Food market reform groups eye farm bill

2013-05-29T00:00:00Z 2013-06-25T14:06:09Z Food market reform groups eye farm billBy TOM LUTEY tlutey@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

For farmers and consumer groups seeking dramatic changes in U.S. food politics, the next few weeks are crucial.

Farm bill talks in the U.S. Senate are heating up, and lobbyists tilting at corporate agriculture and the genetically modified foods have big political steaks to fry. That’s because the right amendment to the farm bill, which comes around only once every five years, has the potential to change U.S. food policy.

In the past week, the Senate has considered whether to deny federally subsidized crop insurance to tobacco farmers, whether to allow states to require labels on genetically modified foods, and whether to deny food stamps to felons. Only the last of those three succeeded.

The Senate returns from a 9-day Memorial Day break June 3 with amendments aplenty, including a few supported by Montana and Wyoming farm and ranch advocates.

Bill Bullard of the Billings-based Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America, said he’s hopeful lawmakers will bridle corporate agriculture, particularly the meatpacking industry. Four meatpackers process more than 69 percent of the beef in the United States. R-CALF USA believes that market concentration has put ranchers at a disadvantage.

An amendment by U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont, would require annual reports from the federal government on consolidation levels not only in the meatpacking industry, but also the biggest players in seeds and even supermarkets.

“What we’re looking for is what impact does marketplace concentration have on the food supply chain,” Bullard said.

For years, R-CALF has contended that marketplace concentration in meatpacking has meant both lower than fair market payments for ranches and inflated meat prices for grocery shoppers, something the meatpacking industry adamantly disputes.

A year ago, Bullard’s group found sympathetic lawmakers in the U.S. Senate, which passed a bipartisan farm bill only to see it die at year’s end because the House did not pass a farm bill of its own. Each branch is supposed to  pass a farm bill. The versions are then reconciled in conference committee.

House lawmakers haven’t been as interested in market fairness issues as the Senate. Two weeks ago, Republicans and Democrats on the House Agriculture Committee undid packing industry regulations contained in the last farm bill, which was passed in 2008.

U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., has an amendment to undo livestock marketing practices that proponents like Bill Bensel of the Powder River Basin Resource Council say shortchange ranchers and unfairly benefit meatpackers. Enzi told the Senate as much when addressing the issue May 19.

“There is evidence that there are bad actors out there who stack the deck when it comes to prices they use in livestock contracts,” Enzi said.

Forward contracts, in which a buyer and seller agree to a sale at a future date, have become problematic in some cases, according to Enzi, as meat packers tap their own cattle inventories to drive down the market price ahead of purchases from sellers locked into forward contracts. Enzi’s amendment, known as the Livestock Marketing Fairness Act, prohibits packers from using captive supplies to drive sales prices down.

 “I think the Livestock Marketing Fairness Act, which we have supported for a number of years has a chance,” Bensel said.

Public concern about corporate control of the food supply is growing, Bensel said, as consumers begin asking questions about where their food comes from and how it’s raised.

There are also several amendments dealing with genetically modified food, which is food engineered in the lab to contain specific genetic traits including some from other species.

Shannon Kahler, who organized a May 25 anti-GMO rally in Billings, is watching several amendments that could come up the week of June 3, including one restoring judicial oversight over genetically modified crops and a resolution indicating Senate support for a national GMO food labeling policy. Tester backs the latter resolution and also has an amendment draft to bolster classical plant and animal breeding.

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