President Obama Freezes Incoming Regulations, Including USDA | Civil Eats

President Obama Freezes Incoming Regulations, Including USDA

In one of his first moves as President, Yesterday Barack Obama had his White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel send this memo [PDF] urging all departments to freeze pending regulations issued by the Bush Administration in its waning weeks, including amendments to COOL (Country of Origin Labeling) and EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program).

COOL labeling had been slow to take effect after being part of the 2007 Farm Bill.  Currently, it exempts foods that have undergone a physical or chemical change (cooking, curing, smoking) or that have been processed (breaded, chocolate-covered, blended).  Will Obama consider that consumers have a right to know where there food is coming from, even if it is value-added? On the new rural agenda, it just states, “Implement Country of Origin Labeling so that American producers can distinguish their products from imported ones.”  The devil is in the details, so we will have to wait and see.

The biggest doozy that Obama will hopefully deal with soon is EQIP.  EQIP is billed by the USDA website as “the largest conservation program for working agricultural lands.” But a failure of the program has been the big fat check (up to $450,000) for large CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), who only voluntarily regulate the manure spewing forth from thousands of head.  The New Your Times reported on EQIP last week — detailing the results of changes in the 2002 Farm Bill that encouraged large industrial operations to seek ever-growing subsidies.  While EQIP also provides funds for soil erosion and sediment control as well as irrigation water management and grazing land practices, animal waste management practices (manure lagoons) make up the largest payments, at $179 million.

Agriculture policy expert and Ethicurian blogger Elanor Starmer gives more of the messy details in the report she authored last month [PDF] entitled “Industrial Livestock at the Taxpayer Trough: How Large Hog and Dairy Operations are Subsidized by the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.”

The bottom line is that we are sponsoring Big Ag to make a mess of our waterways, pollute our air and feed us the meat of fat, hormone-injected cows and pigs. Starmer’s report gives suggestions for better enforcement, like capping subsidies at $150,000 and encouraging transparency on how EQIP money is being used.

So what will Obama do?  His current agenda includes stronger regulation for CAFOs: “Strictly regulate pollution from large factory livestock farms, with fines for those that violate tough standards. Support meaningful local control.”

But this isn’t quite the hardline he took in his campaign’s Real Leadership for Rural America [PDF], where he said on the subject the he planned to:

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Limit EQIP Funding for CAFOs: Barack Obama and Joe Biden believe that we should help farmers find the resources to comply with environmental requirements. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) provides important financial support to farmers seeking to improve the environmental quality of their operations. Unfortunately, the 2002 Farm Bill lifted the cap on the size of livestock operations that can receive EQIP funding, enabling large livestock operations to receive EQIP payments and subsidizing big CAFOs by as much as $450,000. Barack Obama and Joe Biden supports reinstating a strict cap on the size of the livestock operations that can receive EQIP funding so that the largest polluters have to pay for their own environmental clean up.

Let’s hope he remains as stern in his conviction.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has placed a 60 day hold on the pending regulations, and says he intends to conduct the reviews properly and as quickly as possible.  Let’s hope that amid all of the demands being placed on Obama in these crucial early days, he will make room for food issues at the table.

Meanwhile, Vilsack has been busy naming USDA positions, and unfortunately has not yet included any of the Food Democracy Now! Sustainable Dozen.  There is some speculation, however, that the Deputy Secretary position could be filled by Chuck Hassebrook or Karen Ross.  New USDA staffers include Bart Chilton, who will stay commissioner of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, Carole Jett, who will be Vilsack’s deputy Chief of Staff, and Dallas Tonsager, who will likely be named USDA Undersecretary for Rural Development.   Here’s hoping that the USDA takes note, and brings some sustainably-minded individuals on board.

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Paula Crossfield is a founder and the Editor-at-large of Civil Eats. She is also a co-founder of the Food & Environment Reporting Network. Her reporting has been featured in The Nation, Gastronomica, Index Magazine, The New York Times and more, and she has been a contributing producer at The Leonard Lopate Show on New York Public Radio. An avid cook and gardener, she currently lives in Oakland. Read more >

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