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.
The recent discovery of bio tech wheat in Oregon has raised concerns both here and with some of our global customers. Opponents of GMO's continue to question the safety and testing of these products. They claim there hasn't been enough testing done and what has been done is tainted by influence of bio tech companies. Although these products have now been used and tested for several years we are still in the early stages of this technological evolution. Skepticism and criticism aren't unusual during a period of change such as this but there is a major difference this time. In the past independent research, often done on college campuses, helped answer questions and concerns. Now that research and those researchers face a credibility crisis. Funding is needed to do the research and university budgets, already tight, no longer provide researchers the luxury of working without new revenue sources. Often that funding now comes from the companies making the products being tested. A researcher now has to be a fund raiser at the risk of losing credibility. In today's society people often tend to believe the negative so they assume a researcher will not reach a conclusion that jeopardizes future funding. While I have no doubt that sometimes happens, I still believe that if there is a major health risk in these products it will be found and reported. I just don't believe all these researchers are on the take. However people on both sides have become so entrenched in their positions they won't listen to any evidence they don't agree with. Issues such as crop segregation and seed ownership still need to be addressed so we can move forward. Feeding a growing population will be hard enough even with this technology and maybe impossible without it.
I live in West Central Illinois, a place that like most of the country experienced a devastating drought last year. What a difference a year makes! Last year we couldn’t get a rain and this year we can’t miss one it seems. A year ago a 30% chance of rain meant very little. This year a 30% chance mean a half inch or more. Most farmers I’ve talked to during this saturated spring were surprisingly calm. Perhaps knowing that no one else was in the fields helped. I guess misery does love company. Maybe the memories of last year’s drought were still fresh in their minds so moisture couldn’t be thought of as a negative. However we now have too much of a good thing. While a lot of acres in my area are still not planted (especially beans) fortunately a recent break in the rain allowed the majority of corn planting to be completed. That brief moment of relief however has now given way to more concern over steady and sometimes heavy rains. Good looking stands of emerged corn are now underwater and streams are cutting through fields doing even more damage. Tiling projects in recent years are certainly helping but ditches are full and it’s hard to find anywhere for the water to go. The forecast in my area calls for more rain the rest of the week so there will be no drying out anytime soon. As the calendar is about to turn to June, patience is quickly turning to frustration. Some big decisions are looming. Not to mention a hay crop that needs attention too. Meanwhile in Washington the farm bill debate continues with some suggesting farmers no longer need assistance. Really? Those people should spend some time standing in Midwest mud or Western dust to help them see things more clearly.
USDA's response to a WTO complaint to our Country of Origin Labeling program is getting a cool reception on both sides of the border. The change modifies the labeling provisions for muscle cut covered commodities to require the origin destinations to include information about where each of the production steps occurred and removes the allowance for commingling of muscle cuts. NCBA fears retaliatory tariffs and loss of markets. Canada says the changes make COOL worse rather than better. I understand and respect the opinion of those who believe consumers have the right to know what country their meat comes from. However the right to know seems to be outweighed by the want to know. While some consumers feel strongly about buying American and try to do so, it doesn't seem the majority is willing to put their money where their mouths are. I think most consumers assume that as long as the meat in their store's meat case is USDA inspected it is safe and price has more influence on their purchase than origin. So far COOL hasn't seemed to increase U.S.beef sales so why risk losing important export markets? I know many still question following WTO rules but as long as we are part of that group and enjoy the benefits that go with it, then we can't expect others to abide by rules we ignore. COOL seems to offer more downside risk than upside potential.
Well here we go again. The Senate and House ag committees have passed their versions of the next farm bill. Sound familiar? While both are significant accomplishments, as we saw last year, this is the easiest part of the farm bill process. While the Senate will probably pass its bill rather quickly, expect a real battle on the House floor. Of course just having that battle is progress over last year. Chairman Lucas and ranking member Peterson face quite a challenge to keep their bill intact as amendments will be coming from all directions. Perhaps the biggest challenge, both on the House floor and in conference committee, will be over cuts in nutrition spending. The Senate ag committee proposes 4 billion in cuts while the House ag committee proposes 20 billion. That's quite a difference. Some want even bigger cuts while others want no cuts at all. For all the debate over dairy reform, crop insurance and target prices, nutrition programs will once again take center stage. Many in agriculture still feel nutrition programs are needed to get a farm bill passed but last year they helped prevent passage. Hopefully this time will be different.
