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Blog Posts: Farm bill

January 30th, 2014

Two Years Later, the House Passes the 2012 Farm Bill

Patty Lovera

Food & Water Watch Assistant Director Patty Lovera

By Patty Lovera

I was starting to wonder if this day would ever come. Yesterday, the House passed their final Farm Bill. In case you missed it, the saga for this Farm Bill has been fairly epic – not because of what got accomplished, but for how dysfunctional the process became.  

So here’s how it all worked out: the nicest thing you can say about this final Farm Bill is it’s a mixed bag.

The final bill cuts the nutrition safety net for low-income families by almost $9 billion over 10 years (compared to the House version of the bill which would have cut $40 billion). Read the full article…

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January 2nd, 2014

Starting the Year Off Right

By Briana Kerensky

With the holiday season finally rolling to a close, it’s time to see if we can make good on our New Year’s resolutions. Getting healthy; spending more time with our families; being more productive at the office; these are all things we promise ourselves when the ball drops.

Here at Food & Water Watch, we’ve made our own resolutions. But as always, we need a little help from you to make sure we can achieve them. Here are some of the urgent priorities we’ll be focusing on early this year that will be crucial to win if we want to protect our essential resources—and our democracy. Read the full article…

December 5th, 2013

ALEC’s Attack on Country of Origin Labels

By Tyler Shannon

The right wing, Koch brothers-backed American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a pro-big business organization that works to gut environmental protection, attack labor rights and pass discriminatory voter identification laws, is now lining up with meatpackers and factory farms to try to prevent consumers from knowing where their food comes from.

ALEC is a reactionary, pro-business group disguised as a nonprofit that writes and lobbies for state legislation and “model bills” that put business interests ahead of the public interest. Its members include numerous large corporations and Republican legislators. Some companies, such as Amazon and Coca Cola, have actually chosen to pull out of ALEC after learning of the sweeping range of its radical legislative agenda. ALEC has been the subject of IRS complaints for lobbying while hiding behind its nonprofit status.

This week at ALEC’s annual policy summit, it is jumping into food and farm policy on the side of giant agribusiness interests, not American farmers and consumers. ALEC will vote on a resolution supporting the elimination of Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) for meat and poultry products. U.S. farmers and consumers overwhelmingly support COOL. Consumers want to know where their food comes from and farmers are proud to sell livestock born and raised in America. Read the full article…

November 26th, 2013

Farm Bill Update: Rites of Fall and Winter Miracles

Food Policy Director Patty Lovera

Food & Water Watch Assistant Director Patty Lovera

By Patty Lovera

In what seems to be a new rite of fall, Farm Bill watchers are once again wondering how and if Congress can finish this bill before the end of the year. At the end of last week, talks between the leadership of the House and Senate Agriculture committees broke down, which means finishing the Farm Bill using the normal process in 2013 would be nothing short of a winter holiday miracle.

To recap: The 2008 Farm Bill expired on October 1, 2012. Then on New Year’s Day, a 9-month farm bill extension was included in the bill that was passed to fix the supposed “fiscal cliff.” But the extension didn’t cover everything that was in the 2008 bill, and left dozens of programs for sustainable and organic agriculture, beginning farmers and disaster assistance behind. And on October 1 of this year, that short-term extension expired too.

So once again, we are finishing the year with an expired Farm Bill, waiting to see if Congress can finish the process and pass a new bill before “permanent law” (from the 1930’s and 1940’s) kicks in and affects the price of farm commodities like milk. Read the full article…

November 8th, 2013

Not Cool, Congress

By Jo Miles

Now that this Farm Bill process has started moving again, it’s moving awfully fast.

When we asked you to take action for a better Farm Bill earlier this week, you answered the call. Thank you again for pushing your members of Congress to pass the best Farm Bill they can!

But just now, we’ve learned about a new problem in the Farm Bill. The meat industry is pressuring the Farm Bill conference committee not only to weaken Country of Origin Labeling, but to kill it altogether. And all the debate on the Farm Bill is happening behind closed doors, so there’s a real danger that they could get their way.

Concerned citizens like you fought long and hard to pass this law, guaranteeing your right to know where your food was produced. But international corporations and industry groups like the meat packers hate Country of Origin Labeling requirements, because they’d rather not tell you how far away their products come from, or in how many places their ingredients were produced.

