John Block: Bird Flu

By John R. Block

There is no industry more volatile or more uncertain than agriculture. The drought came and Texas and Oklahoma ranchers had to sell their cattle – not enough feed. Beef prices shot up. We still don’t have enough beef. The pork industry was hit with a swine disease. Thousands of baby pigs died. That resulted in a pork shortage and those prices shot up.

Now, we have bird flu. Who would have predicted? The H5N2 virus has killed 47 million chickens. We should be producing enough eggs to meet domestic demand and be able to export more than 30 million eggs per month. Not now. Iowa has been hurt the most – losing 30 million birds. That’s half the laying hens in the state.

The price of eggs has doubled. Egg processors making cakes, cookies, Krispy Kreme donuts, etc. are crying for eggs. For the first time in 10 years, we have authorized imports. Seven European countries have been approved to import shell eggs. Government officials say it will take as long as 2 years to get our production of eggs back to where it was before the virus.

This is not the first time we have been hit with a bird flu virus. When I was Secretary of Agriculture in the early 80s, we had our last bad bout with bird flu. That was a disaster then. But this time is much worse.

The Department of Agriculture oversees these problems. Farmers are compensated for the birds that die or are destroyed. According to Secretary Vilsack, the cost could exceed a half billion dollars. We are losing a lot of birds, including egg-laying hens, broilers, and turkeys. It will take a lot of money and time to rebuild the business.

Stopping the spread of the virus will not be so easy. Canadian geese in the state of Michigan have tested positive. They fly everywhere. In the meantime, the industry is looking for a vaccine to protect against the virus. None approved as of yet.

There is no industry more essential to mankind than food production. There is no industry more uncertain. And yet, our farmers and ranchers persist and get the job done. Did you know that this spring world food prices fell to their lowest level since 2009?

John Block was Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 1981-1985, where he played a key role in the development of the 1985 Farm Bill.

Tonight: Global Child Nutrition Foundation Honors USDA Secretary Vilsack

By Peter B. Matz

Secretary Vilsack

Please join the Global Child Nutrition Foundation (GCNF) and its partners in honoring Secretary Vilsack for his remarkable achievements in child nutrition. GCNF’s Annual Gala has become a signature Washington event, bringing together executives from industry as well as high-level officials from both government and NGO’s.  It will take place tonight, from 5:30-7:30 PM, at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington, DC.  Details below.

The Gala raises funds for GCNF’s efforts to end child hunger by helping developing countries establish sustainable school feeding programs. At this moment, over 350 million hungry children live in extreme poverty throughout the world. School feeding programs nourish children, provide an incentive for children to go to school, and help lift children, their families and their communities out of poverty.

Global Child Nutrition Foundation’s Annual Gala Reception Honoring

U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack

Thursday, April 16 2015

5:30pm-7:30pm

The Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center

1300 Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest, Washington, DC 20004

More information at www.gcnf.org

Secretary Tom Vilsack

Throughout his long and distinguished career in public service, Secretary Vilsack has demonstrated his commitment to the nutritional well-being of children at home and abroad. As Governor of Iowa, Vilsack created the Iowa Food Policy Council to advance local food systems, enhance family farm profitability, and combat hunger and malnutrition.  At USDA, Secretary Vilsack is a key Cabinet leader on global food security and served as one of the primary architects of President Obama’s Feed the Future Initiative launched in 2009. Under his leadership, USDA has contributed to improved global food security by focusing on capacity building to improve markets information, food safety systems, basic and applied research and innovations in agricultural productivity.

In 2013, Secretary Vilsack led U.S. efforts on the Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition, which seeks to support global efforts to make agricultural and nutritionally relevant data available, accessible, and usable for unrestricted use worldwide in order to improve consumer health and expand economic opportunities for farmers. Building on those efforts, in 2014, Secretary Vilsack led the launch of U.S. participation in the Global Alliance for Climate-Smart Agriculture, a global effort to share knowledge and practices to address climate change and its impact on agriculture and chart a new path forward towards greater global food security.

Secretary Vilsack continues to be a strong voice for improving the nutritional quality of domestic child nutrition programs and has focused USDA’s McGovern-Dole School Feeding Program on meeting rigorous nutrition and literacy goals. Child nutrition programs in the United States have become global models of excellence under Secretary Vilsack’s leadership and commitment.

The Vilsapp: Secretary Vilsack’s High Tech Solution to Labeling

By Marshall L. Matz, as published in Agri-Pulse

The March edition of the National Geographic Magazine, in its cover story entitled “The War on Science,” notes that “there’s no evidence that GMO’s are harmful to human health.” A recent Pew poll found that 90% of all scientists believe GMO’s are safe but only 37% of the public agrees. In short, the public is skeptical and is seeking more information about foods made with genetic engineering. We live in an era of transparency, open data and the world-wide web. It is difficult to deny consumers the right to know what is in their food. And given the safety of genetic engineering, there is no reason to block that information.

