WASHINGTON, April 28, 2016 - A Senate committee kicks off an effort today to renew authorization for waterway projects around the country, many of which are important to agriculture. A new Water Resources Development Act that the Environment and Public Works Committee will debate this morning would put water projects back on a two-year authorization schedule. 

The draft bill would block the use of lockage fees or tolls to finance public-private partnerships, an idea that’s been specifically discussed for improving shipping on the Illinois River. Seventy-five farm groups and other organizations and companies sent a recent letter to lawmakers opposing the use of tolls for waterway projects. 

The legislation also would keep hope alive for getting federal funding to replace the upper Mississippi locks and dams. The bill would ensure the project stays authorized even though it has received no significant funding since Congress first approved it in 2007.

Roberts sees progress in biotech talks. Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts told the National Association of Farm Broadcasters yesterday that he’s making progress in discussions over biotech labeling with his committee’s ranking Democrat, Debbie Stabenow. He said he expected the “final piece” of a proposed compromise by Stabenow before the end of the week. 

The Senate won’t be in session next week. Roberts has said he wanted to be able to show that there was a path toward a resolution of the issue before senators leave town. 

Stabenow also talked to the broadcasters but the only thing she said about the timeline is that prolonging the debate could backfire on the industry, reports Agri-Pulse’s Spencer Chase. “The fight around this only implies that there is something wrong with biotechnology, and I don’t think that benefits anybody,” Stabenow said. 

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said the two sides still hadn’t nailed down language that would explicitly exempt meat and dairy from being labeled as GMO if the animals consumed biotech feed. Hoeven said, however, that supporters of GMO labeling were open to an exemption. 

An industry source says the concern is that if there isn’t a clear exemption the USDA could decide to require labeling of animal products in the future. 

None of the state laws now on the books would actually require labeling of meat or dairy products, but Dannon announced plans yesterday to remove GMO feed from the dairy cattle that provide the milk for its yogurt. Agri-Pulse’s Bill Tomson reports that Dannon aims to make half its milk GMO-free by the end of 2018. 

Organic animal welfare proposal under Senate attack.Roberts, R-Kan., also said he and Stabenow and other senators plan to formally criticize USDA’s proposed animal welfare standards for livestock and poultry. In remarks laced with his trademark sarcasm, he told the farm broadcasters that the proposal is “ridiculous.” “Our farmers, our hens, are quite literally being regulated to death.” 

Roberts also got in a dig at Donald Trump in poking fun at a specific requirement that hens be allowed to roam outside barns. He said that would put the hens at risk for disease and predators. It “looks to me like we’re going to have to build a wall. … Make the pens great again.”

Food waste hearing next step in Conaway outreach. House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway tells Agri-Pulse that his committee is going to look into the issue of food waste, an area where he’s finding common ground with groups and lawmakers who are often critical of traditional farm policy. 

Conaway, R-Texas, hasn’t scheduled the hearing yet, but he said he’s working with Maine Democrat Chellie Pingree, a big proponent of organic and small-scale agriculture. “Whether there’s a federal solution to that issue (food waste) is yet to be seen,” but Conaway says it should be addressed. 

Conaway earlier held a hearing on the challenges facing growers who sell through farmers markets or directly to consumers and restaurants. 

Conaway isn’t alone in thinking that agriculture groups need to broaden the base of support for farm programs. In a blog post outlining challenges heading into the next farm bill, soybean industry lobbyist John Gordley argues that farm groups need to restore and build on past alliances with conservation and nutrition advocates. 

Gordley notes that some conservation groups who fought attempts to crop insurance in the 2014 farm bill now “feel shortchanged in terms of the effectiveness of their programs.”

Gordley also has a warning for both farmers and the crop insurance industry about coming attempts in Congress to cut that program or to means-test premium subsidies. The program’s supporters must develop stronger explanations for how the program shores up the farm economy and “better justifications for the amount of premium subsidies” that farmers receive, Gordley says.

He said it. “What is an enrichment activity anyway? Maybe teach the chickens how to work crossword puzzles or maybe knitting? A game of football on the lawn, although some bird would probably chicken out. Or my kind of activity, simply playing Ray Price. That would make them calm down.” - Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, joking about the outside “enrichment” requirement in the proposed animal welfare standard for organic poultry.


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