WASHINGTON — The 2007 Farm Bill has sufficient support in the House and Senate to pass in its current form, despite President Bush's veto of the bill last Wednesday.
This month, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the 2007 Farm Bill with a 318-106 vote, and the Senate followed by approving the bill 81-15, in both cases garnering sufficient majorities to override the presidential veto.
The bill's critics, led by President Bush, have argued that the $300 billion piece of legislation remains far too generous with government subsidies allocated for corn, soybean, wheat and cotton growers, among others.
“Today's farm economy is very strong, and that is something to celebrate,” Bush said earlier this month, in a statement explaining his veto threat. “It is also an appropriate time to better target subsidies and put forth real reform. Farm income is expected to exceed the 10-year average by 50% this year, yet Congress' bill asks American taxpayers to subsidize the incomes of married farmers who earn $1.5 million per year. I believe doing so at a time of record farm income is irresponsible and jeopardizes America's support for necessary farm programs.”
Some industry groups, including the Grocery Manufacturers Association, agreed with this assessment. Cal Dooley, president and chief executive officer of GMA, earlier this month sent a letter to Congress urging legislators to oppose the bill.
“Farm Bill negotiators included no meaningful limits on who can receive subsidies or the amount a producer can receive,” Dooley wrote. “In fact, Congress increased subsidies for some farmers, including costly new subsidies and protections for sugar producers that will increase the cost of food at a time of record food inflation.”
However, despite these problems, the passage of several less controversial aspects of the bill were cause for celebration in other corners of the food industry. Notably, produce industry groups, including the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del., and the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, both fought hard to include reforms to country-of-origin labeling requirements, which are set to go into effect Sept. 30.
If Congress overrides the president's veto of the current bill, retailers will not be liable for any COOL misinformation or mistakes caused by their suppliers. And in general, liability for retailers is significantly reduced unless it can be proven that they are willfully violating the laws of the program. Retailers also won't be required to keep a separate set of records for the program. Also, labels that signify a U.S. state or locality — including state department of agriculture programs such as Pride of New York or Minnesota Grown — will automatically be compliant with COOL regulations.
The bill also includes an unprecedented level of support for produce industry programs, including $1 billion for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's fruit and vegetable snack program for schools; $230 million for specialty crop research; $377 million for pest and disease detection; $33 million to promote farmer's markets and local agriculture programs; $105 million for organic produce programs; and $466 million in block grants set aside for state and regional programs.
“This bill provides more funding for fruit and vegetable industry programs and priorities than any other farm bill in history, attention that is well deserved and has been long awaited, and signals that the times are changing,” PMA President Bryan Silbermann said in a release. “It also provides some much-needed relief from what would have been overly burdensome COOL regulations.”
Past farm bills have offered little support for produce industry programs, focusing instead on major commodity crops such as corn, wheat and soybeans.
“This is landmark stuff,” said Julia Stewart, public relations manager for PMA. “You're finally starting to see specialty crops, including fruits and vegetables, getting the attention they deserve. It's very clear that Americans should be eating more fruits and vegetables, and we need as much help on that front as we can get.”
Representatives at the Organic Trade Association were excited as well.
The $105 million set aside for organic agriculture during the next five years “was four times more money for organics than there had been previously,” noted Holly Givens, communications director for the OTA. That money will go toward a broad range of goals, including research programs, programs that help farmers transition acreage to organic production, and an elimination of the premiums that organic farmers pay for crop insurance.
In one last attempt to force concessions from Congress on commodity crop subsidies, President Bush vetoed the 2007 Farm Bill on Wednesday, and sent it back to the Senate and House for additional review.
However, industry experts contacted by SN felt confident that measures benefiting the produce and organic agriculture industries would survive any further alterations of the bill, and that legislators in Congress were unlikely to reverse their earlier votes.