The question on the table is how to do this in a nationally-uniform, unbiased manner? To allow each of fifty states to have its own labeling scheme would be confusing, very expensive, bad public policy and, in my opinion, unconstitutional. It would be as crazy as having fifty different Dietary Guidelines or fifty different Nutrition Facts panels on the foods we buy.

Secretary VilsackAgriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has a better idea: a smartphone application that can scan a bar code on the food package and tell the consumer what is in the product. He took his idea to Congress last month. His idea is a very modern and clever solution to address the desire for more information about the foods we consume.

There is only so much room on the food label. So, Secretary Vilsack is suggesting a symbol on the food label that connects to a database that can tell those consumers who want such information whether there is an ingredient in the food produced with genetic engineering. According to a recent edition of the Economist, “about half of the adult population owns a smartphone; by 2020, 80% will. Smartphones have also penetrated every aspect of daily life.” For those without smartphones, there could be in-store computers or scanners.

Dr. Cathy Enright, VP for Agriculture at the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), posted a blog last month that said:

“I also support a right-to-know. In 21st century America, consumers are increasingly asking questions about how their food is grown and made. We all need to be working together to provide that information, in a way that doesn’t misinform consumers. Have you seen USDA Secretary Vilsack’s idea….using a bar code or other code on a food package or sticker?”

Last year, Cardinal Peter Turkson, speaking on behalf of the Vatican, said we must use biotechnology to feed the world’s expanding population, but also supported the idea of transparency to provide information to consumers who desire such information. The Vatican seems to be in agreement with the Secretary and those who believe in both the safety of genetic engineering and the moral imperative of using science to feed the hungry, but also the consumers’ right to know.

Nutrition FactsUSDA and HHS will issue a new edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans later this year. The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee and the FDA are seeking to put more information on the actual food label. It is time to use technology to expand the physical size of the label.

Every industry seems to be using technology to the maximum possible extent. The food industry should follow suit. There are questions that would still have to be resolved as with any app: who would maintain the data base? What would be the definition of genetic modification and would there be some threshold that triggers the GE designation? What happens with foods that used a GE ingredient where it was then processed out of the product and there is no trace in the final food?

These are all challenging questions that would have to be resolved. But this much is clear, there must be federal preemption of state labeling schemes and a uniform national system established. To date, the labeling campaign has been pushed as an attack on genetic engineering as a part of the larger war on science. Information should be provided, not as a scare tactic and warning, but just as factual information for those who care.

Perhaps there is a better idea than the Vilsack App, but this idea sure deserves serious attention. On March 5th, at the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee hearing to review the FDA budget, Dr. Hamburg reiterated that FDA does not see mandatory labeling as appropriate if there’s not a significant change to the product. If the process changes the nature of the product, then it would have to be labeled. She also said FDA supports individual companies that want to voluntarily label products and plans to issue a guidance to guide them in the near future. Dr. Hamburg should include the Vilsapp as a way of providing consumer information and include it in the guidance that FDA issues.

The Wall Street Journal recently published a guide to some of the terms being used on supermarket egg cartons. They include Organic, Cage-Free, Free-Range, All Natural, Pasture Raised, and Vegetarian Fed and Omega-3. The Vilsapp could help the confused consumer better understand these terms as well.

In short, the Vilsapp is a creative idea that could provide the transparency deemed important by consumers and also preempt the need for state legislation. The need for state preemption is paramount and was emphasized by all of the witnesses at the House Agriculture Hearing on March 24th.

Dr. Nina Fedoroff, the Senior Science Advisor at OFW Law, concluded her testimony with the following: “We will need to produce more crops per drop of water and square meter of land” in order to feed 9 to 10 billion of people. Genetic modification is not a magic bullet but is safe and an important part of the arsenal needed to defeat food insecurity.

A patch quilt of different state labeling schemes would be a barrier to global food security. Transparency and full disclosure is reasonable but it must be done with a national system that is based on sound science and provides objective information.

Mr. Collin Peterson, the Ranking Member, summed it up best: “When it comes to labeling, we need to be able to find a smart way to balance the consumer demand with what we know about the safety of the foods that our farmers produce.” Sounds like a Vilsapp.

Marshall Matz, formerly Counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and the Senate Committee on Agriculture, specializes in agriculture and nutrition at OFW Law.

Trade is Critical to Rural America; Agriculture is Key to TPA

By Marshall L. Matz and former USDA Secretary John R. Block

Trade policy may present an opportunity for the Obama Administration and the Congress to work together in a bipartisan manner but it is sure not unanimous.   While Agriculture Secretary Vilsack and U.S. Trade Representative’s Chief Agriculture Negotiator Darci Vetter are making the case for Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), Senator Ron Wyden, the Senior Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, is arguing for more negotiating transparency to be required by TPA before signing on.  In addition, while there is very strong support for TPA in the agriculture community, it is not unanimous.

