By RACHEL LANE
WASHINGTON, D.C. — The resolution of two farm bills, House Bill 6083 and Senate Bill 3240, will likely not pass before the end of the year, the result of a Congress that could not compromise to pass a budget.
During the Farm Foundation’s final forum for the year on Nov. 14, panelists focused on the recent election and policy changes that might be expected. The biggest concerns addressed were the lack of answers as a result of a comprehensive farm bill not being approved.
“We really are at a point in time when … the politics of agriculture is in a large state of flux,” said Neil Conklin, president of the foundation.
The uncertainty in policies is going to impact a huge number of people, he said. As a result of President Barak Obama’s requirement that a budget be approved or mandatory cuts be implemented – commonly referred to presently as the “fiscal cliff” – programs in the farm bill would lose millions of dollars in funding, beginning in 2013.
“With the exception of SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps), CRP (Conservation Reserve Program), crop insurance and a few other programs, most agricultural programs are subject to sequestration reductions in program spending,” said Craig Jagger, a former chief economist on the U.S. House Committee on Agriculture.
Robert Paarlberg, a political science professor at Wellesley College, said keeping nutritional programs in the farm bill are required to get it passed.
“There’s an increasing call (from Republicans) to remove SNAP from the farm bill,” said Fred Hoefner, policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.
Just four years ago, SNAP used about 66 percent of the farm bill expenditure budget. It’s now using roughly 80 percent, a figure quoted by those in favor of removing the bill. Hoefner said it is not that easy; the program was designed to ebb and flow and does not directly affect the farming side of the farm bill.
“Removing it would likely remove farm bills as we know them,” he said. “There would be less money there right at the time states are calling for more.”
He said the easiest way to ensure the farm bill remains highly funded would be to get it passed prior to January, when the newly elected Congress members take office. With about a month left in the session, though, it seems unlikely passing it will happen.
In January, the agricultural committees in the House and Senate will have about a dozen new members, Hoefner added. This means it could be a year before the farm bill is approved. In the most danger of being cut are newer development programs, like farm energy, developing a new generation of farmers, exploring organic agriculture and rural businesses, he said.
“They’ve had mandatory funding in previous farm bill cycles. They’re newer programs, smaller, but extremely important and they’re in a precarious position,” Hoefner explained.
GMO labeling vetoed
Paarlberg also discussed Prop. 37, the California bill that would have required genetically modified (GMO) foods to carry labels.
The bill failed, with about 53 percent of the population voting against it. He said the close vote indicates concerns about GMO products are not going to disappear.
“Mandatory labeling is only on things that consumers need to know, not things consumers want to know,” he said. When GMOs first appeared in the market, proponents were concerned safety tests were not thoroughly vetted and not enough was known about how GMOs could affect people, he said.
Because of the early concerns, Paarlberg said there are limited quantities of GMO food available for direct consumption by people. “Its noted that 70 percent of packaged foods have some sort of genetically engineered products, and that’s true, but these ingredients are mostly byproducts like oil,” he said.
The three largest GMO crops in the United States are soybeans, corn and cotton. Well over half of the soy and corn grown is used for animal feed or as an alternative food source. Animals fed with GMO products are not considered to be genetically modified themselves and their products would not require the labels.
GMOs of some fruits and vegetables were available several years ago, but many of those products have been phased out as a result of consumer concern, he added.
“If Prop. 37 had passed, it would have been costly, but not impossible,” Paarlberg said.
Christopher Waldrop, director of the Food Policy Institute, Consumer Federation of America, is concerned about how the budget cuts will impact the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA as an agency would receive a cut of about $319 million.
“These are big cuts to agencies that don’t have big budgets to begin with,” he said. With the cuts, the agency will be focused on remaining functioning and not moving forward. Much of the money to be cut will likely be salaries for people who do the research, inspections and testing.
“We live in a competitive world with much less room for error than at any other time since the end of World War II,” said Erik Johnston, associate legislative director for Agriculture and Rural Affairs, National Association of Counties. “The government should focus on things that help this economy be more competitive.”
He feels the easiest and most responsible farm bill would meet requirements the United States has in international trade agreements. Changing national policies to match the trade agreements would show other countries the U.S. is serious about trade, and agricultural exports are an increasingly important part of the industry.
Johnston said farmers are also beginning to focus on climate change as a real and current issue, specifically with specific and severe recent weather such as the drought this summer across the Midwest.
“Taking out 50 acres of crops and planting trees is not going to be acceptable, but the farmers who’ve seen the weather … have seen the direct results,” Johnston said.
A webcast of the forum is available on the Farm Foundation website at www.farmfoundation.org