WASHINGTON, Sept. 8, 2016 - Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says he’s working to make sure the new GMO labeling law works the way Congress intended. 

Some farm groups say they hope that Vilsack can finish work on regulations before President Obama leaves office in January. Vilsack says that won’t happen, but he says the department is laying the groundwork to make sure that the law “works in the marketplace,” complies with international trade rules and isn’t unnecessarily vulnerable to lawsuits. 

USDA has set up a toll-free number for the public to offer comments and suggestions. So far, the department has received 500 comments.

The department plans to release soon a series of policy questions for comment. “If we lay the foundation right, I’m confident that the rule will be one that will work,” Vilsack told reporters.

He says the department also has formally notified states of the law’s language that preempts state GMO labeling requirements.

ARC-PLC payments to hit $11 billion. USDA is set to send out payments to farmers next month under the Agriculture Risk Coverage and Price Loss Coverage programs, and Vilsack expects to the checks to total about $11 billion. That’s $3 billion more than the Congressional Budget Office had projected for the payments back in March. 

Heritage: Abolish commodity programs. This news comes as a leading conservative think tank is proposing to phase out commodity programs and end revenue insurance. The Heritage Foundation, which is especially influential with Tea Party Republicans in the House, says most farmers don’t need government help now and that the subsidies distort markets and artificially inflate land values. Authors of the report will be on Capitol Hill this afternoon to discuss their recommendations.

One of the co-authors, Daren Bakst, dismisses the idea that the downturn in the farm economy justifies keeping the commodity subsidies and revenue insurance. The recent drops in farm income only look large because they’re coming off record highs in farm earnings, Bakst says. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that net farm income is at some unusually low level.”

The idea of ending commodity programs will be dead on arrival in Congress but the report is a clear signal that Heritage is likely to take a visible role in the debate that will start next year on a new farm bill.

House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway responded to the report by saying he’s convinced that ending commodity programs would drive up food prices. 

Conaway tells Agri-Pulse he doesn’t foresee any major changes to the commodity title other than to reinstate cotton. He wants to authorize payments for cottonseed under the Price Loss Coverage program. 

Cuba trade barriers to get House Ag attention. The House Agriculture Committee is going to take a look next week at the impact of existing financial restrictions on exports of food to Cuba. Committee member Rick Crawford of Arkansas says he has agreement with key colleagues to pass legislation this year that would end the requirement that Cuba pay upfront in cash for all imports. 

Next week’s committee hearing will look into that issue as well as the overall potential for agricultural trade with Cuba. 

For once, good news on hunger. The country is finally showing some progress in reversing that sharp increase in hunger that hit in 2008 during the last recession. 

USDA estimates that 12.7 percent of households were food insecure in 2015, down from 14 percent in 2014. The rate hasn’t been under 14 percent since 2007 when an estimated 11.1 percent of families had trouble getting the food they needed. 

The reason for last year’s marked improvement isn’t clear, but there’s speculation that lower gasoline prices played a role. If that’s true, that means that fracking has not only helped lower greenhouse gas emissions by increasing the use of natural gas, it’s also reducing hunger in America.

Senate looks to pass water bill. Republican leaders hope to get a new water projects authorization bill through the Senate before this weekend.

The bill includes provisions to allow the Corps of Engineers to accept financial assistance from local communities seeking to improve navigation and flood control. It also makes permanent a program included in the 2014 water bill to provide low interest rate financing for large dollar-value projects.

Missing from the legislation is a provision Congress included in 2014 to protect farmers from EPA’s regulations on fuel storage tanks. The 2014 bill temporarily exempted farmers with between 2,500 to 6,000 gallons of aboveground oil storage capacity. A subsequent EPA study affirmed the agency’s decision to allow a much more limited exemption. 

He said it. “They will be substantially higher than they were in previous years and will help to supplement, if you will, and help to support farm families during tight times.” - Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, on the expected $11 billion in ARC and PLC payments

Spencer Chase and Bill Tomson contributed to this report. 



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