NAWG Weekly Update 6/23/16

Stabenow and Roberts Reach Agreement on GMO Labeling

After months of debate, Senate Ag Chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Ranking Member Stabenow (D-MI) have produced a preemptive solution to the Vermont bill which goes into effect July 1, and will require mandatory labeling for GMO products, with disclosure options. The Roberts-Stabenow agreement could come before the full Senate next week, though the House is in recess until July 4. The preemptive language of the bill will upon enactment block Vermont’s law from being fully implemented, while allowing for two years to develop definitions and rules. More information about the bill can be found here, and the text of the bill can be found here.

Cuba Amendments Offered in House, but Path Forward Unclear

This week, the House Rules Committee made in order two amendments to be considered by the full House of Representatives during consideration of the FY 2017 Financial Services Appropriations bill. The first from Rep. Rick Crawford (R-AR) would lift for FY 2017 the statutory restriction on U.S. financial institutions offering credit for the sale of U.S. agricultural products to Cuba, and the other from Rep. Mark Sanford (R-SC) would lift the travel ban for a year. Last week, the Senate Appropriations Committee adopted similar amendments that would make these changes permanent. These amendments were set to be considered by the House on Wednesday, but consideration of the Financial Services Appropriations bill itself was delayed following a spat between Democrats and Republicans about taking action on gun regulations in the wake of the tragedy in Orlando last week. House leadership decided to adjourn the chamber for recess until after Independence Day.

NAWG believes that these two amendments are critical to normalizing trade relations with Cuba, and is hopeful that once the House moves back to consideration of the FY 2017 Financial Services Appropriations bill that these amendments will receive bipartisan support. Earlier this week, NAWG sent a letter with other members of the U.S. Ag Coalition for Cuba urging House leadership to ease the financing restrictions that limit trade with Cuba. Although the U.S. is well-positioned geographically to trade with Cuba, foreign competitors take away market share from the U.S. because of our competitive disadvantage resulting from the U.S. trade embargo.

Drones Get Administration, Congressional Attention

On Tuesday, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a final rule addressing regulations for the operation of small Unmanned Aircraft Systems in the National Airspace System (NAS). Prior to this action, commercial drone operators have had to receive a waiver from the FAA before operation; this rule would instead establish rules so that waivers wouldn’t be necessary. Through this action, agricultural and other operators would be allowed to operate drones that weigh less than 55 pounds, though they would be limited to flying up to 400 feet and no more than 100 miles per hour. They would also have to be within sight of the operator and not fly over people.

Separate from this action, the House Agriculture Subcommittee on General Farm Commodities and Risk Management held a hearing to receive input from industry about innovations in agricultural imagery and technology. Among those testifying was former NAWG board member Robert Blair, who is a farmer from Kendrick, ID, and currently the Vice President of Agriculture Measure. He discussed how his family’s farming operation has continually integrated new technology since the farm started in 1903. Throughout the hearing, he discussed how the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and data can help farmers become more productive, use fewer inputs and do so more efficiently, and reduce the impact of weather on crops. He also discussed the role that the use of such information can play in crop insurance by enabling more accurate assessments and adjusting of claims.

USDA Department of Interior Announces Funding for Water and Energy Efficiency

The U.S. Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Interior (DOI) today announced more than $47 million in funding to help water districts and producers on private working lands better conserve water resources. The funds include $15 million in USDA funds and $32.6 million from the Bureau of Reclamation for local projects to improve water and energy efficiency and provide a strengthened federal response to ongoing and potential drought across 13 states in the West. The Bureau of Reclamation funding supports 76 local projects through the DOI’s WaterSMART program. Funding from USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) will support on-farm water delivery system improvements through its Environmental Quality Incentives Program, in tandem with the DOI WaterSMART funded competitive grant projects and cost share grants.

More details on the program and projects announced today can be found on the WaterSMART Water and Energy Efficiency Grants website and on the Drought Response Program website. Through EQIP, NRCS is providing $5.2 million in on-farm assistance to complement several projects that have been funded previously by BOR, and will provide an additional $10 million in 2017 to support some of the Reclamation projects announced today.