It’s unacceptable to let these companies take away our right to know. This process is moving quickly, so we don’t have a lot of time. Please take action right away to save Country of Origin Labeling! Read the full article…

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November 4th, 2013

The Ongoing Farm Bill Saga

By Jo Miles and Anna Ghosh

Of all the spectacular ways Congress has failed lately, the current Farm Bill is one of the biggest and longest running sagas (we’ve been reporting on this particular farm bill mess since 2011). It’s also the most critical for the people who grow our food, families who struggle to keep food on the table, and of us who care about where our food comes from.

The Farm Bill is a massive law that makes the rules not only for farmers, but for almost all aspects of our food, affecting everything from the price of milk, to subsidies on factory farms, to food stamps for families in need. Congress was supposed to renew this bill back in 2012, but the House and Senate can’t agree on what the new bill should look like, so they’ve just let is expire. Twice. But this tortured process may finally be coming to a close. Like Slate, we’re hopeful that the silver lining to Congress’s dysfunction is that it’s running out of ways to fail.   

The House and Senate both managed to pass a Farm Bill this summer but their versions of the bill are light-years apart. Now a special committee is reconciling those bills but all of Congress needs to feel pressure from concerned citizens to keep the essential protections for farmers, organic standards and everyday people who need access to safe, healthy, affordable food in tact. That’s what the Farm Bill is supposed to be about. It’s supposed to level the playing field for family farmers, so they can compete with Big Agriculture and provide the fresh, local food that’s needed. It’s supposed to protect the safety of our food and the environment from abusive practices by big corporations. And it should make sure that all American families, regardless of their income level, never have to go hungry.

The biggest risk is that the new Farm Bill might gut the food stamp program that millions of low-income Americans rely on to feed their families. But lots of other areas that we care about are at stake, too. It could damage our hard-won victories like Country of Origin Labeling, weaken food safety standards, remove vital rules that protect small farmers from abusive corporations, and more. You can be sure that corporations like Monsanto are pressuring Congress to pass a Farm Bill that’s friendlier to them at the expense of folks trying to know what’s in the food they’re feeding their families. That’s why your voice is so important. Let your Members of Congress know that you want a Farm Bill that protects ordinary Americans, not big corporations.

October 11th, 2013

Government Shutdown Week 2: The Dysfunction Continues

Food Policy Director Patty Lovera

Food & Water Watch Assistant Director Patty Lovera

By Patty Lovera

As the Food & Water Watch blogger who seems to cover the depressing update beat, it was up to me to talk about what the federal government shutdown means for the food system. And the other food news that barely registered last week – the Farm Bill expired. Again.

First the shutdown. Obviously, the list of impacts of the federal government not being fully operational is a long one.

Food Safety: This is one is getting a lot of coverage, but it’s a mixed bag of who is at work and who isn’t, which has caused some confusion. Ron Nixon helped sort it out in yesterday’s New York Times.

USDA meat and poultry inspectors are on the job but under extremely challenging conditions – like their supervisors and other USDA employees they work with on a daily basis not being available and the stress caused by not knowing when they will get paid or whether or not they can take a sick day. The current salmonella outbreak linked to Foster Farms chicken plants in California started before the government shutdown and reflects several serious flaws in USDA management’s policies on what triggers a recall and when to crack down on plants that show food safety lapses.

Inspections for other foods regulated by the Food and Drug Administration are not happening, except for inspections of imported foods. But before you breathe that sigh of relief, remember that in a normal year, FDA only looks at less than 2 percent of imported food (including seafood).

Another piece of the food safety system that is getting some attention because of the salmonella outbreak is the system for tracking foodborne illnesses. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention works to figure out if illnesses reported to state governments are part of a bigger outbreak that has crossed state lines. CDC plays a key role in the investigations to find the source of what is making people sick. And a lot of the CDC employees who do that were not at work last week. After media coverage of the salmonella outbreak this week, some of them were called back into work, but they are still not at full force.

There are lots of other ways that the shutdown impacts the food system beyond food safety. I’m not going to try to list them all here. But even a partial list shows how many ways agriculture and the food industry rely on some type of government program, and why we need those programs to work well (or this week, at all).