TPA is a critical tool in the effort to complete the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and down the road the European Union Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations.  These trade agreements support U.S. jobs while helping American agriculture compete more successfully in the global marketplace. TPA will help ensure that America’s farmers, ranchers, and food processors receive the greatest benefit from the TPP, TTIP, and future trade negotiations.

These agreements could have an important economic impact on specific commodities and American agriculture more generally.  Secretary Tom Vilsack recently spoke out on the importance of trade to agriculture:

“It is no surprise that agricultural producers are joining the chorus of voices calling on Congress to renew Trade Promotion Authority. The past six years were the strongest period for agricultural exports in the history of our nation, despite the fact that many other countries’ markets are not as open to American products as our markets are to theirs. New trade agreements that help level the playing field for agriculture will build on the success we’ve seen in the agricultural economy since 2009 and help producers create more new jobs across the country. What makes the agricultural economy stronger makes our entire nation’s economy stronger. It is imperative that Congress act on Trade Promotion Authority early this year.”

Fiscal years 2009 to 2014 represented the strongest six years in history for U.S. agricultural trade, with U.S. agricultural product exports totaling $771.7 billion. Agricultural exports last fiscal year reached $152.5 billion, the highest level on record and supported nearly one million jobs here at home, a substantial part of the nearly 11.3 million jobs supported by exports all across our country.

USTR’s Office of Agricultural Affairs has overall responsibility for U.S. government trade negotiations and policy development and coordination regarding agriculture.  Darci Vetter and other USTR officials, works closely with relevant U.S. government agencies, particularly USDA, as appropriate.

In a recent letter to Congress a broad range of groups outlined the benefits of trade as follows:

“As a result of trade agreements implemented since 1989, when the U.S. began using bilateral and regional trade agreements to open foreign markets to our goods, U.S. agricultural exports have nearly quadrupled in value and now stand at a record $152.5 billion (fiscal 2014).  During that period, earnings from U.S. agricultural exports as a share of cash receipts to farmers have grown from 22 percent to over 35 percent.

“These farm and food exports have a positive multiplier effect throughout the U.S. economy.  Every $1 in U.S. farm exports is estimated to stimulate an additional $1.27 in business activity.  Off-farm activities and services include purchases by farmers of fuel, fertilizer, seed and other inputs as well as post-production processing, packaging, storing, transporting and marketing the products we ship overseas.  Exports of $152.5 billion in fiscal 2014 therefore generated another $194 billion in economic activity in the U.S., bringing the total benefit to the economy to $347 billion.”

The chart below shows the percentage of production that was exported, by commodity, in the most recent year for which there are numbers:

Commodity Percent
Wheat 50%
Corn 11%
Soybeans 62%
Beef 14%
Pork 26.5%
Diary 15.4%

In short:

1. Exports are critical to the agriculture economy; and

2. Agriculture’s political power may be the key to passage of TPA and the trade agreements being negotiated.

While only one percent (1%) of all Americans farm and the conventional wisdom is that agriculture has lost power, production agriculture still has an important role to play in making the case for expanded trade and TPA, as the farm economy has a major impact on all those who live in rural America.  From farm implement dealers to car dealers to rural bankers and the local coffee shops, what is good for farmers is good for rural America.

TPA gives us an opportunity to put economics before politics.  The farm groups who have signed the TPA letter to Congress are well positioned to make the case for expanded trade with both Democrats and Republicans bridging the urban-rural divide in America.

Marshall Matz specializes in agriculture policy at OFW Law.  He was formerly (Democratic) Counsel to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.  John R. Block was Secretary of Agriculture under President Reagan.

Global Child Nutrition Foundation to Honor Secretary Vilsack on April 16th

By Peter B. Matz

Secretary VilsackThe Global Child Nutrition Foundation is proud to announce Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack as the recipient of the 2015 Gene White Lifetime Achievement Award for Child Nutrition.

Please join the Global Child Nutrition Foundation (GCNF) and its partners in honoring Secretary Vilsack for his remarkable achievements in child nutrition at GCNF’s Annual Gala Reception. Now in its 12th year, the Gala has become a signature Washington event with high-caliber honorees and speakers. It will take place on Thursday, April 16, 2015, in Washington, DC, at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center.

The highlight of the evening will be the presentation of the Gene White Lifetime Achievement Award for Child Nutrition to the Secretary. Over 200 executives from industry and high-level government and NGO officials will come together for the event.

The Gala raises funds for GCNF’s efforts to end child hunger by helping developing countries establish sustainable school feeding programs. At this moment, over 350 million hungry children live in extreme poverty throughout the world. School feeding programs nourish children, provide an incentive for children to go to school, and help lift children, their families and their communities out of poverty.

