BREAK IN TRANSCRIPT
Mr. WYDEN. Madam President, I am going to take a few minutes to outline the amendments I plan to offer on the farm bill. In beginning, I particularly want to commend the chair of the committee, Senator Stabenow, and Senator Roberts. I think we all understand that if you want to tackle a big issue, an important issue, you have to find a way to come to something resembling common ground.
This bill is especially important. This is a jobs bill at a time when our country needs good-paying jobs. It is an extraordinarily important health bill, particularly one with great implications for how America tackles the issue of obesity. It is an environmental bill because it has great implications for conservation. And, of course, it has extraordinary impact on rural communities--rural communities that are hurting right now.
The amendments I am going to be offering on the farm bill address those major concerns, and those concerns are particularly important to my State. My State does a lot of things well, but what we do best is we grow things. We grow things, add value to them, and ship them somewhere. We grow lots and lots of things--hundreds of crops, wonderful fruit and vegetables. We want to have a chance to grow this part of our economy. It is a $5 billion economy for the State of Oregon, and one we want to strengthen in the days ahead.
The first amendment I will be offering on the farm bill addresses the Farm to School Program. Schools all across the country purchase produce--pears, cherries, tomatoes, and lettuce--from Department of Agriculture warehouses. In some cases, the warehouses may be hundreds and hundreds of miles away. There are schools, however, that wish to source their fruits and vegetables locally. There are producers who wish to sell their goods to local schools.
You don't have to be a fancy economist, but that sounds like a market to me. The Congress ought to enable this market, not make it more difficult for this market to function. I spent a lot of time in rural Oregon over the last few months. As I have previously indicated, Harry & David, a producer in my home State--and a lot of Senators have gotten their wonderful products over the years as holiday gifts--wants to sell their wonderful pears to the school down the street. In attempting to do so, Harry & David has been met with a real maze, a welter of odd Federal rules, that has prevented them from doing so.
It should not be bureaucratic water torture for a local producer to sell to a nearby school. It is getting at that kind of bureaucracy and redtape that my Farm to School amendment seeks to address. As of now, Federal agriculture policy seems to be dishing out a diet of paperwork, process, and limited options, when we ought to be promoting innovation and getting away from this sort of one-size-fits-all approach.
My Farm to School amendment would allow for at least five Farm to School projects across the country, where States like mine that are innovative, have established and proven Farm to School programs in place, would be able to source healthy, quality produce rather than buy it from one of these faraway Federal warehouses.
Under this kind of approach, with this crucial program, the schools are going to win, our farmers are going to win, and our kids will be able to enjoy delicious local produce every day with this particular amendment.
The second amendment I plan to offer also encourages healthier eating. This one deals with the SNAP program--the program formerly known as Food Stamps. As the occupant of the chair knows, this program represents a substantial amount of the funding for the farm bill--over $70 billion. There are 700,000 SNAP recipients in my home State of Oregon. For too many Oregonians, this program is the only thing that stands between them and hunger.
I have said it on this floor before, and I want to say it again: I am not in favor of cutting these benefits; quite the contrary. I think Senator Gillibrand has an excellent amendment to ensure that that doesn't take place. I hope she will win support in the Senate for it. We should not have, in a country as rich and strong as ours, this many Americans going to bed at night hungry and trying to dig themselves out of the great recession at the same time. So I am not in favor of cutting SNAP benefits, but I am in favor of incentivizing this program to make it possible for those of modest incomes to get healthier, more nutritious foods, especially in light of the growing obesity epidemic our country faces.
What troubles me is that, in one sense, the Food Stamp Program, the SNAP program, is something of a conveyor belt for calories. It essentially says all of the various food products are equal. At a time when we see such extraordinary rates of obesity, particularly for low-income children and low-income women, I only hope we can look at ways to create incentives for healthier eating.
