perfectly still to have their ears tagged. It typically requires a team of multiple people to manage these large, powerful animals. … The time and labor involved is not only the exact moment of placing the tag, but gathering the cattle, sorting the calves from the adult cows, running them through the chutes, restraining each animal individually and placing the tag. The amount will vary based on the conditions, number of animals, behavior of the animals, type of equipment used and the handlers’ experience. A more realistic estimate for all of the labor involved would be anywhere from 5-12 minutes with a crew of three people, at a cost of $2.70 – $6.48 in labor. … A study from North Dakota, which involved tagging 14,432 calves, estimated the cost of labor at $7 for working the calves, tag placement and documentation combined.
Even assuming that USDA is correct that 35 percent of the cattle that would be subject to the rule are already using official identification, that means that at least 19.5 million cattle will be subject to new regulatory requirements under the rule. Based on the North Dakota study, that would mean a cost of $331 million to $526 million for cattle owners, not including the cost of the tags or the tag applicator. The North Dakota study also did not include the costs from the risk of injury to people or the requirement for certificates of veterinary inspection, so the true costs would be even higher.
Under the proposed rule, poultry moving interstate must be officially identified either through group identification or with a permanent sealed and numbered leg band. There are no exceptions to the ID requirement, and they apply to both the person who sends and the person who receives the animals. “Group identification” is defined so that it only applies when a “unit of animals” is managed together as one group “throughout the preharvest chain.” This definition describes the management practices at large, vertically-integrated facilities, but does not apply to the majority of smallscale poultry owners who frequently commingle poultry of different ages and from different sources.
In part because of the issues discussed below, the USDA Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Animal Health recommended that no new regulatory requirements be imposed on poultry owners.
The USDA has failed to conduct the required comprehensive cost-benefit analysis of the ADT rule. At numerous points in its analysis, the agency failed to consider available data showing that the scope of the rule and its impact on the industry would be far broader, and its costs far more extensive, than the agency admitted. We urge the OMB to return the rule to USDA for a thorough and complete analysis, which must acknowledge that the rule is economically significant.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Fall 2012.