Grassley, Harkin vote yes as Senate passes food safety bill (updated)

The U.S. Senate approved the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act today by a 73 to 25 vote. Tom Harkin and all other Senate Democrats voted for the bill, as did 15 Republicans including Iowa’s Chuck Grassley. Grassley also was among 14 Republicans who joined Democrats to support the cloture motion ending debate on the food safety bill yesterday.

Some details on the bill as well as its complicated path through the Senate are after the jump.  

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Weekend open thread: Colbert v King edition

What’s on your mind this weekend, Bleeding Heartland readers?

Yesterday Stephen Colbert testified before a House Judiciary subcommittee about the need to provide more visas and better working conditions for migrant farm workers. He was in character, cracking jokes, during part of the hearing, but answered seriously when asked why he took an interest in this issue:

“I like talking about people who don’t have any power and it seems like one of the least powerful people in the United States are migrant workers who come and do our work but don’t have any rights as a result. But yet we still invite them to come here and at the same time ask them to leave. […] Migrant workers suffer and have no rights.”

Representative Steve King was at the hearing and didn’t care for Colbert’s stunt. He suggested that Colbert didn’t really spend a day working on a farm, as he claimed to have done, and accused Colbert of disparaging American workers who “perform the dirtiest, most difficult, most dangerous (jobs) that can be thrown at them.”

Maybe King was jealous that someone advocating for immigration reform grabbed a lot of media attention. Immigration has long been one of King’s pet issues. Fox News invited King on for a segment about whether Colbert’s testimony was appropriate.

Not surprisingly, media commentators seem more interested in the controversy surrounding Colbert’s appearance than in the topic at hand: an agriculture jobs bill that would give undocumented farm workers a path to U.S. citizenship.

This is an open thread.

UPDATE: Both Governor Chet Culver and Republican candidate Terry Branstad are scheduled to announce “major endorsements” on Monday morning. Who do you think those could be? My guess is the Branstad endorser will be a business person who has supported some Democrats in the past.  

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Thicke unveils forward-looking energy policy for agriculture

Francis Thicke, the Democratic candidate for secretary of agriculture, announced a “comprehensive energy policy for agriculture” that would increase the use of renewable energy in the agriculture sector, with a focus on systems that “put profits in farmers’ pockets.” Corporate agriculture interests have often demonized environmentally friendly energy policies as bad for farmers, but Thicke points out that farmers are currently vulnerable to volatile energy costs. I’ve posted his full statement on the energy policy after the jump, but I want to highlight a few parts:

As a state, we currently have no plans for how to power agriculture beyond fossil fuels, leaving us vulnerable to the effects of escalating and widely fluctuating energy prices. In 2008, oil prices rose to $147 per barrel, but within seven months fell to less than $34. This wild fluctuation whipsawed agriculture. Fertilizer and fuel prices tripled; corn prices spiked and fell sharply; ethanol plants went bankrupt.

Oil economists tell us that repeated cycles of price spikes followed by precipitous price falls are the future for energy costs as long as we are dependent on fossil fuels.ii  Even the U.S. military warns that oil prices will rise greatly, and we should expect oil shortages in the near future.iii

Our current biofuel production is not targeted to secure the energy future for agriculture. We use about a third of our corn crop to produce ethanol, but use it for cars driving on highways, not to power agriculture. Iowa farmers are selling corn as an energy crop at cheap commodity prices while paying high retail prices for the fuel needed to power their farms.  Biofuels today make only a dent in total U.S. fuel needs,iv but could go a long way toward making agriculture energy self-sufficient.

Thicke also advocates stronger policies to encourage wind energy production, not only looking at the total megawatts generated, but at wind energy systems that would create wealth for farmers and rural communities:

Today, 20 percent of the electricity generated in Iowa comes from wind power. That is good. However, the next generation of distributed wind systems holds promise to put more of the wealth created into the pockets of farmers and increase the amount of wind energy that can be distributed through the existing electrical grid.

When farmers lease out land to put corporate-owned wind turbines on their farms, they still pay retail rates for the electricity they use to power their farms. In other words – like with biofuels – farmers sell cheap and buy high.

The next generation of wind power should be mid-sized wind turbines on farms all across Iowa, so the wind that blows over the farm will power the farm, and the wealth created will be retained on the farm. This kind of distributed wind power has several advantages:

  1. The wealth created by the wind turbines is retained by the landowner and stays in the local community,

  2. The electricity generated is used locally, avoiding the need to build new transmission lines, and

  3. Distributed wind turbines will more fully utilize wind fronts as they move across the state, compared to when most wind farms are located in a few places in the state.

