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By Casey Wooten
The new year is shaping up to be a busy one for agriculture policy makers and stakeholders, with work on a new farm bill beginning, major rulemaking in the pipeline and an incoming administration that has pledged to roll back regulations across the board.
Agriculture Committee Chairmen Rep. Michael Conaway (R-Texas) and Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) both return for another round at the helm of their panels, and both say the upcoming five-year farm bill—the premier agriculture policy tool for the federal government--will be a top priority.
The overarching theme for the 2018 farm bill will be the stark difference in the farm economy today, compared to when the previous bill was crafted four years ago. Then, increasing demand for biofuels and several years of small harvests led to record prices for commodity crops like corn and soybeans.
Those days have ended, for now, and lawmakers should take note, Dale Moore, executive director of public policy at the American Farm Bureau Federation, told Bloomberg BNA.
“The ag economy is taking a beating, particularly relative to where we’ve been over the past decade-plus,” Moore said. “Farm prices are down in a number of the different commodities.”
Indeed, a Dec. 29 report from the Department of Agriculture projected that 2016 net farm income would fall for the third year in a row to an estimated $66.9 billion, a decline of 17.2 percent compared to the previous year.
Three years of record harvests in corn, soybean and wheat continue to put a downward pressure on prices, and farmers will continue to rely on export markets to shore up domestic prices and farm incomes, a Dec. 29 report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City said. About a third of U.S. farm revenues come from export sales.
That has led some economists such as Moore to say that lawmakers crafting the next farm bill will pay close attention to Title 1 in the 2014 farm bill, which dealt with price and income supports for farmers. Aid programs like Price Loss Coverage and Agriculture Risk Coverage, created by the 2014 bill, will get a thorough examination to see how they performed during the current downturn in crop prices.
Driven by low crop prices and the demands they have placed on farm aid, lawmakers probably will examine the farm bill’s crop insurance programs, which offer premium subsidies to farmers and subsidies to companies providing crop insurance. But don’t expect major changes to these programs like those in the 2014 bill, Dan Glickman, who was an agriculture secretary in the Clinton administration, told Bloomberg BNA.
“By and large, farmers are relatively happy with movement away from direct payments to a crop insurance system,” Glickman said. “I frankly don’t hear any desire for any revolution or radical changes to what I call ‘farmer programs.’ ”
Though the farm bill’s due date is late-2018, House and Senate agriculture committees will begin holding hearings this year. But first, lawmakers will head out across the country to hear from farmers and other stakeholders, such as food processors and biotech seed companies.
“We’re going to do a series of listening sessions around the country where we listen to producers,” Conaway told Bloomberg BNA in December.
Conaway said the meetings, set to begin early in the year, aren’t going to be field hearings, though they will be transcribed and become part of the official record.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, otherwise known as the food stamp program, played a part in slowing congressional passage of the 2014 farm bill, and could shape up to be controversial again.
The House Agriculture Committee released the results of a two-year study in early December on the SNAP program. Though the report said no “gutting” of the program was needed, it did call for clear program goals and more flexibility for states.
The SNAP program provides about $70 billion in food assistance per year to 43 million Americans. Nutrition programs made up about 79 percent of the 2014 farm bill’s $956 billion price tag over 10 years.
Successive farm bills have passed in part because the measures’ nutrition programs and farm safety net programs link the interests of urban and rural America, easing their way through Congress. Some fiscal conservatives have called for both portions to move through Congress separately, however.
The House passed the two provisions separately for the 2014 farm bill, with the SNAP portion containing large cuts to nutrition programs. But prospects for that arrangement passing in the Senate were low and a conference committee rejoined the two in the final version that passed Congress.
Conaway says the House SNAP study will be an “informed conversation starter” on a lot of the issues surrounding nutrition assistance and the farm bill, and he remains pragmatic as to whether SNAP funding should run separate to other farm bill provisions.
“I’m committed to getting them both renewed on time,” Conaway told Bloomberg BNA in December. “So, if it’s easier to do them together, then great. If it’s easier to do them separate, great. That’s just process, and you can’t really dictate process at this point.”
The 114th Congress adjourned with at least one major agriculture-related task unfinished: reauthorizing the five-year child nutrition bill, which sets policy for federal school lunch and breakfast programs.
The current version, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, expired in September 2015. The Senate Agriculture Committee has jurisdiction of the Child Nutrition Act in that chamber, while in the House the Committee on Education and the Workforce is responsible for the bill.
Both the House and Senate panels approved reauthorization bills in 2016, but efforts to advance the legislation further have so far been stymied by disagreements over Obama-era nutrition rules and program costs. The House version of the bill, the Improving Child Nutrition and Education Act of 2016, included a controversial, three-state pilot program to block-grant school meal programs.
As the congressional term drew to a close, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) blamed partisanship for the bills failing.
“In the end, we were not able to reach a bipartisan, bicameral compromise,” Roberts said in a December statement . “It is unfortunate that certain parochial interests and the desire for issues rather than solutions were put ahead of the well-being of vulnerable and at-risk populations and the need for reform.”
As President-elect Donald Trump takes office Jan. 20, he promises to bring sweeping changes in key policy areas affecting agriculture. But stakeholders are generally unable to predict just which policies the new administration will take up and which Trump will leave behind as campaign rhetoric.
