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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.

GM Crops – Can We Get a Grip Now Please?

By Eve Mitchell

I don’t know about you, but I have an old, broken screwdriver in the bottom of my toolbox. I used to use it to stir paint until the handle came off. Now it’s not even any good for that. I can’t get a good grip on it anymore and keep getting my hands covered in paint, which pretty much defeats the purpose.

Still, I can’t quite bring myself to chuck the thing out. It was a surprise gift from a rich friend at a time I was strapped for cash, and some combination of nostalgia and fading hope that it might just come in handy someday (not to mention it was jolly expensive, so I’m rather cross it’s broken) just about manages to keep the bits of it hanging around in the bottom of my toolbox. 

So it is with genetically modified (GM) crops.

UK Secretary of State for Environment Food and Rural Affairs Owen Paterson gave a speech today announcing, once again, that the UK must embrace GM food and crops or be “left behind” in the “global race” (we’re a bit worried about what the prize is if you win), and that EU rules on GM must be “relaxed” to facilitate this. It was hard to miss – the speech has been trailed in the media for ages, and Paterson, the Minister for Science and even the Prime Minister himself have all made public statements in the past several days supporting a renewed UK dive into technology.

Yet the arguments underpinning the Government’s new round of GM promotion don’t really hang together. We’re told Paterson’s speech “explains” the benefits of GM and that we need to use “all the tools in the box” to feed the world. This is a well trodden path claiming GM helps the environment by requiring lower pesticide use and benefits consumers and farmers with higher yields leading to cheaper food. It would be nice if it were true. In reality this is much more about naked UK industrial ambition than feeding the world, and this speech is meant to tell consumers we need to learn to like it.

Read the full article…

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 19th, 2013

Stonewalling the Public: FDA’s Secret Approval Process over GE Salmon

By Tim Schwab

In the great debate over genetically engineered (GE) salmon, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has locked the public out of key discussions by failing to disclose critical information related to the still-pending regulatory approval. As we wait to hear if the FDA will approve GE salmon this summer, we continue to scratch our heads at the contradictions that FDA can’t — or won’t — explain.

Since the FDA first publicized its review of GE salmon in 2010, independent sources have uncovered document after document that contradict the agency’s glowing findings that the fish is safe to eat, safe to produce, and a solution for fish farmers.

In an attempt to reconcile the striking differences between what the FDA is telling the public and what independent sources are saying, Food & Water Watch has filed numerous Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with the FDA since 2010.

The FDA has been silent, rejecting or sitting on requests for years. Other groups filing FOIAs have been met with the same silence.

Almost exactly one year ago, Food & Water Watch asked the agency for documents related to a major biosecurity breach we discovered at AquaBounty Technologies’ proposed GE-salmon production facility. We found a corporate document from 2008 that said an “unusually severe storm” lead to “lost” GE salmon.

In an effort to understand how FDA failed to discover or disclose this major event, which presents crucial risk-assessment questions related to potential environmentally damaging escapes, we filed a FOIA request, asking the agency for all documents it had related to the “lost” salmon event. Thus far, the FDA has failed to respond.

Read the full article…

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Colorado: Fracking, Fracking Everywhere, But Not a Drop to Drink?

By Katherine Cirullo

It’s officially wildfire season in Colorado; last Tuesday, a fire ignited the Black Forest area of Colorado Springs. It burned 22 square miles, destroyed 422 homes and is still raging a week later. In just half the time, it has surpassed last year’s Waldo Canyon wildfire as the worst in Colorado history. While wildfires in Colorado and throughout the west are nothing new, the magnitude of this year’s Black Forest fire serves as a haunting reminder of the worsening crisis climate change poses. Throughout all this, we can’t help but draw attention to the oil and gas industry’s use of fracking and its impact on climate change, drought and natural disaster. Residents are watching their backyards burn while the oil and gas industry is using up Colorado’s most precious resource — water.

The fire affects not just Colorado residents, who face water restrictions that accompany drought; emergency relief teams also feel the squeeze. Colorado Springs fire chief Mike Myers spoke last week of the difficulties fighting the flames: “Once the fire’s up in the trees and you’ve got a 200 foot wall of flames coming at you, there’s not much you can do with a thousand gallons of water.” Read the full article…

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June 17th, 2013

Ecuador, Jakarta move to protect water for people, not for profit

By Jaime Hamre, Food & Water Watch Intern

Both Ecuador and Jakarta, Indonesia have taken big steps recently to ensure access to water for their citizens. As part of the Water Law under negotiation in the National Assembly, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa announced the establishment of a minimum water consumption per person from which water prices and subsidies can be determined. Across the globe, Jakarta has initiated moves to remunicipalize its water system, aiming to repurchase shares from a foreign private firm.

President Correa’s declaration is especially important in light of Interagua’s privatization of the water supply in Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city, in 2001. Interagua is a subsidiary of the American company Bechtel, the same company that fueled the infamous water war in Cochabamba, Bolivia. After Interagua procured a 30-year contract in Guayaquil, water prices increased by 180 percent. Even though key water systems, such as Guayaquil, remain privatized, in 2008, Ecuador rewrote its constitution to include rights for nature and also established the human right to water.

President Correa stated last week that when the minimum water consumption per person is determined, it will constitute a base for water pricing. President Correa is working with the National Secretariat of Water (Senagua) to analyze the cost to government of subsidizing water prices.