  • Ranchers in South Dakota and other states that were hit with a blizzard that has killed large numbers of cattle can’t get advice or access any USDA programs that might help them, because the USDA’s local offices are closed (they also can’t access any disaster programs that used to exist for farmers because the Farm Bill has expired again, but more on that later).
  • States are calculating how long they will be able to fund the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition assistance program for low-income mothers and young children without more funding from the federal government.
  • Meat companies that have a new product to sell cannot get their labels approved by USDA (craft beer companies are having the same problem with seasonal beer labels that need to be approved by the Treasury Department).
  • The National Organic Standards Board will not hold its bi-annual meeting at the end of October to vote on what materials are allowed to be used in organic agriculture and food, including a vote that could potentially end the use of an antibiotic called streptomycin in organic apple and pear orchards.
  • Farmers can’t sign up for federal conservation programs  designed to protect environmentally sensitive farmlands.
  • USDA isn’t reporting data about crop yields and other market data used by farmers and ranchers to decide when and where to sell their crops and livestock.

The list goes on and on. And I didn’t even get to the Environmental Protection Agency, which took a huge hit with the vast majority of its employees off the job. But it boils down to the fact that there are a lot of federal programs that make the food system work that are affected by this shutdown and right now most of them are not working. The Republic majority in the House is using food safety as a piece of its negotiating strategy of trying to open the government bit by bit. We’ll see how that strategy plays out. But it’s worth remembering all of the other programs that need to run too.

And almost lost in the craziness of the shutdown was the fact that on October 1, the Farm Bill expired. If that sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve been down this road before. Because I’m a big believer in recycling, I’ll let you read what we had to say when this happened last year here. This time around, drastic things aren’t likely to happen until the end of the year when some of the rules USDA has to follow for pricing commodities like milk will change.

So Congress has some time to finally finish this tortured process. But it’s not clear if there is enough time in the world to bridge the gap between the different bills passed by the House and Senate. The biggest difference is in nutrition programs – the House bill would not only take a huge cut in the funding for SNAP ($40 billion) but would also put the program on a different legislative schedule than the Farm Bill, which is an unprecedented step that could make the program vulnerable to attacks that being part of a bigger Farm Bill package has usually prevented.

There are other differences too, ranging from commodity programs to crop insurance to how catfish are inspected. But the core issue of what kind of nutrition assistance the government provides to low-income families is a huge one that the conference committee will have to figure out.

Or there is scenario B, in which some version of the Farm Bill gets attached to the debt ceiling/re-open the federal government/budget extravaganza that will have to happen eventually. If this sounds familiar too, that’s because the last time a Farm Bill passed at the end of 2012, it was attached to the “fiscal cliff” bill that was the result of a similar showdown in Congress.

So that is probably enough news on the dysfunction in D.C. for now. We will know more about the Farm Bill in coming weeks, including who will be on the conference committee that is supposed to figure out how to finish the process. We’ll tell you then who you need to contact to make sure they make the right choices between the House and Senate versions.

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September 21st, 2013

Farm Bill Update: Insulting the Poor While Complimenting Monsanto

Food Policy Director Patty Lovera

Food & Water Watch Assistant Director Patty Lovera

By Patty Lovera

Thursday, the House of Representatives passed a bill to cut almost $40 billion over ten years from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the main food assistance program that used to be called food stamps. The bill passed 217-210, largely along party lines, although 15 Republicans joined Democrats in voting against it. The New York Times editorial board captured what the vote means pretty well with the headline “Another Insult to the Poor,” since the cuts passed by the House would kick an estimated 3.8 million people out of the program next year. 

Thursday’s vote completed the House’s work on its version of the Farm Bill – mostly. They still need to finish some procedural steps to combine yesterday’s nutrition cut bill with the farm policy portions of the bill passed earlier in the summer. After that is figured out, the Senate and House can start the conference committee process to reconcile their different versions of the Farm Bill.

And there is a lot for the conference committee to figure out. The biggest is the SNAP program. The Senate bill cut $4 billion from SNAP, while the House bill cut almost $40 billion. This is a huge sticking point and Senate Democrats have vowed not to accept a cut that large and the President has threatened to veto any bill with such a cut. This issue alone will make it hard for the conference process to be completed.

