As long as I'm referencing an ancient Greek myth, I cue in an ancient Greek chorus comprised of South Dakota ranchers and farmers: We're waaaiiiitttiiing. I mean this is getting ridiculous. The much delayed Farm Bill, which is supposed to replace the '08 Bill that expired a year-and-a-half ago was on track to be wrapped up, like, right now. Then word yesterday comes out of D.C., via this story, that yet another obstacle has to be cleared, and it's a big one: Country Of Origin Labeling (COOL) issues have to be resolved. You can't blame our Congressional delegation for feeling somewhat like that poor old legendary Greek fella Sisyphus, who was condemned to spend eternity rolling a huge boulder to the top of a hill, only to slip and fall at the crest, causing the boulder to roll back down to the bottom, where Sisyphus had to restart the process, over and over and over again.
I do fault our federal reps for not seeing this coming and giving their constituents a heads up. Until now the main sticking point seemed to be the Food Stamp (technically the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) section of the bill, but the optimistic chatter coming from our state's Congressional officeholders in recent weeks made it sound like an agreement was at hand, clearing the way for a final bill by this week. Now we find out that COOL and its future are a big hang-up. When Congresswoman Noem, who was appointed to the Farm Bill Conference Committee last year amid some self-generated hoopla about the importance of South Dakota having a place at that particular table, wrote an optimistic piece about "bringing the farm bill home" a few weeks ago (You can read her press release here) she mentioned three points of concern: food stamps, crop insurance and livestock disaster programs. There wasn't a word about COOL.
Now all of a sudden we're finding out that COOL may be dropped from the new bill altogether. Technically it would be set aside for further study--and we all know what that means: good bye COOL. The problem with it in its present form (requiring meat to be labeled as to country of origin, country of processing, and country of slaughter) is that it adds time- and money-consuming steps to the marketing of meat products. The two countries from which we import livestock, Mexico and Canada, don't like this because it makes their products more expensive, causing their value at the outset to be lower than livestock born in the United States. A complaint about this is in the hopper at the World Trade Organization, which could well prove to be a reason that anti-COOL forces can remove the labeling law for further "study", at least until the trade issues are resolved. As you can imagine, American meatpackers are also aligned against COOL because of the extra expense involved in complying with its labeling regulations.
If COOL stays in place and our neighbors to the north and south prevail in their appeal to the WTO, they could be granted some relief by being allowed to slap retaliatory tariffs on their imports of American products. The party of Congresswoman Noem and Senator Thune--Republican--doesn't like trade wars like this breaking out, which puts national Pubs at odds with many South Dakota ag interests, who have fought hard to get labeling laws passed in the first place. The president of South Dakota's Farmers Union has vowed to withdraw support of a Farm Bill without COOL in it. What to do? Stand by, I guess.
This labeling controversy isn't going away. We'll know soon how much of roadblock it turns out to be for the passage of a Farm Bill. My beef with our elected reps on this is the fact that they seem to have been blind-sided by the sudden appearance of the issue. We have row crop farmers who are depending on the Farm Bill to give them some guidance on their planting intentions for this Spring and ranchers with business-killing losses from the horrendous blizzard last October that have been waiting for some disaster relief for four months. Their bills are mounting up.. And their patience? I wouldn't want to be testing it this year. The polls in November can make for a ferocious backlash.