NSAC's Blog

Weekly Update – January 16, 2009

January 17, 2009


House Releases Draft Stimulus Bill:  On Thursday, House Democratic leadership unveiled their 2-year, $825 billion draft economic recovery and reinvestment bill, consisting of:

$275 billion in tax cuts
$87 billion for temporary increase in Medicaid matching grants to states
$79 billion in state fiscal relief
$43 billion for increased unemployment benefits
$41 billion for local school districts
$39 billion for health care coverage for the unemployed
$32 billion to improve the electric grid
$31 billion for federal and public infrastructure
$30 billion for highway construction
$22 billion for energy efficiency retrofits and weatherization
$20 billion for healthcare information technology
$20 billion to increase food stamp benefits
$19 billion for flood control and environmental restoration projects
$16 billion for temporary increase in size of Pell grants
$10 billion for science facilities and instrumentation
$6 billion for rural broadband

The bill will be marked up on Wednesday in the House Ways and Means, Appropriations, and Energy and Commerce Committees.  A companion Senate bill is still being pulled together, and it appears likely the Senate bill will be larger in size and scope.  Congress hopes to finish the bill by the February President’s Week recess, though differences between the two bills may necessitate a House-Senate conference negotiation that exceeds that wish date.

For USDA rural development, the draft House bill includes about $100 million for grants and $2 billion for loans for economic development, $3.8 billion in water and sewer grants and loans, $1.2 billion for community facility loans and grants.  NRCS would handle an extra $350 million for flood prevention, including $175 million for purchase or restoration of floodplain easements.  USDA’s Agricultural Research Service would get $209 million for deferred maintenance work at its research labs.  The always-in-crisis Farm Service Agency computer and IT systems is slated for a $245 million boost.  The Forest Service would get $300 million for wildfire hazard reduction.  USDA headquarters also stands to receive $44 million for repairs and building security.  In addition to the $20 billion food stamp increase, the Food and Nutrition Service would also funnel $200 million for grants to states for senior feeding programs, $726 million for states to provide free dinners and snacks for afterschool programs, and $100 million to states for management costs related to the WIC program.

The $2 billion in loan funds for rural business are all slated for the traditionally underutilized Business and Industry guaranteed loan program, doubling its funding each of the next two years.  The 2008 Farm Bill directs that 5 percent of the B&I program support local and regional food system enterprises.  If the House provision becomes law, that local food system funding stream would increase from about $50 million to $100 million in loan guarantees a year, presenting a significant opportunity if local food businesses and coops are prepared to take out loans in  these challenging economic times. The rural business development provisions also include $13 million for Rural Business Enterprise Grants.

NSAC’s priorities for the stimulus bill fared very poorly in the draft House bill:

  • There is no funding for the nearly $1 billion shortfall in funding for the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) feeding program, which now puts added pressure on the Senate to provide for WIC in its version of the bill.  The WIC program will almost certainly be fully funded, but if the missing funding is not included in the stimulus bill, the nearly $1 billion shortfall will be added to the regular FY 2009 agriculture appropriations bill and, in the context of that bill, will require an offset in the form of cuts to other food and agriculture discretionary programs plus cuts to mandatory farm bill funding for conservation, renewable energy, specialty crops, organic and other programs.  In the context of a huge $825 billion bill, with a very substantial $21 billion food assistance component, it is shocking and extremely disappointing to see such a cavalier attitude with respect to WIC.  Our last best hope is that House leaders were betting on the Senate including the measure in its bill, allowing them to work out a compromise deal when the bill goes to House-Senate conference.
  • NSAC has also been pushing for small but significant funding increases for the Value-Added Producer Grants program and Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program as part of the package of rural business loans and grants, but the House bill provides no support for these important jobs initiatives.
  • NSAC has also pressed the case for emergency funding increases for direct and guaranteed farm ownership and operating loans in light of the credit crunch, but again was shut out on that score in the House bill.

Some hints emanating for Senate offices give us some cause for greater hope that a more balanced and inclusive proposal is emerging for the Senate companion bill.  We hope, therefore, to be able to share better news next week as the details of the Senate bill become public.

Smooth Sailing for Vilsack USDA Confirmation:  On Wednesday, the Senate Agriculture Committee held a two and a half hour confirmation hearing with USDA Secretary-nominee Tom Vilsack.  The session was efficient and without any major fireworks.  The former Iowa Governor had well scripted and thoughtful comments on the questions that were fired his way, though of course following the tried and true etiquette for confirmation hearings, did not provide any specific promises that could come back to haunt him later.  The Committee will likely confirm the nomination unanimously, with a Senate vote on the nomination Tuesday.  For the full rundown on the hearing, please read the blog post by NSAC’s Policy Director Ferd Hoefner.