You've probably seen the ads on TV asking you to send money to the Humane Society of the United States. Supposedly that money helps save and protect abused animals but that depends on your point of view. In Tennessee HSUS helped defeat a bill that would require reporting of animal abuse within 48 hours. If you really care about the welfare of animals wouldn't you want to stop abuse as quickly as possible? HSUS is holding up the opening of a horse processing plant in New Mexico with the threat of lawsuits. Meanwhile the number of abandoned and starving horses increases. In New Jersey HSUS is pushing a bill to keep pork producers from using production systems proven to protect sows. The list goes on and on. Those monthly donations seem to be helping save and protect jobs and salaries more than they are animals. HSUS wants people to believe they know what's best for animals but they sure have a strange way of showing it.
It's often been said that people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. The American Meat Institute hopes their " Glass Walls Project" will keep some people from throwing so many stones at them. AMI has released a video tour of a pork slaughter plant hosted by animal welfare expert Temple Grandin. There seems to be a lot of interest about what goes on in a packing plant. Along with a similar video released last year of a beef plant, thousands have already had a look inside the industry. Also used as a classroom teaching tool, these videos are another example of agriculture trying to educate consumers and respond to attacks by activist groups. One of agriculture's biggest challenges is negative public reaction to even the best practices but it's a chance worth taking. Activists, sometimes aided by some bad actors, have created an image of abuse in people's minds. Hopefully these videos will help take away the mystery and misperceptions that exist. Of course some people make a lot of money by throwing stones and these videos won't stop them but maybe this project will slow the avalanche. Check them out at www.AnimalHandling.org.
If the rest of Congress could work together as well as Frank Lucas and Collin Peterson do we might see a lot more accomplished in Washington D.C. As the House ag committee gets ready to take up the farm bill next week, the committee's chairman and ranking member seem on the same page and optimistic about the outcome. Both agree on reducing spending by about 38 billion dollars and feel the bill they get out of committee will get floor time. That of course would be an accomplishment in itself. Despite their shared optimism, both know there will be battles ahead. Cuts in nutrition spending, a deal breaker last year, will be a major hurdle again this year not only in the House but with the Senate as well. Other hurdles both from within as well as outside agriculture loom but the bipartisan leadership on the House ag committee is a refreshing approach missing from most political debates these days.
Insurance is once again in the news and I don’t mean Obamacare. The debate over federal crop insurance is heating up as Congress attempts to write a new farm bill. Criticism of crop insurance is certainly not new. Over the years several reforms have been implemented but opponents still aren’t satisfied. Last year’s drought and the money paid out have made the program a target of renewed attacks. No government program is perfect so no one should expect this one to be either. Differences of opinion on crop insurance exist even within the ag community itself. However lost in the debate (especially in the media coverage) is the fact that farmers pay a lot of money to be in the program. This is not a handout from the government as it is often portrayed. Farmers pay those premiums not knowing if they will need the coverage or not and before last year many had paid into the program for years without filing a claim. Yes, government support is a big part of the program and some say it’s too big a part. Others contend it is essential to the success of the program. Good arguments can be made by both sides. However, let’s make sure we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater and lose the key piece in the farm safety net. Some say it is hypocritical for farmers to want government to stay out of their business but want it to support crop insurance. That would be true perhaps if it was a straight handout but given the amount of farmer investment in the program it seems more like a business partnership. Government often proves to be a tricky partner for farmers but for the most part in this case it seems to be working. Given the current economic plight of the country and the makeup of an already dysfunctional Congress, I would hate to see us go back to the days of counting on the government for ad hoc disaster assistance. If it came down to a hurricane devastated city versus a drought stricken Midwest, I’m afraid agriculture would lose out. An investment in America’s farmers pays greater dividends than most people realize especially compared to the return on investment from many other government programs.
When Wichita mayor Carl Brewer recently said that his city was sophisticated and maybe not the rural, farming industry and things of that nature, he quickly found out just how sophisticated and responsive the agriculture community is. Sedgwick County Farm Bureau President Kent Winter wrote a response to the mayor’s comments that was printed in the Wichita Eagle newspaper. Winter correctly pointed out that by using a sophisticated array of technology, equipment and infrastructure, one U.S. farmer now feeds 155 people and American households spend far less for food than people in other countries. Winter also pointed out that a farmer’s work includes engineering, manufacturing and agronomics as well as dealing with hedges, futures and insurance considerations. That sounds pretty sophisticated to me. The mayor’s comments, whether he meant them to be or not, were more stereotypical than sophisticated. Mayor Brewer has since admitted to a poor choice of words and has publicly stated his respect for farmers and their contributions. While I suspect he realized the political damage his comments might have, I hope he also realized the greater public image damage these types of comments have. The challenge of educating consumers about how their food is produced is hard enough without comments like these from a public official of a rural community. Thankfully Kent Winter did not stay silent. His response is a good example for the rest of agriculture on how to show its sophistication.