March 1 has arrived, meaning that, apparently, as of today, the United States is “all in” on the budgetary sequester that has been in the news for weeks. As you probably know by now, sequestration is an across-the-board reduction in spending mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011. Dire predictions have been made by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack about furloughing meat inspectors as part of the budget reduction process, thus jeopardizing pork marketing channels in coming days.
This week, nine U.S. senators from key livestock-producing states wrote to USDA seeking clarification on how meat inspection would be impacted by spending cuts and suggesting that other options need to be explored. The senators wrote, “USDA must explain whether it can cut costs and other operating expenses to protect the safety and availability of our food supply.”
As one of the letter’s co-signers, Sen. Pat Roberts (R,KS) states, “The administration should produce legal justifications and furlough plans to provide transparency to the American people for USDA’s implementation of sequestration. The costs to farmers and ranchers, already hard hit by drought, will be enormous.”
Speaking at a Commodity Classic press conference today, Vilsack responded, “Instead of writing letters, it would be helpful if those legislators would write a (budget) bill and get it passed.” He went on to make the case that furloughing Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) inspectors is inevitable under sequestration requirements. Explaining the additional sequestration-related impacts on agriculture, Vilsack says there will not be a dramatic impact on one specific day, but that the impact will occur over the course of several months. He cited not only the FSIS furloughs, but also vacancies in National Resources Conservation Service offices, money running out and resulting in thousands of recipients of the Women, Infants Children Food and Nutrition (WIC) program going hungry, and universities experiencing research funding cuts.
It’s all very confusing. And as Food Safety News reported yesterday, all of the details about sequestration’s impact really do continue to be unknown. Looking at the bigger picture, I’m mystified as to why agriculture’s voice cannot be heard in Washington, DC, and why agriculture seems to be shouldering a disproportionate share of the pain. I think farmers understand the concept of “taking one for the team,” but things are getting a bit ridiculous. Why is the continuation of, and support for, a safe, affordable food supply even up for debate or put at risk? Where do these people think their food is coming from anyway?
In February, we celebrate President’s Day. Perhaps you had a chance to go see the award-winning movie, Lincoln. During this sequestration craziness, I keep thinking about the last line from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which is frequently quoted as part of explanations about what democracy is all about. Lincoln spoke of a “government of the people, by the people and for the people.” Who is speaking for the people that feed the world? What advice would you have for your elected leaders about the importance of supporting agriculture? Share your thoughts in the Comments section, or email [email protected]