How would you like it if every single room in your house was an exercise station? You think that would suck? Well, maybe it would create a lot of unpleasant pressure to be working out and make you feel like a big loser all the time, but then again, maybe it would make exercising so convenient that the habit would just fold seamlessly into your life. And then, what if your workout was generating the power you needed to cook, clean, and entertain yourself? Would that be enough to make it a really solid habit? Or just an even more giant pain in the ass?
Enviros hoping for details on President Obama’s promised biofuel push got a few answers yesterday in the president’s new budget, which still left some questions as to how the administration plans to pay for expensive new biofuels research. The budget [PDF] indicates the Interior Department may charge the fossil fuel industry more to drill on public lands, a plan that already had Republicans bristling when the president hinted at it last month.
In mid-March, in a speech at Illinois’ Argonne National Lab, Obama pitched an Energy Security Trust, which would collect $2 billion in additional revenues by 2020 from oil and gas companies that drill on federal land, and invest the funds in R&D for cutting-edge biofuels and clean vehicles. According to the Interior Department, these royalties totaled roughly $7.9 billion in FY 2012.
The speech left unclear the question of how an additional $2 billion in royalties could be raised without either raising royalty rates — a non-starter for the fossil fuel industry — or allowing more drilling on more public lands. A White House spokesperson was quick to rule out expanded drilling in Alaska, but left the possibility elsewhere. A Climate Desk calculation reviewed by MIT-based energy blogger Jesse Jenkins found that to raise an additional $2 billion in royalties through expanded drilling alone, oil and gas development on public land would need to increase by 1.5 percent and 7.2 percent, respectively, by 2020.
“You certainly don’t gain anything by promoting clean energy that ends up promoting the production of more dirty energy sources,” Natural Resources Defense Council policy analyst Bob Deans told Climate Desk last month.
Deans had hoped that today’s budget would clear things up. While the proposal doesn’t mention the Energy Security Trust by name, it calls for unspecified adjustments to royalty rates that The Hill reports would be redirected from the general treasury toward the trust. An Interior Department spokesperson said that annual oil and gas income to the government is projected to rise by $2.8 billion by 2023, but was unsure whether this money would come from new public land drilling or solely via increased royalties.
The budget also carves out $2.3 billion for the Energy Department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, which oversees R&D on advanced biofuels (as well as solar, wind, and other clean energy research), but doesn’t specify how much of that would go toward biofuels specifically, or whether these funds are in addition to the $2 billion for the Energy Security Trust. A White House spokesperson did not return repeated calls for comment.
If Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) has his way, it could be a moot point: Goodlatte introduced a bill yesterday that would bar biofuels from comprising more than 10 percent of the nation’s gasoline supply. That was the mix limit enforced by the EPA until 2010, but the agency has begun to relax enforcement of the restriction, allowing for the sale of gas with up to 15 percent ethanol. But Goodlatte’s bill would set the 10-percent cap in stone by limiting how much of the nation’s biofuel supply can go to fuel; it would also eliminate federal rules that require gasoline producers to use ethanol. Goodlatte claims his bill could help livestock producers by easing corn prices that were pushed to record highs by recent drought — prices that, incidentally, also hurt the ethanol industry.
At a press conference in Washington yesterday afternoon, Goodlatte, joined by co-sponsors Reps. Jim Costa (D-Calif.), Steve Womack (R-Ark.), and Peter Welch (D-Vt.), said the government’s support for ethanol “has quite frankly triggered a domino effect that is hurting American consumers, energy producers, food manufacturers, and retailers,” adding that he has support for the bill from livestock interests and the petroleum industry.
But while Goodlatte’s stuck to the topic of corn-based fuel, Brooke Coleman, director of the trade group that represents non-corn biofuel producers, says the bill would apply to all kinds of biofuel, and have the consequence of barring future growth of the kind Obama envisions.
“It’s a total smokescreen,” Coleman said. “You can’t ban ethanol over 10 percent and pretend you’re not affecting the advanced biofuels. You’d be banning our product.”