The clock is ticking – the current farm bill (which was passed as quickie extension at the end of last year’s drama over the “fiscal cliff”) expires at the end of the month. And between now and then, Congress also has to deal with the small matter of keeping the federal government running past October 1, when the federal budget expires. Read the full article…

September 18th, 2013

Farm Bill Update: SNAP on the Chopping Block

Food Policy Director Patty LoveraBy Patty Lovera

To pick up where we left off in July, this Farm Bill process has been anything but typical. The Senate has passed its Farm Bill, but since the House decided to split its bill in half and only pass the farm program portion, it’s time for them to now deal with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps). Because the House didn’t pass the entire Farm Bill (farm policy and nutrition programs), House leadership refused to start the process for the conference committee to reconcile the Senate and House farm policy portions of the Farm Bill, even though both sides had completed their versions of the farm programs. As Politico’s David Rogers aptly observed, this Farm Bill process has turned into Washington’s version of the Hunger Games.

Millions of Americans lost their savings, jobs and homes due to the 2008 financial crisis, and many of these families are still struggling to make ends meet. The USDA estimates that one in seven Americans are hungry because of persistent poverty. However SNAP has offered a vital safety net to help families keep food on the table.

But later this week (probably Thursday), the House of Representatives will vote on a bill that would drastically slash this safety net. The half of the Farm Bill they left behind earlier this summer is now called H.R. 3102, the Nutrition Reform and Work Opportunity Act of 2013, and it threatens to cut $40 billion from SNAP. This would kick an estimated 3 million vulnerable people off the program by making it harder for them to qualify for benefits, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Understandably, the bill is highly controversial. Even if it does pass the House, such drastic cuts to nutrition funding likely won’t make it past the Senate or the president. What happens from there is unclear. The current Farm Bill, which is an extension from the fiscal cliff negotiations, expires at the end of September. Coincidentally, the government will also shut down on Oct. 1 unless Congress passes a continuing resolution to keep federal government funded. The Farm Bill could be extended yet again as part of that process. Or they could let it expire again. Either way, expect a lot more procrastination and drama.  

But this week, the most critical thing to do is make sure that the House gets the message that such draconian cuts to a vital food safety program is unacceptable. Poverty remains persistently high and millions of Americans are still unable to find work. H.R. 3102 will only hurt those who are already struggling to survive and we cannot allow it to pass. 

 Act NOW to stop the Republican attack on SNAP. 

September 16th, 2013

Got Organic Checkoff? No Thanks.

Click to expand.

By Patty Lovera

“Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner.” “Pork. The Other White Meat.” “Got Milk?” These well-known slogans are examples of advertising campaigns funded by commodity research and promotion programs, more commonly referred to as checkoff programs. The programs are overseen by USDA and run by organizations established to promote specific commodities (beef, pork, soybeans, eggs and milk) and commission research to produce and market that commodity. The funds to pay for these activities come from mandatory fees assessed on producers of the commodity. For example, every time a head of cattle is sold, $1 per head is collected for the beef checkoff program.

So does organic food need its own checkoff program? That’s a debate that’s raging right now in the organic community.

The farm bill being debated by Congress includes language that would allow USDA to create a checkoff program for organic products. The idea of creating an organic checkoff is controversial to say the least. Just like other commodity markets, every link of the organic food chain—purchasing, processing, distribution and retail—is increasingly dominated by a small number of large players. In organic, this includes conventional food companies like General Mills, Kraft and Cargill, which are now marketing organic foods.

The way checkoffs for other commodities work is that farmers pay into the fund but large food companies are largely in control of decisions on how to spend the money. So it’s understandable that many organic farmers are wary of such an arrangement where their dollars are being controlled by giant food processing companies.

Despite being created with the mission of helping improve farmers’ livelihoods and expand market opportunities, checkoff programs have failed to prevent decades of dramatic losses for family-scale farms in the U.S. For pork, the number of hog producers has dropped by close to 70 percent from 239,000 farms in the mid-1980’s to only 75,000 farms today, according to the most recent agricultural census. Two-thirds of dairy farms have disappeared since the mid-1980’s while the prices farmers received have dropped by as much as 25 percent. Since the mid-1980’s, the number of cattle slaughtered and the price of beef has flat lined, and there are nearly 15 percent fewer producers.

Many of the checkoffs were initiated in the 1980s, but by the mid-2000s close to half of all the checkoffs were facing legal challenges.

The majority of pork producers voted in a 2000 referendum to abolish the pork checkoff, though proponents were able to save the program through legal and political maneuvering. If other checkoff markets held similar referendums, they would likely also face resistance. Read the full article…

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