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Blog Posts: Farm bill

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…

July 11th, 2013

Farm Bill Update: “An extraordinary political spectacle”

Patty Lovera

Food & Water Watch Assistant Director Patty Lovera

By Patty Lovera

That was how Politico’s David Rogers described today’s Farm Bill action in the House. It’s a pretty accurate description, and way more polite than what many farm bill-watchers (including me) had to say about what went on today when they rushed a farm bill to the floor.

To recap: On June 20th, the House of Representatives voted on the Farm Bill and it failed, 195-234. Political junkies, as well as those who work on food policy, still haven’t gotten over it, since farm bills rarely (if ever) get voted down.  

Republican House leadership brought up an even more contentious idea in today’s attempt to revisit the farm bill. The strategy of the Republican leadership to break the impasse was to split the farm bill into two parts – and to leave the nutrition programs like SNAP (also known as food stamps) out of the bill. Read the full article…

June 20th, 2013

House Farm Bill Breakdown

Patty Lovera

Food & Water Watch Assistant Director Patty Lovera

By Patty Lovera

This afternoon, the House of Representatives voted on the farm bill – and it failed 195-234. Many Democrats voted against it because of the drastic cuts to food stamps ($20 billion, compared to $4 billion cut in the Senate version) and several amendments adopted on the House floor that made the bill even worse, including allowing states to establish drug test and work requirements for food stamp recipients. More Republicans than expected voted against the bill because they object to the size of government programs for things like crop insurance, dairy support and the sugar program. You can see how your Representative voted here.

While we’ve come to expect drama and dysfunction from the farm bill process, we don’t know anyone who thought it would go this way. The House bill was terribly flawed on a number of fronts. But the failure of the House to pass a bill at all raises the chance that we have to live through another year of an extension of the last farm bill. This isn’t good either because the last extension did not renew a lot of important programs for organic, conservation and beginning farmers.

The big question at this point is whether the House will try again to pass their own version of the bill, vote on the version the Senate already passed, or just stay gridlocked until they have to pass an extension (before September 30). There really isn’t any sense making predictions with this bunch, since they seem intent on doing things that supposedly “never happen” to the farm bill.

So once again…stay tuned for updates.

The House Finally Does the Farm Bill

By Patty Lovera

Read the report

Confused about the Farm Bill? Click here to read our report, Farm Bill 101.

After never getting around to it last year, the full House of Representatives is finally working on a farm bill and they seem to be trying to make up for lost time. Yesterday they set a very quick pace, plowing through dozens of amendments and working until close to midnight (so they can keep on schedule to adjourn Thursday afternoon and make it home to their districts for the weekend.)

The version of the bill sent to the House floor by the House Agriculture Committee is very flawed (you can read more about it here). It cuts food stamps by $20 billion, fails to restore funding for almost all the organic and sustainable agriculture programs that expired last year, and includes a provision that would effectively overturn state laws that set food and agriculture standards that are higher than federal rules.

The potential for improving the House farm bill on the floor rests on what amendments are considered. On Monday afternoon, members filed over 200 amendments covering a range of issues. Some of them would have made critical improvements to the bill on restoring organic programs like certification cost share, stopping retaliation against farmers who speak out about unfair treatment by meatpackers and poultry processors, and dealing with contamination caused by field trials of genetically engineered crops and the growing threat of weed resistance. But none of these good amendments survived the Rules Committee process, which determines which amendments actually get a vote on the House floor. Late Tuesday night, the Rules Committee cut the list of over 200 to about 90 that would actually get a vote.

That list of 90 is what the House started to tackle yesterday. There were more amendments we oppose than support. Some of the good amendments have already been voted down. 

Read the full article…

June 15th, 2013

Farm Bill in Progress: What to Expect From the House

Patty Lovera

Food & Water Watch Assistant Director Patty Lovera

By Patty Lovera

Next week, the U.S. House of Representatives are expected to take up the farm bill. Although we won’t know which amendments will be voted on, the House leadership has suggested that several dozen could be considered. Based on the House Agriculture Committee debate and the House Republicans’ response to the farm bill passed by the U.S. Senate last week, we can make some educated guesses as to what topics will be covered.

The amendments will likely include: attacks on federal nutrition programs, amendments to protect the crop insurance industry from being required to comply with conservation programs, efforts to eliminate the new dairy supply management program (which is a first step in the right direction to ensure dairy farmers receive more for their milk than it costs to produce), and attempts to use the farm bill as a vehicle for broad-based deregulation of environmental rules and safeguards. We’re keeping our eyes on a handful of topics likely to come up during the House debate and will be telling members of Congress to:

