WASHINTON, April 8, 2016 - Partisan differences are threatening to swamp a series of issues critical to agriculture and food policy. There has been no evidence of a breakthrough on the biotech labeling issue, and now differences are emerging over school nutrition. And a reauthorization bill for the Commodity Futures Trading Commission also may be headed for a partisan showdown next week in the Senate. 

The Senate Agriculture Committee voted out a bipartisan child nutrition bill in January, but the Obama administration is blasting an alternative measure emerging in the House. That bill would, among other things, freeze school meal sodium limits at their current level and block any further reduction unless they’re supported by child-specific research. A discussion draft of the bill also would tighten a provision that allows schools with high poverty rates to provide free breakfast and lunch to all students. 

The bill would no longer limit the fresh fruit and vegetable program in schools to fresh produce. Canned and frozen would be permitted. 

Kevin Concannon, USDA’s undersecretary for food, nutrition and services, says the legislation would be “much more contentious and frankly, regressive” than the Senate legislation.  The School Nutrition Association, which represents school food service directors, opposes the change in the eligibility provision for high-poverty areas, but the group praises other aspects of the bill, including a 2-cent increase in the federal reimbursement rate for school breakfasts. 

No deal, but CFTC markup scheduled anyway. Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts has officially scheduled a markup for next Thursday of a bill to reauthorize the CFTC. But he doesn’t have agreement on the legislation yet with the committee’s top Democrat, Debbie Stabenow. She says Roberts may move the bill without her support.

Stabenow has been resisting changes to futures regulation while insisting on increased funding for the CFTC. “That’s critical from my standpoint,” she said of the funding issue. “We have the least-funded regulatory agency, and we hear from market participants all the time that they can’t get registrations done. It creates uncertainty in the market place and instability.”

Stabenow: need to resolve GMO issue, reunite agriculture. Stabenow is making a plea for unity in agriculture even as she acknowledges that the GMO labeling issue is dividing the industry. She said at the Consumer Federation of America’s food policy conference yesterday that all sectors need to pull together to protect farm bill programs. 

She pointed out to the audience that two major farm groups -  the National Corn Growers Association and American Soybean Association - have taken stands in defense of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. 

Stabenow reiterated her pledge to find a resolution to the GMO labeling issue but she made no predictions about when and how that would happen. “I’m hopeful we can find a positive resolution on this so we can bring the (agriculture) coalition back together,” she said.

Campbell Soup: GMO reformulation impractical. One of the big fears around GMO labeling is that food companies will quit using biotech ingredients. But the top lobbyist for Campbell Soup says that wouldn’t be practical for his company. “We don’t have plans to reformulate,” Kelly Johnston tells Agri-Pulse. “When 75 percent of your products have one or two GM ingredients, reformulation gets to be real expensive.”

Johnson told the CFA conference that it’s time for the entire food industry to get behind a national GMO labeling requirement. Campbell announced in January that it would start labeling its products

A lobbyist for another food company tells Agri-Pulse’s Spencer Chase that some of the new GMO labels are already on products that are now being shipped to customers. The lobbyist, who didn’t want to be identified, said the company considered halting sales of their products in Vermont but decided to instead start labeling all its products nationwide. “The Vermont standard has become the national standard,” the lobbyist said.

‘Mexicans were always there.’ Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack found himself in an awkward moment yesterday at a news conference in Paris where he was attending a meeting of OECD agriculture ministers. Agri-Pulse’s Bill Tomson says that Vilsack remarked that there were no women among a group of French farmers he met this week. Vilsack said that the United States was working to get more women and minorities involved in farming. 

OECD Secretary General Angel Gurria then responded with a reference to farmworkers in the United States: “The Mexicans were always there.” Vilsack didn’t reply.

She said it. “The Greeks had a word for when humans tried to act like gods. They called it hubris. Are we committing hubris by messing around with a very, very complicated system, a genome? …  That’s a very legitimate concern and a legitimate worry.” Jean Halloran of Consumers Union, explaining the consumer concern about biotechnology.


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