How the Shutdown Impacts Food, Water and Energy Systems

Since Tuesday at midnight, the long-threatened, much ballyhooed Government Shutdown has been in effect. It probably doesn’t take much imagination to understand that stopping the moving bulk of the US federal government can’t exactly happen instantaneously, nor will the full ramifications be evident for weeks (assuming it lasts that long). Congress needed to pass a continuing resolution to fund the discretionary part of the federal government’s budget by October 1, and they did not. So shut it down they did.

Other parties can sort out the political mess – to see how we arrived at this bizarre juncture, you might look at either of these overviews at The New York Times or USA Today. The New York Times included a handy chart showing how much of many agencies’ overall budgets will be affected. There are over 800,000 people who work for our government who have been furloughed without pay; that adds up to a collective income reduction of some $200 million per day. The shutdown will also affect our most vulnerable citizens; some Head Start programs (funded by federal grants) closed immediately, along with some other social services. Here at GRACE, our business is keeping you informed about the systemic intersections of food, water and energy. In that vein, here’s a rundown of how the shutdown affects work in these areas. (And everyone who eats, really.)

Modern Farmer has a handy list of what the USDA can and cannot do during the shutdown, from issuing SNAP benefits, also known as food stamps (it can) to issuing WIC benefits for pregnant women, mothers and their infants and children(it cannot). USDA databases, which feed markets data reports used to help set prices on commodities, are dark. So the real value of some crops will not be known; stay tuned for market (read: price) impacts. 87 percent of the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) workforce will stay on to monitor meat and poultry processing. Given ongoing staffing and inspection controversies, fewer staff likely means less rigorous inspection.

Crop subsidies are separately funded, along with food stamps and crop insurance, so they will continue being paid for the time being – and some of those subsidy payments will even go to members of Congress who voted to slash food stamp funding a few weeks ago.

The FDA furloughed 45 percent of its employees, so everyday inspections of food, nutrition and cosmetics facilities, other enforcement activities and ongoing scientific research will stop. Likewise, the CDC will all but cease monitoring of food poisoning and disease outbreaks, including investigations into potentially contaminated sites that are the source of food-borne illnesses.

Crop subsidies are separately funded, along with food stamps and crop insurance, so they will continue being paid for the time being – and some of those subsidy payments will even go to members of Congress who voted to slash food stamp funding a few weeks ago. The subsidies are included in the government’s mandatory spending budget, like Social Security and Medicare, not the discretionary spending Congress is fighting about right now.

For the moment, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is not furloughing workers, as they have a week’s worth of carryover funding at their disposal. At post time, they were still open for business; if, after a week, the shutdown is still in place, the NRC will furlough all but essential personnel. Those include monitors and inspectors of the nation’s 65 nuclear power plants (which include 104 nuclear reactors).

Perhaps the biggest hits are happening at the EPA, as over 94 percent of the agency’s 16,205 workers have been sent home. The shutdown will also affect the comment period on draft regulations for new power plants, released earlier this month. As with meat and poultry inspections, it is unclear how rigorous an enforcement process will remain in place with fewer staff.

NASA’s Asteroid Watch Twitter handle was put on hold, exemplifying hushed feeds and social media handles all over the internet belonging to government agencies or public officials (or faraway spacecraft).

If you’re planning to wish Yosemite happy birthday or enjoy one of our other 401 national parks and monument sites, our condolences; those field trips will have to wait, as all national parks are closed. In the same vein, all lands managed by the US Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management and National Wildlife Refuges are closed. NOAA – that’s the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – will still be watching the weather, but all climate-related research and routine maintenance of equipment is shut down for now.

And what of the Farm Bill, you ask?

Better luck next (fiscal) year.

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