ASHS national issues consultant Jonathan Moore on the ASHS National Issuse Task Force's growing involvement with nutrition advocacy.
One priority topic the ASHS National Issues Task Force (NITF) is following is RFA proposals matching the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative’s (AFRI) expanded budget and mission priorities, and Specialty Crop Research Initiative’s (SCRI) non-federal matching grants requirements.
This 1:1 matching issue has been a concern for many since the implementation of the 2008 Farm Bill. The ASHS NITF supports SCRI’s matching objectives. They increase stakeholder input and promote collaborative participation. ASHS, along with other organizations, seeks more user-friendly compliance arrangements. With current budget austerity measures, the continuation of National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) grants are crucial for many land-grant institutions. With SCRI in particular, the key is modifying its statutory language, making the current requirements more hospitable for researchers. These proposals will likely form part of NITF’s legislative agenda in succeeding months. Given SCRI’s growing popularity among agricultural scientists, innovative solutions should be considered well before the next farm bill. That is where changes will ultimately be made. “Each competitive grant request comes with its own set of requirements and objectives,” says ASHS President Bill Lamont. “ASHS needs to make sure project objectives are not mired in a minutia of regulations before research gets underway. End results are what Congress and taxpayers want to see.”
The ASHS NITF is also becoming more involved with nutrition advocacy. That issue is growing exponentially with numerous public awareness campaigns. This is augmented by First Lady Michelle Obama’s crusade combatting obesity via her “Lets Move” initiatives. This dovetails with ASHS policy objectives promoting urban gardens, “Buy Local” advertising, educational programs promoting healthy diets and lifestyles, and eliminating “food deserts” in many urban and rural areas. With horticultural science forming the basis for quality, abundance, and affordability for any specialty crop finding its way to produce shelves, farmers market stands, school lunch plates, and family dinner tables, it is natural that ASHS takes a proactive role in this area. ASHS’ policy focus on health and nutrition has been steadily building since 2009’s Annual Conference. With health concerns so prominent in the news these days, horticulture’s public image as an invaluable foundation in these areas will continue to grow.
A few weeks ago, The First Lady’s Childhood Obesity Taskforce unveiled their action plan. Entitled “Solving the Problem of Childhood Obesity Within a Generation,” among their recommendations most relevant to ASHS are:
• providing more information to parents about nutrition choices
• improving distribution systems for healthy foods in schools;
• reduce unhealthy marketing ads to children
• upgrading nutritional quality of school lunches
• improving food information labels
• update USDA’s Food Guidelines Pyramid
Also included was one of the ASHS NITF’s major initiatives: “improving access to healthy, affordable food by eliminating ‘food deserts’ in urban and rural America.”
On another health front, the NITF is following several pending bills in Congress, all dealing with nutrition incentives and improving school lunch programs. This could present channels for new research projects—especially under AFRI’s broad new criteria and expanded budget. Tying all these nutrition incentives together is the overarching issue of food safety. Debates in Congress on this important topic will have an impact not only agriculture, but environment, labor, and trade issues as well. One food safety bill is HR 2749, the Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009. Sponsored by the “dean” of the House, Rep. John Dingell (D-MI)—2749‘s major provisions include improving production, harvesting, and processing of food materials, new plant and animal sanitation requirements, upgrading labeling standards, implementing new traceability standards for food-borne allergens, and launching a national food safety education program (directed by USDA) educating citizens about the importance of maintaining a viable food safety system. It also contains a somewhat controversial provision for on-site farm inspections by FDA. Under this bill, it remains unclear how USDA and HHS jurisdictional responsibilities will be resolved. HR 2749 passed the House almost a year ago. It now languishes in the Senate, where it will likely remain until financial reform legislation is resolved. Consideration of HR 2749 may return by early summer. But its fate in this Congress may be subject to the midterm election calendar as November approaches.
Aside from NITF’s top priority monitoring competitive research grants, food safety and nutrition initiatives are in the top tier of the ASHS policy blueprint.