Policies the Legislature could enact to hasten the development of mid-sized wind turbines on farm across Iowa include mandatory net metering for all Iowa electrical utilities and feed-in tariff (FIT) policies. FIT policies have been used successfully in Europe to encourage the rapid expansion of solar-powered systems.

I urge the Iowa Legislature to adopt a FIT policy targeted to small and mid-sized wind turbines that are owned by Iowa farmers and landowners. The FIT policy would require electrical companies to pay a high rate of return per kWh for the initial years of the lifetime of targeted wind systems. That will allow farmers and landowners to pay for the wind systems during those initial years. After the specified initial time period, the rate of pay will drop to wholesale rates. That will allow the power company to buy cheap, green energy for the remainder of the lifetime of the turbine, and allow the farm wind turbine to continue to generate electricity to power the farm and to serve as a profit center for the farm.

Feed-in tariffs have been successful in many other places, and there’s no reason not to use them in Iowa. Getting the policy through the Iowa legislature would be an uphill climb no matter which party was in control, however.

Thicke rolled out his energy policy this morning in Des Moines. He has public events scheduled later today in Cedar Rapids and Waterloo, September 23 in Dubuque, Davenport and Iowa City, and September 24 in Council Bluffs and Sioux City. I hope the media will cover his ideas, because they have potential to make farming more profitable while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It’s too bad that neither the current Secretary of Agriculture, Republican Bill Northey, nor his predecessor, Democrat Patty Judge, took the initiative on reducing our agriculture sector’s reliance on fossil fuels.

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Francis Thicke's "New Vision for Food and Agriculture" in Iowa

Democratic candidate for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Francis Thicke is touring the state to talk about his just-published book, “A New Vision for Food and Agriculture.” He’s scheduled to speak in Oskaloosa on June 29, Marion on June 30, Storm Lake on July 1, Dubuque on July 6 and Mason City on July 13. All events are at 6:30 pm; click here for location details.

Thicke provides a brief outline of his vision on his campaign website:

   * Encourage the installation of farmer-owned, mid-size wind turbines on farms all across Iowa, to power farms, and help to power the rest of Iowa. I will lead in advocating feed-in tariffs, which are agreements with power companies that will allow farmers to sell their excess power, finance their turbines, and make a profit from their power generation.

   * Make Iowa farms more energy self-sufficient and put more biofuel profits in farmers’ pockets by refocusing Iowa’s biofuel investment on new technologies that will allow farmers to produce biofuels on the farm to power farm equipment, and sell the excess for consumer use.

   * Create more jobs and economic development by supporting local food production. We can grow more of what we eat in Iowa. Locally-grown food can be fresher, safer and healthier for consumers, and will provide jobs to produce it. I will reestablish the Iowa Food Policy Council to provide guidance on how to connect farmers to state institutional food purchases and greater access to consumer demand for fresh, locally-grown produce.

   * Expose predatory practices by corporate monopolies. We need Teddy Roosevelt-style trust busting to restore competition to agricultural markets. I will work with Iowa’s Attorney General and the Justice Department to ensure fair treatment for farmers.

   * Reestablish local control over CAFOs, and regulate them to keep dangerous pollutants out of our air and water, and protect the health, quality of life, and property values of our citizens.

   * Promote wider use of perennial and cover crops to keep Iowa’s rich soils and fertilizer nutrients from washing into our rivers.

Not only is Thicke highly qualified to implement this vision, he walks the walk, as you can see from a brief video tour of his dairy farm.

Near the beginning of that clip, Thicke observes, “Energy is a big issue in agriculture. We are highly dependent upon cheap oil if you look at agriculture almost anywhere in this country. And that’s one of the big issues in my campaign: how we can make agriculture more energy self-sufficient, make our landscape more resilient, and make our agriculture more efficient as well.” It’s sad that our current secretary of agriculture has shown no leadership on making this state’s farm economy more self-sufficient. Using renewable energy to power Iowa farm operations isn’t pie in the sky stuff: it’s technologically feasible and is a “common-sense way” to cut input costs.

