Washington Insider -- Monday

Foodies Go to Colllege

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

Vilsack: Decision Coming ‘Very Soon’ on Cottonseed as ‘Other Oilseed’

The issue of whether USDA can make cottonseed an “other oilseed” has yet to be determined but a decision on the matter is coming “very soon,” according to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack.

US cotton producers, lawmakers and even soybean producers – with some conditions – have been pushing for cottonseed to be considered an “other oilseed” under provisions of the 2014 Farm Bill, a move which would make cottonseed eligible for the safety net programs such as the Ag Risk Coverage (ARC) and Price Loss Coverage (PLC).

Several USDA agencies are involved in the process and are examining issues, Vilsack said, including whether USDA has the authority to do so and whether such a move would be WTO compliant. “You also have to think about the budget impact,” Vilsack told USDA Radio. “So, all these issues are being looked at. The General Counsel’s office is involved, the Foreign Ag Service is involved, the Farm Service Agency is involved, so that I get a 360-degree review of this issue so we can try to figure out what we can do to be as helpful as we can be within the confines of the law.”

While not providing any specific timeline on when he will make a decision, Vilsack said, “One is forthcoming very soon.”

Sources, including those on the Hill and some in USDA, have signaled that USDA does have the authority to take this step. However, those same sources say the budget issues are a major question relative to this decision, an issue reportedly raised by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

The American Soybean Association (ASA) also identified the budget as a condition – namely, that the estimated cost of the program can be offset as needed, without negatively impacting funding for other farm bill programs or reducing funding for crop insurance, and that it will not violate US commitments under the WTO.

Based on Vilsack’s comments, his department is examining all those issues relative to this decision he pledges is coming “very soon.”

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Official Admits Slow in WOTUS Subpoena Response

The White House has been very tardy in providing records requested by a House subpoena related to the administration’s efforts to clarify the Clean Water Act by issuing the Waters of the US (WOTUS) rule, Associate Director for Legislative Affairs in Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Tamara Fucile told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

“I admit completely that our production hasn’t been fast enough. We will do better,” Fucile told the committee, citing the “incredibly broad” scope of the subpoena, which requests nine years’ worth of records. She declined to confirm when OMB could fully comply with the subpoena, only promising to speed record production going forward.

Frustration was expressed from both parties in Congress. “Is this the best you can do? I’m tenacious. I’m not going to give up on this,” Rep. Mark Meadows, R-NC said. Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, lamented, “Wow, this is what we’re up against.” Rep. Steven Lynch, D-Mass., said, “You need to do better, you really do.”

A minority of members stepped up to defend OMB, with Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-NY, noting that “it’s a staggering amount of work,” given the large scope and volume of the requests.

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Washington Insider: Foodies Go To College

The Los Angeles Times recently ran an article on the new trend by universities to plug into student’s interests in foods. This is probably not good news for producers who have been brought up working to make a living from the land because the results indicate that large numbers of students are focusing on the foodie culture’s basically social concepts that frequently have little connection with productivity or efficiency.

The article says that an estimated 30 colleges and universities now have formal interdisciplinary “food studies programs that offer degrees or minors.” And, it notes that new courses were opened this fall at the University of California-Berkeley, the University of the Pacific and Syracuse University.

The Times does note that hundreds of more traditional degrees in agriculture, nutrition and the environment are attracting new food-focused interest.

The slant seen in the courses that interest the Times can be seen from the “case” chosen to illustrate the trend — a UC Berkeley student named Charlie who tends to bean plants in the university’s community garden. He is also a business major enrolled in a newly established academic minor in food systems. He was deeply affected by visiting his grandmother’s organic vegetable farm in Japan, learning about pesticide-free and locally-grown produce.

Charlie claims a hands-in-the-dirt internship at UC Berkeley’s Gill Tract Community Farm in nearby Albany and told the Times about his family’s emphasis on fresh food. Amazingly, he emphasized the negative, “It’s ingrained in me that there is a lot of food out there that is harmful to people and the environment. I want to address that in my studies here and try to fix some of the injustices,” he said. “A lot of people can’t afford organic food. I want to make it more accessible.”

The Times says the current crop of college students swap “restaurant tips, discuss gluten-free and paleo diets and post photos of vegan meals on social media with great frequency. Along with their interest in food, many also are committed to social justice and activism around issues of hunger, food safety and pollution.

Because these students are deeply involved in “what they eat and don’t eat”, they are very different than older gourmands who were only in fine dining, said Professor Krishnendu Ray, president of the Association for the Study of Food and Society.

The Times goes on to quote Ray’s assertion that “food culture” is now “a legitimate” topic for scholarship and schools use such programs to gain status and attract tuition-paying students. It notes that the University of the Pacific, which has its main campus in Stockton, recently established a food studies master’s program. Students told the Times that foodie culture “is so much a part of our lives now, it makes sense that it is becoming part of college programs.”

Now, the 3-year-old Berkeley Food Institute think tank at the UC campus brings together scholars and speakers on scientific and policy research that is now bolstered by the UC Global Food Initiative, which draws together and funds food scholarship in agriculture, medicine, nutrition, climate science, social science and the humanities.

Other California campuses are joining the trend, the Times says. UCLA has a new food studies graduate certificate program, a freshman science and environmental survey course centered on food and a “food justice” class emphasizing field work at community gardens and kitchens.

All this may be a good thing, and it is possible that the conventional producers have emphasized efficiency and productivity a bit too much. At the same time, it is true that the urban foodies emphasize their culture so heavily that observers can be excused if they find these courses closer to advocacy than science. In fact, they are frequently criticized for finding value in food characteristics that do not stand much scrutiny, including some of foodies’ old standards like “localness”, “rawness”, and “naturalness” among others which really do not help at all to meet objectives of efficiency, nutrition, safety, taste and availability, among others.

Is this academic trend a threat? Possibly, in the sense that foodies typically do not think much about how the world will feed its people in the future and what policies to meet their preferences might mean for the poor, for example. Some of the courses described, like the Berkeley Global Food Initiative likely do consider such things and focus on those needs but many seem more interested in strictly personal level concerns that seem unlikely to either provide much in the way of health benefits, to survive long in the real world, Washington Insider believes.


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(GH/CZ)