  • OPPOSE any amendment to repeal or weaken country-of-origin labeling (COOL) for meat, poultry, fruits and vegetables: Representative Austin Scott (R-Georgia) is seeking to eliminate the labels that tell consumers where their food comes from. Consumers overwhelmingly support these commonsense labels and the USDA recently finalized rules that ensure consumers have access to clear and complete information on food labels.
  • OPPOSE any amendment that weakens environmental laws, pesticide oversight and promotes broad-based deregulation: Some Republicans are eager to use the farm bill to promote an aggressive deregulation agenda to roll back environmental, food safety and consumer protection safeguards. There may be amendments to weaken clean water laws, pesticide oversight and prevent food safety and agriculture regulators from addressing new and emerging public health threats.
  • OPPOSE amendments to weaken nutrition programs: Oppose all efforts to weaken the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps) by reducing the number of lower-income people eligible for SNAP, reducing the funding for the vital safety net program or shifting SNAP from a federal to a state program, where states could rapidly unravel the program.
  • SUPPORT any amendment to strip out the King commerce-clause provision: The House Agriculture Committee included an amendment from Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) that could prohibit states from adopting their own labeling, food or farming standards. State governments often lead the way in addressing controversial issues including animal welfare and other food issues and these efforts should not be discouraged.
  • SUPPORT any amendments to address the issue of contamination by genetically engineered crops. The recent discovery of unapproved GE wheat by a farmer in Oregon exposes the threat that field trials of GE crops pose to the food supply. The House should address this issue in the farm bill.
  • SUPPORT any amendments to restore to organic farming programs: When the 2008 Farm Bill expired in 2012, several programs that supported organic farming lost their dedicated funding. These programs have helped to foster organic agriculture through research, helping to offset the cost of farms and food processors getting organic certification, and collecting data on the organic sector. These programs should be restored in the House Farm Bill.

We will have more updates next week when amendments become available. Stay tuned…

June 11th, 2013

Farm Bill in Progress: What Little Difference a Year Makes

Food Policy Director Patty Lovera

Food & Water Watch Assistant Director Patty Lovera

By Patty Lovera

Last night, the Senate passed their version of the farm bill… again. Just like they did a little less than a year ago. But last year, the House didn’t vote on the bill. So this summer, they’re trying again.

A quick recap on how we got to this point: the last farm bill to use a “normal” process was passed in 2008. Several attempts to pass a new farm bill in 2012 were unsuccessful and the farm bill that is currently in effect is a short-term extension that expires in September 2013. The extension bill kept major programs (like payments for commodity crops) alive, but abandoned important programs for organic and sustainable agriculture, conservation and beginning farmers.

The bill passed last night by the Senate is disappointing. In our statement to the press, we described it as doing “little to address the stranglehold that food processing firms have over America’s unsustainable and unfair food system.” Because of disputes over whose amendments would be considered, more than 200 proposed amendments were not considered at all. Some of the amendments that did not get a vote would have dramatically improved the bill, such as those by Senators Grassley, Tester, Enzi and Rockefeller that would have injected some sensible measures to address the rising consolidation in the food industry, an amendment by Senator Tester to prioritize research funding for non-genetically engineered seeds and breeds, and Senator Boxer’s amendment to require labeling of genetically engineered foods.

On the slightly brighter side, the failure to consider lots of amendments meant that some bad changes were averted, including a measure to remove catfish inspection from the USDA, measures to delay implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act, and even deeper cuts to food assistance programs (the bill that passed the Senate does cut $4 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) over 10 years, but some amendments offered would have cut even more). One of the few amendments that did get added to the bill – by unanimous consent – would retroactively disqualify anyone who had ever been convicted of some felonies—or their children—from receiving food stamps.

You can read more about what is in the Senate bill here:

The next step for the farm bill is the House floor. Predicted by some observers to be a “bloody free for all,” the House spectacle will feature big debates over cuts to SNAP (the current draft would cut $20 billion in comparison to the $4 billion cut in the Senate bill). The House bill also has less dramatic changes to government commodity programs, with lower target prices paid to farmers for commodity crops and less reliance on crop insurance than the Senate bill. There is also going to be a big fight about dairy programs in the House. The Speaker of the House, Rep. Boehner, is on a well-known crusade to end any government programs for dairy supply management, putting him on a collision course with the Agriculture Committee’s Ranking Member, Rep. Collin Peterson, who is championing a complex modification to current policy that would pay dairy farmers when the gap between the price of their milk and the cost of animal feed hits a specified mark. Sadly, for all the debate that is likely to occur over the role of government in dairy pricing, the discussion will probably not address the real source of the problem for dairy farmers – too few buyers and milk pricing formulas that don’t include what the milk costs to produce.

The House may take up the farm bill next week. Stay tuned for news on what amendments are introduced and ways to get involved.

May 17th, 2013

Farm Bill 2013: The Bill Goes to the Senate Floor… Again

By Patty Lovera

Read the report

Confused about the Farm Bill? Click here to read our report, Farm Bill 101.

This week, both the House and Senate Agriculture committees adopted their versions of the 2013 Farm Bill. This is the latest move in the long-running attempt to pass a “normal” 5-year farm bill to replace one that was last passed in 2008. Several attempts to pass a farm bill in 2012 were unsuccessful and the farm bill that is currently in effect is a short-term extension that expires in September 2013.

