The following commentary does not necessarily reflect the views of AgWeb or Farm Journal Media. The opinions expressed below are the author's own.
The AgriTalk broadcast is done for today, but the conversation continues. AgriTalk host Mike Adams shares his thoughts and opinions on the news of the week and invites your feedback.
It seems like it has happened to all of us. We are in the checkout line at the grocery store and the person in front of us is paying with food stamps. We look in their shopping cart and question the quality and/or amount of their purchases. When this happens we tend to judge the whole program by our limited sample size. There’s no doubt, as with any system, that people abuse SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). Surprisingly USDA doesn’t tell recipients what products they can or cannot purchase. I find that interesting as more and more politicians seem to want to tell us what we shouldn’t drink(i.e. large sodas) or how much we should eat(i.e. school lunches). USDA says SNAP fraud is at a historically low level and trafficking(exchange of benefits for cash)is down to 1%. USDA is now working with states to try to lower those numbers even more. I’m sure they will never stop all fraud and abuse of the system but I’m glad they are trying. Congress is looking at possible reforms of the program but it remains to be seen if they will be passed as we have already seen the farm bill delayed to prevent any SNAP cuts. As more and more people truly need the assistance, I would hate to see them penalized for the misdeeds of a few so I’ll try to keep that in mind next time I’m looking at that cart in front of me at the grocery store.
Unthinkable for some and long overdue for others, it appears horse processing is about to resume in the U.S. for the first time since Congress ended it in 2007. Valley Meat Co. hopes to open a plant near Roswell, New Mexico by the end of April. Emotions and opinions on horse processing are strong and many as the debate rages on. Opponents can’t stand the idea of their beloved horses going to slaughter like cattle while supporters (including many horse owners) point to large numbers of abandoned and starving horses as proof of the need for processing as a humane end of life option. Even some who previously supported the end of processing now admit the unintended consequences of the ban. Sadly some who oppose the New Mexico plant, supposedly over concerns of treatment of the horses, have resorted to bomb and death threats at the plant site. Evidently they don’t believe in humane treatment for humans. Whether or not this plant opens remains to be seen. FSIS says it needs time to update its inspection process and the recent sequestration battle over meat inspectors may make it hard to add horse inspectors at this time. Still it seems the return to horse processing is more a question of when rather than if. The original ban, no matter how well intended by some, has failed to protect horses and in many cases made things worse. Resumption of processing doesn’t mandate anyone to send their horse to slaughter but it will provide a humane option that should not have been taken away in the first place.
The oil industry must really feel threatened by ethanol. So much so they are pulling out all the stops to keep E15 out of the market place. Even though E15 has been tested and approved by EPA, Big Oil and its allies have tried to convince people the fuel isn’t safe for engines. Now they seem to be trying to stop retailers from selling E15 by threatening to take away their franchises. Evidently the oil industry doesn’t want to let the market place work. There is no mandate for E15 use but keeping it out of the market would eliminate consumer choice and maintain a mandate to use the oil industry’s products. In other words, they want the market place to decide as long as they control the marketplace. Critics complained about ethanol subsidies until they were ended but were silent about the much larger subsidies received by the oil industry. Now they are after the Renewable Fuels Standard even though the oil industry uses more ethanol than they are required to under the RFS because they need the octane ethanol provides. Yes, last year’s drought put corn in tight supply but the ethanol industry reduced and in some cases stopped production. A surplus supply and ethanol credits (RINS) showed the flexibility provided by the industry and RFS. Even as the oil industry finds new sources of oil through technologies like fracking, they still seem threatened by ethanol. Of course more oil means more profits as they sell to the highest bidder so there’s no guarantee that oil stays in the U.S. Meanwhile the ethanol industry creates jobs and economic growth plus provides a less expensive product. No wonder the oil industry feels so threatened!
I guess it has come to this. It is now news when the Senate debates a budget on the floor for the first time in four years. Despite the fact that the law says they are supposed to have a budget passed each year, this chamber of Congress has chosen to ignore and defy the law repeatedly. It is another example of one set of rules for our politicians and another for the rest of us. Many officeholders run as candidates "of the people" who understand our issues and concerns. This is another example of the difference between reality and perception. From healthcare to retirement we have a different set of rules for those making the laws from the ones held to the laws. For all the negatives that go with holding public office (and there are several) there are also some very nice perks. Most of us don’t have jobs where we can give ourselves a raise and decide when we have to show up for work. We often hear how Congress can’t get an issue resolved (regardless of its importance) because of an upcoming break or election. Deadlines seem to have little meaning to our elected representatives even the ones they set for themselves. These are the same people who tell us we need to cut back while they preside over multi-trillion dollar deficits. Washington’s track record gives me no confidence that sending them more money will fix very many problems. While I don’t expect the police to show up at the Senate building and start arresting Senators for breaking the law, it shouldn’t be too much to expect them to obey the law. News is often defined as something out of the ordinary so sadly I guess a Senate passed budget would qualify as news.