In November, the EPA, facing pressure from drought-beset governors to waive federal rules mandating ethanol use, found that the ethanol industry did not contribute [PDF] to higher food prices and ruled not to grant the requested waivers, which “greatly disappointed” Goodlatte, who introduced a similar, unsuccessful bill in 2011.
Given how much of the gasoline market corn-based ethanol eats up, Coleman said, placing a hard-and-fast limit on biofuels in the gas supply would kill off the nascent advanced biofuels industry before the president finds ways to fund it.
“[Goodlatte] is an advocate for protecting the free market for oil,” he said. “There’s no place for us to go.”
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A little over two years ago, Congress passed and President Obama signed a historic reform to America’s food safety laws, the Food Safety and Modernization Act. It was the first major update in over 80 years to the laws that aim to keep our food from killing us.
The new law gave the feds broad new enforcement powers to do things that most Americans probably thought they could do already — issuing mandatory food recalls, for example, and requiring frequent inspections of the riskiest food production facilities, and prosecuting executives of companies that knowingly ship contaminated food. Good news!
And now for the bad news. It looks like several of those new protections were quietly gutted earlier this year by a White House office charged with reviewing new regulations for their impact on corporate America. During a drawn-out review period, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) rewrote rules drafted by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that spelled out how the agency would implement new safety protocols for food producers.
When Congress passed the food safety law, it for the first time required food producers to design, implement, and test risk-based food safety plans. The law required testing for contamination in food processing facilities, and then testing the foods themselves. The OMB revisions axed the mandate for verified food safety plans and dropped virtually all the testing requirements, turning them into voluntary protocols. (And we know how well it works out when the food industry regulates itself.)
Without requirements for testing and verification of safety plans, the FDA will remain powerless to stop things like the deadly 2011 listeria outbreak in cantaloupe caused by shockingly unsanitary storage conditions at a Colorado farm. Had that farm been forced by law to produce a safety plan and then to have that plan verified, much less to have its produce tested, the people who died would likely be alive today.
I asked food safety superlawyer Bill Marler (managing partner of the Seattle law firm Marler Clark and a key player in the lawsuit against Jack in the Box over E. coli poisoning in its hamburgers that killed four children in 1993) for his take on all this. He pointed out that the food industry by and large supported the testing requirements because they leveled the playing field between good corporate citizens that took food safety seriously and bad guys, like the Peanut Corporation of America, that did not. Then along comes OMB “opening up a loophole for people to ignore” the new law, Marler said.
Alarm over these changes isn’t restricted to food safety crusaders. I reached out to Michael Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, a microbiologist and food safety expert closely associated with industry who has in the past been skeptical of onerous testing requirements — and who was also once in the running to run the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s food safety division. I asked him for his take on the OMB changes and he responded via email with what I can only characterize as dismay:
I do not believe OMB has the expertise to understand the potential adverse public health consequences of its actions, nor does the agency understand the importance of verification testing to a food safety plan and its relevance to enhancing the safety of food.
Or as it’s often said on the internet: “The stupid! It burns!”
Food-safety advocates had expressed relief back in January when OMB finally released these rules. The White House had been accused of delaying the law for months by refusing to publish the new rules. Some speculated it was out of fear that the rules would meet election-year repercussions from the politically powerful food and agriculture industry. This tiptoeing around corporations had become a hallmark of the post-2010 Obama White House.
The revelation about the OMB’s changes to the law comes from an unlikely source — the federal government. As originally reported by industry publication Food and Chemical News [sub req’d] and expanded upon by Food Safety News, some good soul in the Department of Health and Human Services (the parent agency of the FDA) posted documents on a government website that detailed the exact revisions OMB made to the food safety regulations. Ownership of these kinds of cuts are typically a well-guarded secret.
We already knew that Republicans in Congress were unlikely to give FDA the money to fully implement the law — and the sequester is likely to delay the law further. But there is still time to fix OMB’s changes. The comment period on the new food safety rules runs until mid-May.