EPA Confirmation Hearing:  Also on Wednesday, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held a hearing on President-elect Obama’s nominee for EPA Administrator, Lisa Jackson.  Jackson is the former Commissioner of New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection.

Many of the questions focused on climate change issues, particularly whether EPA would move to regulate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions under the Clean Air Act if Congress did not enact stand alone climate change legislation in the coming year.   Jackson left open the possibility of GHG regulation under the Clean Air Act.  Jackson noted that President-elect Obama is committed to cap-and-trade approaches to GHG control but she did not discount the possibility of a carbon tax as well.

Jackson was also questioned about the Bush administration’s burgeoning list of last minute “midnight regulations,” including among others a weak Clean Water Act CAFO regulation and a regulation giving CAFO air emissions an exemption from hazardous substance law reporting requirements.  In reply, Jackson stated that EPA would go back and evaluate rules on air and water quality and community right to know based on consideration of whether the rules are legal and based on science.

New Members on House Agriculture Committee:  The House Agriculture Committee roster for the 111th Congress has quite a large number of new members, including 11 freshmen Democrats, one Democrat who won a special election last year, 3 freshmen Republicans, and a Republican who won a special election in 2007.

Here is a quick look at the new Democrat members:

Kurt Schrader (OR-5) — a veterinarian, who also raises organic strawberries on the family’s historic farmstead, served in numerous Oregon political offices, most recently the Oregon State Senate.

Deborah Halvorson (IL-11) — served in the Illinois Senate since 1997.

Kathleen Dahlkemper (PA-3) — a clinical dietician, part-owner of the family landscape business, and co-founder of the Lake Erie Arboretum.

Eric Massa (NY-29) — a former naval officer and Republican who left the party in opposition to the Iraq war.

Bobby Bright (AL-2) — a lawyer who had served as Montgomery’s mayor since 1999; grew up on an Alabama cotton farm.

Betsy Markey (CO-4) — a business woman who has experience as a legislative assistant on the Hill and served as a Regional Director for Senator Ken Salazar for two years.

Frank Kratovil (MD-1) — a lawyer and for last six years the Maryland State Attorney for the Eastern Shore’s Queen Anne County.

Mark H. Schauer (MI-7) — a public administrator who directed the Community Action Agency in Battle Creek and served six years in the Michigan State Senate.

Larry Kissell (NC-8) — a production manager in the textile industry who became a high school teacher before running for Congress.

John Boccieri (OH-16) — a former Air Force officer who served in the Ohio Senate before running for Congress.

Travis Childers (MS-1) — a realtor and chancery clerk, he won a 2008 special election to Congress.

Walt Minnick (ID-1): — a lawyer, former forestry executive and nursery business owner who served in the Nixon administration.

The new Republican members include:

Robert Latta (OH-5) — a lawyer with a long political career in the Ohio Senate and House of Representatives who won a special election to become a congressional Representative.

Phil Roe (TN-1) — a medical doctor who served as Johnson City mayor before coming to Congress.

Blaine Luetkemeyer (MO-9) — a fourth generation farmer and small business owner who served in the Missouri House of Representatives.

Glenn W. Thompson (PA- 5) — a nursing home administrator who has held local political offices.


Misleading Naturally-Raised Meat Marketing Claim Standard Finalized: For a while it looked as if NSAC’s opposition to the proposed USDA naturally-raised meat marketing label claim, joined by consumer, animal welfare, organic and other groups, might have bottled up the Bush Administration long enough for the government to change hands next week.  Sadly, on Friday, USDA announced that the new standard was rushed to the Federal Register office and will become a final rule when it appears in the Federal Register next Wednesday, the first day of the new Administration.

The label, requested by agribusiness, could be used on meat and meat products verified to have been raised without growth promotants and antibiotics (except for ionophores used as coccidiostats for parasite control), and that have never been fed animal (mammalian, avian, or aquatic) by-products derived from the slaughter/harvest processes, including meat and fat, animal waste materials (e.g., manure and litter), and aquatic by-products (e.g., fishmeal and fish oil).

NSAC has vigorously opposed the label claim as deceptive and in violation of USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service own ruling that label claims should be discrete and specific and have a clear meaning.  Consumers believe, not surprisingly, that a naturally-raised label means much more than simply the absence of hormones, antibiotics and animal byproduct feed.  NSAC will now press for the naturally-raised label to be rescinded and will continue to advocate in favor of AMS moving to a final standards for no antibiotics, no added hormones, and free-range or pasture-raised labels.

USDA Issues Incredible Flurry of Conservation Program Rules:  In anticipation of the fast-approaching President Obama inauguration, USDA this week released a flurry of interim final rules (IFRs) to implement the 2008 Farm Bill’s Conservation Title, along with requests for public comments on the IFRs.  NSAC will be reviewing these rules with our member organizations next week and will subsequently release action ideas for public comment campaigns.  It is already clear that the EQIP rule in particular is quite deficient and needs major changes.

