NSAC's Blog

Weekly Update April 13-17, 2009

April 20, 2009

April 13-17, 2009


Photo: Jamie Collins is the operator of Serendipity Farms, a 45 acre certified organic farm in Monterey, CA. She grows over 50 different varieties of vegetables, herbs and berries sold through farmers markets, community supported agriculture programs, local restaurants and markets, and wholesale markets. Jamie advocates for small, organic and beginning farmers through the Organic Farmers Action Network (OFAN), a project of the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF).  OFRF is one of NSAC’s seventy member organizations and works to get more federal funding for organic agriculture research and programs that support organic farmers.










Budget Deal Awaits:  As the congressional recess comes to a close, members will be coming back to DC next week to wrap up work on the FY 2010 budget resolution.  Different versions of the budget were passed in the House and Senate before the two-week recess.  Both versions significantly scaled back President Obama’s proposed spending levels for appropriations for domestic programs.  Congressional staff has been discussing final numbers while their bosses have been out of town.  Expectations are for the final number to fall between the bigger Senate-passed cut and the smaller House version.



The bigger sticking point on the path to reaching final agreement will be over budget process.  The House version of the bill would use budget “reconciliation” rules for consideration of two major White House priorities – health care reform and student loans.  Under those rules, Senate passage of those bills would require approval by a regular majority vote rather than a filibuster-proof supermajority.  The Senate version bows to the wishes of the Republican minority and excludes reconciliation rules, enabling the minority party to effectively block any proposal from becoming law if they remain united in opposition.



Before finishing its version of the budget resolution, the Senate approved an amendment sponsored by Senator and former USDA Secretary Mike Johanns (R-NE) that would prohibit reconciliation rules from being used for climate change legislation.  The 67-31 vote on that amendment virtually ensures that any climate change legislation that would pass during this session of Congress would need 60 votes in the Senate.



Another budget battle will occur over the Senate-passed provision setting a lower estate tax rate and higher estate tax exemption.  President Obama proposed a 45 percent tax rate imposed on estates over $7 million, but ten Senate Democrats led by Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) passed a budget amendment in favor of a 35 percent rate imposed on estates over $10 million.  The Obama measure, also favored by the House, would cost $256 billion over the next ten years relative to current law, while the Senate alternative would cost $341 billion.  Farm state Senators believe they are politically vulnerable if they do not back more multimillionaire and billionaire-friendly proposals, despite the lack of any evidence of the estate tax harming family farms.



Revised House Food Safety Bill Timeline:  The powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee is busy preparing for a legislative trifecta.  On the docket for the coming months are a mega climate change cap and trade bill, health care reform, and food safety reform.  The tentative schedule set by Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA) calls for subcommittee and full committee consideration of climate change in May and health care reform in June.  A half-finished working draft of the cap and trade bill has been in circulation for several weeks.  No health care bill has been laid on the table as yet.



Even that much would normally seem overly ambitious.  But interspersed between those two mammoth efforts, the Chair also intends to introduce his food safety bill in May, hold hearings, and then in June schedule mark-ups in subcommittee followed by full committee.  His intent would be to have the bill out of committee and ready for floor action by the July 4 recess.



As we have previously reported, the bulk of the Chairman’s mark will be based primarily on the food sections of H.R. 759, the food and drug safety bill introduced by Representatives Dingell (D-MI), Stupak (D-MI), and Pallone (D-NJ).

Separately, the House Agriculture Committee intends to begin a series of food safety hearings, with a building expectation that individual committee members or perhaps the committee as a whole may want to weigh in on food safety legislation in some fashion before the Energy and Commerce bill reaches the floor of the House.  Agriculture Committee member Jim Costa (D-CA), along with seven of his committee colleagues, has introduced the so-called SAFE Feast Act, HR 1332.



The Energy and Commerce Committee has jurisdiction over the Food and Drug Administration, whereas the Agriculture Committee has jurisdiction over USDA.  Both agencies control different parts of the food safety regulatory regime.



What About the Senate?:  With respect to both climate change and food safety legislation, the prevailing attitude in the Senate for the time being seems to depend on how far the House moves either bill this year.  For now, it’s a wait-and-see approach.  In addition to its inherently slower time table, the Senate faces the added dilemma of needing to find a super majority (60 votes) to pass either measure.



For instance, in 2008 the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee moved climate legislation out of committee and onto the floor, but it fell a full dozen votes short of the 60 needed to cut off debate.  Until the House delivers a bill, there is little reason to go through a similar exercise again.



Complicating Senate consideration further are negotiations with the so-called “gang of 16” Senators from Rust Belt, Midwest, and Mountain states who are demanding major energy concessions in any climate bill.  Many in the group will also likely favor liberal use of agricultural carbon offsets in any climate bill.  While that group is specific to climate and energy legislation, similar groupings of moderate and conservation farm state Senators are likely to have a pivotal role in food safety proceedings.