There are some significant differences between the House and the Senate, in both what their bills actually contain and in the process used to get them through the committee. Both sides had an abbreviated process, skipping the normal step of conducting a series of hearings to explore various issues before writing the bill. But the Senate Agriculture Committee took the streamlining even further, managing to discuss, amend and pass its version of the bill in a little under three hours on Tuesday. The House Agriculture Committee finished theirs in a marathon session that took most of the day, wrapping up just before midnight Wednesday night.

Now each bill (HR 1947 and S 954) has to go to the floor for the whole body to vote on. The Senate is going first, with leadership claiming they will do the Farm Bill as early as next week. The full House may see their bill in June.

Read the full article…

May 9th, 2013

Farm Bill Update: Will Congress Make Improvements or Continue to Kick the Can?

Patty Lovera

Food & Water Watch Assistant Director Patty Lovera

By Patty Lovera

It’s time for another installment in the saga of the never-ending Farm Bill debate. In previous episodes, Congress passed a terrible bill to extend portions of the last Farm Bill as they tried to escape the “fiscal cliff” on New Year’s Day. That kept some parts of farm policy alive until the end of September, 2013, but abandoned important programs for organic and sustainable agriculture, conservation and beginning farmers.

And now, Congress is once again working to try to pass something before the short-term Farm Bill expires. Both the House and Senate Agriculture Committees say they will develop their versions of the bill this month (Exactly which day or week isn’t quite clear). The committees say they will “mark up” the bills quickly and get them out of committee so the full House and Senate can vote on them this summer.

At this stage of the game, we don’t know exactly what will be in the bills the committees work on. But we can make some predictions on what will need improving.

On competition, we will be urging the committees to include a ban on packer ownership of livestock, creation of a special counsel at USDA to deal with competition in agriculture markets, and to not include any measures that limit USDA’s ability to enforce rules on contracts for poultry growers that were in the 2008 Farm Bill.

There will once again be battles over the food safety net for low-income families, especially in the House, where there will likely be multiple attempts to make big cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps), the main federal nutrition program (background info on SNAP).

Organic and sustainable agriculture were victims of last year’s political gridlock, which allowed some important programs to expire and be abandoned by the last Farm Bill extension. This version of the bill should restore these programs for beginning farmers and ranchers and conservation. Specifically on organic agriculture, the bill should restore funding for the organic certification cost-share program (which helps operations that are new to organic pay for initial certification costs), and organic data collection and research programs at USDA.

Senator Gillibrand (D-NY) is offering an important addition to the Farm Bill that would require USDA to develop and implement a mechanism for employees of the Food Safety and Inspection Service to coordinate the reporting, evaluation, and abatement of potential occupational safety hazards. This is a critical improvement, given the recent news about health threats to workers and USDA inspectors in poultry plants due to the chemicals used to disinfect chickens. This problem will only get worse if the USDA is allowed to go forward with its proposal to deregulate poultry inspection and speed up the lines in poultry slaughterhouses, with likely increases in chemical use to pick up the slack.

Let your members of Congress know that you expect them to do a better job this time around on the Farm Bill. You can take action here:

January 22nd, 2013

Grist’s Foodopoly Q&A: The Extended Version

Foodopoly by Wenonah HauterLast week, a condensed version of Andy Bellatti’s interview with Wenonah Hauter on her new book Foodopoly ran on Grist: Aisle be damned: How Big Food dominates your supermarket choices. We thought our blog readers would appreciate seeing the entire interview, which goes into the specifics on how fractured our food system really is,  how it got that way and what we can do about it.

1. In Foodopoly, you make a very convincing argument that, unlike what many in the “good food” movement think, crop subsidies are not the problem to solve, but rather the symptom of a much larger problem. Can you expand on that concept? Read the full article…

January 1st, 2013

Farm Bill Update: New Year But Same Old Shenanigans

Patty Lovera

Food & Water Watch Assistant Director Patty Lovera

By Patty Lovera

While the impending “fiscal cliff” kept Congress in the headlines long after they would normally leave town, there was one other item of unfinished business for 2012 – the Farm Bill.

In the wee hours of New Years Day, the Senate did vote on a bill that dealt with both the fiscal cliff and the Farm Bill. Kind of. As you’ve probably read by now, the Senate bill included a compromise package on taxes and put off pending federal spending limits for two months. It also included a nine month extension of parts of the expired 2008 Farm Bill (the extension would keep the bill running for the rest of Fiscal Year 2013, which ends at the end of September).

This Farm Bill extension ignores a proposal from the leadership of both the House and Senate Agriculture Committees and was the result of negotiations between Vice President Biden and Senate Minority Leader McConnell. The passage of an extension of the 2008 Farm Bill ends months of speculation about what would happen after the unprecedented decision by Congress to allow the last Farm Bill to expire in the fall. But the drama isn’t over yet.

As we discussed earlier, when the 2008 Farm Bill expired a bunch of good programs expired with it including support for beginning farmers, conservation practices and cost sharing for new organic certifications. Unfortunately, the extension included in the Senate fiscal cliff bill does not include these programs, so they will be left behind. Read the full article…

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