The rules released this week, with the due dates for comments, include:
Regional Equity (March 16, 2009);
Healthy Forests Reserves (February 13);
Environmental Quality Incentives Program (March 16);
Wetlands Reserve Program (March 16);
Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program (March 17);
Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (March 17); and
Technical Service Provider Assistance (March 17).

Next week, on Wednesday, the interim rule for the Grassland Reserve Program will be published, with public comment due March 23.

AWEP RPF Out:  In addition, USDA also released a request for proposals for the Agricultural Water Enhancement Program (AWEP) a new component of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) in the 2008 Farm Bill that takes the place of the old Ground and Surface Water Conservation Program.  Agricultural water enhancement activities which can be funded under AWEP include:

  • water quality or water conservation plan development;
  • water conservation restoration or enhancement projects, including conversion to the production of less water-intensive agricultural commodities or dry land farming;
  • water quality or quantity restoration or enhancement projects;
  • irrigation system improvement or irrigation efficiency enhancement;
  • activities designed to reduce drought’s impacts; and
  • other related activities that will help achieve water quality or water conservation benefits on agricultural land.

Under AWEP, NRCS contracts directly with agricultural producers who are included in approved partner proposals.  Eligible partners include federally- recognized tribes, states, units of local government, or agricultural or silvicultural associations.  Producers who apply for AWEP assistance must meet EQIP eligibility requirements.  All AWEP funding must go directly to producers.  Like EQIP, contract terms for producers under AWEP run from 1 year to 10 years.  NRCS has $58.4 million in FY2009 funding for AWEP.  Proposals for the funding must be submitted by March 2, 2009 to the local NRCS office.

RMAP Listening Session:  On Wednesday, USDA announced plans (scroll down to Januaru 14 under “Rural Development News” on the home page) for a public comment meeting the afternoon of January 26 in Washington, DC on the new Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program (RMAP).  RMAP was a priority for NSAC in the 2008 Farm Bill campaign.  It is slated to receive at least $4 million a year to support the start up of very small business in rural America.  The listening session will also deal with a separate initiative to increase rural employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities.  Written comments may also be submitted through February 10.  After the listening session, NSAC will issue talking points for written comment submissions to its member organizations.

COOL Final Rule Retains Labeling Loopholes:  On Thursday, USDA issued a final rule for mandatory country of origin labeling (COOL)  which retains big labeling loopholes included in the proposed rule.  The rule, which is scheduled to go into effect on March 16, 2009, covers muscle cuts and ground beef, lamb, chicken, goat and pork; wild and farm-raised fish and shellfish; perishable agricultural commodities, specifically fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables; macadamia nuts; pecans; ginseng; peanuts and honey.

But as noted by Food and Water Watch, USDA’s final rule includes a definition of minor processing which exempts from labeling requirements foods with added ingredients.  Over 60 percent of pork, the majority of frozen vegetables, an estimated 95 percent of peanuts, pecans and macadamia nuts, and multi-ingredient fresh produce items, such as fruit salads and salad mixes, are exempt from COOL labeling under that exemption.

In addition, the final rule retains a loophole allowing meatpackers to use a multiple country label or a NAFTA label if even one animal ineligible for a U.S. COOL label is processed on the same day together with animals eligible for the U.S. label.  The National Farmers Union issued a press release stating that NFU would ask Congress to act if USDA does not implement COOL properly.  R-CALF USDA also issued a press release detailing additional objections to the final rule.

Meanwhile, on Monday, Canada’s trade minister welcomed the new final rule, saying it satisfied Canada’s primary concerns with the earlier proposed rule and, as such, Canada would be dropping its WTO complaint against COOL, though it will continue to monitor implementation.

Another COOL development occurred a week ago, when USDA Secretary Ed Schafer announced he would divert $3 million in funding originally designated for the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program to pay for COOL enforcement efforts.  The move was roundly criticized by the produce industry, though appears to have been given the green light by congressional appropriators.

USDA Loan Guarantee for Cellulosic Ethanol Plant Announced:  On Friday, USDA announced the first ever federal loan guaranteed to a commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plan.  The $80 million loan guarantee is for Range Fuels to build a facility in Georgia to process wood chips into ethanol.  The funds come from the Biorefinery Assistance Program authorized in the Energy Title of the 2008 Farm Bill.
The plant is expected to eventually produce about 20 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol per year.

