New house ag committee chair to be named; pork checkoff--the true cost to farmers; and GM contamination--just a matter of time before experimental crops end up on our dinner plates.

By Alan Guebert, November 15, 2002

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"If USDA seriously believes the pork checkoff must be reinstated to save 91 jobs at the National Pork Board, exactly what does USDA believe should be done for the more than 200,000 pork producers who lost their jobs since the pork checkoff was imposed in the mid-1980s?"

1. Election fallout continues

In the first of many chain reactions caused by the Nov. 5 Republican win, Capitol Hill leadership showed some new faces this week.

First, as expected, Democratic House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt relinquished his post after eight years of fighting--and mostly losing to--Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey and Tom DeLay. Gephardt was quickly replaced by Californian Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, a clear-eyed, unapologetic liberal.

As presumed as Pelosi’s rise to Minority Leader was, she didn’t claim the title unopposed. The day before the Thursday, Nov. 13 caucus election, Rep. Marcy Kaptur announced a challenge to shoo-in Pelosi.

Kaptur, a 10-term representative from Toledo, Ohio and the longest-serving Democratic women in Congress, is an outspoken proponent of family farm agriculture who fiercely opposes the North American Free Trade Agreement, Fast Track Trade Authority and permanent tax cuts contained in the 10-year tax bill passed by Congress in 2001.

Alas, Pelosi won and the Democrats now confront a Republican juggernaut for two years. That juggernaut will be piloted by Tom “The Hammer” DeLay, a former bug exterminator from Houston. DeLay moved up to Majority Leader, replacing Dick Armey who retired, second in command to Speaker Denny Hastert.

As his nickname implies, DeLay is not known for his light touch. He is a fierce partisan known mostly for hyperbole and hyperventilating. Don’t be surprised if the Bush Administration uses him as its exterminator on the Hill.

Truly surprising was Tuesday’s announcement by House Ag Committee Larry Combest that he would resign from Congress in May. The news stunned friends and colleagues just a week after re-election to his 10th term with 91 percent of the vote.
Combest has held the Ag Committee gavel only four years, but the short stay belies his record. With help of his Democratic counterpart, Ranking Minority Member (and fellow Texan farmboy and neighbor) Charles Stenholm, Combest rejiggered 1996’s dysfunctional Freedom to Farm law into the 2002 Farm Bill.

Combest, who Texas pundit Molly Ivans might say “has hair all Texans can be proud of,” made two large contributions to the 2002 Bill: counter cyclical payments -- whose complex payment schemes promise to confuse farmers for at least six years -- and flat-out, Texas-mule stubbornness.

On the stubbornness front, Combest steadfastly held the line against Senate proposals to add a competition title and a packer ban on livestock ownership to the 2002 law. In final House-Senate negotiations, Combest told Senators there would be no Farm Bill if they persisted in either or both ideas. In the end, neither was adopted.

But Combest was not a wrecker. He made honest efforts to keep the House Ag Committee a bipartisan oasis amid the hot, airless desert of debate that is a hallmark of Congress today.
In announcing his departure, Combest said he’s retiring to spend more time with wife Sharon “while we still have our health.” It was an illusion to the passing of his 88-year-old father earlier this year and the tragic death of the couple’s daughter, Tonya, after emergency surgery in 1999.

His impending departure puts the Ag Committee Chair in play and Republican hopefuls are sharpening their elbows for the coming fight.

John Boehner from Ohio currently serves as the Committee’s vice chairman and is the heir apparent. Boehner, however, chairs the House Education and Workforce Committee. Since House rules do not permit members to hold more than one chairmanship, few suspect Boehner will give up the Education Committee to lead Ag.

That means some junior Republicans have a shot if they can get the ear and the nod of Speaker Hastert who will name Combest’s successor. Virginian Robert Goodlatte, Californian Richard Pombo, Terry Everett of Alabama and Nick Smith of Michigan all have expressed interest in the job.

2. USDA appeals pork checkoff loss

File this one under the heading “If you live long enough, you’ll see everything.”

On Wednesday, Nov. 13, USDA filed an emergency motion in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals to “stay” an Oct. 25 federal court ruling that declared the nationwide mandatory pork checkoff unconstitutional.

First Amendment notwithstanding, USDA wants the ruling overturned and the pork checkoff kept in place.


Because, as USDA notes in the second paragraph of its 20-page filing, killing the checkoff “will end a Congressionally enacted program and result in the dissolution of the National Pork Board, causing the immediate loss of at least 91 jobs, the breach of existing contracts, and the loss of assets and employee expertise that cannot be replaced.”

Hmm, let’s see if we understand this logic.

First, pork producers succeeded in their petition drive to force USDA to hold a vote on the pork checkoff.

Next pork producers succeeded in winning the vote to end the checkoff.

