Food Security Is Not a Bargaining Chip

food-security1The lyrics from Jim Croce’s 1972 single “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim” came to mind a few weeks ago when listening to the back and forth talks on the federal budget sequester. You may recall the song’s catchy list of things you don’t do: “…tug on Superman’s cape…spit into the wind…or try and pull the mask off the ol’ lone ranger.” It struck me that sequester talks would benefit from a Croce like warning such as: “…you don’t threaten the safety and security of America’s food supply.”

If history has taught us anything as a country, it’s that our strength comes from the ability to feed and nourish our ever growing population. Even with the ability to raise food, natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy, are vivid reminders of just how fragile, yet complex, our food distribution system can be. Despite that reality, food security has become the latest hostage in the showdown between the White House and Congress on the budget sequester.

The sequester would make $1.2 trillion in total budget cuts over the course of the next 10 years with roughly $85 million in cuts for fiscal year 2013; the idea being to slow America’s federal budget deficit that has bloated to $17 trillion due to the federal government spending nearly a trillion dollars a year more than it takes in.

While there’s plenty of blame to go around between Democrats and Republicans alike for the situation, the finger pointing and rhetoric hit a new low when the White House and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) began beating the drum that layoffs of federal meat inspectors could be part of the sequester.

From a historical perspective, meat inspectors have always been considered essential personnel making them exempt from government shutdowns and other federal budgetary issues. This status for inspectors was established for good reason. Without federal meat inspection, packers and processors are not legally able to ship meat products across state lines. A slow down or shutdown in meat inspections would send shockwaves through the meat supply and distribution chains. Processors and packers would be limited in production capability or forced to shut down.  Livestock farmers would literally have no market. American families and consumers would feel the full effects as meat shortages would drive prices higher for chicken, pork and beef or possibly create challenges in meat product availability.

The administration’s suggestions that meat inspectors would be subject to budget reductions can really only be interpreted in two ways. Either the White House has no true understanding of what cuts to federal meat inspectors means for America’s food supply and American consumers, or they are simply playing a game of “chicken” with Congress to try and enhance its position supporting a delay in the sequester.

Regardless, it is a disappointing display of leadership that should get people’s attention. The idea that our own administration would attempt to use food security and food safety as a scare tactic and potential bargaining chip to avoid serious discussion about the federal budget reduction is a disservice not just to farmers and ranchers, but all Americans. The idea is even more disheartening when one considers the fact sequester would trim only three cents out of every federal dollar it currently spends.

Fortunately, as Nebraskans, we have a pair of common sense U.S. Senators that to their credit have been willing to question USDA. Sen. Mike Johanns and Sen. Deb Fischer are part of a small group of U.S. Senators that have asked Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to further clarify intentions related to the federal meat inspection program in light of the sequester.

Most of us recognize there are few things sacred left in this day and age when it comes to politics and advancing a political position. The consequences of failing to provide a viable food supply, however, remain as real today as ever. The administration’s inability to recognize that fact and its willingness to use our nation’s food security as a chip in the high stakes game of deficit reduction isn’t good for America. Nor is it good for the rest of us looking to put food on the dinner plate.

The above article by Steve Nelson, Nebraska Farm Bureau Federation president, originally ran in the Omaha World Herald Midland Voices section on Thurs., March 7, 2013.

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