WASHINGTON, Dec. 31, 2014 – It’s been an important year for U.S. agriculture with issues affecting farming and ranching making big news day in and day out. Here’s a brief look at some of the most important agricultural stories of 2014.
Finally, a Farm Bill
Farmers and ranchers all across the nation breathed a sigh of relief on Feb. 7 when President Obama signed the Agriculture Act of 2014, after more than three years of heated debate in Congress and among agricultural stakeholders. Better known as the 2014 Farm Bill, the measure set agriculture policy for the years 2014-2018, and authorized almost a trillion dollars in spending if measured over a 10-year period. The lion’s share of the funding, almost 80 percent, goes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) and other nutrition programs. The bill did away with the controversial direct payment program to farmers, while boosting crop insurance initiatives, for which almost $90 billion was earmarked over ten years. USDA is now deep into implementing the scores of programs authorized by the legislation.
GOP election victories
Republicans won big time in the fall elections, gaining a strong majority in the U.S. Senate and increasing the chances that agricultural interests can block some of the Obama administration’s regulatory agenda, including a proposed rule issued last spring to define the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act. The Republican-controlled House advanced a bill to block the “waters of the United States” rule but the legislation went nowhere in the Democratic-controlled Senate. A Republican-controlled Senate is almost certain to address the issue next year during the fiscal 2016 appropriations process. Guided by Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell, the GOP-controlled Senate also may attempt to roll back some of the school nutrition standards imposed by USDA after passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Republicans will likely put Kansas Republican Pat Roberts in charge of the Senate Agriculture Committee, replacing Democrat Debbie Stabenow, a staunch defender of the standards. Reauthorization of the nutrition bill is likely to be a top priority for Roberts. A restaurant menu labeling rule that FDA issued after the November election also could be a target for Republicans. A leading GOP critic of the labeling requirement, Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, could use his position on the Appropriations committee to try and block or alter the regulation.President takes executive actions
President Obama responded to the Republican sweep in the midterm elections by announcing executive actions on immigration and Cuba, angering some GOP lawmakers. In November, he issued orders that would protect the parents of legal U.S. residents from deportation and expand an earlier program that shields from deportation people who were brought to the country illegally as children. At the same time, he called for Congress to enact comprehensive immigration reform, which would include provisions to increase the number of foreign workers to help gather the nation’s crops. Then in December, Obama announced some steps to ease the embargo on Cuba, potentially smoothing the way for more agricultural exports to the island nation. The most important action would loosen Treasury Department restrictions that require Cuba to pay for purchases of agricultural commodities through a third-country bank.
COOL saga continues
In October, a World Trade Organization panel ruled that USDA’s latest effort to bring country-of-origin meat labeling (COOL) rules into compliance with global trade regulations only further exacerbated the rule’s “detrimental impact on the competitive opportunities of imported livestock in the U.S. market.” The panel said requiring labels to inform where an animal was born, raised, and slaughtered gave Mexican and Canadian livestock “less favorable treatment” than that accorded to U.S. livestock. The ruling sparked calls for congressional repeal and threats of Canadian retaliation before the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative appealed the ruling in late November. Agricultural heavy hitters such as the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and Cargill called on Congress to repeal the COOL legislation, citing concerns about retaliatory tariffs that could approach billions and affect far more than just beef and pork products. Canada’s agriculture minister said the retaliation could include products “from California wine to Minnesota mattresses.” Other groups including the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association and the National Farmers Union urged Congress to let the WTO appeals process play itself out.
At the end of 2013, grain elevator operators in the Midwest noticed it was taking longer than usual to move their crops by rail and farmers were suffering the consequences. The issue came to a head in early 2014 as the region’s two main carriers, Canadian Pacific and BNSF Railway, began moving fertilizer for spring 2014 planting along with grain from the 2013 harvest, all while trying to maintain transport for oil production in North Dakota and ethanol from points across the Midwest. The carriers reported some progress but at an August field hearing of the Surface Transportation Board in Fargo, N.D., but House Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., and other lawmakers said the progress wasn’t enough. Officials from North Dakota, which was hit hardest by the delays, were especially critical of the rail companies’ efforts. Weekly BNSF reports showed improvement from the backlog that existed in June, but numbers from CP were harder to gauge. Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said progress reported by CP had more to do with a new ordering system that reduced orders because they were cancelled, not fulfilled. Rail companies seem to be doing a better job with the record 2014 grain harvest, but some lawmakers, including Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., say that’s only because low commodity prices are prompting many farmers to hold off on selling their grain. Heitkamp and others are waiting for more grain to be sold and more orders to be placed to truly assess the companies’ progress with the 2014 harvest.