If you can stomach the bureaucratese, you, too, can leave a comment for the FDA about the changes to the rule here. Believe it or not, the agency reviews every one of them. It may be the best chance you have to ensure that the Food Safety and Modernization Act actually lives up to its name.
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Forty-eight climate activists got themselves hauled away by the cops on Wednesday, part of a Sierra Club action in front of the White House to protest the Keystone XL pipeline. It was the first time in the Sierra Club’s 120-year history that the group has sanctioned civil disobedience. As we reported yesterday, those arrested included Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune, Bill McKibben of 350.org (and Grist’s board), civil rights leader Julian Bond, actress Daryl Hannah, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and his son Conor Kennedy (aka Taylor Swift’s ex).
Jay Mallin captured the highlights on video:
There’s more protesting to come: Thousands are expected at an anti-Keystone rally near the White House this Sunday.
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When my husband and I bought our first house, its 800 square feet of living space was perfect for two. It was what we could afford, and it suited us. We fought rarely, lived within our means without too much trouble, loved living within easy walking distance of restaurants and parks, went away many weekends, divided up the two closets, and dumped all the extra stuff in the basement.
Then we had a kid.
Daycare bills made us broke, we argued 400 percent more often, and we spent more time inside. We moved our one living room chair to make way for the baby swing. We moved the desk into our bedroom, with one inch to spare. I invented a complicated system of labels and garbage bags headed to the consignment store, full of out-of-season clothes that were too big or too small, the acres of unwanted things that people give you, and toys that I could not stand to store in my living room. This Christmas, I provoked the familial equivalent of an international incident by limiting the presents that grandparents could send.
To be clear, my family does not live in a tiny house. People raising children in New York, or in apartments everywhere, will mock me. When our home was built 100 years ago, it probably would have accommodated a family of seven. But by today’s U.S. standards, it’s small, roughly one-third of the size of the average home [PDF]. And the difference between living in it as a couple and a family of three has been palpable.
More often that not when I see stories about people living in tiny houses, it’s a single person with not much more than a shelf full of books and a teapot. Sometimes it’s a couple with low personal-space requirements. But my own situation has made me curious about families who have consciously chosen to live with a much smaller footprint. What happens when the chaos and wonder (and stuff!) that kids introduce explode all over your artfully arranged tiny house?
So I asked Hari Berzins, who writes the Tiny House Family blog and lives with her husband and two children, 8 and nearly 10, in a 168-square-foot home. They downsized, in several steps, from a 1,500-square-foot home after losing their family’s restaurant business in the most recent economic recession. It has allowed them to squirrel away her monthly salary to finance a long-term plan to build a larger, mortgage-free home. But they’ve been in this tiny house for almost two years.
She’s often asked what is the hardest thing about living in the tiny house. It’s hard to answer, she says, because the biggest challenges can also turn out to be unexpected blessings. Berzins says that living in a smaller physical space magnifies whatever dynamics and issues already exist in a family. But with no place to hide from the people you live with, it forces more open communication. As she explains:
You’re still whoever you are when you move in. But I think a bigger house gives you the room to leave things and let them pass without having to face them like we do in the tiny house … What we’ve done, and it’s helped a lot, is focusing on communicating rather than expecting. You can’t really run from things. It feels like we’ve been in therapy, but the therapy is our house.
During the process of downsizing, they had many conversations with their kids about what things were most important to them. They had multiple yard sales and let the kids select, price, and haggle over the things they wanted to sell. Occasionally, they’d pull things back that they weren’t ready to part with. In the tiny house, they each have a couple of crates for their personal things, and her children will passionately argue that they lack for nothing. For birthdays and holidays, they tend to ask for presents that they can use every day, like pocketknives or binoculars.
What really matters for them is their family and being close and not the things so much. I guess what you would imagine they’re learning is true. I think also there’s an acceptance of themselves and of us as family. They teach me a lot and don’t seem to care what other people think, which is so awesome.