The passage of continuing resolutions in both the House and Senate ends (for now) the concern over furloughing meat inspectors. It does not end the speculation that the Obama administration tried to use sequestration to get tax increases passed. Despite denials from administration officials, it is hard not to suspect a plan was in place to use the threat of sequestration for political purposes. In hindsight, the administration seemed to overplay its hand and was willing to play chicken (pardon the pun) with things like meat and poultry inspection. The plan seems to have been to paint the worst possible scenario and then trust Congress to pass the CR to avoid the predicted disaster. It seems trusting a dysfunctional Congress to save the day is a risky move but for now it worked. However the budget debate is far from over and we’ll no doubt be subjected to more of these political games by both parties. The furlough we need is on partisan politics but instead we have continuing dysfunction.
Despite the defeat of Proposition 37 in California that would have required labeling of food products with GMO ingredients, the debate is far from over. Hawaii and Washington are just a couple of states where the debate is heating up. Supporters of mandatory labeling, such as the Environmental Working Group, claim consumers want and deserve the information while opponents, such as the Biotechnology Industry Organization, claim there is no need or outcry for the labels. Personally, I’m not much of a label reader and I don’t see the need to call attention to something that has not been proven to have any negative health effect. Despite denials, I suspect this is more about trying to frighten people and get them to reject biotechnology in our food production. This issue is not going away and the question biotech supporters will have to answer is "if there is nothing to hide, then why oppose labeling"? It will take a lot of education to explain the benefits of biotechnology to consumers who may already be suspicious. Supporters of biotechnology have reason to be concerned the labels will be viewed as warnings. They have seen the negative reaction many people have to terms like genetically modified or genetically engineered. Easy to see why they fear the same thing would happen with labels.
Washington D.C. is a place I always enjoy visiting and always enjoy leaving. For all the wonderful sights and history to enjoy, the toxic political climate soon takes over and spoils the experience. However I recently enjoyed a breath of fresh air in a city of partisan hot air. I always look forward to my interviews with Collin Peterson, the ranking member of the House Agriculture committee because of his willingness to reach across the political aisle and work for the common good. My last conversation with him was both enjoyable and surprising even for him. Congressman Peterson was especially forthcoming as he told me he believed some in Washington were carrying out a "make it hurt" campaign with sequestration and that the administration was overplaying its hand trying to get higher taxes. He emphatically predicted that the House would not go for any higher taxes and that what was needed instead were cuts in spending. Of course he is not the only member of Congress saying that but he is one of the few Democrats taking that position. He went on to say that what is really needed is for House and Senate leaders to agree on a budget figure for agriculture and then let the ag committees craft a farm bill without the political games that stopped it last year. He also said that without major dairy reform he didn’t think a farm bill would pass (a task that may be harder now with a new CBO score). Peterson is a throwback to the days of Charlie Stenholm and the blue dog democrats and an era of bipartisanship that is hard to find today. It doesn’t make him a traitor to his party (i.e. he’s very critical of the House Republican budget proposal) but rather makes him a statesman willing to put principle before politics. I just wish more of his colleagues would do the same.
Sequestration has gone from an unlikely possibility to a probability and now to a reality. It also increasingly looks like it might be here to stay leaving everyone trying to figure out how to deal with it. No need to look to Washington D.C. for answers because none are coming. Our political leaders who came up with this concept now don’t seem to know what to do about it. Obviously we should never underestimate their ability to underperform their duties. So while the politicians point fingers of blame at each other, the rest of us are left to figure out how to deal with the mess. Some rightfully point out that the overall amount of cuts is not really that much compared to our overall spending. While that is true, it will certainly impact some areas more than others. Health care, aviation, meat inspection and research are just a few areas that will be hit hard which in turn will affect many others. These sectors don’t operate in a vacuum. Ironically these were areas creating jobs and economic growth helping us crawl out of a recession. No doubt cuts in spending are needed but what is lacking with sequestration is a well thought out plan of cuts that doesn’t hinder economic growth. Even more frightening is the situation created by those who predicted a doomsday scenario if sequestration occurred. Those same office holders now either have to admit they were wrong or make sure the pain they predicted comes true. If indeed sequestration is here to stay then we need bold, creative leadership to manage it with the least amount of harm. Unfortunately that kind of leadership is almost impossible to find these days and that is the cruelest cut of all.