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A Busy Year Ahead

January 1, 2012

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Supposedly, the Mayans predicted that the world will end in 2012. Of course, I don’t place any stock in their thousand year-old forecast, but I do predict that it will be a busy and turbulent year ahead…picking right up where 2011 left off. Here are a few things that we’ll be watching in the months ahead:

First and foremost, farmers need to push Congress to pass a new Farm Bill – sooner, rather than later. The current one expires in nine months, but what’s worse, the distractions caused by the upcoming elections in 10 months will make it increasingly difficult to get the House, Senate and White House to agree on anything as the year unfolds.

We were tantalizingly close to making this happen a few months ago, when the congressional supercommittee was looking at incorporating a budget-cutting farm bill as part of the overall effort to trim $1.2 trillion in federal spending. That effort fell apart last in November, but as I wrote last month, there’s absolutely no reason why the leaders of the House and Senate Agriculture committees shouldn’t pick up right where they left off. There will be hearings, and a further review of existing proposals, but those efforts are not likely to result in any major new learnings.

Not only do the politics get more challenging the longer the Congress waits to act on the Farm Bill, but the budget situation gets worse as well. That’s why we have to send clear, compelling signals that a delay in reformulating dairy policy, and farm policy overall, means less money, fewer good options, and a higher likelihood that we end up with some last-minute deal that satisfies no one.

Beyond the Farm Bill battle, we are facing this year a new milk sampling program from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that is likely to be a headache on a number of fronts. NMPF has had ongoing discussions with the FDA about how best to verify whether current drug residue testing protocols are effective. Any day now, the FDA is planning to roll out a program where they take samples from approximately 900 dairy farms that have had past residue violations – not in their milk, but in the tissues of culled dairy cows. NMPF has raised several concerns with the FDA plan, but as it stands now, the FDA is likely to move ahead with this program in the coming months. We will try as hard as possible to avoid this program being a black eye for the dairy industry.

Another federal agency is also going to make waves in 2012 with the release of a new environmental risk assessment for dioxin. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is planning to release data assessing the health risks to Americans of their potential exposure to dioxin, which is a potent toxin. Because dioxin is common throughout our air, water and soil, we’re all exposed to trace amounts of it. Dairy products are one source, but there are many others. The good news is that dioxin levels in the U.S. have been declining for years; the bad news is that this EPA report is likely to scare at least some people into believing that few if any foods are safe to eat. That’s why we’ve asked the EPA to consider carefully the implications of the assessment they seem intent on issuing.

The other challenge – and opportunity – that will come our way in 2012 is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a huge and growing free trade agreement. The TPP is not a new development – we’ve been warning for years that dairy trade between the U.S. and New Zealand should not be part of the TPP. The latest news, however, is that Japan may well join the other nations that are part of these negotiations. The inclusion of Japan represents a huge potential opening for more U.S. dairy exports, if we can get a balanced and workable deal. The devil will be, as it always is, in the details of what gets negotiated…which may well be in the coming months.

So even if Washington will be gripped by partisan gridlock in 2012, there is the potential for both good and not-so-good developments this year as well. As always, we’ll be working hard to represent our members’ interests, placing our farmers and cooperatives in the best possible position.