Finally, pork producers succeeded in defending both victories in federal court. (Remember, they didn’t go to court; they were named as defendants by checkoff backers who brought the suit to keep the checkoff.)

Now, after years of struggle and victory after victory, pork producers are told by USDA that the checkoff really exists so 91 people--“with expertise that cannot be replaced”--can keep their jobs?

And we thought lawyers lacked a sense a humor.

But USDA is not joking; it’s deadly serious.

So let’s be serious, too.

If USDA seriously believes the checkoff must be reinstated to save 91 jobs at the National Pork Board--most of which are held by former National Pork Producer Council employees who simply moved to the Board after the NPPC lost the 2000 checkoff vote--exactly what does USDA believe should be done for the more than 200,000 pork producers who lost their jobs since the pork checkoff was imposed in the mid-1980s?

And one more question while we’re at it: What has USDA’s rigorous court defense of all checkoffs in the last three years cost U.S. taxpayers? We know what’s its costs U.S. farmers--$1.3 billion per year.

3. GMO headlines, headaches
and heartburn

GMOs again made headlines this week and again the headlines gave American farmers headaches and heartburn.
On Nov. 13 and 14, USDA revealed that experimental bioengineered corn twice had threatened to contaminate the U.S. food and export markets in recent months with pharmaceutical varieties of corn unapproved for human consumption.

In the first incident, about 500 bu. of soybeans containing trace residual amounts of an unapproved GMO corn from a 2001 test plot were present in soybeans grown and harvested in the same field in 2002. A truckload of beans from that field were later mixed with 500,000 bu. of soybeans at an Aurora, NE elevator.

USDA ordered all 500,000 bu. to be destroyed or used in non-food--such as biodiesel--applications

According to USDA, ProdiGene, Inc., a biotech firm based in College Station, TX, hired Stauffer Seed Co. to contract with farmers to grow experimental varieties of pharmaceutical corn in 2001.

During the 2002 growing season, however, government inspectors monitoring the soybean field where the one acre of GMO corn had been grown in 2001 noticed volunteer corn in the beans. The inspectors ordered the volunteer corn removed from the field before the 2002 harvest.

According to USDA, though, the farmer failed to remove the volunteer GMO corn and harvested it with the beans. Later, the beans were mixed with other beans at the Aurora elevator to contaminate about $2.7 million worth 2002 crops.

On Nov. 14, USDA acknowledged that ProdiGene also had been ordered to burn 155 acres of conventional, non-GMO corn in Iowa earlier this fall after government inspectors suspected some of the firm’s experimental pharmaceutical corn may have cross-pollinated nearby conventional corn.

USDA said ProdiGene will pay for the costs of containing both non-approved GMO varieties.

What USDA did not say--and what ProdiGene has yet to disclose--is what types of “pharm” corn the company was testing to cause USDA to impose such draconian measures. USDA records indicate the ProdiGene received 85 test permits that allowed open-air trials of GMO and pharmaceutical corn in at least 96 different locations.

GMO opponent GEFood Alert suspects the pharmacological corn may have been one of four experimental varieties ProdiGene is attempting to develop: corn that contains either an AIDS vaccine, the blood-clotting agent Aprotinin, a digestive enzyme call Trypsin or an industrial glue called Laccase.

Matt Rand, the Biotechnology Campaign Manager for the National Environmental Trust, suggested the latest incidents only confirm that “it is just a matter of time before one of these experimental crops ends up on our dinner plates.”

GEFood Alert said it will petition USDA to halt all GMO pharmaceutical testing. Also, The Center for Food Safety announced it will file a Freedom of Information request with USDA to review all ProdiGene GMO test requests.

An earlier FOI on ProdiGene tests by Friends of the Earth was denied by USDA.

Despite the latest GMO headaches, some farm groups are using the incidents to claim USDA oversight of GMO testing is working. Stephan Censky, ceo of the American Soybean Assoc., noted USDA “did take action” before the ProdiGene non-approved corn entered the food chain.

But, he added, “pharmaceutical or industrial crops have to (be grown) under very strict and very meticulous protocols.”

Food sellers, however, say more assurances are necessary. The Grocery Manufacturers of America told the Des Moines Register Nov. 14 that the “biotech industry should ‘give serious consideration’ to using plants other than food crops like corn to develop pharmaceutical compounds.”

The American Corn Growers Assoc. agrees, saying the latest GMO scares only reinforce its long-advocated “cautionary approach” to GMO adoption and testing by American farmers.
“The last thing American farmers need is to have a lack of food processor confidence or erosion of consumer faith over the safety of corn, the nation’s largest crop,” offers ACGA’s Dan McGuire.



© 2002 ag comm

The Final Word comes to you each Friday by special arrangement. Alan Guebert's regular column, the Farm and Food File, is published weekly in more than 70 newspapers around the US and Canada. Contact him at