Merrigan outlines uncertainty for agriculture at United Fresh policy conference

By Sarah Gonzalez

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

WASHINGTON, October 3, 2012- Two “huge pieces of uncertainty” linger for agriculture in the last months of 2012, said USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan at the United Fresh Produce Association's Washington Public Policy Conference on Tuesday. 

One is the incentive built into the Budget Control Act of 2011, known as sequestration, which would trigger an across-the-board $3 billion reduction to the USDA budget.

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“We don't know what the potential is for an across-the-board reduction at the end of the year,” she said, noting that USDA leadership would have no discretion on where to apply the budget reductions. 

The government is expected to dodge sequestration and Congress passed a continuing resolution to fund the government into March 2013 at current levels. Merrigan noted that a CR adds its own level of uncertainty for business as well as agriculture, but emphasized the farm bill as another “huge piece” of uncertainty for producers.

“Parts of that law expired Sept. 30,” she said. “This serves us a unnecessary speed bump for American agriculture.”

In her keynote speech, Merrigan painted a picture of a “glass half full, glass half empty” for American agriculture, first emphasizing the record farm income and exports the sector experienced in recent years. She touted her Administration's efforts to increase fruit and vegetable consumption, including the National School Lunch Program nutrition overhaul. 

She recognized the “pushback” from some industry groups and consumers about the reduced calories in the new school meal requirements, but dismissed the concerns.

“People are scared of change,” she said. “We feel strongly that the recommendations are backed by science and schools are strongly embracing them.”

Merrigan also mentioned a video gone viral, in which student athletes mock the school meal requirements by fainting during sports' activities.

“It's fun, but it's just not fact-based,” Merrigan told more than 500 United Fresh members. “Science dictates that half the plate be fruit and vegetables.”

The United Fresh Washington Public Policy Conference continues today, with keynote remarks from The Cook Political Report Editor Charlie Cook, U.S. Chamber of Commerce Chief Economist Martin A. Regalia and former Senator Fred Thompson. 


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