Fresh Farm Bill Already Making Its Mark

Agricultural policy discussions have started to shift since President Obama signed the bill in February.

US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack speaks during an announcement of proposed school wellness standards on February 25, 2014 in the East Room of the White House in Washington.
National Journal
Jerry Hagstrom
April 27, 2014, 8 a.m.

In the less than three months since Pres­id­ent Obama signed the farm bill, the pres­sure points in ag­ri­cul­tur­al policy mak­ing have shif­ted dra­mat­ic­ally.

April began with Ag­ri­cul­ture Sec­ret­ary Tom Vil­sack mak­ing an ap­pear­ance be­fore the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions in New York, the type of for­um where for dec­ades his pre­de­cessors have mainly been pummeled by ques­tions about U.S. farm sub­sidies and their im­pacts on glob­al trade. Only this year Vil­sack was asked mostly about food stamps, or­gan­ic and loc­al pro­duc­tion, bi­o­tech­no­logy, and cli­mate change.

The coun­cil mem­bers’ con­cerns could be dis­missed as the per­son­al ob­ses­sions of a wealthy elite, but as the month pro­gressed they seemed to fore­shad­ow an in­creas­ingly com­plic­ated ag­ri­cul­tur­al world, es­pe­cially for bi­o­tech­no­logy.

The be­gin­ning of the in­ter­view, con­duc­ted by Ro­ger Alt­man, an in­vest­ment banker who has served in Demo­crat­ic ad­min­is­tra­tions, pro­ceeded nor­mally as Vil­sack de­scribed the new farm bill, noted that farm ex­ports and in­come have been at re­cord levels dur­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, and said that it is im­port­ant to main­tain a safety net for farm­ers in or­der to main­tain “a food-se­cure na­tion.”

But in a sign that the lengthy farm-bill de­bate over food stamps — of­fi­cially the Sup­ple­ment­al Nu­tri­tion As­sist­ance Pro­gram, or SNAP — had pen­et­rated the top ranks of Amer­ic­an busi­ness, Alt­man asked Vil­sack if the high num­ber of Amer­ic­ans on food stamps and the poor job pro­spects for young Amer­ic­ans are sig­nals that Amer­ic­ans are liv­ing in A Tale of Two Cit­ies.

Vil­sack agreed this was the case, not­ing that he is proud that the per­cent­age of people who are eli­gible for food stamps and ac­tu­ally get them has ris­en to 80 per­cent un­der his ad­min­is­tra­tion. He ad­ded that he is “deeply con­cerned” about House Budget Com­mit­tee Chair­man Paul Ry­an’s pro­pos­al to turn food stamps in­to a lim­ited block grant for the states be­cause he is wor­ried that some state lead­ers might not want people to use it and would lim­it ac­cess.

When an audi­ence mem­ber asked Vil­sack how he handles op­pos­i­tion to bi­o­tech­no­logy in the states, the sec­ret­ary re­spon­ded that he has at­temp­ted to teach the vast ma­jor­ity of Amer­ic­ans who live away from farms about where their food comes from and “to cre­ate an at­mo­sphere where no single type of ag­ri­cul­ture is judged to be less ef­fect­ive or less be­ne­fi­cial or less im­port­ant than any oth­er type of ag­ri­cul­ture.”

That promp­ted Alt­man to re­mark: “I spent most of my ca­reer in fin­ance and I can as­sure you that most people in the fin­an­cial com­munity — at least here in New York — do know where their food comes from. They know it comes from Whole Foods.”

And that re­mark promp­ted an­oth­er audi­ence mem­ber to ask Vil­sack if he has thought about “bal­an­cing that in­cred­ible pro­ductiv­ity with some of these oth­er is­sues around food safety, an­im­al wel­fare, hor­mones in meat, all of the stuff that is ac­tu­ally co­rol­lary to this in­cred­ible pro­ductiv­ity.”

Vil­sack said that “our view at USDA is not to pick win­ners or losers,” but that he be­lieves the mar­ket will ad­dress “how strongly” people feel about these is­sues, in­clud­ing an­im­al wel­fare.

Vil­sack also noted that at his ur­ging Whole Foods has opened a store in in­ner-city De­troit and that food-stamp be­ne­fi­ciar­ies are pat­ron­iz­ing it as well as farm­ers’ mar­kets. “We shouldn’t be se­greg­at­ing the SNAP be­ne­fi­ciar­ies go­ing over here to the dis­count store,” he said.

As if on cue, the very next day Wal­mart proved Vil­sack’s faith in the mar­ket by an­noun­cing that it will carry pro­cessed or­gan­ic foods ran­ging from salsa and pasta sauce to quinoa and chick­en broth from Wild Oats, a com­pany that prom­ises to charge at least 25 per­cent less than oth­er or­gan­ic brands.

Wal­mart’s an­nounce­ment seems to in­dic­ate that the in­terest in or­gan­ics has trickled down from the elites to the masses. Harry Balzer, the chief food in­dustry ana­lyst for the NPD Group, a mar­ket ana­lys­is firm, told the Con­sumer Fed­er­a­tion of Amer­ica’s Na­tion­al Food Policy Con­fer­ence last week, “I have no doubt in my mind this coun­try wants cheap­er or­gan­ic food.” Con­sumers have been wor­ried about food ad­dit­ives since the 1980s, he ad­ded.

Balzer said on his firm’s web­site that he be­lieves so many con­sumers want la­beling for ge­net­ic modi­fic­a­tion that he be­lieves the in­dustry will have to ad­dress it at some point.

Also this month, Ver­mont has come close to fi­nal­iz­ing a law re­quir­ing la­beling of ge­net­ic­ally mod­i­fied foods, and China has re­jec­ted ship­ments of U.S. corn be­cause they con­tained a GMO vari­ety that China has not ap­proved.

At an Ex­port-Im­port Bank con­fer­ence Fri­day, Vil­sack said that if there is one thing he could change in­ter­na­tion­ally it would be for China and oth­er coun­tries to “syn­chron­ize” their bi­o­tech­no­logy reg­u­lat­ory pro­cesses with the United States.

All this suc­cess for or­gan­ics and loc­al pro­duc­tion must please Vil­sack on one level since he has also said that he views the pop­ular­ity of loc­al and or­gan­ic­ally pro­duced food as an op­por­tun­ity for smal­ler farm­ers. But this suc­cess may also bring ques­tions from Con­gress about wheth­er food-stamp be­ne­fi­ciar­ies should be spend­ing their money on more ex­pens­ive or­gan­ic and loc­ally pro­duced food, and it does noth­ing to ad­dress the grow­ing chal­lenges to the bi­o­tech­no­logy he has sup­por­ted since he was gov­ernor of Iowa.

Some days Vil­sack may yearn for the old days, when farm sub­sidies were the hard­est thing for an Ag­ri­cul­ture sec­ret­ary to de­fend.

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