NAWG Engages in Field to Market Meetings

NAWG Vice President David Schemm and Environmental Policy Advisor Keira Franz participated in Field to Market’s summer plenary, general assembly and work group meetings this week at the McDonald’s campus outside Chicago. Schemm, a grower representative on the Field to Market Board, also attended the board meeting where organizational goals, structure and membership were discussed. The larger events included discussions of supply chain field print projects, development of new metrics as well as updating existing metrics, and data retention policies. Pilot projects involving wheat growers are underway in several states.  Additional information on Field to Market can be found on their website.

Winter Wheat Yield Predicted to Break Records

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economic Research Service (ERS) predicts in a recent report that due to excellent growing conditions over much of the United States, particularly in the Great Plains region, the winter wheat average yield is now projected to be a record high 50.5 bushels per acre, with total production projected at over 1.5 billion bushels. Additionally, despite an 8-percent year-to-year decline in production area, this improved outlook for winter wheat will increase 2016/17 aggregate wheat production by 25 million bushels over the 2015/16 crop. According to the report, declines in planted acres have been offset by higher yield gains as compared to last year’s crop and a higher projected harvest-to-planted ratio. As of June 1, the winter wheat expected harvested area is 29.831 million acres, down 2.4 million acres from last year, but the projected harvest-to-planted ratio is 82.4 percent, slightly higher than 2015’s 81.7 percent. Despite some reports of bad weather and disease, the quality of the 2016/2017 winter wheat crop also remains high, with 62% of the winter wheat reported to be in “good” to “excellent” condition for the week ending June 5. In contrast, the spring wheat production for 2016 is projected to decline 16 percent based on lower planted area, relative to 2015. As of June 5, 96 percent of the spring wheat crop had emerged in the major wheat-cultivating states, which is well above the 5-year average pace of 78 percent. As with winter wheat, reports have stated that 79 percent of the crop is rated “good” to “excellent”. Overall, the weather in winter and spring wheat growing regions has provided excellent conditions for the cultivation of wheat, pushing the entire wheat yield to almost 50 bushels per acre. More information and analysis can be found by visiting the Economic Research Service website.

Farm Foundation Round Table Focuses on Consumer Trends

NAWG recently participated in the Farm Foundation Round Table event in Louisville, Kentucky where the discussions centered around consumer trends shaping the future of agriculture and our food system. Speakers and discussion leaders represented all facets of the food chain including farmers, processors and retailers. Many of the presenters emphasized the need for “transparency” throughout the food chain, as public skepticism and public scrutiny of how food is grown or produced will continue to increase. One national public research company representative indicated that, to many consumers, the term “farming” is still held in high regard but the term “agriculture” represents an institution and can’t be trusted. He also commented that “if you are trusted, science doesn’t matter; and, if you are not trusted, science still doesn’t matter.” Many panel members also emphasized that when members of the food chain talk directly with consumers, syntax matters. Consumers are increasingly wanting to know the story of the food they purchase and eat. For example, a representative of Burger King explained that product specifications for the food they purchase for their restaurants now go beyond taste, safety, quality and nutrition and include origin and production practices. The Farm Foundation Round Table meets twice annually. An objective of the Farm Foundation is to foster dialogue and build networks to increase understanding of public issues and policies.

Senate Panel Acts on International Seed Treaty

On Thursday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, which is supported by NAWG. This action follows a May 19 hearing on the treaty, which included testimony from John Schoenecker, Director of Intellectual Property at HM. Clause, on behalf of the American Seed Trade Association (ASTA). The Treaty, which was adopted by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in 2001, and signed by the U.S. in 2002, would create a stable legal framework for international germplasm exchanges, allowing for facilitation of access by public and private entities for the sharing of plant resources. Though the U.S. has signed the agreement, the Senate must ratify the Treaty in order to enable the U.S. to participate in the framework. With Committee action complete, the Treaty would now have to be considered by the full United States Senate.