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Congress’ omnibus gift to farmers

Congress’ omnibus gift to farmers
Omnibus bill provides some presents for ag although not everyone is happy with the gifts they received.

With bipartisan support, Congress passed the $1.15 trillion Omnibus Appropriations Bill Friday, which funds much of the government through fiscal year 2016. In Congress’ end-of-the year present, there were some happy and unhappy at what the final package includes.

There were several food and agriculture policy riders attached to the bill, including a provision repealing of Country-of-Origin (COOL) labeling.

The rule has been the subject of criticism from both commodity groups and the livestock industry, given the significant potential of the rule to disrupt trade and lead to $1.01 billion in retaliation from Canada and Mexico following the WTO’s finding that the COOL language was discriminatory.

“Soybean farmers are relieved to put COOL behind us,” said American Soybean Assn. president Richard Wilkins, who raises both soybeans and beef cattle in southern Delaware. “This was an issue that impacted both feed grain and oilseed farmers, as well as livestock producers, and we’re happy to see it come to a satisfactory conclusion that avoids retaliation from our valuable trading partners in Canada and Mexico.”

Another key provision blocked the release or implementation of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines if guidance from USDA and HHS is not based on “significant scientific agreement” or covers issues that are not directly related to nutrition. 

Fearing that the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans will recommend eating less meat and delve into areas unrelated to diet and nutrition, congressional lawmakers included in the fiscal 2016 catch-all spending legislation language prohibiting the release and implementation of the guidelines unless they’re based on significant scientific agreement and adhere to the statutory mandate of the law that requires them. That mandate calls for the guidelines to include information on diet and nutrition.

Legislators continued to weigh in on school lunch standards by requiring flexibility to local schools to implement whole grain lunch standards if the school can demonstrate a hardship when procuring whole grain products. It also blocks future sodium restrictions under the program until there’s more scientific research to back the limits.

Lumps of coal

Two of the biggest items left out of the final package that were being pushed by agricultural groups included a federal preemption of mandatory state GMO labeling laws as well as refusing to prohibit funding of Water of the U.S. implementation.

Chip Bowling, president of the National Corn Growers Assn., said “rural America will face a darker new year” because of it. NCGA also expressed disappointment that language was not included which would have provided relief in the ethanol sector by fixing the Reid Vapor Pressure standards; and funding for the Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program.

The National Milk Producers Federation also criticized that inclusion of reforms to child nutrition program to ensure increased access to nutritious dairy options in schools was not in the final package. As Senate Agriculture Committee members were unable to reach a bipartisan agreement on childhood nutrition to include in an omnibus bill, both made a commitment to move it across the finish line early in 2016.

Conservation wins

The bill addresses conservation by maintaining the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), which also helps to fund the Regional Conservation Partnership Programs (RCPP) on which many soy-growing states are already partnering with USDA.

As in previous years, the omnibus cuts the popular Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), this time by $321 million, or 19 percent. This will have a direct impact on producers seeking financial and technical assistance to conserve water, soil, and other natural resources on their farms. After last year’s cut of $253 million, for example, only 23% of eligible applicants were able to get into the program.

The $321 million cut to EQIP also means a $22.5 million cut to the popular Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) because RCPP draws its funding from CSP and EQIP, among other programs.

While EQIP was cut, there were several provisions in the bill worth highlighting:

  • an increase in Conservation Operations funding to $850,856,000;
  • an increase in funding for State and Private Forestry to $237,023,000;
  • an increase in funding for wildland fire management to $816,745,000;
  • continuation of current funding for the enrollment of 10 million acres in the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP);
  • continuation of current funding levels for Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) 319 grants ($164,915,000);
  • and an allotment of $271,000,000 for emergency conservation funding programs including the Emergency Watershed Protection Program, the Emergency Conservation Program  and the Emergency Forestry Restoration Program.
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