Global Child Nutrition Foundation’s Annual Gala Reception honoring

U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack

Thursday, April 16 2015

5:30pm-7:30pm

The Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center

1300 Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest, Washington, DC 20004

More information at www.gcnf.org

Secretary Tom Vilsack

Throughout his long and distinguished career in public service, Secretary Vilsack has demonstrated his commitment to the nutritional well-being of children at home and abroad. As Governor of Iowa, Vilsack created the Iowa Food Policy Council to advance local food systems, enhance family farm profitability, and combat hunger and malnutrition.  At USDA, Secretary Vilsack is a key Cabinet leader on global food security and served as one of the primary architects of President Obama’s Feed the Future Initiative launched in 2009. Under his leadership, USDA has contributed to improved global food security by focusing on capacity building to improve markets information, food safety systems, basic and applied research and innovations in agricultural productivity.

In 2013, Secretary Vilsack led U.S. efforts on the Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition, which seeks to support global efforts to make agricultural and nutritionally relevant data available, accessible, and usable for unrestricted use worldwide in order to improve consumer health and expand economic opportunities for farmers. Building on those efforts, in 2014, Secretary Vilsack led the launch of U.S. participation in the Global Alliance for Climate-Smart Agriculture, a global effort to share knowledge and practices to address climate change and its impact on agriculture and chart a new path forward towards greater global food security.

Secretary Vilsack continues to be a strong voice for improving the nutritional quality of domestic child nutrition programs and has focused USDA’s McGovern-Dole School Feeding Program on meeting rigorous nutrition and literacy goals. Child nutrition programs in the United States have become global models of excellence under Secretary Vilsack’s leadership and commitment.

Feed the Future: A Bipartisan Opportunity

By Marshall L. Matz, as published in Agri-Pulse

The “Feed the Future” initiative is aimed at improving agriculture productivity and economic development around the world. Bipartisan legislation has been introduced in the both the House and Senate to make this discretionary program permanent. The legislation (H.R. 5656; S.2909) has the support of private sector corporations as well as non-profit public interest organizations.  To use an old phrase, the initiative teaches people how to fish rather than just distributing fish. It deserves our attention.

For generations, the United States has been a leader in providing agriculture development assistance across the globe to alleviate suffering and build shared progress and prosperity. But global food price spikes and resulting instability in 2007 and 2008 were a wake-up call that more needed to be done.

Feed the Future was borne out of President Obama’s pledge at the 2009 G-8 Summit in L’Aquila to mobilize at least $3.5 billion towards global food security—spurring commitments of $18.5 billion from other donors. But the United States has, in fact, thanks to tremendous bipartisan support, surpassed its goal and committed $5 billion in the fight to end hunger and malnutrition.

In 2010, the Administration launched “Feed the Future” (FTF), an initiative designed to expand and better coordinate the United States’ investments in improving global food security. Feed the Future is a whole-of-government approach from USDA to AID and State. It focuses on the dual objectives of improving farmer productivity, income, and livelihoods in developing countries while fighting hunger with a special focus on women and children in particular.

On September 18, 2014 Chairman Chris Smith with Rep. Betty McCollum in the House introduced the Global Food Security Act of 2014 in the House. In the Senate, the legislation was introduced by Senators Casey and Johanns with Senators Coons, Isakson, Cardin and Boozman.

The Global Food Security Act is based on the premise that global food insecurity impacts not only the economies of developing nations but also the international economy and U.S. national security. The bill recognizes the key role that agriculture development plays in economic growth.

There is broad bipartisan support for sustaining Feed the Future due in large part to tremendous gains made over the past few years—

WORLDWIDE: Last year, Feed the Future helped more than 7 million smallholder farmers’ access new tools and technologies to help them improve yields and boost incomes. Feed the Future also reached 12.5 million children with nutrition interventions.

ZAMBIA: Feed the Future played a key role in the record maize harvest for the 2013/14 cropping season (3.4 million metric tons – a 32 percent increase over the previous year’s total) through policy advocacy and by helping smallholder farmers’ access agricultural inputs such as improved seeds and fertilizers through private sector providers.

ETHIOPIA: Feed the Future and other U.S. Government programs are making progress toward achieving real reductions in stunting in Ethiopia. A recent nationwide survey shows stunting rates declined by over 9 percent over the past three years, even as the population grew, resulting in 160,000 fewer stunted children.

HONDURAS: More than 4,300 families are now well above the $1.25-per-day poverty line, thanks in part to Feed the Future’s efforts, which increased horticulture sales by 125 percent last year.

BANGLADESH: Feed the Future reached 3.3 million smallholder farmers with improved seed, fertilizer and farm management practices, helping farmers increase rice yields by as much as 20 percent and creating additional rice sales of $25 million.

SENEGAL: Feed the Future introduced a new breed of high-yielding, high-protein rice that helps smallholder farmers’ triple yields in a single year.