Trump spent much of his campaign lambasting multilateral trade deals such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and the embattled Trans-Pacific Partnership proposal, though many agriculture groups see those as beneficial to farm exports. Stakeholders will be watching to see whether the new administration decides to move toward narrower, bilateral trade agreements.
Also up in the air is the Trump administration’s position on trade with Cuba. The Obama administration issued a series of orders easing trade and travel restrictions with the former Cold War adversary. A broad trade embargo with Cuba remains, though some agricultural trade does take place, albeit under strict financing rules. Lawmakers introduced legislation, the Cuba Agricultural Exports Act, to ease those restrictions in the 114th Congress but the measures didn’t make it out of the Capitol.
Trump has pledged to renegotiate the U.S.-Cuba détente, promising to either get “a better deal” for the U.S. or end the easing of the restrictions, Trump said in a Nov. 28, 2016 tweet.
Trump has also promised major changes to U.S. immigration law, including building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
From vegetable pickers to ranch hands, farms are under a chronic labor shortage, and about one quarter of the U.S. farm workforce, or 300,000 people, are undocumented immigrants. Changes to immigration policies like sanctuary cities, border enforcement and the H-2A temporary agricultural worker visa program could impact U.S. farm output and exports, according to a 2012 USDA study. Fruit, tree nuts, vegetables, nursery products, and other labor-intensive farming would be most affected, the report said.
Though as of press time Trump had yet to name an agriculture secretary, another top administration pick sheds light on how he may approach farm issues.
Scott Pruitt, Trump’s pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency, has been a frequent critic of Obama administration animal-welfare and environmental rules.
As Oklahoma’s Republican attorney general, Pruitt fought animal rights groups and helped author Question 777, a failed ballot initiative that would have required state courts to overturn certain agricultural or livestock regulations unless there was a compelling state interest.
In 2015, Pruitt sued the EPA over the controversial Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule, which expands the bodies of water that would fall under the agency’s jurisdiction. The rule has been a prime target of some agriculture groups who say it places an unfair burden on farmers and is regulatory overreach for the EPA.
“WOTUS is a top issue for us in terms of what we’d like to see rolled back,” the Farm Bureau’s Moore said.
The USDA has a two major rules that could be advanced or completed in the coming months by the Office of Management and Budget.
First up are organic animal welfare rules, expected to be finalized soon, which would establish additional rules for organic livestock and poultry production. The rules would add provisions to USDA organic regulations clarifying standards for poultry living conditions, such as required access to outdoor areas, housing structure rules and population density limits. The rules would also set standards for animal care and slaughter.
Some farm groups have opposed the new requirements, saying that they would require farmers to make costly retrofits to existing structures.
OMB has also had the Agriculture Department’s proposed organic aquaculture standards since the fall of 2015. Those rules would create standards for operating and certifying organic fish farms and add aquatic animals to the scope of the National Organic Program.
Neither set of rules has legally mandated deadlines and with the Trump administration taking office the timeline for both—but particularly the organic livestock regulations—is in question.
One of the major rules still in the works by USDA are regulations mandating that companies label foods made with genetically modified organisms (GMO).
Congress passed and the president signed legislation requiring labeling in July 2016. The measure gives the USDA two years to craft rules implementing the law. Food makers would have three options to disclose GMO ingredients: the use of on-package text, a USDA-created symbol, or an internet link—a QR code—printed on the package that directs customers to GMO information.
Even before Congress passed the law, the USDA had already created a working group to set up the rulemaking process. As late as September, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said stakeholders could see more developments by the end of the year, perhaps even an advance notice of proposed rulemaking. Those developments did not occur, however.
“That signals that this is a really tough nut to crack and I think it is, this isn’t surprising,” Jason Sapsin, a Colorado-based attorney at the law firm Faegre Baker Daniels LLP, told Bloomberg BNA.
Sapsin added that the administrative challenge of a presidential transition could mean that some long-term projects, like the GMO labeling rules, could get placed on the back burner.
Even though the deadline for final food labeling rules is well into 2018, Sapsin said that key developments should happen this year, particularly the completion of a study examining the effectiveness of QR codes in conveying GMO information, mandated by the legislation.
“This is a big deal and it was a major point of contention among the parties involved in GMO labeling policy and legal developments,” Sapsin, a former associate chief council to the Food and Drug Administration, said.
Expected to be finished by the middle of the year, the report will probably influence the USDA as it begins crafting labeling rules.
“It goes not just to USDA for fulfilling the requirements of the law, but it’s going to be seen I think through this lens of the battle, the competing views and vision of what GMO labeling should look like,” Sapsin said.
If the study reveals few barriers to implementing electronic labeling, that would probably please major food makers, Sapsin said. Conversely, if the study finds customers have difficulty accessing GMO information using QR codes, labeling advocates may view that as a victory, he said.
There will be political ramifications to the study, he said. And as President-elect Donald Trump takes office and builds his Cabinet, his policies may influence how the USDA writes GMO labeling standards. Trump campaigned on a platform of reducing regulations throughout the federal government, and that policy position may extend to these rules.
“That could suggest that they will strongly favor electronic labeling for GMOs,” Sapsin said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Casey Wooten in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at pHendrie@bna.com
Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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