New Senate Ag Committee Chair Has a Packed Agenda
As the Senate heads into the final months of 2009, the agenda is jam-packed. New Senate Ag Committee Chair Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) is not shying away from pursuing a host of issues. In a vote-interrupted interview just off the Senate floor, Lincoln laid out her views on
agriculture's role and her message to farmers.
Climate change: "Agriculture has a tremendous role to play on climate change. I have mentioned I don't support the House bill … it has chosen winners and losers, and I don't think that's our job. I think our job is to set principles and priorities.” She's not yet convinced about any cap-and-trade system. "I'm not completely sold that is something that is going to work. There's still a lot of questions.”
Lincoln plans to have more hearings on climate change so she can learn more about how it impacts livestock producers, specialty crop producers and consumers. "I think that's the real question—in these economic times, what are the consequences for consumers in terms of increased food prices?” she notes.
Dairy aid: Lincoln says that while the industry is in "dire straits,” she's not willing to reopen the farm bill. "I think it's important to use the tools that we have at hand; I think the Secretary [of Agriculture] has some and we have some,” she says.
Direct payments: Lincoln emphasizes that direct payments, which some may eye when attention in Washington returns to reducing the deficit, can sometimes be critical for farmers to function. "When you have difficult economic times or times when it is very difficult to obtain credit and capital … without those resources [direct payments], my farmers say they sometimes couldn't plant the crop.”
Message to non-Southern farmers: "I tell people, and members of the committee, that if you represent a farm state, farm communities, rural communities, if you represent children or producers, you will be at the top of the list of the Ag Committee,” she says. "My objective is to make sure that all members are at the table when we look at the issues and the challenges with the economy and the role that agriculture plays.”
Top News From Washington
Ag spending bill clears: After a brief holdup by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), the U.S. Senate approved and sent to President Barack Obama the $121 billion fiscal 2010 ag appropriations bill. Boxer was concerned USDA would target the $290 million in aid to smaller dairies, putting her state's larger operations at a disadvantage. Now the key is exactly how the payouts will take place, since USDA makes the final call.
Ethanol decisions: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) may need more time to make a decision on whether to allow up to 15% ethanol in the fuel supply. The deadline is Dec. 1, but EPA may want to first see Department of Energy testing of impacts on vehicles meeting Tier 2 emission standards, which isn't expected until next summer. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack thinks EPA will make its decision by Dec. 1 and predicts it will boost the blend level.
SURE program: USDA plans to start sign-up in November for the Supplemental Revenue Assistance Payments (SURE) program. Disaster payments to producers could possibly start in December.
A busy Justice Department: Monsanto Company confirmed that the Department of Justice (DOJ) is investigating whether the chemical and seed maker has engaged in anticompetitive behavior. In addition, DOJ and USDA are planning workshops in 2010 to discuss concentration in the ag industry and decide "what steps are required to be sure there is a level playing field,” Vilsack says. One area the DOJ didn't find a problem: the purchase of Pilgrim's Pride by JBS USA.
Missing in action: Food-safety interests continue to press the Obama administration to name an undersecretary for food safety at USDA. But antibiotech forces have howled in protest at former Monsanto official Mike Taylor's being named as an adviser to the Food and Drug Administration commissioner. Also yet to be filled: the position of counselor to the administrator for ag policy at EPA.
Not cool with COOL:
Canada and Mexico have asked for a World Trade Organization dispute settlement panel to see if U.S. mandatory country-of-origin labeling (COOL) law passes muster with world trade rules.