NSAC's Blog


Weekly Update, January 23, 2009

January 24, 2009


THIS WEEK

NSAC Urges Vilsack to Rescind Misleading “Naturally Raised” Meat Claim: As we reported last week, the Bush Administration went final on a new “naturally raised” meat marketing label claim on its final day in office. The new rule appeared in the Federal Register this Wednesday, the first full day of the Obama Administration. There was a catch, however. While the rule was a final rule, it was not effective immediately due to missing Paperwork Reduction Act information. NSAC immediately issued a press release calling on the new Administration to rescind the rule rather than allowing it to become effective once the Paperwork Reduction Act information is finalized. The press release is on our website.

Stimulated Yet? The House this week marked up the $825 billion economic stimulus bill, with the Appropriations Committee conducting its work on Wednesday, and Ways and Means and Energy and Commerce following on Thursday and Friday. Last week’s Weekly Update provided a full list of provisions and their respective costs, including the details of the rural development portion of the bill.

Very few changes were made to the appropriations portion of the bill. No amendments were made to add funding to make up the huge shortfall in the WIC feeding program, as sustainable agriculture advocates have been calling for. Agriculture Appropriations Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) did successfully amend the bill to add $150 million to help re-stock food bank shelves. She did not, however, try to add money for WIC.

Action now turns to the Senate, where the draft bill for the Finance Committee was issued today, but as of this writing, the draft bill for the Appropriations portion of the bill is still under development or at least under wraps. We continue to hold out hope that three issues ignored in the massive House bill – funding for the WIC shortfall, stimulus funding for the Value-Added Producers Program and Rural Microentpreneur Assistance Program, and emergency funding for Farm Service Agency direct and guaranteed loans – will be included in whole or in part in the Senate bill.

Some leading anti-hunger and school food groups are pressing the Senate to put major funding into school dinner programs (for aftercare programs) and they remain silent or nearly silent on WIC funding. From their internal strategic standpoint, they assume the shortfall for WIC will be made up in the regular FY 2009 agricultural appropriations bill and that if the offset for that extra money is cuts to farm bill programs for conservation, specialty crops, organic, beginning farmers, renewable energy and the like, that is our problem, not their problem. Broad progressive public interest alliances on food, farm, hunger, rural development, and conservation issues, once upon a time alive and well, appear to remain dormant.

Both House and Senate Democratic leaders continue to say they will get the bill finished and on the President’s desk before leaving town for the President’s Week recess in February. The same is true for the regular FY 2009 appropriations bills. So there is only a little time left to attempt to get our key concerns addressed.

* Please note, as we reported last week, the House bill does double the size of the Business and Industry loan program for the next two years, a move that would have the effect of doubling the size of guaranteed loan availability under the Local Food Enterprise Guaranteed Loan Program from $50 million to $100 million. If it stays in the package, this could be an important opportunity for rebuilding local and regional food system infrastructure, one that will need to be broadly publicized. Stay tuned!

Broadband Dust-up: At the House Energy and Commerce Committee markup this week, disagreement broke out over how economic stimulus funding for broadband access should be divided between unserved and underserved areas, with rural members generally favoring changes to have the bulk of the money go to unserved areas rather than the other way around. Republican amendments to focus funding on unserved areas were turned back, with Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) arguing in that half of the total broadband funding in the stimulus will be dealt with by the Agriculture Committee and all of that half will already go solely to rural areas. In the end, the $3 billion for broadband and wireless under Energy and Commerce control stayed split with 75 percent for underserved areas, including urban and suburban areas, and 25 percent for unserved areas.


Obama Administration Puts the Brakes on Some Midnight Regulations:
Upon President Obama’s inauguration on Tuesday, his chief-of-staff Rahm Emanuel issued a memo with a plan for reviewing and managing the flurry of last minute regulations issued by the Bush Administration. The memo directs federal agencies to:

  • cease submitting proposed or final regulations to the Federal Register;
  • withdraw from the Federal Register any proposed or final regulations that have not been published so that they can be reviewed by the agency head;
  • consider extending for 60 days the effective date of regulations that have been published in the Federal Register but have not yet taken effect in order to review the regulations for questions of law and policy; and
  • open a 30-day comment period for these regulations to take public comment on the law and policy issues.

The memo provides exceptions from this review for regulations for emergency situations or urgent circumstances relating to health, safety, environmental, financial or national security matters.

On Wednesday, the new OMB Director Peter Orszag issued a follow-up memo which
directs federal agencies to base a decision to postpone the effective date for rules not yet in effect based on whether:

  • the rule-making process was procedurally adequate;
  • the rule reflected proper consideration of all relevant facts;
  • the rule reflected due consideration of the agencyís statutory or other legal obligations;
  • the rule is based on a reasonable judgment about the legally relevant policy considerations;
  • the rulemaking process was open and transparent;
  • objections to the rule were adequately considered, including whether interested parties had fair opportunities to present contrary facts and arguments;
  • interested parties had the benefit of access to the facts, data, or other analysis on which the agency relied; and
  • the final rule found adequate support in the rulemaking record.


