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on August 23, 2007

House farm bill spurns animal rights’ pleaders

For egg producers, there's good news and bad news in the House Agriculture Committee's farm bill.

What's positive for poultry and livestock producers is the absence of stringent new animal rights provisions sought by increasingly vocal activist groups.

Negative or mixed: its continued encouragement of ethanol production from corn.

Although the committee's July 17-19 bill-writing session is just the first step in a long legislative process to complete a new five- or six-year farm bill later this year, it sets the tone for what Congress likely will produce.

Even during preliminary subcommittee meetings, efforts by animal rights activists to include new European-style regulations in the 2007 farm bill failed to get traction. But they have not let up and are expected to try again when the full House takes up the bill.

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) which proclaims a goal of ending battery cage egg production, wants an amendment that would bar federal agencies from buying food produced under "industrial farming practices."

But neither the subcommittee draft nor the "chairman's mark" used as the basis for committee decisions included new animal agriculture standards.

Rep. Leonard Boswell, D-Iowa, who chairs the subcommittee on livestock, dairy and poultry, said recently that producers already "are vigorously addressing animal welfare issues" without additional federal standards and that consumers are driving stricter animal-raising standards.

Rep. Robin Hayes, R-N.C., the subcommittee's senior Republican, said that producers, rather than activists, should determine animal husbandry practices. "Passing legislation based solely on emotion goes against the committee's responsibility to use science and best management practices that are designed to improve animal welfare practices," he said.

United Egg Producers (UEP) President Gene Gregory told Boswell's subcommittee in May that animal care is "a subject that lends itself to emotion, unsubstantiated allegations and extremist tactics." He said it is difficult to "know where concern for animal welfare ends and opposition to the very existence of animal agriculture begins."

Renewable Fuels Boom

Even as they spurn HSUS pleading, the committee and a large majority of both houses of Congress this year line up in strong support of corn growers and ethanol refiners who are driving the "renewable fuels" boom.

The farm bill's energy title would authorize nearly $5 billion for renewable energy loans, grants, research and development, but with a catch. It's contingent on finding budget "offsets" from spending cuts or new revenue.

Some of the funds would be directed to upgrade existing ethanol and biodiesel facilities, some to stimulate fuels from cellulosic materials to supplement those derived from grain. Yet other programs would encourage development of methane power generation from livestock waste.

Although it won't be sorted out until later in the year, Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, suggests that a potential way to offset the increased energy program costs would be to move the provision from the farm bill to a Senate-passed omnibus energy bill that the House is considering this summer.

Congressional bias toward ethanol was demonstrated in lopsided votes in the Senate last month against safeguards advocated by UEP and other poultry, livestock and food producer groups. 

The bill adopted by the Senate would require 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels by 2022 but the amount over 15 billion gallons would have to come from non-grain (cellulosic) feedstock.

Mandate Would Boost Corn Prices

The mandate in the Senate bill would increase corn prices by 20 cents a bushel by 2015, adding about $1 billion to poultry and livestock production costs, according to the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute (FAPRI). Using its computer model, FAPRI translates that into "lower net returns to livestock, poultry, and dairy producers."

Appealing "to ensure the bill does not pick winners and losers in domestic agriculture," Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., tried to soften the potential impact of doubling the current ethanol mandate to 15 billion gallons a year by 2015.

By a 31-63 vote, the Senate rejected Inhofe's proposal to reduce the mandate by as much as 15 percent annually if the corn stocks-to-use ratio drops below 10 percent: the top priority of a coalition of feed and food grain user groups.

UEP, the National Chicken Council, National Turkey Federation and pork, cattle and dairy producer and several food companies and industry trade associations lobbied on behalf of the Inhofe approach.

The coalition asked Congress to provide "a reasonable amount of certainty that adequate supplies are available" to all corn users. The Inhofe amendment, the users said, "would go a long way in achieving a safety net ensuring those of us that utilize corn and corn products will have enough to go around should a drought or flood occur that would limit the harvested amount that is available."

But the proposal faced spirited opposition from Sens. Richard Durbin, D-Ill.; Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and John Thune, R-S.D. They cited the opposition registered by corn growers, the ethanol industry, the American Farm Bureau Federation, and National Farmers Union.

Durbin cited an economic finding that Inhofe's proposed 10 percent stocks-to-use trigger would suppress corn prices to $2.50 to $2.60 a bushel"a dramatic decrease in income of farmers and a dramatic increase in government costs" through higher farm program payments.

Low-Pathogenic AI

The committee's farm bill also expresses "the sense of Congress" that USDA pay 100 percent of the cost of voluntary programs to control low-pathogenic avian influenza, a top priority legislative goal of UEP this year. The admonition is hortatory rather than compulsory, but it could help overcome resistance by the Office of Management and Budget to USDA using discretionary authority to compensate growers forced to destroy infected flocks.

Also in the bill is additional money up to $2 billion a year, if the cost is offset for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Without offsets, it would authorize $1.55 billion for 60 percent cost-share payments for livestock and poultry producers in the first year, increasing gradually to $2 billion in fiscal 2012.

The House hoped to wrap up its farm bill before the recess scheduled for Aug. 6-31. Senate leaders are not quite as firm but hope to complete committee work before the recess and take it to the floor in September.

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