When water systems were privatized in Jakarta 16 years ago, water quality decreased, while tariffs rose by 258 percent. Led by governor Joko Widodo, the city is now moving to remunicipalize the system with help from groups such as the Coalition of Jakarta Residents Opposing Water Privatization (KMMSAJ), which has filed a lawsuit with the goal of annulling the 1997 contracts between the city and the private firm.

KMMSAJ is also helping with fundraising efforts in case the lawsuit is unsuccessful and the city must pay penalties for dropping the contract to take over operation. While re-municipalizing a water or wastewater treatment system can be quite costly in the short term, the long-term benefits in terms of cost savings, quality, transparency, and democracy are well worth it. Approximately 90 percent of global water systems are publically owned and operated.

In both Guayaquil and Jakarta, privatization has meant higher prices and poor water quality. The high price of water in Guayaquil, Ecuador since privatization has been linked to poor water quality and hepatitis outbreaks. In Jakarta, less than 35 percent of residents were able to receive service from the private company.

The privatization of systems often leads to price increase, as well as a decrease in quality and accessibility, whereas models such as public-public partnerships provide greater affordability and quality. For more on this issue, see our report: Water = Life: How Privatization Undermines the Human Right to Water.

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 12th, 2013

Rotten Tomatoes: Walmart’s Latest Produce Initiative

Walmart cannot fix our food supply

By Tyler Shannon

Only Walmart can make headlines with a new policy not to sell consumers rotten produce. Just last week, Walmart announced a new “fresh produce guarantee” allowing consumers to get their money back if they’re unhappy with purchased produce that’s, presumably, old or expired. Walmart is not even asking customers to return the produce to get their money back, indicating that it already knows it may have a problem.

This initiative is clearly in response to recent discoveries that the company has been selling customers expired produce, which, according to analysts, is likely due to a severe reduction in the number of employees responsible for stocking shelves and checking on produce.

Once the news of the problem got out, instead of addressing the actual issue of not enough employees assigned to the task, Walmart set the PR machine into motion, trying to improve its image with consumers through yet another initiative, following other pledges to improve their environmental sustainability and food procurement.

However, what Walmart’s spin doctors aren’t broadcasting is that this new policy includes an insidious change in how the company deals with fruit and vegetable producers. Walmart, well known for putting intense pressure on its suppliers to cut costs, has eliminated the middle person in many cases and will now apply pressure directly to the farmers with which it does business. Walmart does not like to deal with multiple, small or even mid-sided suppliers, instead choosing to deal with a few huge suppliers for each product in order to maximize efficiency. The same will likely be true here, with Walmart turning to only the largest operations run by the biggest businesses in the fruit and vegetable industry.

In addition to its produce quality woes, a recent report released by the congressional House Committee on Education and Workforce showed problems outside the produce section. Analyzing state Medicaid and benefit records in Wisconsin, the congressional committee found that each Walmart superstore in the state was costing Wisconsin taxpayers a minimum of about $905,000 per year as a result of its low wages and minimal employee benefits, including, among other things, Medicaid, section 8 housing assistance, reduced price lunches, and food stamps. The analysis only counted actual enrollees in state services.

So much for the Walmart motto “Save Money. Live better.” It looks like Walmart is just talking about its corporate executives and top shareholders, not its employees or its customers.  

GE French Fries, Coming to a Fast Food Restaurant Near You

GE potatoBy Genna Reed

The J.R. Simplot Company, giant potato supplier for McDonald’s, has spent years working on the perfect potato. Its new genetically engineered trait (which will be offered in five different varieties of potatoes) up for USDA approval has lower levels of a carbohydrate called acrylamide, which may cause cancer, and also has reduced black spot bruising. These potatoes will be used as frozen fries, potato chips and shoestrings, which make up approximately 50 percent of the potato market in the United States, according to Simplot.

Both of the desired traits are achieved through the reduced expression of enzymes, affecting the amino acid asparagine for the low acrylamide trait and the enzyme polyphenol oxidase (PPO) for reduced bruising (the same way GE apples have been engineered not to brown). The problem is that an alteration in just one enzyme can unintentionally affect other plant characteristics as well as the plant’s health.

These GE potatoes will likely be fried using Monsanto’s new-and-improved omega-3 soybean oil, which will probably be marketed to lead consumers to believe that the bio-engineered combination is “healthy” fried food. A low-acrylamide potato may reduce levels of just one of the harmful chemicals brought out by frying foods but there are other dangerous compounds that are produced when food is heated to very high temperatures, including advanced glycation endproducts (AGEs), which can lead to to “chronic inflammation and oxidative stress,” (also linked to cancer). And of course this new fried “goodness” doesn’t address the high-calorie and low-nutrient content that make fried potatoes unhealthy in the first place.

Historically, GE potatoes have not fared so well in the marketplace. Monsanto’s NewLeaf GE potatoes were approved in 1995, but the company pulled its potatoes from the market in 2001. If approved, these potatoes may face the same fate and never make it into happy meals across America. But these potatoes could also be exported, since Simplot has submitted its petition for approval to Canada, Mexico, Japan and South Korea.

The USDA will be seeking comments until July 2nd and we intend to tell them to further review the potential health effects of these GE potatoes. Sign the petition to tell the USDA to stop the approval of the GE potato here.

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.

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