Berzins, who lives in rural Virginia, is the first to admit that living in such a small space would be tougher in an urban setting. Her kids will disappear into the woods for hours, and they tend a large garden. They spend a lot of time as a family outdoors, even in winter, when they bundle up and build large fires on their deck. Outdoor entertaining and living space definitely makes tiny living easier, as does having at least one person in your family who can build things (we have none).
Case in point: Interior designer Jessica Helgerson lives in this immaculate 540-square-foot home on Sauvie Island, just 15 minutes north of Portland, with her husband and two children.
She combined the living, dining, and kitchen spaces into one “great room” that’s open to the roofline, while leaving space for the parents’ sleeping loft. The built-in sofas double as guest beds, with drawers underneath for kids’ toys. And my favorite feature of all time is the cleverly designed sliding closet in the kids’ bedroom. (Because photos like these misguidedly lead me to believe that if only I built a sliding closet, my kid’s room would be this clean too! Paradise is always just one new storage solution away!)
Debra Jordan, whose family of three lives in a mortgage-free 320-square-foot shotgun house, says one key to living small is focusing on all the things that you do have. Because she likes to cook and entertain guests, her tiny kitchen holds four cast iron skillets, two soup pots, two crock pots, two full sets of beautiful china, a juicer, assorted baking pans, and 30 pieces of tupperware to help keep things organized.
To accommodate overnight guests, she built an ingenious living room sofa bench that folds out into a guest bed. And there’s even a dishwasher hidden underneath.
So how has downsizing from a 2,500-square-foot home affected Jordan’s 13-year-old son? In this video below from Fair Companies, which documents their tiny house renovation that turned his sleeping loft into a full-fledged bedroom, Jordan tells this story:
I remember one of the comments he made after his room was finished. I told him, “Max, you have a cool room now,” and he shook his head and said “No, mom. I had a cool room. I have an upgrade now.” And I felt very proud at that moment. That’s a lesson that you really hope to instill in your child — that of thankfulness and gratefulness.
And at the end of the video, Jordan offers this bit of wisdom about family living in a tiny home:
I don’t know if everybody could make this decision. I highly recommend it. I sleep every night really, really good. We never discuss money. It’s not a topic that comes up. Our life is much more peaceful now. I have learned to cultivate contentment. I’m not thinking about what I want to buy next or how I can increase my earnings. I’m content. I’m very happy and there’s a lot to be said for that.
So when my family had our day of reckoning about whether we would stay put or move, what did we do? We refinanced into a smaller mortgage payment and started counting the days until our 4-year-old would be coordinated enough not to fall out of a loft bed. Why?
Because like many people who’ve opted to live in smaller spaces, it gives us flexibility to do other things with our time and money. I wish I could say it has redefined our relationship with stuff, but our basement allows for a lot of overflow. I also wish I could say it has entirely rightsized our budget, but we still have that heinous daycare payment.
It has, most certainly, made me more organized. On the question of whether to pitch or save kids’ artwork, I am an unapologetic tosser. But I’m also sure it has made me a more engaged parent. The lower overhead allowed me to work a flexible schedule while our daughter was little. Plus, most of her play happens in the middle of our living room. And when my husband and I do argue, we resolve things pretty fast. It’s no fun to be 10 feet away from someone you’re really mad at.
For sure, there are minor inconveniences, like the rented scuba regulator that lived on our dining room table for two weeks because there was no other obvious place to put it. Or the lack of a workspace that’s even remotely ergonomical. But here’s the thing: I still like coming home to our little house. I like my family. I want to see them at the end of the day. It’s nice to have them close, in our familiar tight orbit. And it’s weirdly satisfying to survey most of the things you use on a daily basis just by turning in a circle.
So, for now, we’re going to work with what we have, and aspire to have less. And my daughter will continue to wonder how so many oversized toys could go missing in such a small house.
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I know: You’re feeling a bit blue about that anti-reform farm bill extension that Congress snuck in to the fiscal cliff deal just before the new year — the one that Grist skewered for its screwing over of sustainable farmers. You’re not alone — the big subsidy reform groups like the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and the Environmental Working Group were bummed, too.
