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Published June 03, 2013, 11:14 AM

A top nonfarm bill ag issue

Immigration reform was the first issue that Merrigan listed when she spoke on May 22 to the annual conference of CropLife America.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Agweek

WASHINGTON — What are the top 10 nonfarm bill issues in American agriculture, according to Kathleen Merrigan, the former deputy ag secretary who came up with the “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative?

Immigration reform was the first issue that Merrigan listed when she spoke on May 22 to the annual conference of CropLife America.

“Farm bills are wicked important, as we say in Massachusetts, [but] my challenge is to talk about nonfarm bill issues that we should be thinking about,” Merrigan told the CropLife America national policy conference.

She said her list of 10 priorities was not in any order, but she mentioned immigration first and said the farm bill would set up the passage of immigration reform in the Senate.

During her tenure as deputy, Merrigan said, she and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack had often discussed immigration reform as important to “the survival of American agriculture as we know it.”

Merrigan also noted that she heard about the issue from California to Massachusetts and that Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., once set up a meeting with farmers that turned into a “chew” session on the need for immigration reform. At the last Cabinet meeting she attended, Merrigan said, President Barack Obama talked about the need for immigration reform.

Merrigan’s other nine top issues:

•The tax package and farmland intergenerational transfer.

The analysis that Apple and other companies have avoided taxation “is going to be an irritant to people,” Merrigan said, and could, along with budget pressures for more government revenue and concerns about the Internal Revenue Service, lead to a new tax package.

That bill, she said, could address the issue of intergenerational farmland transfers. Many farmers in the next generation will not come from farm families, Merrigan said, adding that they find it difficult to raise the capital needed for buying land and suggesting that sweat equity might be included as part of the intergenerational transfer process.

•Implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act.

This bill has the potential to “disrupt, improve and possibly destroy some operations,” and could change agriculture in some parts of the country,” Merrigan said.

“My view has always been that no one gets a pass on food safety, but sometimes I worry about our bureaucracy,” she said, noting that bureaucrats are “not always as creative as they might be in finding different pathways,” particularly for different size operations.

FSMA implementation will include “a lot of false starts,” she said. If she had a magic wand, she added, she would change rules so that the riskiest crops would be handled first rather than the current practice of treating all crops the same.

FSMA applies to the Food and Drug Administration, a division of the Health and Human Services Department, but Merrigan noted that she has many of the same concerns about the Food Safety and Inspection Service, a division of the Agriculture Department.

•Trade agreements.

There are two big trade agreements under consideration, Merrigan noted the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The agreement with the European Union would be “valuable if we could do it,” she said. She recalled that she traveled to Germany to sign the equivalency agreement with the European Union on organics, which has been “meaningful” because it has eliminated duplicative inspections and fees.

But she also said that reaching agreement with the European Union “will be very difficult” and pointed out that the U.S. government recently released a report citing multiple causes of bee colony collapse disorder while the European Union decided that pesticides were the problem and banned one.

Merrigan said she had been determined to make sure the U.S. study, which found multiple causes including nutrition, parasites and genetics are part of the colony collapse disorder, would be released before she left office.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership, she said, would offer major opportunities for the U.S. horticultural industry, especially if Japan joins the agreement.

•Fruits and vegetables as a business opportunity.

“It is all exciting right now,” she said, as more Americans eat fruits and vegetables and obesity rates are going down, but she said there should be more opportunity for domestic production.

The My Plate icon that the Obama administration developed to guide consumer eating habits, “is sleek, cool, very simple and understandable” and tells consumers that half the plate of food should be filled with fruits and vegetables. First lady Michelle Obama, she said, “has done a great job dancing across the country saying ‘Let’s Move.’"

But imports of fruits and vegetables have gone up and the U.S. Department of Agriculture projects imports to go up even higher as a percentage of domestic consumption, she said.

“We are leaving opportunity on the table for American farmers,” she said, adding that fruits and vegetables are “a high-value crop on small acreage” for beginning farmers and that some of those farmers “will scale up” their production.

•Decreasing federal budget.

Noting that when she served in the Clinton administration, appropriations doubled, Merrigan, who was in charge of the USDA budget in the Obama administration, said she and Vilsack did everything in their power to deal with a 15 percent cut in USDA discretionary programs while she was in office.

But she noted that there are “a couple of distressing realities” that the special nutrition assistance program for women, infants and children known as WIC, forest fire suppression and rental assistance have become higher and higher percentages of the discretionary budget.

•Certainty.

After traveling in California with Environmental Protection Agency Deputy Administrator Bob Perciasepe, Merrigan said the two deputies worked out a policy under which farmers “who are engaged in state-of-the-art conservation” as determined by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service “should have some certainty [they] are not going to be regulated out of business.”

Merrigan said EPA had applied this principle in letters to the state agriculture commissioners in the Chesapeake Bay area, but that it should be applied more broadly. Keeping farms going is a positive for the environment, she said, adding that she would put agriculture “up against urban storm drains any day.”

•Ecosystem markets.

Even though the carbon exchange market has collapsed in Europe, Merrigan said, she still thinks finding a market for farm contributions to the environment “makes so much sense.”

“How do we measure and value these contributions — that is one of the most intriguing issues of the day,” she said.

•GMO labeling.

“This a ‘whack-a-mole’ problem,” Merrigan said, noting that it comes up again and again. People want to know whether foods contain GMO ingredients, she said, adding “I am not saying it is right or that they need to know.”

The issue, she said, is the relationship to organic food. The Food and Drug Administration and USDA have not allowed organic producers to put a “GMO free” label on organic products. When USDA was developing the organic standards, Monsanto agreed that organics should be GMO-free, she said, adding that she wonders why the biotech industry does not encourage the government to allow “a nonGMO frame.”

•The changing farm population.

Merrigan said she has met dairy farmers in their 80s who are still farming because they cannot figure out how to change their operations. There are many young people who did not grow up on the farm or ranch, she said, and “many of them are over their heads.”

The Economic Research Service recently issued a study showing that there are now more than 1 million principal farm operators in the country.

“A lot of young people are interested in alternative production,” she noted.

Asked during a question and answer session why she had left USDA, Merrigan did not say whether she had left voluntarily or been asked to leave. She noted that there has been “a mass exodus” of deputy secretaries across the federal government and said “the deputy secretary jobs are the hardest in the government.”

Merrigan said she had grown tired of being called “deputy” and is looking forward to being called “Kathleen” again. When people hear the title “deputy,” she said they automatically think of Barney Fife on the Andy Griffith Show.

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