New USDA Sustainable Development Coordinator:  USDA Chief Economist Joe Glauber on Thursday made it official: Carol Kramer-LeBlanc is the new Director of Sustainable Development at the Department.  The Director is responsible for overseeing domestic and international sustainability efforts by USDA and for leading the inter-agency Sustainable Development Council.  The Council grew out of the NSAC-initiated USDA Sustainable Agriculture Working Group in the late 1990s.

Kramer-LeBlanc is an agricultural economist who has worked for Kansas State, Cornell, Resources for the Future, USDA’s Economic Research Service, Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, and Foreign Agriculture Service, the Agency for International Development, and the international affairs office of the Treasury Department.  She takes over for the first director, Adela Backiel, who retired last year.


Environmental Groups Sue EPA Over CAFO Exemption:  On Thursday, a coalition of environmental organizations sued the Environmental Protection Agency over a last minute final rule exempting Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) from a requirement to report air emissions from animal waste under federal right-to-know and superfund laws.  Earthjustice filed the petition for review in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.  The regulation is set to take effect next Tuesday, which is also the deadline for filing petitions to review.  The rule, issued in December, would allow CAFOs to ignore the legal requirement to report air emissions of ammonia and hydrogen sulfide to state and local emergency response committees.  Despite clear evidence of threats to human health from CAFO emissions, EPA’s position is that local emergency services would never respond to the air emissions reports anyway.


More Beef Hormone Scuffling:  Not content to ride into the sunset quietly, the Bush Administration’s Special Trade Representative on Thursday upped the ante of the U.S. retaliation to Europe’s long-standing ban on imports of U.S. hormone-treated beef.  Susan Schwab announced that the U.S. would change the list of EU products to which the US would place increased import duties, and would then continue to change the list of retaliation products every 6 months.  Details of the modifications to the import duty list, which will take effect on March 23, have been posted on USTR’s website.

EU officials reacted angrily, vowing to try to convince the Obama Administration to change course even while it prepares to argue its case against the new US action at the WTO.  So, on and on it goes, with the dispute now into its second decade and still the majority of the U.S. industry, rather than produce what the EU customer wants, continues to try to force feed them via endless trade wars.


ANSI Rules for Leonardo, Against USDA:  On Tuesday, the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) issued a ruling in favor of the Leonardo Academy and against USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service in a case stemming from an attempt by USDA, at the behest of farm and commodity groups, to remove ANSI approval for the Academy’s attempt to create a sustainable agriculture standard and consumer label.  ANSI heard the case on December 17.

Mainstream agriculture has criticized the project for going too far toward organic in its standards development, while much of the sustainable and organic agriculture community, including NSAC, has criticized the project as wrong-headed in its attempt to capture sustainability in a fixed standard and label rather than recognizing it for the dynamic goal that it is.

Since the original pleading was submitted by USDA, the Standards Committee started meeting and quickly voted to scrap the original draft standard and start again, perhaps easing some concerns from conventional agriculture in the process.  The Committee members also divided into six task forces, including one whose aim is to reconsider the goals and objectives of the project and another to raise money to broaden stakeholder involvement.  The task forces will report to the full committee at a meeting this coming May.

First Keystone Sustainable Agriculture Report Released:  On Monday at the American Farm Bureau Federation’s annual meeting, the Keystone Center’s Keystone Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture released its first report detailing environmental resource indicators to measure sustainability in corn, soybean, cotton and wheat production in the US.  The alliance is led by the Keystone Center and is comprised of AFBF, commodity groups, agribusiness corporations and trade associations, plus The Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, and Conservation International.

In a nutshell, the report indicates that US conventional agriculture’s commodity production has become more efficient in its use of resources over the past two decades, though some of the improvement trends have hit a plateau in recent years.  The project will now try to further develop and improve sustainability metrics and describe practices that might promote further improvements throughout the food chain.  A “next-generation” farm practices and technologies report on water quality and biodiversity is due out later this year.  As part of the overall project, the Keystone Center is also attempting to develop a natural resource calculator tool that will provide growers with comparative benchmarks for reducing soil loss and improving water and energy efficiency.

Agricultural Revolution in the Making? On March 18-20 at a location outside of Washington DC, the Keystone Center, Sustainable Food Lab, and Sustainable Agriculture Initiative Platform will co-sponsor a food industry conference entitled “Growing a 21st Century Agricultural Revolution.”  The event, which includes sponsors such as Coca-Cola, Kraft, Monsanto, and Sysco, was planned to coincide with the start of a new U.S. Administration.  For more information, go to http://www.agrevolution.org/.

Walmart Funds “Agile Agriculture” Summit:  The Applied Sustainability Center at the Sam Walton School of Business at the University of Arkansas is planning a summit with support from Walmart and other food-related leading companies for June 30 and July 1 in Fayetteville, AR.  The purpose is to discuss and plan projects to increase the supply of locally grown food for big retail, food service, and institutional markets.

Categories: General Interest

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