NSAC Files EQIP Comments and CSP Recommendations:  On Friday, April 17, NSAC filed its formal comments with USDA on the interim rule governing the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).

In addition, NSAC provided the Natural Resources Conservation Service with preliminary comments and recommendations on the draft list of conservation “enhancements” for Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP).  The enhancements are farm conservation activities that will help determine whether a farm rank high enough on conservation performance to get into the program and also what payments program participants will receive.  If you are interested in more information, contact Ferd Hoefner at fhoefner@sustainableagriculture.net.








Rajiv Shah Nominated as Research Under Secretary:  On Friday, April 17, President Obama and USDA Secretary Vilsack announced their intent to nominate Dr. Rajiv Shah as USDA Under Secretary for Research, Education and Economics and Chief Scientist.



The announcement matched the long-standing rumor that the Under Secretary and Chief Scientist would not be from a land grant university and would come from international rather than domestic agriculture circles.

If confirmed by the Senate, Dr. Shah will be leaving his position as Director of Agricultural Development Programs at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where he helped to create the foundation’s Global Development Program and the International Finance Facility for Immunization.  The 36-year old Detroit native joined the Gates Foundation in 2001.


Prior to his foundation work, he served as a health care policy advisor for Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign, co-founded Health Systems Analytics and Project IMPACT for South Asian Americans, and worked at the World Health Organization, among other positions.  He holds a medical degree and degree in health economics from the University of Pennsylvania, and is on the board of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa.  The Alliance is supported by the Gates and the Rockefeller Foundations.  Its plant breeding work is currently focused on conventional breeding methods.


Kevin Concannon Nominated as Food and Nutrition Under Secretary:  Also on Friday, April 17, the President and Secretary announced their intent to nominate Kevin Concannon as the next USDA Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services.  A native of Maine, Concannon has been director of health and human service agencies in Iowa, Maine, and Oregon — Director of Iowa’s Department of Human Services (DHS) from 2003 to 2008, Director of Maine’s DHS from 1995 to 2003, Director of Oregon’s DHS from 1987 to 1995, and Commissioner of the Maine’s Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation from 1980 to 1987.  He has also served as President of the American Public Welfare Association and President of the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors.

NAIS Listening Tour Announced:  On Wednesday, April 15th, Secretary Vilsack announced the beginning of a listening tour to gather input and feedback that will help him make decisions about the future direction of the National Animal Identification System (NAIS).  Saying that “now is the time to have frank and open conversations about NAIS,” Vilsack encouraged all stakeholders to participate.  Once the details for the tour are finalized, they will be announced and posted on USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).  In the coming weeks, APHIS will also be publishing a notice in the Federal Register requesting input.



USDA Updates Research, Education and Economics Information System:  On Monday, April 13, Secretary Vilsack announced the updated version of USDA’s Research, Education and Economics Information System (REEIS).  REEIS offers a range of information on agricultural and forestry research projects from multiple USDA agencies.  The updated version includes easier accessibility to 40,000 new and completed research projects and over 1,000 planned programs, an updated Current Research Information System (CRIS) database, and new reports and charts that focus on formula grant rankings and project trends.  To access the updated site, click here.



Stimulus Bill Conservation Funding Moves to States:  On Thursday, April 16, Secretary Vilsack announced that the first $85 million in conservation funding from the stimulus bill will be sent to 20 state governments.  According to the USDA release, the funds “will be used to develop conservation measures such as planting vegetative cover and creating shallow water ponds to improve wildlife habitat, improving irrigation efficiency and conserving water, installing filter strips and soil erosion control practices, flood proofing homes and enhancing stream corridor and floodplain function, and constructing small flood control dams.”  A full list of the project can be found in the USDA press release.



ERS Updates Organic Production Data:  On Wednesday, April 15th, USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) released updated data on organic production. Data updated in April 2009 include the number of certified operations by State for 2000-2007.  ERS also provides tables on U.S. organic acreage and livestock numbers from 1992-2005, with data from 1997 and 2000-2005 presented by State and commodity.








EPA Sets Climate Action in Motion: On Friday, April 17, EPA released a proposed finding that greenhouse gases threaten public health, a move that could eventually trigger regulation of industrial emissions under the authority of the Clean Air Act.  The EPA finding was made in response to a 2007 Supreme Court case that ordered the agency to reconsider whether greenhouse gases are pollutants subject to Clean Air Act regulation.  The Bush Administration punted the issue to the Obama Administration.  The finding does not itself propose any regulation, and action will first turn to possible legislative action by Congress.  EPA will take public comment on the finding for 60 days after it is published in the Federal Register.



