June 17, 2011
A few weeks ago, the House Appropriations Committee released its FY 2012 bill for agriculture spending. The report language included attacks on USDA’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Initiative as well as the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) priority for local and regional food systems.
The Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Initiative does not have its own budget. Rather, it coordinates on an inter-agency basis the various programs and activities at USDA that work with farmers and ranchers producing for local and regional markets, aiming to expand opportunities for agricultural producers and economic development. To expand upon the body of knowledge on this growing trend for local foods, AFRI includes a sub-program that explores the opportunities and challenges related to food access and local and regional food systems.
Responding to the report language, Representative Chellie Pingree (D-ME), an organic farmer and strong advocate of local and regional food systems, introduced a no-cost amendment to reverse the impact of the report language. NSAC supported the amendment. It would have reversed the language in the report telling USDA, in essence, that any AFRI or other USDA-funded research on any aspect of local and regional farm and food systems is, somehow, by definition, bad science. Pingree and other supporters argued that Congress generally sets broad research priorities for USDA and other federal agencies, but does not dictate what research USDA can do or fund. Further, Congress typically does not substitute its opinions for the judgement of professionals who oversee competitive grant peer-review panels.
Despite that sound logic, the amendment lost 170-238, with 165 Democrats and 5 Republicans voting for it, but 14 Democrats and 224 Republicans voting against it.
Perhaps in response to the Pingree amendment, Representative Virginia Foxx (R-NC) proposed an amendment to terminate funding for the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative altogether. This vote was closer, but the anti-local and regional food sentiment still prevailed with the amendment being adopted by a vote of 212-201, with 21 Republicans voting no and 2 Democrats voting yes.
The practical impact of the Foxx amendment is unclear. The Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative is not a program per say and does not have its own budget. Hence it is difficult to know how USDA would interpret the restriction. It is discouraging to see a majority of the House decide to distance itself from a growing sector of agriculture, one that is trying its best to meet growing consumer demand and that is bringing hope to many young and beginning farmers.
NSAC will now turn its attention to the Senate, who has yet to begin drafting its FY 2012 agriculture appropriations bill. Their bill could help clarify the important role of the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Initiative, which supports farmers and ranchers, boosts economic development, and achieves government efficiency.