The memo also noted that under the Administrative Procedures Act, federal agencies may also postpone the effective date of an agency action pending judicial review where justice requires. This could potentially implicate a key NSAC concern with the midnight regulatory giveaway to the CAFO industry. Lawsuits have been filed against a number of midnight regulations which have taken effect, including the revised Clean Water Act CAFO regulations and an EPA regulation providing CAFOs with exemptions from selected air emission reporting requirements of federal hazardous substance laws.


We will keep a watchful eye on what other rules for programs on the NSAC agenda will be affected. Two are already known. The regulation for mandatory country-of-origin labeling will reviewed and possibly revised before taking effect. The rule as issued has two major loopholes – one to exempt slightly processed foods and one to allow a multiple-country label (see last week’s edition for more information).

In addition, the request for proposals for the Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative (CCPI), which did not quite make it to the Federal Register prior to the change in Administrations, has been temporarily pulled will be subject to review and revision by the Obama USDA. Our hope is the CCPI request will be quickly improved and then sped to the Federal Register for publication in its new and improved form.

Secretary Vilsack Sets up Shop: Tom Vilsack was confirmed by the Senate as the new Secretary of Agriculture on Tuesday and set up shop at USDA on Wednesday. Among the first orders of business was putting some key staffers in place, including:

  • John Norris, Chief of Staff – served as chief of staff for Governor Vilsack in Iowa; chairman of the Iowa Utilities Board; National Field Director for the Kerry-Edwards campaign in 2004; married to Jackie Norris who is Chief of Staff to First Lady Michelle Obama.

  • Carole Jett, Deputy Chief of Staff – recently retired from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, where she served as farm bill coordinator, and before that many other roles including State Conservationist; served as co-leader of the Obama Transition Team USDA Review Group

  • David Lazarus, Special Assistant – former farm and rural legislative aid to Senator Dick Durbin (D-IA) and a member of the Obama Transition Team USDA Review Group.


The new Secretary also named all of the interim acting leaders for USDA mission areas and agencies, many though not all of whom have already been serving as the acting heads for the past several weeks. Among the notables for NSAC issues, Dave White, who had just recently returned to NRCS headquarters after serving as Montana State Conservationist and also as Senate Agriculture Committee staff for the 2008 Farm Bill, has been named Acting Chief of NRCS. Kitty Smith, the Administrator of the Economic Research Service, and former researcher for the Henry Wallace Institute for Alternative Agriculture, is Acting Deputy Undersecretary for Research, Education and Economics.

New Members of Senate Agriculture Committee: Last week we listed all the new members of the House Agriculture Committee. This week we turn our attention to the Senate. As we have previously reported, there were two open seats on the Democratic side of the aisle in the Senate Agriculture Committee. We are still awaiting final confirmation, but it appears that the two most recent newcomers to the US Senate (and the youngest Senators) will fill those seats: Colorado Senator Michael Bennet, a 44-year old former Denver school chief appointed to fill the seat vacated by now Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, and Kirsten Gillibrand, a 42-year old Congresswoman from upstate New York who championed the Conservation Stewardship Program and Organic Conversion Assistance on the House Agriculture Committee, appointed to fill the seat vacated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. On the Republican side of the aisle, new Senator and former USDA Secretary Mike Johanns also has joined the Agriculture Committee.


USDA NEWS

Organic Research RFA Now Available: Last Friday, USDA’s Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service (CSREES) released the Request for Applications for the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI), USDA’s flagship competitive grants program specifically dedicated to organic research and extension. As a result of the almost five-fold funding increase secured in the 2008 Farm Bill, CSREES estimates that $17.3 million will be available to fund OREI projects in FY 2009. The deadline to submit proposals is March 9, 2009.

Conservation Program Rules: Please see last week’s Weekly Update for a complete listing of and links for all the farm bill conservation program interim final rules that were released in the last week of the outgoing Bush Administration. These included Regional Equity, Healthy Forests Reserve, Environmental Quality Incentives Program, Wetlands Reserve Program, Farmland Protection Program, Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program, Grasslands Reserve Program, and Technical Service Providers. The NSAC Conservation, Energy, and Environment Committee has begun the process of analyzing the rules and will be alerting readers to opportunities to improve the rules during the public comment periods in coming weeks.