But with 2013 comes a new Congress, and some agriculture reformers are now moderating their fury. As NPR reports, the 2012 Farm Bill disaster now looks more like a “stalemate.” Yes, conservation programs, fruit and vegetable subsidies, and new farmer programs weren’t included in the extension. But a controversial, massive expansion of crop insurance or the proposed “shallow-loss” income insurance program for commodity crop farmers didn’t sneak in, either.
Meanwhile, Democrats expanded their majority in the Senate with what may be the most progressive caucus in decades — one that some analysts say hearkens back to the liberal “golden age” of the 1960s. Of course, House Republicans are as crazy as ever, even if there are a few less of them.
That brings us to the great irony of the farm bill debacle. House Republicans killed the farm bill when they didn’t even engage in negotiations with the Senate (which had passed their version over the summer) to find some way to pass something. In short, Speaker John Boehner refused to bring up the farm bill for a vote after his caucus revolted over nutrition spending — which led to the expiration of huge chunks of federal farm policies.
And yet, it’s worth noting that Republicans in Congress overwhelmingly represent the very same farmers and ranchers who are most affected the farm bill’s failure. Check out the map of 2012 election results from the House of Representatives via the New York Times:
In fact, it seems like the House members that farm country sends to Congress often put the interests of Tea Party Nation before their actual constituents. The most extreme example of this may be Kansas Republican Rep. Tim Huelskamp. A vocal opponent of farm subsidies as well as food stamps, he was considered so radical in his wingnuttery by John Boehner that he lost his seat on the House Agriculture Committee — the first time in 150 years (!!) that Kansas won’t have representation there. And yet Huelskamp ran unopposed in 2012.
I was having similar ironical thoughts as I read this article in Montana’s Billings Gazette about reform-minded ranchers who are frustrated at the Obama administration’s failure to push through new rules that would protect them from the anti-competitive practices of meat packers and processors. To quote Jerry Seinfeld: Really? Really?!
Mitt Romney won Montana by 14 percent — besting John McCain’s 2008 performance by six points. Montana’s new, sole House member is a Republican, who was elected easily — but in many ranchers’ eyes, it’s still Obama’s fault. In fact, the Obama administration made the biggest push in decades to reform meat industry rules (known as GIPSA rules, for the acronym of the agency that regulates it). And as I’ve observed in the past, that effort was defunded and effectively killed by … House Republicans. (For more on issues related to corporate consolidation in agriculture, check out my recent interview with Sea Change Radio.)
At a certain point, you have to face facts. Farmers have a problem with Washington. And it really isn’t with urban, blue-state representatives. It’s with the people rural voters are sending there. I’m not the only one who has noticed this. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack — who seems very likely to stay on despite some reports to the contrary — tried to have a Sister Souljah moment with farmers when he declared that it was time to “have an adult conversation” about rural politics.
There are some ranchers who get it, of course. The Gazette interviewed one by the name of Ressa Charter, who is working to launch a local food system in the Billings area — complete with website, billingslocalfood.org. As he put it:
Local food isn’t going to be the answer for all of Montana’s beef and grain production but we might as well eat our own excellent meat. It’s kind of a travesty that we don’t have access to it. I think that’s the simplest reason we should build a local food system… It can be an avenue to doing an end-run around the concentrated packer end of the meat market.
And then he goes all Michael Pollan: “We can build sustainable prosperity for Montana families by reinvigorating our ‘solar harvesting’ through our great grasslands.”
Dude: Have you considered running for Congress?
Filed under: Food
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Lakiya Culley, an administrative assistant at the U.S. State Department and mother of three, just moved into one of the most innovative, energy-efficient houses in the U.S. – in a rather unlikely location.
Culley lives in Deanwood, a working class, primarily African American neighborhood of Washington, D.C. that has recently struggled with foreclosures. She is now the proud owner of an Empowerhouse, a home that produces all of its own energy, a feat made simpler by the fact that it consumes 90 percent less energy for heating and cooling than a conventional home.