I am not in favor of setting up some kind of Federal policy that starts dictating from Washington, DC, what folks who are using the SNAP program can eat. I am not interested in some kind of national nanny program, or something that says you can't eat this or that. What I am proposing is that here in the Senate, we look at ways, particularly when you are talking about $70 billion of Federal nutrition spending, to at least promote healthier eating wherever possible, and the increased consumption of healthy fruits and vegetables.
Studies by the Centers for Disease Control show that low-income women and children--those most likely to receive SNAP benefits--are more likely to be obese than higher income women and children. What I am proposing with this amendment is giving the States some flexibility to try out ways to make SNAP benefits a launch pad for better nutrition, rather than, as I characterized it earlier, a conveyor belt for calories.
What I wish--and I know the Chair hails from a State with a substantial amount of agriculture--is to see farmers, retailers, health specialists, and
those who rely on the SNAP program, to get together and find a consensus--some common ground--on a way to wring more nutritional value out of those SNAP benefits.
In Oregon, we have tried this idea out. Those in the retail community, farmers and anti-hunger groups got together, and this group thinks they can do more to improve nutritional outcomes under this very large program.
The amendment makes clear that you could not get a waiver to reduce eligibility, or reduce the amount of benefits that someone on the SNAP program receives. But you could, for example, try various approaches to promote nutritional eating. A State could encourage SNAP recipients to purchase more fruits and vegetables by partnering with grocery stores or other food sellers to provide coupons to enable SNAP recipients to purchase extra or discounted fruits and vegetables. There are now programs that allow SNAP benefits to be exchanged at farmers markets for coupons that produce $2 worth of produce for $1 of SNAP benefits. The cost of the extra produce is paid for using non-federal funds. A State waiver could enable this type of program, for example, to be expanded beyond farmers markets.
There is a host of innovative proposals, in my view, that could improve public health and increase the consumption of healthy food. I hope as we go forward toward the conclusion of this legislation in the Senate, we can look at ways to accept the proposition that not all of the wisdom resides in Washington, DC, particularly when we are seeing these skyrocketing rates of obesity, tragically with special implications for low-income women and children. I think there are better ways to proceed. This amendment empowers States to have that opportunity.
The third amendment I am going to offer, I have not spoken about on the floor to date, and I wish to take just a minute to describe what this amendment deals with. It is an amendment I plan to offer that addresses the issue of industrial hemp farming. It is cosponsored by Senator Rand Paul and is identical to legislation in the House, which has 33 bipartisan cosponsors.
This is, in my view, a textbook example of a regulation that flunks the commonsense test. There is government regulation on the books that prevents America's farmers from growing industrial hemp. What is worse, this regulation is hurting job creation in rural America and increasing our trade deficit. When my colleagues get more information about this outlandish, outrageous restriction on free enterprise, I think most of them are going to agree the restriction on industrial hemp is the poster child for dumb regulations. The only thing standing in the way of taking advantage of this profitable crop is a lingering misunderstanding about its use. The amendment I have filed on this issue will end a ridiculous regulation once and for all.
Right now, the United States is importing over ten-million of dollars of hemp products to use in paper products, construction materials, textiles, and a variety of other goods. We are importing a crop that U.S. farmers could be profitably growing right here at home if not for government rules prohibiting it.
Our neighbors to the north can see the potential for this product. In 2010, the Canadian Government injected over $700,000 into their blossoming hemp industry to increase the size of their hemp crop and fortify the inroads they're making in U.S. markets, at the expense of our farmers. It was a very good bet. U.S. imports of hemp products have consistently grown over the past decade, increasing by 300 percent in 10 years. From 2009 to 2010, they grew 35 percent. The number of acres in Canada devoted to growing industrial hemp nearly doubled from 2011 to 2012.
I know there are going to be Members of Congress, and others who are listening to this, who are going to say all this talk about hemp is basically talk about marijuana. The fact is, while they come from the same species of plant, there are major differences between them. They have different harvest times, they're different heights, and the cultivation techniques are markedly different. And when we recognize those differences, we'll be able to focus on the benefits from producing domestically the hemp we already use.