TANZANIA: Feed the Future helped increase horticulture yields by 44 percent and rice yields by more than 50 percent among farmers. The initiative assisted the Government of Tanzania in its efforts to turn the nation’s fertile south into a breadbasket.

Dr. Raj Shah, AID Administrator

Dr. Raj Shah, AID Administrator

“Through Feed the Future, we are harnessing the power of science, technology and innovation to unlock opportunities in agriculture for the world’s most vulnerable people,” said USAID Administrator Dr. Rajiv Shah. “By creating and scaling cutting-edge solutions to our most pressing agricultural challenges, we can help the world’s most vulnerable people move from dependency to self-sufficiency—and out of the tragic cycle of extreme poverty.”

USDA’s expertise is also critical in this effort. From research and extension to market development and trade, USDA must play a central role for Feed the Future to be successful.

Secretary Vilsack has executed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa to help transfer research and extension expertise and that is a building block for Feed the Future.

Feed the Future is not just a commitment of money, it is a new multi-department approach. Instead of merely providing food aid in times of crises, it establishes a new model to turn agriculture into a business—one that especially works for women.

In short, the Global Food Security Act of 2014, the Smith (R-NJ) -Casey (D-PA) -Johanns (R-NE) legislation, compliments the successful PEPFAR program initiated by President Bush and uses our expertise in agriculture as the best possible foreign policy. The Global Food Security Act of 2014 presents an excellent opportunity to come together behind a piece of bipartisan legislation that puts our best foot forward as a country.

Marshall Matz, formerly Counsel to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, specializes in global food security at OFW Law. He serves on the Board of Directors of the World Food Program—USA; the Congressional Hunger Center; and the Food Research Action Center (FRAC).

White House U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit: Agriculture Prospective

By Marshall L. Matz and Eden Shiferaw

“…agriculture development is critical, because it’s the best way to boost incomes for the majority of the Africans who are farmers, especially as they deal with the impacts of climate change…”  President Obama, August 5, 2014

What is the White House U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit?

The first ever U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit took place on Monday, August 4th through Wednesday, August 6th. The Summit involved the United States, over 50 African heads of state, and the African Union. The Summit was organized around the theme “Investing in the Next Generation.” Summit participants discussed investment issues, peace and security, governance, and other topics. The Summit and associated events highlighted key goals in the White House Administration’s 2012 Africa Strategy, which focuses on U.S. efforts to help African countries to foster:

  • good governance;
  • food security;
  • increased economic growth, trade, and investment, in partnership with U.S. firms;
  • durable peace and security; and
  • greater socio-economic opportunity and development.

Initiatives and Partnerships Related to Agriculture

  • Global Resilience Partnership, a $100 million partnership launched by United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and The Rockefeller Foundation was announced at the Summit. The Global Resilience Partnership will institute a new model for solving the complex and interrelated challenges of the 21st century such as persistent and often extreme poverty, food insecurity, and climate shocks through public-private partnerships.
  • Through the Feed the Future initiative, the U.S. Government stands alongside its partners in Africa to promote agricultural development as a means to catalyze broad-based economic growth that can make a significant impact against hunger, poverty and undernutrition. The U.S. reiterated its commitment to enable smallholder farmers and producers with access to agricultural insurance so that they can feel comfortable adopting and using new tools, technologies and practices that can help increase yields and, ultimately, economic outcomes.
  • The New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition report was released at the Summit, announcing that, under the effort, private sector companies have collectively committed more than $8 billion in responsible agriculture investments in Africa, African governments have made progress or completed 95 percent of their policy-related commitments, and 3 million smallholder farmers have been reached.
  • The Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition (GODAN) initiative will now have four new partners and up to $1 billion in export credit guarantees that will enhance trade between the U.S. and Africa.
  • The United States intends to join the global Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture (ACSA) slated for launch at the United Nations Secretary General’s Climate Summit in New York in September 2014. At the Summit, the African Union Commission shared its plans for a roadmap to implement the Malabo Declaration’s commitments, including actions to build resilience to climate and weather-related risks through Climate-Smart Agriculture (CSA).

Administration’s Comments on Agriculture

  • Secretary of State John Kerry: “When you talk about food security, it doesn’t take very long to have the name, Norman Borlaug, come up. Norman would have been 100 years old this year, and he dedicated his entire life and career to feeding the world’s hungry. He won a Nobel Prize for his work. And he pursued that path for one reason. As he put it, ‘You can’t build a peaceful world on empty stomachs and human misery,’ pretty simple.

But on top of that, the growing impacts of climate change are going to put extraordinary stress on our ability to be able to produce the amount of food that we need to be able to feed those increasing numbers, and, I might add, to feed from increasing numbers from increasingly – from agricultural locations that are increasingly under greater stress and duress…

We need more governments, more businesses, more research institutions, more civil society, more people all over the world focused on improving agricultural productivity, on investing in innovation and technology like seeds that withstand drought and floods, and on ensuring the world’s agricultural sector is operating as sustainably as possible…”

  • Secretary of Agriculture (USDA), Tom Vilsack: As a panelist during the “Resilience and Food Security in a Changing Climate” event, Secretary Tom Vilsack discussed the three goals USDA is focused on, including advancing sustainable agricultural practices, building greater resiliency in agriculture, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions related to agriculture. Secretary Vilsack said USDA can share research data on crop genomes, pest and disease control, as well as monitoring and addressing drought conditions.

