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Legislative update

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2016 March Issue Newsletter

By Amie Lindenboim

Joint Committee on the Environment, Natural Resources, and Agriculture public hearing on the humane treatment of farm animals ballot measure

New Policy Director Dan Bensonoff and Policy Organizer Amie Lindenboim have been working on a number of policy issues of interest to our members. Here’s the latest.

Federal GMO Labeling Update

Sen. Pat Roberts's (R-Kan.) bill to kill GMO labeling will likely be the subject of a heated Senate Ag Committee debate on Tuesday, March 1st.   While there has been plenty of discussion as to what will come out of that debate, given the timing of it, I think I will refrain from speculating on what may be old news by the time you read this!

The good news is that thus far, the Massachusetts delegation has stood up for food labeling transparency, and is not interested in passing a bill that would restrict the rights of states to act on behalf of their citizens.

From the State House

Activity at the State House has picked up a bit since its somnambulant fall session –but not by much.

The next legislative deadline is March 16th – the last day for bills to move out of the first Joint Committee they were assigned to. Legislators sometimes request extensions, but such delays run the risk of legislation getting stuck in the bottleneck of bills that need to move before the end of the formal session this July.

In January, NOFA/Mass policy staff and NOFA members testified in support of H236, “An act relative to updating the plumbing code in order to accommodate agricultural uses.” Farmers have shared with us stories of cases where requirements in the current plumbing code were unnecessary, costly, and even, in some cases, in conflict with Department of Public Health recommendations. This bill would task a committee with drafting plumbing regulations specific to agricultural operations, rather than forcing farms to follow state standards for commercial or residential buildings. This bill was recently passed favorably out of the committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure, referred to the committee on Ways and Means. The bill has also been proposed for the omnibus ag bill, so we are hopeful that it will pass one way or another.

In the joint committee on the Environment, Natural Resources, and Agriculture (ENRA), much of the focus since the start of 2016 appears to have been on drafting an omnibus agriculture bill. This bill would combine about a dozen less-controversial bills, along with some additional provisions that were drafted by the Committee.

Some of NOFA/Mass’s policy priorities are poised to end up in this bill, such as bills allowing for raw milk delivery (S419), creating an agricultural plumbing code (H236), and establishing estate tax valuation for farms (H3507).

Outside of the omnibus ag bill, ENRA is working on a bill to protect pollinators. Back in November, NOFA/Mass testified in support of H655, An Act Protecting Massachusetts Pollinators. This bill would establish several new legal requirements to protect pollinators in Massachusetts, including restrictions on the use of neonicotinoid pesticides for residential/ornamental use during the blooming season, and requiring agricultural or horticultural applicators to compete a state-developed training program. Two other bills that focus on pollinator health have been submitted this session; neither of these bills would place restrictions on the use of neonicotinoids. We are hopeful that at least some of the restrictions and educational elements of H655 will end up in a final bill. Even if the bill does not pass this session, a well-negotiated draft bill will be in a good place to be taken up again next session.

The GE food labeling bill, H3242, remains in ENRA at press time, but we have been told that it should move out of committee this week! Once that happens, our focus will shift to whichever new committee the bill is assigned to (most likely Ways and Means). Thanks in no small part to NOFA/Mass members and their organizing efforts, ENRA committee members are hearing the message that their constituents want labeling of genetically engineered foods. At the same time, when the bill moves out of ENRA, we expect the opposition (Grocery Manufacturers’ Association, Kraft, Monsanto, etc.) to significantly up their game to defeat our bill. We need to be ready to demand that our legislators, 75% of whom co-sponsored this bill, stand firm and move quickly to pass this GMO labeling this session.

Besides these bills that were filed at the start of the beginning of this legislative session (over a year ago now), a popular ballot initiative has made its way to ENRA. NOFA/Mass attended the February 11th hearing on the Cruelty to Farm Animals ballot initiative, which has reached ENRA as H3930. H3930 would ban hen battery cages with less than 1.5 feet of floor space per bird, along with pig gestation crates and veal crates. Further, it would also ban the sale of eggs, pork, and veal from farms where such practices are used, no matter where the farms are located.

Those testifying in favor of the measure included the Humane Society, animal lovers, vegans, and at least two small farmers. The Chairs, who questioned the need for a law banning practices not used in Massachusetts, met their testimony rather skeptically. If the legislature chooses not to pass the ballot initiative as a bill, petitioners will need to collect 10,792 more signatures from around the state to put the matter before voters in November.

NOFA/Mass did not testify at this hearing, and has remained neutral on this issue (see outgoing Policy Director Jack Kittredge’s statement).

Along with most of you, we find no argument with the requirements of the first part of the measure, regulating production practices in Massachusetts, though it is almost meaningless because there are no veal or gestation crates in Massachusetts, and there seems to be only one large farm using battery cages. However, ignored in the ballot measure is the question of whether every large “cage free” operation is a significant improvement from a battery cage operation, from a humane standpoint. 

As to the second part of the bill, banning the sale of such products in the state no matter where they were produced, we have concerns that 1) this may not pass legal muster, and 2) the burden of compliance is placed largely on retailers. Overall, we feel the measure really doesn’t get to the breadth and depth necessary to accomplish meaningful reform of livestock practices.

Governor Baker’s Budget Released

Governor Baker released his proposed budget at the end of January, and so the focus on the House side has shifted to the budget process, and the Senate will join in the process soon. The current proposed budget includes significant cuts to the Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR). The proposed budget for MDAR Administration is down 7% from last year (about $365,962 less), and is lower than any of the budgets since at least 2014. We’ll be keeping an eye on the budget as it works its way through the legislature.

You’re Invited: Ag Day at the State House

We invite everyone to come on out to the annual Ag Day at the State House, to be held Tuesday, April 5 this year. NOFA/Mass will have a table, there will be plenty of food to sample, and you can stop by your legislators’ offices to share your concerns. Contact Amie (amie@nofamass.org) for more information.

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