Under this amendment, the production of hemp would still be regulated, but it would be done by the States through permitting programs, not the Federal Government. Nine States have already put legislation in place to provide for a permitting system that enforces the prohibition on marijuana and ensures that industrial hemp maintains a very low THC level--under 0.3 percent. The lowest-grade marijuana typically has 5 percent THC content. The bottom line is no one is going to get high on industrial hemp.
Hemp has been a profitable commodity in a number of countries. In addition to Canada, Australia also permits hemp production, and the growth in that sector helped their agricultural base survive when the tobacco industry dried up. Over 30 countries in Europe, Asia and North and South America currently permit farmers to grow hemp, and China is the world's largest producer. In fact, our country is the only industrialized nation that prohibits farmers from growing hemp.
Oregon is home to some of the major manufacturers of hemp products, including Living Harvest, one of the largest hemp food producers in our country. Business has been so brisk there that the Portland Business Journal recently rated them as one of the fastest growing local companies.
There are similar success stories in other States. One company in North Carolina has been incorporating hemp into building materials, reportedly making them both stronger and more environmentally friendly. Another company in California produces hemp-based fiberboard.
No country is better than ours at developing, perfecting, and expanding markets for our products. As the market grows, it ought to be domestically produced hemp that supplies that growth.
I would like to close on this topic with a couple statements by one of the leading newspapers in my State, The Bulletin. I think it would be fair to say The Bulletin would not cite itself as one of the first places one ought to look for left-wing thinking, and here is what they had to say with respect to my amendment, which they encouraged support for:
..... producers of hemp products in the United States are forced to import it. That denies American farmers the opportunity to compete in the market. It's like surrendering the competitive edge to China and Canada, where it can be grown legally.
The editorial then goes on to say:
Legalizing industrial hemp does not have to be a slippery slope towards legalizing marijuana. It can be a step toward removing regulatory burdens limiting Oregon farmers from competing in the world market.
I ask unanimous consent to have printed in the Record a copy of the editorial from The Bulletin.
BREAK IN TRANSCRIPT
Mr. WYDEN. Madam President, if this farm bill is about empowering farmers and increasing rural jobs, let's give them the tools they need to get the job done. Let's boost revenue for farmers and reduce the overhead costs for the businesses around the country that use this product. And let's put more people to work growing and processing an environmentally friendly crop with a ready market in the United States.
For all the reasons I have described, I will be urging my colleagues to support this amendment so the law can be changed and farmers are not prevented from growing a profitable crop in the future.
Even though my amendment is about growing a crop and should be clearly relevant to the farm bill, it may be blocked from getting a vote because of the Senate rules on what amendments are allowed to be offered once cloture is invoked on the bill. If I get the opportunity, I am going to bring this amendment up through the regular order. But if cloture is invoked and my amendment is not allowed, I want colleagues to know I will be back at this again until there are smarter regulations in place for industrial hemp.
In closing, let me say I don't think we can overstate the importance of the best possible farm bill. Senator Stabenow and Senator Roberts have, in my view, done yeomen's work in trying to build a bipartisan approach. The question now is can we use the amendment process to improve on the kind of bipartisan effort they brought to the floor.
Each of the areas I have described this afternoon--improving the Farm to School program, wringing more value and better nutritional outcomes from the SNAP program, and helping a promising hemp industry--give us a chance to attain the objectives of what I have described as the best possible farm bill, and we can do this all without spending one single dime of additional taxpayer money--not a dime of additional taxpayer money. It is my hope we can take the good work that has already been done by Senators STABENOW and ROBERTS and build on that. I hope the Senate will support the three amendments I have described this afternoon.
With that, I yield the floor, and I suggest the absence of a quorum.
BREAK IN TRANSCRIPT