I highly recommend going to hear Thicke speak in person, but you can listen online in some of the videos available on Thicke’s YouTube channel. The campaign is on Facebook here and on the web at Thickeforagriculture.com. If you want to volunteer for or help his campaign in any way, e-mail Thicketeam AT gmail.com. Here’s his ActBlue page for those who can make a financial contribution.

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Weekend open thread: Catching up on the news edition

Who else is watching the World Cup? I am surprised by how much my kids are enjoying the games, even though they don’t play soccer and it’s such a low-scoring sport. Des Moines business owner Tanya Keith and her husband have gone to every World Cup since 1994, and Tanya is blogging here about her family’s trip in South Africa. What I want to know is, how are her two young kids coping with the vuvuzela noise at the games? It sounds deafening even on tv.

I wasn’t around last weekend to write up the Iowa Democratic Party’s state convention in Des Moines. Radio Iowa’s blog covered most of the highlights here. Sue Dvorsky of Iowa City is the new IDP chair, replacing Michael Kiernan, who needs to have surgery on a tumor near his salivary gland. Iowa Democrats nominated Jon Murphy as our candidate against State Auditor David Vaudt. Read more about Murphy at Radio Iowa or at Iowa Independent. I am so glad we’re not giving Vaudt a pass.  

Convention delegates also voted to change party rules so that the gubernatorial nominee can choose the lieutenant governor candidate. The move was intended to undermine Barb Kalbach’s efforts to replace Lieutenant Governor Patty Judge on the Democratic ticket, and will make it impossible for an activist to do something similar in the future.

John Deeth has been pretty harsh on Kalbach, suggesting it’s a waste of time for her to run against Judge when her own Republican state representative and senator don’t have Democratic opponents. I see things differently. Kalbach said in announcing her candidacy, “I am taking this opportunity to represent the progressive, grassroots base of the Democratic Party who feels the issues that they have put forward have been ignored at the state level.” Kalbach wouldn’t have run if the Culver administration and Democratic legislative leaders had done anything to limit factory farm pollution during the past four years. She wouldn’t have run if the governor had done anything to advance the cause of local control (agricultural zoning), which he claimed to support during the 2006 campaign. Kalbach wouldn’t be able to draw attention to those failures as a candidate for the Iowa House or Senate in a conservative district. By the way, Culver would have an army of grassroots volunteers now if he had listened less to Patty Judge. He would also have a great campaign issue to use against Terry Branstad, on whose watch factory farm pollution became a much bigger problem in our state.

Moving to Iowa’s U.S. Senate race, while I was away a group called Americans United for Change started running this television commercial against Senator Chuck Grassley. The ad mentions campaign contributions Grassley has received from oil interests and draws a line between the catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico and Grassley’s vote for a “resolution of disapproval” that would have limited the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. It’s a poor ad, because as Grassley’s office noted, that particular vote had little to do with big oil or offshore drilling (click here for more background). In voting for the Murkowski amendment, Grassley was carrying water for big coal, utilities that rely on fossil fuels, corporate agriculture interests and major industrial polluters.

Grassley has done plenty throughout his career to represent corporate interests rather than the public interest. There’s no excuse for such a sloppy attack ad.

The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder interviewed Grassley’s opponent Roxanne Conlin yesterday, and the Cedar Rapids Gazette tried to make a big deal out of her misspeaking on when Grassley won his first election. Rasmussen’s latest Iowa poll of 500 likely voters on June 14 found Grassley ahead of Conlin by 54 percent to 37 percent. The previous Rasmussen survey, taken in late April, had Grassley leading Conlin 53-40. I would like to see other polling of this race. The Washington Post published a feature on Scott Rasmussen this week, including some criticism of his methods.

This thread is for anything on your mind this weekend. Also feel free to post any links to good reads. I am working my way through this article by a self-described Tea Party consultant.

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What's Working; What's Not in Ag Pollution Regulation

(If only we had leaders willing to take on this challenge. - promoted by desmoinesdem)

A new report issued today addresses the failures and successes of agricultural regulations in Iowa, Wisconsin, California and other agricultural states. The regulations are meant to reduce agricultural pollution that harms waters and aquatic life both locally and downstream, such as in the Gulf of Mexico where farm run-off from states upstream has created an aquatic Dead Zone the size of Massachusetts.

The report, conducted by the Environmental Law and Policy Center and the Mississippi River Collaborative a partnership of environmental organizations and legal centers from states bordering the Mississippi, examined the effectiveness of state-based rules and laws meant to regulate non-point agricultural pollution.

More after the jump …

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