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Bird Flu, Trade Pact And Mergers Are Top Agriculture Stories Of 2015

Peggy Lowe
Harvest Public Media

A highly contagious strain of avian flu, a huge trade pact opening export markets and a few “restless” agribusinesses top Harvest Public Media's list of the biggest agriculture and food stories of 2015.

No. 1 – A bird flu never before seen in North America devastated the egg and turkey industries, sending prices up and the government scrambling to respond.

Federal agencies and the USDA, criticized for its slow response, may get further scrutiny as a House bipartisan panel wondered publicly if the government is ready with a vaccine for avian flu, among other pandemics.

Most egg and turkey producers have recovered, but as our Iowa reporter Amy Mayer reported, that’s little comfort to the experts who predict the high pathogenic H5N2 virus to return.

No. 2 – More international markets opened up for farmers and ranchers thanks to a trade pact and the repeal of a labeling law.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, was agreed upon. Increased exports to the 11 Pacific Rim counties is expected to increase U.S. trade by $3 billion.

“The TPP is expected to give U.S. farmers easier access to markets in countries like Japan and Australia by reducing tariffs on products like beef and rice,” reported Kris Husted, our Missouri reporter.

Presumably, the repeal of the Country of Origin Labeling, or COOL, will also expand trade, although U.S. producers are angry about the move, saying it will limit their sales.

This month, Congress approved rolling back the law that required the meat in groceries to have labels reporting where the product was born, raised and slaughtered. The move was pushed after Mexico and Canada threatened increased tariffs if the labels didn’t go away.

No. 3 – Several big agribusinesses appeared, as these ag economists said, “restless” this year.

Our Colorado reporter, Luke Runyon, chronicled the on-again, off-again courting by Monsanto to buy Syngenta, the world’s largest producer of farm chemicals. Other big biz news included a merger of Dow and Dupont and John Deere’s purchase of Precision Planting.

No. 4 – Mother Nature typically takes a spot in the top ag stories each year and 2015 is no different.

In this, the hottest year on record, climate change continues to dominate talk in relation to food production, but El Nino also played a part. As NPR’s Christopher Joyce reported:

El Nino is a natural warming cycle in the water of the western Pacific Ocean that happens every few years. That extra-warm water sloshes around the Pacific and influences weather over huge parts of the world. In many places, parts of the U.S. for example, that means warm and wet.

California would have loved the wet weather, as it suffered another year of extreme drought, affecting the state’s Central Valley, home to lots of produce production.  That didn’t really help Midwestern growers, as our Nebraska reporter Grant Gerlock reported.

Still, there was some hope, as the climate change conference in Paris this year had more than 180 countries submitting plans for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

“Agriculture is one of the most vulnerable sectors to climate change, but it is also a major cause, responsible for 19-29 percent of greenhouse gas emissions,” the World Bank reported in its top ag stories of 2015. “It can also be part of the solution.”

No. 5 — National chain restaurants began reacting to consumer demands and animal rights groups who called for cruelty-free food products, announcing plans to buy only cage-free eggs, antibiotic-free meat and pork produced without hog gestation crates.

But things didn’t go so smoothly for Chipotle, the “fast casual” chain that was an early advocate for what it calls “food with integrity.” The chain had several outbreaks of e.coli and norovirus at the end of the year, sending its stock price down and its officials running to fix the food safety problems.  

No. 6 – Ethanol was again in the headlines this year as the EPA increased its mandate on just how much of the biofuel should go in gasoline.  

“Ethanol policy is a hot-button issue in farm states, as it is both a major element of the corn economy and a favorite target of environmental groups,” reported Harvest’s editor, Jeremy Bernfeld.

No. 7 – Genetically-modified food continued to garner lots of attention this year, as the FDA approved the first GMO meat animal (salmon) and Congress took moves to label GE food.

Even though some 70 percent of our food has GMO ingredients, Chuck Abbott of the Food and Environment Reporting Network wrote that “it could be years before fillets or steaks from the fast-growing salmon are sold in supermarkets.”

Congress waded into the emotional debate, with the U.S. House in July approving legislation GMO labeling advocates hated and the food industry sought in hopes of quelling the call for mandatory labels. Senate ag leaders appear to be considering the plan and they may take it up in 2016.

No. 8 – An overhaul of the nation’s food safety system, long promised by the FDA and protested by many groups, as NPR’s Dan Charles reported, finally came in November. The FDA called it “a giant step forward” in reducing the 48 million Americans who are sickened by foodborne illness every year, but a food safety expert said the new rules won’t accomplish much.

No. 9 – The farm economy struggled to gain the steam other sectors enjoyed, with income dropping, thanks to lower crop and livestock prices, and land values plateauing. The Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City reported in November that the slowdown intensified, creating worries headed into the new year.

No. 10 – In what might be the death knell for the so-called “ag gag” laws, an Idaho court struck down that state’s law that makes it illegal to take undercover videos on farms.

As our Luke Runyon reported in September, the ruling has heartened animal-rights activists who plan to challenge other state ag-gag measures.  

Peggy Lowe is investigations editor for Harvest Public Media. You can find her on Twitter, @Peggyllowe.

I’m a veteran investigative reporter who came up through newspapers and moved to public media. I want to give people a better understanding of the criminal justice system by focusing on its deeper issues, like institutional racism, the poverty-to-prison pipeline and police accountability. Today this beat is much different from how reporters worked it in the past. I’m telling stories about people who are building significant civil rights movements and redefining public safety. Email me at lowep@kcur.org.
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