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Thank You for Spraying

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When Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio) spoke to the Organic Trade Association's Washington Policy Conference the other day, her talk had two parts: the part where she left the distinct impression that she had no idea whom she was talking to, and the part where it seemed she didn't care.

Schmidt chairs the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Nutrition and Horticulture, which has jurisdiction over organic agriculture programs. Early in her speech the congresswoman explained why "organic agriculture" had to be stripped from the subcommittee's name: it made it too long. The result, consistent with the reigning fashion to shrink the federal government wherever possible, is that Schmidt now proudly chairs the agriculture subcommittee with the shortest title:

  • Nutrition and Horticulture
  • Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry
  • Conservation, Energy, and Forestry
  • Department Operations, Oversight, and Credit
  • General Farm Commodities and Risk Management
  • Rural Development, Research, Biotechnology, and Foreign Agriculture

At another point, she borrowed a page from the playbook of Rep. Darryl Issa (R-Calif.), who chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Government reform, and invited the audience to let her know of any ways in which the government might be interfering with or harming their business. Bewildered organic farmers and food company executives turned to one another around the room, wondering if they'd heard right. Having pushed for decades for rigorous federal regulation in order to distinguish their explosively growing segment of the market, the organic industry does indeed have a high-profile complaint about the government these days: the headlong deregulation of genetically engineered crops that now dominate mainstream chemical agriculture. Organic farmers and food companies eschew them, and they're worried that pollen drifting from genetically engineered crops will contaminate organic fields, threatening the most valuable -- and most happily regulated -- market in the food system.

Schmidt then gave an example of the kind government intrusion she wants to hear about: "those crazy spray rules" for pesticides coming out of the EPA. She was referring to a proposed rule that would require pesticide applicators to get simple, straightforward Clean Water Act permits in order to protect rivers and streams that are seriously polluted with agricultural weed and bug killers. The EPA proposal has inspired outrage and litigation from chemical farming interests, who caricature it as yet another government sledgehammer poised to crush jobs and drive farmers out of business. When that talking point fell flat on an audience that, by regulation, doesn't use pesticides, Schmidt seemed not to notice.

"These things go right over [EPA Administrator] Lisa Jackson's head," she said, underscoring her disdain by throwing her hand over her own. (Over her career, the League of Conservation Voters has scored Schmidt's environmental voting record in the range of 0 percent to 13 percent.)

"A business idea," she abruptly offered toward the end, noting that she was about to depart from her prepared remarks. "Organic cooking."

Eyes widened yet again around a room that included executives from companies with annual organic sales in the hundreds of millions of dollars, as Schmidt described how the cakes her daughter bakes with organic sugar and flour don't taste as good as regular cakes. Then, with some difficulty, she stumbled through a recipe from memory.

In thanking everyone at the end, she congratulated the organic industry on its impressive growth, "6 to 26. . ."

Some listeners thought they heard her say "million," but after a brief pause she landed the point.

"Billion."

Then Schmidt took questions. In response to the first, she was unable to say how much money currently is allocated for the federal organic agriculture programs her committee oversees. It is a pitifully small amount, in fact -- perennially far short of the support a highly popular $26 billion industry might claim. Many in the room would be lobbying Capitol Hill to preserve or expand those organic programs over the next two days. What Schmidt was certain of, however, is that organic funding will be cut.

"Everything is on the table," she concluded.

It's what politicians are telling everyone who comes to Washington in this frenzied season of budget cutting. But when the politician doesn't know or care about the people they're saying it to, it's more than a talking point. It's an omen.

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