WASHINGTON, Sept. 21, 2016 - Tom Vilsack will be back on Capitol Hill today in what could be his last appearance before Congress as agriculture secretary. He’ll be answering questions from the Senate Agriculture Committee. The slumping farm economy is certain to be a topic as well as the farm bill. 

Lawmakers, meanwhile, are working to wrap up a number of loose ends in Washington so they can head home to campaign. 

‘Outside chance’ for school meal bill. In addition to passing a stopgap funding bill to keep the government running after the new fiscal year starts Oct. 1, it’s still possible that the Senate could take up a child nutrition reauthorization bill. The legislation has been stalled since it came out of committee in January. 

Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., has been trying to get unanimous consent to bring the bill on the floor but he says some senators are insisting that they still need time to study the legislation. “We haven’t given up,” Roberts told Agri-Pulse. “There’s an outside chance” it could pass. 

The bill would reauthorize nutrition programs for five years. The bill is a top priority for fruit and vegetable growers because it largely preserves the higher school meal standards implemented under a 2010 law. 

WRDA resolution must wait for lame duck. Another piece of unfinished business for Congress is a two-year authorization of water resource projects, including locks and dams and ports. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif, said yesterday that the House will deal with the legislation after the election. 

The Senate passed its version of the bill last week. The Senate legislation includes a provision to give farms some relief from environmental regulations on fuel and feed tanks. 

Farm, biofuel groups lobby for tax extenders. The American Farm Bureau Federation and several other farm groups are joining with rural electric co-ops and the biofuel industry in an appeal to Congress to extend a series of tax breaks set to expire at the end of December. The expiring provisions include the $1-a-gallon tax credit that subsidizes ethanol as well as tax breaks for cellulosic ethanol and E85 pumps.  

The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association is concerned about an expiring tax credit that helps offset the cost for geothermal heat pumps.

Seed, chemical firms say they’re prepared to divest. Executives with Dow, DuPont and Bayer say they won’t have any trouble finding buyers for some of their seed businesses if the Justice Department forces them to divest assets. That was one of the key takeaways from the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing yesterday on the three pending mega-deals in the seed and agrochemical industry. 

Dow and DuPont already are in talks with Justice, but officials wouldn’t say what was being discussed. BASF was identified as one possible buyer for some of their business. 

Syngenta CEO Erik Fyrwald told the skeptical senators that his company’s acquisition by ChemChina would encourage the Chinese government to speed up its approvals of new biotech traits. There’s concern that the deal will have the opposite impact.

For more on the hearing read this week’s Agri-Pulse newsletter. 

Rival group forms for organic growers. A new organization has formed to promote the interests of organic farmers. Rodale Institute of Kutztown, Pa., which calls itself “the world’s leading organic agriculture research organization,” is launching the new Organic Farmers Association. 

OFA will serve as a home for some growers who have chafed with the direction that the Organic Trade Association has taken on some issues, including its support for the new GMO disclosure law. OTA recently lost high-profile member Dr. Bronner’s, which will be joining Rodale’s new organization.

The new group's advocacy efforts will be led by Elizabeth Kucinich, who is Rodale’s policy chair. Kucinich, who is married to former congressman and presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich, has long been involved in food policy issues, having served previously as director of policy at the Center for Food Safety and director of government affairs at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

The group has set up a website where farmers can sign up for memberships.

Scorecard pressures fast food firms on antibiotics. Consumers Union is out with a new scorecard on restaurant chains’ on the use of antibiotics in their meat supplies. Subway and Wendy’s rated as the most improved because of pledges it has made to reduce antibiotic usage. 

Panera and Chipotle both earned A’s for their policies. McDonald’s got a C-plus. Many major chains received F’s, including Applebees, Burger King, KFC and Starbucks. 

GAO faults USAID monitoring of cash aid. The U.S. Agency for International Development is increasing its use of cash food assistance overseas, but the congressional agency says USAID doesn’t have the data to make sure the aid is protected from fraud. The Government Accountability Office reviewed 14 final reports of cash-aid projects and found most of them were lacking key data, including prices for staple foods. 

The government continues to distribute U.S. commodities through the Food for Peace program, but in recent years USAID has been using another account to provide food assistance through cash transfers or vouchers. That cash aid grew from $76 million in 2010 to $432 million last year. 

He said it. “I’m not a lawyer. I don’t know anti-trust. I’ll leave that to the propeller heads at the antitrust division to figure out whether or not there are bad percentages growing to where you could create some kind of unfair market dynamic.” - Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., at the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing on mergers in the seed and agrochemical industries

Spencer Chase and Steve Davies contributed to this report. 


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