Washington Insider --Thursday

Focus on Nutrition Essential for Farm Bill

Here’s a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN’s well-placed observer.

US-China Trade Talks on Tap Amid US Tariffs, Hearing on More Tariffs

China's Ministry of Commerce announced late-Wednesday that the U.S. and China will hold trade talks with a Chinese delegation headed to the U.S. later this month. China's Vice Commerce Minister Wang Shouwen will lead the Chinese team that will meet with U.S. Treasury Undersecretary for International Affairs David Malpass.

The visit comes at the invitation of the U.S. and is viewed as a session to gauge whether to not higher-level discussions can be held. Some in China are labeling the officials headed to the U.S. as a "senior" Chinese delegation, while U.S. officials have indicated the talks are lower-level, exploratory discussions.

Meanwhile, what had been three days of hearings next week by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) on the proposed $200 billion in tariffs on Chinese goods will now cover the full week, according to the trade agency. Around 370 are scheduled to testify at the sessions. Originally, the talks were scheduled to last just three days.

Sen. Grassley Says EPA Trying to Find Something for Oil Industry

Some type of concession to the oil industry relative to approving year-round sales of E15 is being sought by acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, according to Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa.

"There seems to be a real message from the White House to Wheeler to do something for E15 12 months out of the year. But there has to be something also done for refineries," Grassley told reporters on a weekly call. "So I think Wheeler is trying to find some balance. Something he can do for refineries that will make them happy and still do E15 12 months out of the year. I think it's fair to say he is working hard to do that and hasn't found anything yet."

Grassley also reiterated that the concept of allowing Renewable Identification Numbers (RINs) on exported biofuel to count toward Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) requirements is "not on the table," according to the discussions he has had with Wheeler.

While Wheeler has addressed the issues of small refiner waivers and E15, he has not commented on the potential for RINs on exported biofuels to qualify toward since saying in late July that the concept was being looked at.


Washington Insider: Focus on Nutrition Essential for Farm Bill

In an unusual focus on the coming conference committee showdown for the farm bill, The Hill cites a bi-partisan group of former USDA secretaries that calls the narrow focus on work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program “a mistake.” In fact, the group says they are “becoming distressed” that debate over this “monumental piece of food and agriculture legislation” neglects a “crucial” subject: nutrition.”

The bipartisan group notes that farm bills authorize a vast array of food and farm programs with different objectives, but that “80 percent of the funding goes toward the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the nation’s largest. The group includes former USDA chiefs Democrats Dan Glickman and Tom Vilsack and Republican Ann Veneman and it notes that this time around, each chamber has passed its own version of the bill “without any substantive debate about diet quality.”

The two bills now headed to conference do not focus on how federal food programs can combat the diet-related disease epidemic that is crushing health care costs, impeding economic productivity, and threatening national security. Rather, the group says, “debate appears likely to be centered on work requirements for a relatively small percentage of SNAP recipients.”

The former officials see the program is an invaluable tool for reducing food insecurity. Its “$70 billion dollar annual budget is dedicated to feeding over 40 million individuals each month.” These include the most vulnerable members of society, mainly children, elderly adults, people with disabilities, and veterans. “SNAP has been alleviating hunger for over fifty years, but there is room to strengthen its nutritional integrity and that work needs to be done now, the group said.”

The group also notes that university research has shown that SNAP participants now have lower diet quality than income-eligible nonparticipants and that the diet quality of participants has not improved despite recent positive trends in diet among Americans as a whole. “Focusing on nutrition could make SNAP even more effective for those it serves—and a better use of the public’s money,” the group said.

However, they argue there is still time to shift the farm bill conversation back to nutrition during the upcoming conference committee deliberations – and list several ways this can be done. These including direction to the conferees to “officially declare diet quality” to be a core SNAP objective, like fiscal integrity and food insecurity are now.

This would “compel” USDA to evaluate SNAP based on how effectively it improves participant’s diets, rather than “solely” on the basis of fraud and participation rates, the group said.

Also, a better SNAP-education program is needed, the former ag chiefs argue. SNAP-Ed is the government’s primary tool for improving SNAP diets through nutrition education and obesity-prevention interventions. Most states want to help their constituents eat healthier but they lack the day-to-day support from FNS to create and implement effective SNAP-Ed programs.

The Senate farm bill moves SNAP-Ed in the right direction by building on past SNAP-Ed reforms and allowing states to submit their SNAP-Ed plans electronically. However, the final farm bill should go further, by authorizing up to 2% of SNAP-Ed funds for infrastructure to help SNAP-Ed function to its true potential, the group says.

Finally, the former cabinet officials recommend Congress authorize a pilot nutrition intervention program within SNAP to evaluate purchasing behavior and health outcomes. Once we have a more robust understanding of which interventions are most successful at encouraging Americans to make the healthiest choices, we can ensure that both SNAP and non-SNAP recipients have diets that lead to health and longevity, the group says.

Their conclusion is that there has never been a more important time to refocus the farm bill on nutrition. Diet-related disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, surpassing tobacco, drug, and alcohol usage. More than 1,000 deaths every day are due to poor diets. Emerging science on the global cancer burden points to proper nutrition as the most important way after not smoking to protect against cancer. And of course, these diseases come with a hefty price tag, putting tremendous pressure on an already overburdened health care system.

“The three of us served under Republican and Democratic presidents and we can all agree that focusing on nutrition is paramount to getting a sound, bipartisan farm bill out of conference,” the group concludes. Ignoring nutrition is, quite literally, killing a thousand Americans every day, and the 2018 farm bill is a once in every five-year opportunity to make a difference, it said.

So, we will see. It seems that the conferees generally agree on the need for a strong bill, but that the SNAP provisions may present a sticky impediment to that objective. By itself, this group of former officials has virtually no clout, especially since attitudes toward possible new objectives for the program can be expected to differ widely among conferees.

Still, conference committee debates are often wild and wooly and the former officials’ nutrition ideas could gain traction as the process evolves. This certainly will be a fight producers should watch closely as it proceeds, Washington Insider believes.

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