By STEVE BINDER
WASHINGTON, D.C. — While most agriculture leaders applauded late action by federal lawmakers to avert a potential slowdown of meat inspections across the country, other parts of the measure that authorizes spending of federal dollars through Sept. 30 have received mixed reviews.
For the most part, ag officials say they are keeping their eye on the bigger picture and support passage of a new farm bill sooner rather than later.
“In terms of when more progress will be made, we’re probably looking into at least late April or May,” said Nick Paulson, an assistant professor in the University of Illinois’ ag department.
Democrat Rep. Cheri Bustos, a new member of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee from northwestern Illinois, said while the Continuing Budget Resolution (CR) was needed, a new farm bill is critical.
“My hope is that we will have a five-year farm bill. I will do everything within my power to work in that direction,” she said.
For the most part, the CR maintains the across-the-board 5.2 percent sequester cuts for all federal agencies. But it also includes a 2.5 percent cut to the USDA’s discretionary spending through Sept. 30.
The USDA’s overall federal spending allocation was pegged at about $155 billion for the current fiscal year, with about $128 billion earmarked for mandatory programs such as food stamps, farm commodity programs and crop insurance. The remainder, roughly $27 billion, is subject to the additional CR cuts.
While initial action would have subjected the USDA’s meat inspection program to those cuts, a late amendment to the CR allows the agency to redirect money in its budget to maintain the current inspection program.
American Soybean Assoc. (ASA) President Danny Murphy said the agency supported some elements of the CR, and noted its short time frame.
“This was a large piece of legislation with many different aspects affecting many different industries. While it’s only a temporary extension for the next six months, it was necessary for us to step back and look at exactly which programs soybean farmers use most will be impacted,” he said.
One controversial component of the CR is the inclusion of the so-called “biotech rider.” Under the measure, farmers can continue to plant seeds with traits that have been deregulated by the USDA without fear of pending court actions.
The ASA said the provision eliminates possible delays in developing new traits pending environmental impact studies, and it applies only to biotech traits that have completed initial regulatory reviews.
The inclusion angered members of Food Democracy Now!, a grassroots group that supports sustainable food systems. Dave Murphy, the group’s founder, called the measure the “Monsanto Protection Act” because it would give biotech seed companies a blank check on the approval of new genetically engineered crops.
“Not only does the Monsanto Protection Act undermine the sovereignty of U.S. courts, but it also makes it impossible for government officials to faithfully protect the American public from potential human health and environmental harms of untested genetically engineered crops,” he said.
Other aspects of the CR include:
•A funding increase for the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), now pegged to receive $274.8 million, $10 million more than last year. As a discretionary program, however, AFRI will be subject to the 2.5 percent cut through Sept. 30.
Appropriations for research at land-grant universities (often called “capacity funding”), which fund ARS and extension activities, all suffered a cut of 7.61 percent from last year’s funding levels.
•The CR restores funding to the Conservation Stewardship Program, but lowers the cap on acreage enrolled in the program this year by 740,000 acres. The Natural Resources Conservation Service, therefore, will enroll 12 million acres in the program this year.
•The CR also included an amendment that postpones the enforcement date for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Spill Prevention Control and Countermeasures (SPCC) specifications, which would have required that oil storage facilities with a capacity of more than 1,320 gallons make structural improvements to reduce the possibility of oil spills.
The plan requires farmers to construct a containment facility, such as a dike or a basin, which must retain 110 percent of the fuel in the container. The rule is now postponed until the end of fiscal year 2013, on Sept. 30, something the ASA supported.