Conservation Innovation Grants: Last Friday, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) issued a request for applications for FY 2009 national Conservation Innovation Grants (CIG). The program is a component of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. The full CIG program announcement, a checklist for the application, and other information are posted on the CIG website. Grant applications must be received at NRCS National Headquarters by 5 p.m. EST on March 2, 2009. To submit your application electronically, visit www.Grants.gov-Apply for Grants and follow the instructions.

Approximately $20 million will be awarded through a nationwide competitive grants process. The funding will be divided among four grant categories as follows: National Natural Resource Concerns Category – up to $5 million; National Technology Category – up to $6 million; National Grant Leveraging Category – up to $4 million; and Chesapeake Bay Watershed Category – up to $5 million. NRCS State Conservationists will be announcing request for applications for state CIG funding later this year. These state level announcements will also be posted on the CIG website. Check with your NRCS State Conservationist for more information on the state CIGs.

Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative: In addition to the targeted funding in the CIG program, on Thursday, NRCS announced the availability of $23 million in technical and financial conservation funding under the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative. The Initiative was newly established by the 2008 Farm Bill to provide conservation funds to farmers in the watershed in Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York and West Virginia. For FY2009, NRCS determined that the Initiative will be carried solely through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. Individual farmers apply for the Initiative through their local NRCS office.

NSAC Comments on Sodsaver Regulation: On Friday, NSAC submitted comments to USDA’s Federal Crop Insurance Corporation with recommendations to strengthen the protections of grasslands under the 2008 Farm Bill’s sodsaver provision. The comments are on the NSAC website. The comments include recommendations for strengthening the Sodsaver program and also urge USDA to adopt additional changes as part of the final rule that would reduce or eliminate taxpayer subsidies that encourage landowners to destroy native prairie and other important grasslands, regardless of location. One key administrative action would be to amend the ìadded landî provision of crops insurance rules to require land without production crop history prior to 2009 that is subsequently planted to a crop to establish a full four to ten year actual production history prior to becoming eligible for insurance.


EPA NEWS

Lawsuits Challenge EPA Midnight Regulation on CAFO Hazardous Air Emissions Reporting: Last week we reported that the environmental law firm Earthjustice has filed a lawsuit on behalf of numerous environmental groups challenging the EPA midnight regulation which exempts hazardous air emissions from on-farm animal waste from important reporting requirements of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation & Liability Act (CERCLA) and the Emergency Planning Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA). The air emissions of most concern from CAFO animal waste are ammonia and hydrogen sulfide. The regulation exempted reporting under CERCLA of all hazardous air emissions from on-farm animal waste and exempted reporting under EPCRA except for hazardous air emissions from animal waste on large-scale CAFOs.

On Monday, the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) filed a lawsuit challenging the regulation, not for its exemptions, but for the EPCRA reporting requirement that was not exempted by the regulation. The regulation requires large-scale CAFOs that release more than 100 pounds of ammonia or hydrogen sulfide in 24-hr period to call state and local emergency response authorities to inform them of the release and to provide a written estimate of the emissions. CAFOs may make a one time report of continuous release of these emissions. This information could be used by communities to estimate the overall impacts of large-scale CAFOs on air quality.

The exact legal grounds for the NPPC challenge have not been made public but news reports indicate that the NPPC may claim that the regulation violated CAFO operators’ due process rights by not providing adequate notice or opportunity to comply with the EPCRA reporting requirements. The large-scale CAFO sector has been seeking administrative exemptions from the CERCLA-EPCRA reporting requirements for years, so it should not be a surprise that reportable hazardous air emissions from CAFOs are covered by EPCRA. In addition, according to EPA information, CAFOs comprising more than 90% of the largest animal feeding operations in the United States are protected from EPA enforcement of EPCRA, CERCLA and Clean Air Act violations under a Voluntary Air Compliance Agreement that has been in place since 2005. This total includes 1,856 swine, 468 dairy, 204 egg-laying, and 40 broiler CAFOs.


DULY NOTED

Chance to Comment on Proposed Sustainability Index for Specialty Crops: Last week we reported on numerous sustainability-related projects, including the Leonardo Academy’s sustainable label project, the Keystone Center’s sustainable agriculture indicators project, agribusiness’ sustainable agriculture conference in DC in March, and a Walmart-funded agile agriculture conference in June in Arkansas. We inadvertently left one out. A group of 30 environmental and farm groups and food businesses, led by the Natural Resources Defense Council, is underway with a project to form a Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops. The project will develop indicators for measuring sustainable performance through the supply chain, from farm through retail. Farmers and the general public are invited to comment on the initial list of measures that might be included in the index. Comments will be accepted through February 1, 2009 and may be submitted online.


Categories: General Interest


One response to “Weekly Update, January 23, 2009”

  1. A way to track the additional labor involved in sustainable techniques is important to realizing if sustainability is sustainable. The costs of increased labor on the farm need to be tracked, such as increased liability insurance, increased workman’s compensation.

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