Establishing BSE testing protocols is just one of many issues confronting the Agriculture Department... not the least of which, is agricultural spending.
The specifics of those expenditures are determined every five years or so in the Farm Bill.
With current farm law set to expire in the fall of 2007, the Bush administration already is shaping farm policy agenda.
For weeks, USDA has been hosting listening sessions on the next farm bill. This week, the Bush administration took it's traveling show to the quintessential icon of rural life -- the State Fair.
Every time you turn around these days, somebody somewhere is staging a field hearing on the next farm bill. The most prominent of the hosts is Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, who has taken the August congressional recess to hold public forums on farm policy.
This week, he was at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines.
Mike Johanns, Secretary of Agriculture: "Since the new farm bill will effect really America's entire ag community, President Bush and I sincerely believe that the entire agricultural community should have a say in the process."
Johanns' stated goal is to complete work on the next farm bill by the end of 2006, and have it on the president's desk by the start of 2007. The current farm law is set to expire on September 30th of that year.
The forum focused on conservation. There has been some speculation that conservation payments might replace traditional subsidy payments. Johanns gave no indication there would be a move to end subsidy payment programs.
Mike Johanns, Secretary of Agriculture: "So, again, without trying to prejudge what it looks like when it's all signed, sealed and delivered, I will tell you, it appears to me that there seems to be very strong support for conservation programs."
Iowa Democratic Senator Tom Harkin was on hand to push for the continuation of the Conservation Reserve Program or C-S-P.
Tom Harkin, D-Iowa: "It takes the place of commodity type payments which are going by the wayside in the WTO the idea is not to pay farmers on what they produce and how much they produce but on how they do it."
But the farm bill is one of the most complex pieces of legislation considered by Congress. Among the dicey issues that will drive the debate will be:
--Trade negotiations on the world stage. The U.S. has taken its lumps in recent trade disputes brought before the World Trade Organization, notably on cotton and the Byrd Amendment. In addition, WTO talks aimed at liberalizing world trade long have been thwarted by disagreement between rich and poor nations over farm subsidies. Any policy shift on subsidies will have to consider international rules, and on that front there seems to be no breakthrough in sight.
--Pressure to trim federal farm spending. The burdensome federal deficit already has pressed lawmakers to trim billions from farm programs, while at the same time rectifying what many see as inequities in the distribution of those payments. Some are calling for lower caps on farm subsidies and program reform that more appropriately targets the funds to those who most need the money.
--And, a greater emphasis on increased food safety and security. USDA in the past two years has been forced to ramp up efforts to fight the encroachment of mad cow disease and Asian soy rust. And the specter of Asian bird flu now looms on the horizon. In addition, the safety of food imports to the U.S. remains a concern, given the war on terrorism.
The early sense from the various field hearings has been a modest expectation for policy reform in the next farm bill.
For Market to Market, I'm David Miller.