Natural Foods Merchandiser

Senate approves farm bill

While industry groups are happy with the provisions for organic agriculture and the restrictions against cloned food in the recently passed Senate version of the U.S. Farm Bill, they warn that there is more work to be done before the bill becomes law.

The Farm Bill sets the funding for all U.S. Department of Agriculture programs for the next five years. It must be approved by both houses of Congress and then signed by the president.

After a year and a half of negotiations, the Senate approved its version of the Farm Bill Dec. 14. It will now go to a Senate-House conference committee, which will iron out a compromise between the Senate Farm Bill and the House Farm Bill, which was approved in July.

Mark Lipson, policy program director for the Organic Farming Research Foundation, said the conference committee is expected to begin negotiations in January, with a combined bill likely to be ready for a Congressional vote in March. That vote is usually favorable, but President Bush has threatened to veto the Farm Bill if it doesn't cut spending and reduce farmer subsidy programs.

"We still need everyone to make that final push with the conference committee," Lipson said. At issue is the funding for organic research. The Senate bill approved $80 million while the House bill calls for $25 million. Although the Senate funding is lower than the $100 million OFRF lobbied for, Lipson said his organization can live with it, but not with a compromise between the House and Senate figures. "We think what the Senate authorized is what the final bill should be," he said.

Overall, industry groups were pleased with how the Senate Farm Bill addresses organics. The bill "includes important steps to help strengthen the safety net for organic producers and manufacturers," said Organic Trade Association Executive Director Caren Wilcox in a statement.

Specifically, the OTA likes that the Senate Farm Bill:

  • Includes $5 million for data collection to help provide better price and yield information for organically grown crops
  • Authorizes $22 million to help offset farmers' organic certification costs
  • Bars the USDA from assessing a premium surcharge on organic crop insurance. Currently, there's a 5 percent surcharge.
  • Makes organic production eligible for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program
  • Makes Soil and Water Conservation Protection Loans available to farmers converting to organic

In addition, an amendment to the Senate Farm Bill by Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and Arlen Specter, R-Pa., takes on the Food and Drug Administration's endorsement of food from cloned animals. The amendment calls for the FDA to conduct two studies on the safety of food from cloned animals before allowing it into the nation's food supply. It also directs the National Academy of Sciences to review the FDA's decision that food from cloned animals is safe, and requires the NAS to study the potential health impacts of cloned foods. Finally, the amendment directs the USDA to study consumer acceptance of cloned foods and the impact they could have on domestic and international markets.

The Mikulski-Specter amendment "is like a gift for the holidays," said Joseph Mendelson, legal director of the Center for Food Safety, in a statement. "The FDA's flawed and cavalier approach to cloned food and its potential impacts called for a truly rigorous scientific assessment. At a time when the FDA has repeatedly failed the public, this amendment will ensure that the American consumer is considered before any special interest."

According to Mikulski, Gallup Polls and the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology research have found that more than 60 percent of Americans think it is immoral to clone animals, and that despite FDA approval, they won't buy cloned milk.

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