Overview

The Administration considers global food security a top foreign policy priority. It is not just Africans and African leaders recognizing the importance of agriculture, the Summit demonstrated the Administration’s understanding that agriculture is the key to Africa’s economic prosperity. Furthermore, the Administration accepts that a “green revolution” in Africa cannot take place without Climate-Smart Agriculture (CSA) technology. The Administration repeatedly alluded to biotechnology by advocating for smart, sound science in order to combat the effects of climate change.

The Administration purposely refrained from offering a set of deliverables from the Summit, however, it should be noted that the Administration is enthusiastic about Africa Growth Opportunity Act (AGOA) and Feed the Future. Throughout the Summit, the Administration reiterated that AGOA and Feed the Future are top legislative priorities.

Despite the Administration refraining from deliverables, the Summit was a successful bipartisan effort. “Congress has played an enormous role on a bipartisan basis in supporting Africa policy,” said Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. “It is important to note that in an environment in Washington where there’s not a lot of bipartisan agreement, Africa has been the true exception.”

Links

House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Reports FY 2015 Bill Without Any Amendments 1

By Roger R. Szemraj

The House Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee today voted  by voice vote to approve its draft FY 2015 bill and report it to the full House Appropriations Committee.  The full Committee is expected to consider this bill on Thursday, May 29, with the goal of having the bill on the House floor in early June.   Chairman Aderholt’s formal opening statement can be accessed here.  The Committee report is not yet available and will not be until full Committee consideration.  The Committee’s summary of the bill and a link to the text of the bill can be found here.

Matters receiving the greatest attention during today’s session included providing USDA with the authority to waive requirements for compliance with school meal rules for those school food authorities that can demonstrate a net loss from operating a food service program for a period of at least 6 months, beginning July 1, 2013 (Section 739); inclusion of white potatoes in the WIC program (Section 738), and funding reductions proposed for the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.

Subcommittee Chairman Robert Aderholt (R-AL), in his opening statement, said that the subcommittees budget allocation is $20.88 billion for discretionary spending – the same amount as provided for FY 2014.  The subcommittee received more than 3,900 requests from 326 Members regarding programs covered by the bill.  Chairman Aderholt specifically raised his inclusion of the school food rule waiver, saying that the provision of this authority is in response to Secretary Vilsack having testified that USDA did not have the authority to grant the waivers called for in the report accompanying the FY 2014 Consolidated Appropriations Act.

Ranking Subcommittee Member Farr (D-CA) described the measure as a “90-10 bill” in that he can support 90 percent, but has to swallow 10 percent.  He specifically disagreed with the inclusion of the school meal rule waiver authority, saying schools would be allowed to opt out of complying with the rule but would be able to keep the extra six cents per meal provided under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.  He also disagreed with the WIC provisions requiring white potatoes, and said the funding level for CFTC  would wreck the agency and is very dangerous.

Full Committee Chairman Rogers (R-KY) said it is his intention to pass all bills individually, and that this is the earliest ever that appropriations bills are being considered thanks to last year’s budget agreement. His specific comments regarding the bill focused on the epidemic of prescription drug abuse, and he praised provisions in the bill calling on FDA to hasten the development of abuse deterrent formulations.

Full Committee Ranking Member Nita Lowey (D-NY) focused her remarks on funding for international food aid and food safety.   She said she is disappointed that the bill does not provide the new authority to use up to 25 percent ($350 million) of the P.L. 480 Title II appropriation in emergencies for interventions such as local or regional procurement of agricultural commodities near crises, food vouchers, or cash transfers requested by the Administration, nor does it provide the $80 million for local and regional food purchases authorized by the Farm Bill.  She also expressed her disagreement with the WIC language regarding white potatoes, saying that the WIC standards have been based on scientific recommendations made by the Institute of Medicine.  She also opposes language in the bill included as part of the funding for child nutrition programs that limits the summer feeding program to rural areas.

Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) said that while she appreciates the challenges of putting together this bill based on her time as chairwoman of the subcommittee, she feels that she must oppose this bill because of concerns for protecting consumers.  She specifically spoke about her belief that the funding level for the Food Safety and Inspection Service is below the FY 2014 amount, and is predicated on unproven and unsubstantiated savings from revisions in poultry inspection procedures.  She argued that more funding should be provided to implement the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), given that she knows the subcommittee will never authorize user fees and the work under FSMA is so important.  She also raised concerns similar to those raised by others regarding funding for CFTC, school meal rule waivers, the WIC food package, and the summer food program.  She said budgeting is about values and choices, and she disagrees with the choices being made in the bill.

Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-ME) also raised her objections to the provisions regarding the waiver of school meal nutrition standards, and for language blocking the implementation of the GIPSA rule regarding the marketing of livestock and poultry.

In further discussion regarding the school meal rule waiver, Chairman Aderholt said that representations that the language included in the bill is in response to industry are mischaracterizations.  He said that he has not talked to industry, but instead has heard this request from school lunch personnel in his area.  If others disagree with the waiver, they do not need to apply for it.  Congressman Farr responded that USDA has reported that 90 percent of school food authorities are in compliance with the new meal standards.  USDA should partner with the others to help them achieve compliance.  He dislikes the fact that there is no requirement that schools notify parents that they are seeking waivers from these rules, and believes that if there was such a requirement parents would object.  Chairman Rogers also said that students are saying that they do not want the food that is being served, so they go elsewhere.  In the end, the rules may be hurting more than helping improving the quality of foods consumed by students.  Congresswoman DeLauro continued to argue that more time is needed for making these adjustments and that students will benefit from the fruits and vegetables being included.

John Block: U.S. Corn and China’s Bad Faith Collide

By John R. Block, as published in the Des Moines Register

As complex as the world trading system has become, it still fundamentally relies on something as simple as trust — that nations and people will be as good as their word.

Most basically, it requires that those who enter into mutually agreed upon contracts will not violate those contracts whenever they see it in their short-term advantage to do so.

Unfortunately, we are now faced with more evidence that China has yet to fully embrace this concept.

The latest instance of Chinese misbehavior has to do with an innovative new GMO corn — called Viptera — that was created to withstand insect devastation. It is so popular with farmers that it now accounts for some 10 percent of all corn in the United States, according to media reports. I have grower friends who use it on their corn acres.

As with all GMO varieties, the trait went through an exhaustive regulatory process ensuring its safety — both in the United States and key growing and grain-importing countries around the world — and is now relied on by farmers and consumers in the European Union, Latin America and Japan, as well as the U.S. For reasons known only to the Chinese government, however, it has so far been unwilling to complete this trait’s review.

Until recently, that fact had not prevented the Chinese from importing tens of thousands of tons of Viptera corn, which by the nature of the distribution process is, practically speaking, inseparable from other corn. Suddenly in November, however, the Chinese started turning away corn shipments in which the trait was detected.

Many have speculated on the reasons behind this latest Chinese action. But the simplest explanation is probably the best: China simply wants out of the corn contracts it signed when the price of corn was higher than it is today.

This year’s bumper harvests mean that global prices have already dropped by some 40 percent. Meanwhile, the Chinese appetite for imported corn continues to grow, from 5.23 million tons last year to an expected 7 million in 2013-14.

One thing is for certain: The issue is not GMOs or supposed concerns about their safety. Almost all the corn China imports from the U.S. is genetically modified in one way or another, and even while turning away ships with U.S. corn, China continues to accept shipments with the Viptera trait from Argentina.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack traveled to China in December in order to suggest to the Chinese that they fix their regulatory approval process, which doesn’t even begin until a producing country has finished its own. As part of that, he discussed a pilot project between our two nations in which the Chinese would start their regulatory review “in synchrony” with the U.S., so the entire world wouldn’t have to wait an extra two years — which is how long it takes in the best of circumstances — to bring innovative new traits to market.

The bigger issue is one that Secretary Vilsack could probably only hint at: It’s time for the Chinese to start acting responsibly on the world stage. China enjoys a huge trade surplus with the United States, and it should respect the fact that fair trade goes both ways.

China’s actions create huge uncertainties and costs in our global trading system and threaten to undermine the kind of technological innovation in agriculture that will allow us to feed a growing, calorie-hungry world population — much of which happens to reside in China.

The ultimate message should be this: that innovation must go forward, regardless. Western growers and technology innovators can’t allow the bad actions of one nation to hold back progress for the rest of the world.

John Block was Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 1981-1985, where he played a key role in the development of the 1985 Farm Bill.

Happy New Year? Farm Bill Blues

By Marshall L. Matz, as published by Agri-Pulse

A few weeks ago Vice President Biden presented the George McGovern Award to Bob Dole for his effort in the fight against global hunger. The ceremony was sponsored by the World Food Program and held in the Senate Caucus Room. It was a wonderful and too rare evening in Washington. After the presentation, the name of the award was changed to the McGovern-Dole Anti-hunger Award.

Beyond the well-deserved tribute to Senator Dole and his comments about George McGovern’s leadership, Dole hit on a larger theme of the evening when he said: “Aren’t these bipartisan meetings great? Too bad we can’t have more of them.” Watching the Farm Bill saga over the past two years, Dole’s comments struck a nerve with the audience.

