No fast track for 2018 Farm Bill

Ray Mueller, Correspondent

Orlando, FL — Don't expect any quick action on a Farm Bill that's due in 2018. That's the view of federal agricultural policy analysts who were panelists on a “Food Policy and Farm Bill” program at the 2017 Dairy Forum sponsored by the International Dairy Foods Association.

Approving a new Farm Bill in 2017 would be “a heavy lift” and even doing so in 2018 could be “a long shot,” according to Krysta Harden, who was chief of staff for Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack during the Barack Obama administration.

That players with many different interests and preferences would like to have a role in creating the next Farm Bill was pointed out by panelists Randy Russell of the Russell Group and by Dale Moore, an agriculture and food policy director for the American Farm Bureau Federation.

Agricultural allocations

Harden, who now works for the DuPont company, pointed out that the upcoming Farm Bill will be the 8th one during her tenure in Washington, D.C. She said that the budget will be a starting point for fashioning the new bill.

Within the current budget parameters, Russell cited a commitment of $5.3 billion over five years to the peanut industry compared to $775 million over 10 years for the dairy sector. He added that the allocations for both sunflowers and canola are about equal to those for dairy. Harden noted that cotton growers are not happy with their treatment in the current Farm Bill.

In addition to the conflicting interests of the agricultural sector commodity groups, there are also strong differences within the Congressional bodies, Moore observed. He noted that 60 votes will probably be needed in the Senate to approve a new Farm Bill.

Russell, who was the chief for staff for the Secretary of Agriculture during the Ronald Reagan administration, pointed out that some 30 very conservative members of the House of Representatives are strongly opposed to current levels of spending. He noted that only 34 members of the House represent a district in which at least 50 percent of the population is rural.

Farm Bill constituencies

Passing a Farm Bill will require bi-partisan support in Congress, Harden stressed. She pointed to agriculture committee ranking members Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan) and Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minnesota) as being important for making that happen.

Numerous consumer groups with a variety of interests and concerns also want to be heard and to exert an influence, Harden continued. She wondered if some of them don't realize that one of the purposes of a Farm Bill is to provide a safety net for farmers.

Whether the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), which accounts for a major part of Farm Bill spending, should be included in the Farm Bill or stand alone has been questioned in the past and will probably continue to be, Russell observed. Because of very diverse political opinions, he suggested that it would be impossible to pass a Farm Bill without including SNAP.

Centers of power

When it's time for a new Farm Bill, a lot of “self-appointed secretaries of agriculture” appear, Moore remarked. In the Trump administration, it seems likely that power will be shifted to the White House, particularly on trade policies, Russell indicated.

Russell predicted that, based on his background, nominee Sonny Perdue would be “an outstanding Agriculture Secretary.” Harden, a Georgia native who grew up along “a dirt road,” also gave him an endorsement.

But other players will also have an effect on the agriculture sector, Russell stated. He cited the role of a yet unnamed commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration on food safety, biotechnology, and food labeling and what actions designated Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt would take on water regulations and the sources for producing electric power.

Trade policy concerns

The panelists were bothered by the changes that the Trump administration is proposing on trade policy. They emphasized that agriculture needs to be heard and to “have a seat at the table” when any changes are made.

For dairy sector trade, which accounts for about 16 percent of the nation's milk production and is worth about $5 billion per year, Russell pointed out that Mexico, Canada, and China rank 1st, 3rd, and 4th as importers of dairy products from the United States. All three, which Harden described as “a very important set of markets,” have been identified by the Trump administration as candidates for major changes in trade policy.

Regarding the potential discarding of major existing or proposed trade agreements, Moore told himself to “take a breath on this” but acknowledged being “frustrated” at the moment. Russell added that the Trump administration appears intent on taking a very different path in favor of bi-lateral rather than regional agreements and on enforcement of trade policies.

Immigration outlook

Moore questioned the Trump administration's announced intention, which must be funded by Congress, to employ 10,000 extra agents who would focus on deporting immigrants. He warned that this would have dire effects on the dairy, fruit, and vegetable sectors.

Dealing with a situation that involves reform, security, and legal status will be very complex, especially as it involves people who have working in the United States for many years, Moore remarked. Why not build a platform to serve those people rather than pursuing enforcement that would lead to their deportation, he asked.

Food waste concerns

The extent of food waste, which is running at between 30 and 40 percent, was addressed during the question and answer session at the panel program. Harden said most of the waste occurs at harvest in developing countries while much of it tends to happen after consumer purchase in the United States and other countries. She suggested that consumer groups might to be able to find common ground about food waste even if they disagree on other points.

Russell observed that the “sell by” dating on containers causes a lot of confusion and needless waste. He said that reasons for that dating differ and are not widely understood, leading in part to an annual $162 billion food waste in the United States alone. He was pleased to learn that the topic was addressed during the first hearing on a new Farm Bill by the House agriculture committee.

GMO labeling

To a question about labeling for the presence of genetically modified organism (GMO) ingredients, Russell commended Congress for the legislation it approved in 2016 to prevent the development of “a hodgepodge” of labeling in favor of letting the marketplace decide the question.

Russell cited the “power of coalitions” in opposing a bill based on the model that was set to go into effect in Vermont. He pointed out that the Vermont legislation included exemptions for dairy, maple syrup, and some meats and would have set the stage for similar practices had state by state labeling legislation taken root in a national economy.