Empowerhouse, which uses “passive house” technologies, was designed by students at the New School and Stevens Institute of Technology as part of the Solar Decathlon design competition, which was held on the National Mall in 2011. Developed in partnership with Habitat for Humanity and the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development, the house marks “the first time in the Solar Decathlon’s history” that a team partnered with civic and government organizations to make a house a reality in the District.
Solar Decathlon organizers added a new category so that teams could earn points for affordability after some criticism that homes were getting out-of-control-pricey and therefore weren’t realistic real-world models. A home from Germany, for example, cost upwards of $2 million. A spokesperson at New School, each unit of the actual Empowerhouse in Deanwood (there are two apartments in the mini-complex), cost just $250,000, making it affordable in that neighborhood. The model, which was built by Habitat for Humanity volunteers, has been such a hit that six more are being planned for Ivy City, another inner-city neighborhood in the District.
This “net-zero” home itself is a marvel. The bright, bold exterior lights up the whole block. The healthy, light-filled interior is built out of sustainable, recycled materials. And the landscape architecture was integrated into the project from the beginning, said Professor Laura Briggs, faculty lead of the project, at the New School, creating real stormwater management solutions that address the truly local environmental problems: the heavy runoff that impacts the already polluted rivers.
Each unit has terraces with green roofs and small plots for urban agriculture that are designed to capture some water. In the rear of each building is a rain garden that captures any rainwater that escapes from the roof gardens. Each unit also has its own underground cistern, where rainwater is collected and then used to water the property.
At the sides of the house, the parking space is actually made up permeable pavers that allow stormwater to sink into the underlying soils. And out front, there’s the District’s first residential green street, a deep trough filled with dirt and plants designed to soak up street runoff and deal with the oily pollutants that the runoff collects on streets. The landscape work was done with a the local organizations Groundwork Anacostia and D.C. Greenworks.
Both the homes and landscape were co-designed with the community. Students met with community members, local organizations, and Culley, the owner, in a series of design charrettes. The result of all that outreach and collaboration will be more projects in the neighborhood, including a new community “learning garden.” The designers say this was all part of creating social sustainability, a piece so often left out of the puzzle.
Empowerhouse is a powerful model for how to bring sustainable, affordable, community-based housing to inner city neighborhoods, and there’s this: Habitat for Humanity now knows how to build these passive house homes in a low-cost way. No doubt we’ll be seeing more of them in unlikely locations in the future.
Filed under: Cities
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In these first days of autumn, temperatures are finally starting to break after the country’s third-hottest summer on record. But meanwhile, most of the country is still locked in terrible drought, rebuilding after wildfires, or drying out after Hurricane Issac. And after endless calls from scientists and signs that the public is shifting on climate change in response to extreme weather, climate-minded Democrats are seeing an opportunity to lampoon House Republicans as climate skeptics in the runup to November’s general election.
Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the legislators behind Congress’ first (and failed) big stab at carbon pricing legislation, yesterday released a study that lays out the case for why global warming is a predictor of more severe and frequent weather disasters. A press release for the study slammed Republicans as responding to extreme weather by taking steps to “deny science and block action,” indicating that House Democrats have embraced climate change as wedge issue.
There’s little that’s groundbreaking in the study, which is built largely around preexisting data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But after this summer’s freakish weather, and with one presidential candidate for whom climate change is a punchline, Markey said he is seeking to gain an acknowledgement in Congress that the weather we now see as extreme is likely to become normal. He’s tried to make this case once before, in the short-lived Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, which was killed by House Republicans in 2010.
Despite the overtly political nature of the study’s debut, Markey said his goal is to reprioritize science over politics in the congressional debate about climate change.
“People know that something is not quite right about the weather,” he said. “Science is helping the public connect the dots between global warming and extreme weather.”
For a public — and its elected officials — with notoriously short attention spans, there can be one good thing about extreme weather: In August, a Yale poll found that heat waves, droughts, floods, and the like help people come to grips with the realities of climate change. That message can even hit home for climate skeptics on the right, Columbia University Earth Institute Director Jeffery Sachs said on Monday at a Climate Week NYC event.
