The 2016 congressional agenda will be driven by the development and consideration of the 12 appropriations bills that determine how — and how much — money will be spent for all government pro-grams and services in FY 2017, which starts on October 1. While the goal is always to complete all spend-ing bills in the committees and con-sider them separately on the House and Senate floors, it is rarely accomplished. We typically see a short-term continuing resolution (or CR), which means, “Don’t make any changes, just keep doing what you have been doing” because there is no agreement to do anything different, and they run out of time. Or, we see an omnibus bill that wraps all or most of the 12 bills together and is voted on before Congress departs for Christmas.
There is a concerted effort to con-sider and pass all 12 bills to show the public that the Republican-con-trolled Congress can, in fact, get its work done in a critically important election year. There is always skepticism in Washington that this will be accomplished, but we must operate as though it will. Markups in the Agriculture Appropriations Sub-committee and the full Appropriations Committee always provide an opportunity for policy opponents to put proposals forward to cut USDA funding for employees who implement certain parts of the 2014 farm bill sugar provisions. Subcommittee and full committee staff and members must be briefed and provided with materials for any debate, and then all House and Senate members and staff need to hear from the industry if a vote on the floor of either body appears likely.
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Arguments, charts and graphs are provided to our champions well in advance of any debate to help them defend the sugar provisions of the farm bill. Until the agriculture appropriations bill is completed, our industry is always ready to play defense to protect what we have. Grower leaders covered hundreds of congressional offices in February and March to drive home the message that the farm bill should not be tampered with in the appropriations process.
GMO Labeling Bill -- The Sen-ate’s failure to get 60 votes to stop a filibuster on a GMO labeling bill prior to the Easter recess was very frustrating. The lack of a federal solution that pre-empts state laws on this matter has forced many major food companies to begin printing la-bels to note the inclusion of GMO ingredients in their products. The far left wants on-pack labeling or a symbol to designate GMO ingredients, and activists have publicly said, “If we can get it labeled, we can con-vince people not to buy it.”
On the other hand, the FDA, conservative groups and agricultural groups argue there is no need to label, because labels are reserved for health, safety and nutrition information.
If nothing is done, the bad and very harmful Vermont law that goes into effect on July 1 will dictate food labeling in the U.S. Because food moves between states, companies cannot afford the legal exposure of products that are out of compliance with state laws; and if there are conflicting laws, it would be very difficult to comply with them. Food companies would be forced to reformulate products to use non-GMO crops and ingredients, which is precisely the activists’ objective.
I remain optimistic that a solution to pre-empt state laws will be found in the very near future and that it will gain enough support to pass Congress. There is a great deal of discussion and negotiation under-way to find a way to give consumers a path to know what is in their food without stigmatizing ingredients. Symbols or a few words on a package do not give the context of technology that is used to produce the food. Consumer education and context can only be achieved if there is adequate explanation through a Quick Response (QR) code or website. This is our highest priority, and we are working with a broad coalition throughout the food chain to get this accomplished.
Mexico — Sugar trade problems with Mexico continue, even under the current suspension agreements between the U.S. and Mexican governments. The intent and spirit of the agreement was for Mexico to pro-vide adequate supplies of raw sugar to U.S. cane refineries to meet U.S. consumer needs, rather than import-ing more sugar from other foreign suppliers. While quantities of lower-quality Mexican sugar have been imported properly under the agreement, significant amounts are bypassing the refineries and are being sold directly to end users. Some of those end users have lowered the quality standards for their consumer products, or the sugar has been diverted to “melt houses” to be cleaned up and sold to food manufacturers. These actions reduce and directly threaten refiner throughput. If the U.S. government increases raw sugar imports from other foreign suppliers to supplement throughput, the market is then oversupplied —punishing all domestic beet and cane sugar farmers.
This is our number-one trade priority, and we will work with our government to address it. Again, solutions to these issues must, by law, be resolved between the U.S. and Mexican governments.
It is this kind of trade problem that harms domestic producers and fuels the Trump and Sanders arguments that strike a nerve with voters and make the electorate angry. It would be smart for the Obama Ad-ministration and the Mexican government to resolve this issue as soon as possible.
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Luther Markwart, author of Dateline Washington, is executive vice president of the American Sugarbeet Growers Association.