Ethanol Blends and Food Prices: EPA is seeking public comment on whether to allow a higher level of ethanol to be blended into gasoline.  Growth Energy and more than 50 ethanol manufacturers petitioned the EPA last month to raise the maximum level of ethanol blended into gasoline from the current limit of 10 percent to as much as 15 percent.


EPA will accept input from the public on the ethanol blend issue for 30 days, and must make a decision on Growth Energy’s request by Dec. 1.



The current limit has been in place since 1978, but ethanol manufacturers say that level must be increased to accommodate rising ethanol production levels mandated by the Renewable Fuel Standard included in the federal Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007.  With a 10 percent blend rate, the Energy Department estimates that as early as 2013 the amount of ethanol required to be produced will exceed the amount the U.S. vehicle fleet could consume.  If the slowing economy continues to cut into gasoline demand, the so-called 10 percent “blend wall” could be reached a year earlier.  The EPA is currently working with the Energy Department to test how higher levels of ethanol would affect vehicle engines.



The higher blend rates are supported by big agricultural commodities companies, but opposed by auto makers, whose consumer warranties are typically tied to the current EPA standard.  Ethanol can absorb water separate from the gasoline in the station storage tanks, which could result in corrosion in the tanks or damage to cars that are not “flex fuel” capable.



Separately, Growth Energy, along with the American Farm Bureau Federation, National Farmers Union, and National Corn Growers Association, hosted a media call on Thursday, April 16, to applaud the recently released report from the Congressional Budget Office, “The Impact of Ethanol Use on Food Prices and Greenhouse-Gas Emissions.”  The report concluded that in 2007-2008 ethanol contributed only between 0.5 – 0.8 percent of the 5.1 percent increase in food prices.  Growth Energy has issued a challenge to the Grocery Manufacturers Association to lower food prices, which it claims have been raised in anticipation of a larger price impact of increased corn ethanol production.



EPA Will Mandate Endocrine Disruptor Tests Of Pesticides: The Environmental Protection Agency for the first time will require pesticide manufacturers to test 67 chemicals contained in their products to determine whether they disrupt the endocrine system, which regulates animals’ and humans’ growth, metabolism and reproduction.  Researchers have long raised concerns that chemicals released into the environment interfere with animals’ hormone systems.  Testing will begin this summer and will focus on whether these chemicals affect estrogen, androgen and thyroid systems.  The tests eventually will encompass all pesticide chemicals, and could lead to more intensive testing for some chemicals, and ultimately to bans on their use.



CropLife America, the pesticide industry association, anticipated the move, and had submitted to EPA a “Petition for a Scientifically Sound and Legally Valid Endocrine Disruptor Screening Program,” which requested further explanation and examination from the agency before mandating tests, but EPA rejected that petition.  CropLife President Jay Vroom said the petition highlighted the issue of using only validated test systems and minimizing duplicative testing, along with concerns regarding the unnecessary use of test animals and the impact on small businesses.







UCS Study Finds Biotech Doesn’t Boost Yields: On Tuesday, April 14, the Union of Concerned Scientists released a new study Failure to Yield showing that genetic engineering has not increased soybean crop yields and only marginally increased corn yields.  The study finds that most of the gains in yields over the last twenty years are attributable to traditional breeding and improvements in other agricultural practices.



USDA to Hold Farm to Fork Festival on Earth Day:  For any of you in Washington, DC, USDA will be having its first Farm to Fork Festival on the National Mall at the People’s Garden on Wednesday, April 22, from 10 AM – 2 PM.  Along with special guests Woodsy Owl, Sammy Soil, and Power Panther, there will be interactive demonstrations and information about soil, composting, organics, beekeeping, pollinators, and more.  The People’s Garden is located at 12th Street and Jefferson Dr., SW, right by the USDA Whitten Building.








The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition welcomes two new staff members to its Washington, D.C. office!



Kate Fitzgerald joins our team as the Senior Policy Analyst for Marketing, Food Systems, and Rural Development.  Kate brings a wealth of knowledge about community food systems and policy work from her days working in the Texas Department of Agriculture under Commissioner Jim Hightower where she helped to initiate TDA’s Food Assistance Programs.  Kate was also the founder of the Sustainable Food Center in Austin, Texas, and former president of the Community Food Security Coalition and Austin-Travis County Food Policy Council.  Her warmth, humor, and energy brighten the office!

We also welcome Ariane Lotti as the new Policy Associate for organic programs and organic and sustainable agriculture research.  Ariane’s time is shared between NSAC and NSAC-member the Organic Farming Research Foundation.  Many of you remember Ariane as the former all-star intern for the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition during the 2008 Farm Bill campaign.   We are delighted to have her back in the office after her stint as a farmer in Iowa last season.  Ariane has a Master’s degree from Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

Categories: General Interest

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