“If Romney wins, [climate change] won’t come back until 2016, except for whatever disasters we see before then,” Sachs said.
Jeff Sharp, a spokesman for Democrats in the House Natural Resources Committee, of which Markey is the ranking member, said the goal of the report is to keep the issue on the table at a time when it is largely ignored, particularly by Republicans. A spokesperson for Republican committee member Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) did not return a request for comment.
Extreme weather “is something that Congress used to work on,” Sharp said. “We hope to get Congress focused on it again.”
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Apparently it wasn’t quite enough for the House Agriculture Committee to pass a version of the farm bill that made over $16 billion in cuts to food stamps and allowed for an open-ended expansion of crop insurance for Big Ag.
No, the members of the committee also felt the need to sneak something in to help out those poor struggling biotechnology behemoths in their attempts to win approval for new genetically engineered seed. Since we all know genetically modified seeds never win approval. I’m sorry. Did I say never? I meant always.
But apparently an unending winning streak isn’t enough for the biotech industry. It wants to make sure that the U.S. Department of Agriculture approves its new seeds with minimal study, and loses the ability to withdraw them from the market should they prove harmful. To top it off, biotech companies want to ensure that anyone harmed by these seeds will have no recourse for damages.*
Such a provision was slipped into the farm bill at the last minute. It would eliminate the liability biotech companies may have and effectively lift all regulations on genetically modified seeds. The provision bears a strong similarity to one that was added to the annual agriculture spending bill now working its way through the House (the one activist group Food Democracy Now! has dubbed the Monsanto Protection Act).
Of course, not all industry groups are thrilled. The National Grain and Feed Association, which has an interest in protecting the interests of its members who don’t use GMO seeds, has come out against it. As Scott Faber of the Environmental Working Group told the San Francisco Chronicle, “Most of agribusiness was just as surprised as [GMO opponents] that Lucas and Peterson would choose to use the farm bill to gut USDA review of GMO crops and open this particular Pandora’s Box.”
As predicted, the newly approved House bill is awful otherwise. As the Environmental Working Group put it, “The House bill would feed fewer people, help fewer farmers, do less to promote healthy diets and weaken environmental protections — and it would cost far more than Congressional bean counters say.” So the Senate may also have bigger fish to fry when it comes time for both sides of Congress to battle it out.
Before this biotech language can become law, it would need to be added to the Senate version of the farm bill, which lacks any such GMO provision. What the leaders of the House Ag Committee might be banking on is that, with so many differences between the House and Senate bills, any objections to a provision such as this could get drowned out in the race to final passage. With time running out and the current farm bill set to expire on Sept. 30 (and with it many of the programs that make up federal farm policy), perhaps an itty bitty provision like GMO deregulation might get ignored by House and Senate negotiators.
All that said, the whole farm bill mishegas may be for naught — GMO handouts included. The Hill reports that House Speaker John Boehner is still refusing to commit to bringing the bill up for a vote. And in another article, The Hill recounts Boehner’s longstanding antipathy to farm subsidies — “he hates the farm bill,” says one lobbyist — so the odds of getting this bill into law are long indeed.
But given the attempts to include GMO deregulation in every recent piece of agriculture-related legislation, even total farm bill Armageddon probably won’t be enough to stop biotech’s friends in Congress. I’m guessing it’s a question of when, not if, a giveaway provision to the biotech industry like this one becomes law.
*And for those of you who doubt that GMOs produce harm — it’s worth noting that Bayer was forced to pay out hundreds of millions of dollars in damages to farmers whose crops were contaminated by its GMO rice.
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When the Senate passed its version of the farm bill, we at Grist had to admit that, for all the flaws, it “wasn’t all bad news.” Some of the worst aspects of the bill (like giveaways to the insurance industry and to big commodity farmers) were reined in by several late-breaking amendments, and federal nutrition programs (“food stamps”) were “only” cut by $4.5 billion over the next 10 years. That may not sound so great, but it’s all relative; farm bill analysts have been warning for months that the House version would be much worse.
