A look at the big Ag issues of 2015 -- and for the New Year

By Philip Brasher

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Dec. 31, 2015 - Differences over labeling dominated debates over food policy in 2015 and promise to carry on into the new year.

In a historic move, Congress in December repealed the country-of-origin labeling requirements for beef and pork after a World Trade Organization decision cleared the way for Canada and Mexico to levy retaliatory tariffs on U.S. products.

The repeal provision, which was included in a government-wide fiscal 2016 spending bill, ends a battle that had been raging since COOL was first mandated in the 2002 farm bill.

The issue of labeling biotech foods has proven far more difficult for Congress to resolve. The House easily passed legislation to preempt state GMO labeling laws, the first of which is scheduled to take effect in Vermont in July. But negotiations among Democrats bogged down in the Senate, and the industry was unable to get even a temporary, two-year provision included in the spending bill.

“We had some clear victories during the year with the work on GMOs. We got that out of the House, and I think a lot closer than folks realize on the Senate side,” said Dale Moore, executive director of public policy for the American Farm Bureau Federation, referring to the preemption legislation.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack wants to bring both sides to the table early in the year to seek a resolution on the issue, but no meeting has been set yet. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said he doesn't think legislation can pass unless the White House pressures Democrats to approve a preemption bill over the objections of labeling proponents. “I don't know how you compromise with people who don't accept the sound science,” Grassley said.

Lets Talk Food

Here's a look at the other top issues in agriculture and food policy during 2015:

Tax breaks extended. The omnibus spending bill made permanent the expanded Section 179 expensing allowance that Congress had repeatedly renewed on only a temporary basis. The bill would permanently allow a business including a farm operation, to expense up to $500,000 -- up from a limit of $25,000 on capital purchases -- and the $500,000 limit would be indexed for inflation.

The bill separately extends a 50-percent bonus depreciation provision at 50 percent for property placed in service during 2015, 2016 and 2017. The provision is lowered to 40 percent in 2018 and 30 percent in 2019.

WOTUS rule on hold. The Obama administration's controversial new rule re-defining the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act took effect in August, but court rulings have barred federal officials from enforcing it while the legal challenges are being reviewed.

Congressional critics of the “waters of the United States” (WOTUS) rule unsuccessfully lobbied to include a provision in the omnibus spending bill that would have blocked the administration from enforcing the rule if the court stays were lifted.

Lawmakers are expected to renew efforts in 2016 to kill the rule or block its implementation.

“Even on waters of the U.S., we've got to declare victory on that,” said the Farm Bureau's Moore. "While we didn't get a final solution, between the court victories and the progress on the Hill we clearly have folks looking at that issue with a microscope.” Measures to kill the rule were approved in both the House and Senate, but the margins weren't large enough to overcome a presidential veto. The House passed a bill that would require the administration to write a new WOTUS rule. The Senate passed a disapproval resolution that would simply kill the rule.

Pacific trade deal cut. Congress granted President Obama fast-track negotiating authority after narrow votes in the House and Senate and the administration wrapped up the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership in October after a flurry of final negotiations over a handful of issues, including dairy. The TPP text, released in November, included provisions intended to smooth trade in biotech products.

Agriculture support will be critical to getting congressional approval for the pact, a point underscored when the president's first event after finalizing the agreement was held at the Agriculture Department with the president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, Bob Stallman, seated beside him.

Crop insurers targeted The industry was stunned when a two-year budget agreement that congressional leaders unveiled in October included a $3 billion cut to insurers. House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway cut a deal with House leaders to reverse the cut, a pledge carried out in a five-year transportation bill enacted in December.

EPA finally sets biofuel targets. After a long delay the EPA in November implemented the final renewable volume obligations (RVOs) for 2014, 2015 and 2016.  An EPA official said the usage levels will allow for “ambitious, achievable growth” in biofuel production. The National Corn Growers Association was pleased the levels were higher than EPA originally proposed though they were still lower than what they were supposed to be under the 2007 energy law. The National Biodiesel Board said the rule “will go a long way toward getting the U.S. biodiesel industry growing again.”

Ethanol surfaces as campaign issue. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz surged in polls ahead of the Iowa caucuses despite his staunch opposition to the Renewable Fuel Standard, which he had reiterated at the Iowa Ag Summit, an event in Des Moines organized in March by agribusiness leader Bruce Rastetter. America's Renewable Future, a group founded to promote biofuel policy during the campaign, began running ads attacking Cruz late in the year as his poll numbers rose. 

Food safety rules implemented. The FDA finalized a series of major new food safety regulations, including the first national standards for growing and packing fresh produce. The rules, nearly five years in the making, will carry out the Food Safety Modernization Act, which Congress passed in the wake of a series of outbreaks of foodborne illnesses. Other rules were released in 2015 including requirements for preventive controls in production of both human food and animal feed.

There had been serious doubts as to whether Congress would give the agency the money it needs to enforce the regulations, but lawmakers came through in the omnibus spending bill with the increased funding the administration said it needed for fiscal 2016.

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Dietary guidelines. The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee in February recommended consumers consider the “sustainability” of foods, arguing that healthier diets -- those heavier in fruits and vegetables and lower in animal proteins -- are associated with “positive environmental outcomes.” But lawmakers got Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and then Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell to commit to ignore the recommendation.

The 2015 guidelines are expected to be issued early in the new year. With the sustainability issue resolved, the new version is expected to adhere relatively closely to the 2010 guidelines.

Sage grouse. The Fish and Wildlife Service decided against listing the bird as an endangered species in favor of relying on voluntary conservation measures. Some critics say the conservation plans have a similar effect.

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