In this week's Agriculture Briefs, new farm legislation nears a vote in the U.S. Senate?and a three year Harvard study concludes there is very little chance of a Mad Cow Disease outbreak among American cattle.

A five-year-long debate over U.S. agriculture policy neared a climax this week as controversial farm legislation moved toward a final vote in the U.S. Senate.

Like the measure approved in October by the U.S. House of Representatives, the Senate's 10-year, $171 billion farm bill would re-establish some of the commodity price support or "safety net" provisions phased out by a 1996 farm bill. Five years of record-low commodity prices and sluggish exports have left many farmers struggling to survive.

As in the House debate, sharp, partisan differences have emerged in the Senate over proposals to limit corporate concentration in agriculture, to curb subsidies to the nation's wealthiest farmers, and to strengthen the bill's environmental provisions.

President Bush recently joined the fray. Speaking at a Washington farm policy conference, Mr. Bush said America's national security depends on a strong farm economy, and a strong farm economy depends on a farm bill that's generous, the President said, but not too generous. "A good farm bill should keep a safety net under our food producers, without misleading our farmers into overproducing crops that are already in oversupply," he said. "A good farm bill should promote responsible stewardship of America's farms and ranches by promoting conservation on working lands. A good farm bill should honor our trade obligations, as we expect our competitors to honor their obligations. And a good farm bill should be generous but affordable. It should honor the budget limits that Congress has agreed to live by."

Representatives of more than 30 U.S. farm groups held a meeting last Friday with Senate leaders to urge swift action on the farm bill. Among them was Texas rice farmer Bob Stallman, president of the five million member American Farm Bureau. "It's time to provide some stability and certainty to our producers, who are facing next year going in to their lenders, thinking about their plans and trying to decide what the future holds for them," he said.

Senator Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat and chief architect of the Senate legislation, noted that some lawmakers have tried to delay the measure's passage. But Mr. Harkin said American farmers need a new farm bill now, not next year: "Now, we all hear the talk about the recession in America," he said. "Well, the recession in America right now is in rural America, on our farms and in our rural communities. They need this legislation to get through so they can plan for next year. Next year may be too late."

Senator Harkin predicts that a vote on the new farm bill could come before the end of the week. Congressional aides say passage is likely. Then, once the Senate and House versions of the legislation are reconciled, it will be up to President Bush to sign the 2001 Farm Bill into law.

A team of Harvard University researchers says there is very little danger that an epidemic of BSE, or Mad Cow Disease, like the one that decimated Britain's cattle herd in the mid-1980s, will ever occur in the United States. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Venneman, whose department commissioned the Harvard study three years ago, welcomed the findings. "The risk of BSE being introduced into this country is very low, and that is very good news," she said.

The Harvard study gives high marks to existing government policies designed to prevent the introduction and spread of BSE. Healthy animals can catch the brain-wasting disease through feed made from the brain and nerve tissue of infected animals. BSE has also been linked to a fatal human brain disease known as CJD, which has killed nearly 100 people in Europe over the past decade.

Doctor George Gray, Deputy Director of Harvard's Center for Risk Analysis and a co-author of the computer-aided study, said that even if BSE were introduced into the United States, an epidemic would be unlikely. "We ran dozens of scenarios and thousands of variations of each of those with our model and we couldn't come up with a single situation where BSE could take hold or spread in any significant way. In every case, the disease dies out, usually in about 20 years," he said.

Harvard's George Gray says the U.S. government's ban on the use of meat and bone meal in animal feed, and strict controls on animal product imports, have been effective barriers to the spread of BSE to the United States.