In fact, later today, we’ll find out for sure just how much worse it can get. The House Agriculture Committee is scheduled to release its draft of the farm bill tonight — and according to Politico’s David Rogers, the House GOP has indeed forced far deeper (you might even say extreme) cuts to food stamps as the price for passage. According to Rogers’ sources, the House version of the farm bill will cut $16.5 billion over 10 years from food stamps alone.
(Update: Shortly after we published this post, the House released its draft. And that number was right.)
In a deep dive into the backroom fight over food stamps among House Republicans, Rogers reports that they have selected a set of “reforms” that will radically reduce the number of people eligible for the program. Close to 2 million people will be dropped from the food stamp program, Rogers estimates, if the House version becomes law. It doesn’t seem to matter to Republicans that these changes would also have to get through the Senate during the reconciliation process, which has rejected similar provisions in the past.
Distressingly, these are cuts that Democrats on the House Agriculture Committee seem willing to swallow. At a recent news conference, Rep. Collin Peterson (Minn.), ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, admitted that the committee is expected to approve its version by voice vote next week and send it on to the full House for final passage — though he acknowledged that the draft will probably “make Democrats angry.”
“Angry” is probably an understatement. I would argue that the cuts to food stamps will be a non-starter for numerous House Democrats — many of whose votes will be needed to pass the bill, probably ending hopes for a new farm bill before the election. Yet it’s also possible that this process has simply devolved into empty pre-election posturing.
Evidence for this theory lies in the fact that the House leadership hasn’t even scheduled time to bring the farm bill up for a final vote. Politico’s Rogers speculated that House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor (who bears a good part of the responsibility for setting the House schedule) never really believed the Senate would pass anything. Now he just wants the whole thing to go away.
With no guarantee of a floor vote on the House calendar, the prospect of an extension of the current bill (which expires in September) looms larger. But as Ferd Hoefner of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition explains in the organization’s blog, there’s nothing simple about that either:
If we are headed to an extension of current law, here too there are at least three possible options. There could be a short term, 3-month extension, with the hope that Congress, during the “lame duck” session after the November elections could somehow find a way to finish the bill — even if the House version has never gone to the floor for debate (more on that option below). There could also be a one-year extension, with both House and Senate starting the process all over again in the new two-year Congress starting in 2013. Or there could be a one-year extension that could be superseded if a lame duck option materializes.
Substantively, there are also two options for an extension bill. One would be a clean extension, with no changes to current law during the time of the extension. The other, and perhaps more likely, would be an extension with a limited number of changes to current law, either to deal with several immediate problems that a simple extension would not address or to make a down payment on deficit reduction, or perhaps a combination of both.
And if the extension fails? Next stop, 1949.
We know the House GOP is happy to play chicken with the Senate as they just did with the federal transportation funding bill. In that fight, Senate Democrats showed a willingness to give up on many of their own priorities for the sake of getting a law passed that would keep federal funds flowing.
Further complicating matters, the House GOP has also made noise about demanding more cuts from commodity programs as well — a non-starter with Big Ag — though we’ll have to wait and see if those come to pass. Either way, Republicans have once again shown a willingness to take things to the brink. The question now is will they grab as many Democrats as they can and jump.
At the moment, the farm bill process is a Choose Your Own Adventure book full of tragic endings (and a slim chance of one or two reasonable ones). Hoefner couches the prospects for getting a new farm bill to the president’s desk about as hopefully as one can: “It’s a tall order, but not impossible.”
Indeed, I’m reminded of a comment Michael Pollan made during a visit to the Grist offices for a potluck lunch several years ago. At the time one of his ideas for improving food policy was to reform the House Agriculture Committee. As he put it, that committee is “where decent ag legislation goes to die.”
Of course, Pollan’s comment came before John Boehner and his Band of Merry Tea Partiers took control of the House in 2010. If the House Agriculture Committee of 2009 was where decent legislation went to die, then the current committee is where its corpse is trampled on, disemboweled, and paraded through the streets.
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