December 16, 2015
Greg Fogel, 202-547-5754
Juli Obudzinski, 202-547-5754
Ferd Hoefner, 202-547-5754
Washington, DC, December 16, 2015 – The omnibus appropriations bill released today increases investments in several programs critical to the sustainability of American farms and ranches, while offering both good news and bad news with respect to proposals to re-open the 2014 Farm Bill. Our comments on particular sections of the bill follow.
We applaud the Appropriations Committee for respecting 2014 Farm Bill funding for the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). The omnibus does not re-open the Farm Bill to make changes in mandatory program spending for CSP, which offers comprehensive conservation assistance to producers who actively manage, maintain, and expand conservation activities like cover crops, resource-conserving rotations, rotational grazing, ecologically-based pest management, buffer strips, and the transition to organic farming. USDA will now be able to enroll the full 10 million acres in the program in FY 2016, as directed by the 2014 Farm Bill.
We also applaud the final bill negotiators for dropping the provision in the House bill to delay the application of soil and wetland conservation requirements to federally subsidized crop insurance premiums. The House provision to re-open the farm bill was nothing but a backdoor attempt to undo farm bill reform via delaying tactics, and very much deserved to be deleted.
The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), another key working lands conservation program, did not fare as well. For EQIP, the omnibus re-opens the 2014 Farm Bill and cuts mandatory spending by $321 million. This will have a direct impact on producers seeking financial and technical assistance to conserve water, soil, and other natural resources on their farms. After last year’s cut of $253 million, for example, only 23 percent of eligible applicants were able to get into the program.
Payment Limits for Cotton and Other Policy Riders
Perhaps more so than any other year in history, the FY 2016 omnibus negotiations have hinged on policy riders to legislate through the appropriations process. In a particularly egregious example of legislating in an appropriations bill, the omnibus re-opens the farm bill to exempt commodity program payment limitations for cotton. It does so by bringing back marketing loan commodity certificates, a feature of farm programs that ended in 2009 after a history of abuse. As a result, the nation’s very largest cotton operations will be able to collect unlimited subsidies through this certificate mechanism, without any benefit accruing to the majority of cotton farms that are not in any jeopardy of reaching the statutory limit. This rider is a blatant end-run around the policy set by the 2014 Farm Bill, a give away to mega farms, and a shameful perversion of the annual appropriations process.
On a positive note, we are very glad that attempts to to pre-empt state GMO labeling laws and to roll back the “Waters of the US” final rule that provides farmers with clearer guidance on stream and wetland designations, fell by the wayside in the final negotiations.
The final bill increases funding for USDA’s flagship competitive grant farm sustainability research program—the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program—from $22.7 million to $24.7 million, a nearly 9 percent increase. This is the highest funding level that the program has received since its creation in 1988, though still far short of its authorized level and of the demand for the program by scientists, educators, and farmers.
At current levels, USDA is able to fund only 6 percent of meritorious pre-proposals for SARE research and education grants. The lack of any increased support over the past few years has stymied investments in critical, farmer-driven research urgently needed to support the next generation of researchers and farmers. We are thrilled that this year’s funding bill begins to reverse this trend, and hope it is the start of a new trend of increased funding for sustainability research to meet the very pressing economic, environmental, and social needs of U.S. agriculture.
The final bill also increases funding for the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, the largest of USDA’s competitive research programs, by nearly 8 percent to $350 million. This boost will hopefully allow USDA to double down on increased sustainability research, including pressing needs related to the crisis in traditional public plant breeding and the severe shortage of funding for agroecological systems research.
The omnibus includes a significant increase in funding for food safety efforts related to implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). In particular, the bill doubles funding for the Food Safety Outreach Program (FSOP), through which USDA will provide competitive grants for food safety training and technical assistance to small and midsized farms and small scale merchant wholesalers and processors.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is in the process of issuing new, expensive food safety regulations for farmers and food processors under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) and the 100 percent increase over last year’s funding level of $2.5 million is a positive step toward ensuring that small and mid-sized farms and local and regional food businesses are prepared to comply with the new rule.
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition is a grassroots alliance that advocates for federal policy reform supporting the long-term social, economic, and environmental sustainability of agriculture, natural resources, and rural communities.
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