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Politics Dominates the Top Ag and Food Stories of 2014

Dec 21, 2014

2014 was the year even the lunch ladies got political.

Harvest Public Media was created four years ago to report on agriculture and food production in the geographic area where the majority of that takes place – the Midwest. This year, my third of counting the top ag stories of the year, I find that the issues taking center stage were set not here, but in the politics, policies and processes of Washington D.C., state legislatures or the ballot box.

The Farm Bill passed, GMO labeling bills failed and FLOTUS was skewered for her school nutrition work. Our look back at the agricultural stories of 2014:

The Jamie L. Whitten Building in Washington, home to the USDA
Credit Wikipedia

No. 1 - The $956 billion Farm Bill passed. I know, I know, you’re sick of hearing about the Farm Bill. It took more than two years to pass and was one of the many examples of a non-working Washington.

Here’s why you can care: it’s a critical piece of policy that will literally and figuratively shape the U.S. landscape for years to come, touching the environment, health care and trade. And, as we found during a deep look with the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, it’s important to know that the bill is now guided by food companies, bankers and insurance interests, moving it with their millions and making it one of the top ten heavily-lobbied bills of the year. That’s a major shift of political power away from “the little struggling band of farmers,” as one Capitol Hill insider told us, that used to write the bill.

No. 2 – What was not to like about the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act? The Obama administration’s attempt in 2010 to set strict new nutrition standards on food sold in public schools was aimed at helping fight childhood obesity. The School Nutrition Association, the dues-paying membership of school lunch professionals, at first sided with Michele Obama’s devotion to healthy food.

But the devil’s food was in the details, and things went south this year as food companies, advocates and the USDA began the tough work of setting the rules and policies. The war on obesity turned, as the New York Times reported, into a “war among onetime allies.”

Republicans now attack the new rules as a nanny-state intrusion by the finger-wagging first lady. Food companies, arguing that the new standards are too severe, have spent millions of dollars lobbying to slow or change them. Some students have voted with their forks, refusing to eat meals they say taste terrible.

The School Nutrition Association is now trying to roll back what it views as the overly strict provisions of the law. And even kids have taken their gripes public, using the hashtag #ThanksMichelleObama to publicize their healthy (read: “yucky”) lunches.

No. 3 – The barn yard has been moved to the ballot box.

Going back to the top stories of 2012, GMO labeling initiatives were playing big in the headlines. This year, our Luke Runyon wrote extensively about Colorado’s failed vote that would force food processors to label their products if they contained genetically-modified ingredients. A similar attempt failed in Oregon, but a plan to ban the cultivation of GMO produce in a Hawaiian county was successful.

The state plans made the grocery and food industry take fierce notice, and they fought back not only by dumping millions into the battle against the initiatives, they also took their fight to the feds. A Kansas congressman introduced a bill that would outlaw those state attempts at GMO labeling. And the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which is leading the fight against the labeling, spent nearly $5 million on Capitol Hill in just the last quarter of 2013.

Farmers are also trying to keep the regulators at bay through the ballot box by what’s being called the “right to farm” proposals. The issue kept our Missouri reporter, Kristofor Husted, up late on Election Day in August, when the constitutional amendment passed by just a few votes. As Kris reported, the plan pitted farmer against farmer: large-scale producers said they needed to protect modern farming practices; smaller producers, environmentalists and animal rights advocates said it was a way to overstep state pollution and animal welfare laws.

No. 4Last year I wrote that the overriding theme was the food production debate being played out through documentaries, videos and television ads. That continued this year and new controversies seemed to focus on activist documentaries.

The film “Fed Up” gathered most of the attention, with its indictment on food companies and politicians who allowed sugar to become an addictive agent and what the film says is the cause of childhood obesity. You didn’t see it at your local movie theatre? Join the others who made it one of the top downloaded documentaries on Netflix and Amazon this year.  The counter to “Fed Up” was“Farmland,” done by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliiance.  

No. 5 – Politics were also at play in several policy changes made in Washington this year. The fight over “country of origin” labeling (COOL) on meat also played out in the courts and the Farm Bill, as our Abbie Swanson reported. But just when everyone thought the issue was done, our Jeremy Bernfeld reported that Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack hinted that the law that requires where the animal was raised and slaughtered might violate trade laws.

Other ongoing controversies in Washington this year were the Food Safety and Modernization Act and President Obama’s executive order on immigration, which saved some 250,000 workers in the ag industry from deportation.

No. 6 – Mother Nature continued to have her way with farming and ranching in 2014 as the drought persisted throughout the Southwest and Texas and truly devastated California. Our Luke Runyon wrote about the “modern day Dust Bowl” that remains in Colorado, Kansas and Texas.

Greg Heiden, a farmer from Bertrand, in south central Nebraska, said he believes that drought was again one of the top stories of the year. The drought has increased irrigation costs, even as the local water district is cutting back on deliveries, he said. But Heiden said he’s lucky they have plentiful groundwater.

“Corn is our primary crop here, and we’re also blessed with a great livestock industry,” Heiden said. “Corn isn't working so well at $4 a bushel with today's input costs.  Livestock is carrying our area and masking most of the negative effects of low corn prices.”

No. 7 – Farm incomes, riding high for the last several years, started to flutter this year, thanks to a record harvest that created a grain glut, as our Grant Gerlock reported for NPR.  Farmland prices, so high for the last few years they created many millionaires, started to topple. From Iowa, our Amy Mayer got to document the split in livestock producers’ fortunes – cattle ranchers and farmers got some of the highest prices they’ve ever seen. But pork producers were struck by a virus that killed piglets, lowering pork supplies.

No. 8 – The term “big data” took off this year as some predicted that precision farming may be the next revolution in agriculture. Even as the big guys like Monsanto, John Deere and DuPont touted their use of vital information to make decisions on fertilizer, water and planting, critics cried that it could lead to big brother, with the companies holding valuable data that should remain private.

No. 9 – Energy was a confusing topic for farmers, who didn’t get to take advantage of the plunge in oil prices that came late in the year. And those hoping for more ethanol plants to eat up the big corn crop were left watching as Washington did nothing to what’s called the Renewable Fuel Standard back in 2013. I’ll have our resident expert, Grant Gerlock, explain:

What made this a big year for the Renewable Fuel Standard is that there effectively wasn’t one. In November 2013, the EPA proposed significant cuts to the amount of ethanol oil companies would need to mix with gasoline in 2014 and faced huge blowback from farmers and ag and biofuels trade groups. But the agency never got around to finalizing the proposed cuts. In November, the agency said it would finalize the rules for 2014, 2015, and 2016 all at once next year. Oil companies are left guess how much ethanol they will need to retroactively account for when the final rules are decided. Farmers who want ethanol plants to use up more of their corn crop were pleased to have a reprieve from the proposed cuts, but can’t be certain cuts to the ethanol mandate are not still part of the EPA’s plans for the future.

No. 10 –Rounding out our political year, a group of food writers called on President Obama to create a national food policy. Lead by food writers Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan, the opinion piece in the Washington Post said a just policy could save millions of lives, help the environment and pay a living wage to those who work in the industry.

How we produce and consume food has a bigger impact on Americans’ well-being than any other human activity. The food industry is the largest sector of our economy; food touches everything from our health to the environment, climate change, economic inequality and the federal budget. Yet we have no food policy — no plan or agreed-upon principles — for managing American agriculture or the food system as a whole.

That must change.

The manifesto was quickly mocked by Reason magazine as the “foodie elite” trying to bypass Congressional debate. Others speculated that the food movement’s moment might have just arrived.

Either way, it’s sure to make 2015 just as much of a political food fight as 2014 has been.