Washington Insider-- Friday

A National Food Policy

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

Obama Plans to Enforce Dec. 31 Deadline for Rail Safety (PTC) Requirement

President Barack Obama plans to enforce a deadline for rail operators to install safety technology by the end of the year, despite warnings from railroads including Union Pacific Corp. and Amtrak that they cannot meet the mandate and would have to suspend some service without an extension.

"Congress enacted this law, including the December 31, 2015, deadline, and we believe it is important that the Department of Transportation enforce the law that Congress passed," Frank Benenati, a White House spokesman, said on Wednesday, the day after lawmakers released a letter from Amtrak saying it might suspend some passenger service if the delay is not enacted.

House transportation leaders last week introduced legislation to extend the deadline for three years. House and Senate negotiators have been discussing ways to get the measure through both chambers. Benenati declined to comment on whether Obama would sign legislation extending the deadline because nothing has advanced in Congress.

Railroads have had seven years to install positive train control technology (PTC), which can slow or stop trains to avoid crashes, on their locomotives and tracks where passengers or hazardous materials move.

Railroads are asking Congress to allow for a three-year delay to install the systems and another two years before they must be fully operational, saying the mandate has been expensive and they have faced regulatory delays from agencies including the Federal Communications Commission to get it installed.

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Washington Insider: A National Food Policy

At the same moment the nation is watching a showdown over the scientific basis for the soon-to-be released national dietary guidelines, a group is fighting for the limelight with their idea of not just guidelines, but a national food policy.

The group includes some well-known names like Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan, Ricardo Salvador and Olivier De Schutter, among others. Pollan announced their new ideas in an email that notes the op-ed article they published in the Washington Post last year calling on the president to establish a National Food Policy.

While no such policy has emerged, they claim a lot of support now and assert that the need for their ideas is even greater. They also think there is no unifying plan or even an agreed-upon set of principles for managing American agriculture or the food system. They see their role as describing such principles.

This is an interesting approach. Rather than focus on anything as mundane as a soil conservation plan, or even farm income or safety objective, they say they want to "reorganize the resources of government" to achieve their system. All of them, apparently. How's that for ambitious?

In fact, the plan is somewhat heavy going. For starters, all Americans are to have access to healthful food and farm policies are to be designed to support our public health and environmental objectives.

They get ambitious. Our food is to be free of "toxic bacteria, chemicals, and drugs," and "production and marketing" is to be transparent.

The food industry is to pay a fair wage to those it employs, while food marketing "sets children up for healthful lives by instilling in them a habit of eating real food." In addition, animals are to be treated with compassion and attention to their well-being; and the food system's carbon footprint is to be reduced while the amount of carbon sequestered on farmland is to be increased.

Finally, the group says the food system is to be sufficiently resilient to withstand the effects of climate change.

The group asserts that its goals are anything but controversial but still have not been achieved. This is because, they say, government policy in these areas is made piecemeal, overseen by "eight different federal agencies." This incoherence is the result of "special interests that thrive while the public good suffers." Since Congress can't be trusted, the next president must establish by executive order the national policy for food, health, and well-being they have in mind.

The shift to an integrated national policy would make food and farming a matter of public concern rather than a parochial interest and make it much more difficult for the interests of agribusiness to prevail over those of public and environmental health.

In the end, the group's National Food Policy would lay the foundation "for a food system in which healthful choices are accessible to all and in which it becomes possible to nourish ourselves without exploiting other people or nature." The group wants the public to contact the candidates to "put forth their own NFP" along the lines described above.

Still, the group doesn't want you to think they are naive about how easy this new policy would be to achieve. All they want to do is start a conversation, they say and they solicit "imaginative" new ideas for a conversation on food system reform.

So, what do we have here? It is a fairly ordinary theme by foodies in which they charge that most of the nation's health problems are the result of the lack of a food system they approve of that mainly abandons most modern technologies. For this, they claim marvelous things, including toxin-free foods and prosperous workers with longer lives, among other things.

Anything there about costs, prices or returns? What about government interventions? Would it work? Can there really be a toxin-free system? What is a really transparent market? Has our food system really caused all these problems? Has Mr. Lincoln's People's Department really been such a failure? Well, they don't really address any of that.

You say this sounds like Central Planning to you and rudely ask how well that worked in Europe and Asia? Well, perhaps that would be a good question for these highly ambitious foodies. It seems they think agricultural people have short memories. Perhaps.

Should you take this seriously? You should. Remember that more than 80% of consumers mistrust the safety of modern ag technology that the vast majority of scientists say is entirely safe. So when these TV and book guys insist extreme interventions are what you need to solve many, many health and welfare problems, you should think about how this might affect your life in real time, Washington Insider believes.


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(GH/SK)