The Secretary has warned us that agriculture must stay relevant to mainstream America or risk losing its political gravitas. The threat has taken a new form this year, the real possibility of losing the Farm Bill– not just the 2013/2014 version, but the entire process. This is despite the great efforts of Senate Committee Chairwoman Stabenow and House Committee Chairman Lucas to move the bill on behalf of an entire nation that benefits from it.

USDA and the entire agriculture community rely on Farm Bills as the central pillar of political activity. Farm Bills give importance to the House and Senate Agriculture Committees, a leading policy role to USDA, and a regular platform for farm, food, nutrition, rural, and related interests to address concerns. Now, the “new normal” of Washington gridlock threatens to make all of this extinct.

The House and Senate Agriculture Committees have worked heroically against enormous political headwinds to move legislation. Twice the Senate has passed a bipartisan Farm Bill, in 2012 and again in 2013. The House has had tougher sledding. While the House Agriculture Committee reported a bipartisan Farm Bill last spring, the full House voted down the Committee’s package on June 20 by a margin of 195 – 234. Simply to reach a conference with the Senate, the House was forced to adopt two separate sub-packages by narrow party votes, one on agriculture and the other on nutrition, and cobble them back together later.

Farm Bills have always been a hard sell on Capitol Hill, demanding great skill by our House and Senate Agriculture Committee leaders to build coalitions — farm and nutrition, food safety and trade, conservation and forestry, row crops and specialty, north and south, budget hawks and anti-hunger advocates. A sense of unity among agricultural interests and Farm state representatives, paired with public respect for agriculture’s central role in the national well-being, always seemed to carry the day in a crisis, overriding internal divisions and external threats. When push comes to shove, Farm Bills always reached the finish line because of the marriage between nutrition and agriculture.

Now, the agriculture consensus seems in danger of breaking down. Imagine for a minute if Congress were not to pass a Farm Bill in 2014. Would this become the new normal? Could annual “temporary extensions” become the new platform for setting rural policy rather than five-year Farm Bills, much as Continuing Resolutions have become the new way of funding the Federal government rather than individual annual Appropriations Bills?

The implications for American agriculture are sobering. If House and Senate Agriculture Committees can no longer pass Farm Bills that are acceptable to the full House and Senate – their core legislative mission – how long would it be before members started avoiding those Committees? Would food safety, nutrition, trade, and other interests start taking their business to other Capitol Hill offices? The decision by the House last summer to spin off nutrition from the normal Farm Bill package seemed to point in this ominous direction. Now, at least one Member of the House has already announced he will not support the Conference Report because it puts SNAP back in the bill.

And if the Agriculture Committees themselves were allowed to evolve into narrow-based forums for farmers and a few related rural interests, how long before they faded into Subcommittees? Remember when the Post Office was a major Department of Government and all new Members of Congress wanted to serve on the Post Office Committee?

What to do?

First, immediately, we as a farm community must pull together and help our Congressional leaders and the Administration get the Farm Bill over the finish line. Let’s settle our differences and move forward. The credibility of American agriculture as a Washington presence depends on it. We cannot afford to let the “new normal” become a reality. Make sure your Congressmen and Senators know that it is important that this bill becomes law, and that you, as their constituent, will be watching how they vote.

Second, longer term, we must broaden our tent. Farmers alongside farm groups must speak up for themselves on issues that affect them; silence at home will only result in silence on Capitol Hill. But also, rural America must quickly learn how to speak to urban America and build coalitions across the spectrum. Food producers must make the case to food consumers that they are in this together, that both have an interest in the farm bill if they want to keep food costs low. Agriculture is not staying in touch with its customer and that is dangerous.

It is also time to change the name of the Department of Agriculture to the Department of Food and Agriculture. Symbols are important. The Senate Agriculture Committee added “Nutrition” to its name in 1977 at the urging of Senators McGovern and Dole. If the name were changed, consumers would feel more a part of the Department, the Secretary would have more power at the Cabinet Table and perhaps the Congress would understand why farm programs and nutrition programs belong in the same legislation.

Charles Lane, of the Washington Post, asks the question “Do we even need a farm bill?” and, by implication, do we need USDA? The answer is yes, but we are not telling our story. We need a farm bill and USDA because it covers a lot more than just farm production and price stabilization…as important as that is to farmers and all Americans. The farm bill and USDA—

  • Protect the safety of food for all consumers;
  • Provide food assistance to children and low income Americans;
  • Stimulate rural development;
  • Promote agriculture trade;
  • Manage our national forests;
  • Protect us from foreign pests and disease at every airport and port; and
  • Conduct critical research on global food security and climate.

The Secretary is fond of saying USDA touches every American every day. One percent (1%) of the population farms; one hundred percent (100%) consume. It is not very complicated.

Marshall Matz, formerly Counsel to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, specializes in food and agriculture at OFW Law in Washington, D.C.  mmatz@ofwlaw.com