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5 Ag and Food Issues From Washington

So what’s your hired help up to in Washington, D.C.? Here are some odds and ends garnered from Obama administration and Congressional leaders who spoke to members of the North American Agricultural Journalists, which recently held its annual meeting in Washington, D.C. 

1. More flexibility, but no retreat on federal school lunch nutritional standards. First Lady Michelle Obama has taken a lot of heat for her efforts to revise federal school lunches to make them more nutritious. The result has been lots of complaints by school kids and food waste.

If your kids are still complaining about school lunches, though, Obama Administration officials say they are listening. 

“USDA has responded with flexibility,” says Deb Eschmeyer, White House senior policy adviser for nutrition policy.  

Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) believes more flexibility is needed. He’s visited seven schools in Kansas for lunch, with his goal being to eventually visit 10. “The regulations and paperwork are just too much,” he says.

Behind all the complaints coming from kids, Congress, and businesses supplying the food, though, is this unsettling fact: One in three U.S. children in 2012 were overweight and obese. That’s the reason for the more stringent nutritional requirements, say backers of the revised school lunch standards. 

“This really is a national security issue in terms of the health of our children,” says Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan). Stabenow notes Mission: Readiness, which has 450 retired officers in its executive adviser council, has found over 70% of U.S. youth between 18 and 24 would not be fit to serve in the military. Most of that is due to weight issues. 

2. No reopening of the Farm Bill. If recently plunging grain prices are making you antsy, don’t expect any more help than you’ll already be getting from the 2014 Farm Bill. 

“There are things I would like to change, but we were darned lucky we got it done in the first place,” says Rep. Collin Peterson (DFL-Minnesota.)  “The last thing we would want is to open it up because we wouldn’t get it put back together again.”

3. Battling with federal agencies. So what else is new? Peterson is concerned about EPA’s proposed wetland rule in the Waters of the United States definition under the Clean Water Act. 

“We have a fundamental problem dealing with wetlands where four agencies decide what a wetland is,” says Peterson. “From 1985 (and on), we still have not been able to settle this on farms in my district. If the EPA rule goes through, it will muddy up the situation, and it will never get resolved. Like a lot of these environmental things, it does more harm than good.”

4. More wetlands headaches. Last month, the Environmental Working Group authored a report terming prevented-planting insurance as a “boondoggle” that wastes billions of dollars in the prairie pothole region of North Dakota and South Dakota. 

“There have been some abuses in prevented planting, and the RMA (Risk Management Agency) has responded to it,” says Peterson. “But the EWG, in my opinion, doesn’t have any credibility. So whatever they say, I just ignore. 

“It becomes a question, do people want folks to farm in areas like North Dakota and South Dakota and western Texas?” he continues. “If they don’t, just keep this up. The only people who would be able to farm (without federal crop insurance) would be people with deep pockets or those with tiny little farms.”

5. Split on TPP

Peterson has not taken a position on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a proposed trade agreement between the United States and 11 other nations.  He’s skeptical of its merits, though.

“I opposed NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement),” he says. “I was convinced it was a bad deal for my district. It has been a bad deal for sugar and dairy. They (NAFTA supporters) told me we would have twice as many exports as imports. It turned out just the opposite, where we have twice as many imports as exports.”

Still, the potential that TPP holds for U.S. farmers is great, says Darci Vetter, chief agricultural negotiator with the office of the U.S. Trade Representative. 

She says it will enable U.S. farmers to access Asian markets, such as in Vietnam and Malaysia, where millions of people will enter the middle class in the next few years.

“When people enter the middle class, they will eat more meat,” says Vetter. “Feed grains will be used to feed those livestock. So the potential is enormous.” 

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