Rise of Big Data
The role of “big data” agriculture became more important during 2014, with farmers expressing increasing interest in how they can benefit from the information they provide to technology companies and increasing concerns about how to protect their data. During the year, the American Farm Bureau Federation organized meetings with a variety of companies to allow them to explain their technology and ease concerns about data privacy. Big movers in the industry include Monsanto, which acquired Silicon Valley Big Data startup, the Climate Corporation, for approximately $930 million late last year, and DuPont Pioneer and John Deere, which announced a combination service to link a suite of precision agronomy software with data transfer technology. In November, a group of 12 major farm organizations and technology providers announced an agreement to protect the privacy of their data as “big data” technology advances. The “Privacy and Security Principles for Farm Data” are meant to provide certainty to farmers that their data will be handled consistently by different agricultural technology companies if they choose to provide them with their information.
Debate over GMO foods heats up
The war over bioengineered products in food erupted in several battles in 2014, most noticeably in Vermont, which in the spring enacted the nation’s first law requiring mandatory labeling of foods made with genetically modified organisms (GMOs). If it survives legal challenges, it will take effect in 2016. More recently, voters in Maui County, Hawaii, approved a moratorium on growing genetically modified crops until further health and environmental tests are conducted. Voters in Colorado and Oregon, however, defeated ballot measures to label GMO foods. Meanwhile, the Coalition for Safe Affordable Food, which consists of 37 trade groups including the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Biotechnology Industry Organization, pushed for passage of a federal labeling bill introduced by Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan. The measure would require that all new foods containing GMO ingredients be reviewed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It would preempt any mandatory state labeling law because foods would not need to be labeled if they are deemed safe by the FDA. Critics of the bill, including the Environmental Working Group, have dubbed it the DARK Act, or the Deny Americans the Right to Know Act. The House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing on Pompeo’s legislation earlier this month, paving the way for increased debate at the federal level in 2015.
Michelle Obama made headlines again this year, jumping into the fray over what children eat and school nutrition standards. The standards, which took effect at the beginning of the 2012–2013 school year, require school lunch programs to offer more fruits, vegetables, and whole grain rich foods; offer only fat-free or low-fat milk; limit saturated fat, sodium and trans fat, as well as limit the calories offered in a meal. The first lady made the standards a centerpiece of her “Let’s Move” anti-obesity campaign for children. However, criticism soon surfaced from schools struggling to meet the standards under tight budgets as well as from student athletes who said they needed more calories than the standards provide. Congressional Republicans sought to weaken the requirements, while they were defended by White House chef Sam Kass and an array of retired admirals and generals who said too many young people were being rejected by the military because of obesity. In the end there was a compromise of sorts, written into the $1 trillion deal that funds the government through September. The bill did not include the temporary waiver Republicans wanted to give schools that were losing money on the lunch program, but it did give states the ability to relax standards on whole grains while maintaining current caps on sodium in meals, instead of increasing restrictions. The debate over nutrition will most certainly resurface in the 2015 appropriations process.
Waiting…and waiting… for the RFS
For much of this year, farmers, environmentalists and the U.S. biofuels and petroleum industries waited… and waited…. and waited for the EPA to announce its final targets for the Renewable Fuel Standard – for 2014 – but the announcement never came. Instead, a top agency official told a House hearing earlier this month that EPA plans to finalize its 2014 targets for biofuels use sometime in 2015 and issue targets for 2015 and 2016 as well. That will “get the program back on track so that refiners and all other stakeholders will have the certainty that the statute calls for,” the official told a group of unhappy lawmakers. The EPA in March released a draft proposal to lower the statutory blending requirements for 2014, to keep volumes in line with what some perceived as market limitations. EPA chief Gina McCarthy has suggested in recent months that the final standards may be revised upward. The final call will have a big effect on the nation’s farmers who provide most of the feedstock for biofuel production. EPA in March called for petroleum refiners and importers to blend 15.21 billion gallons of renewable fuels into their products in 2014, or almost 3 billion gallons less than Congress had called for in 2007.
Beef checkoff squabble continues
The $1.1 trillion spending bill passed by Congress this month forced Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to withdraw his attempts to create a parallel beef checkoff, leaving an industry working group to continue its slow-moving discussions. Vilsack’s action would have created a concurrent beef promotion and research program governed under 1996 general farm commodities legislation rather than the 1985 law specific to the beef industry. The administrative act was seen as a victory for groups such as the National Farmers Union (NFU), who called negotiations occurring in the Beef Checkoff Enhancement Working Group (BCEWG) “a waste of time and money” shortly before withdrawing from the group in September. Negotiations now go back to the BCEWG, which has been meeting for the last three years to enhance the $80 million fund, but opinions on how to do so vary greatly within the group. In separate Agri-Pulse opinion columns, NFU and NCBA officials criticized the other organization’s stance on the issue. Negotiations are ongoing to produce a Memorandum of Understanding expected to be presented at upcoming annual meetings of organizations involved in BCEWG negotiations.
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