During a June 24 business meeting, the Senate Agriculture Committee advanced a bill by a voice vote reauthorizing the U.S. Grain Standards Reauthorization Act for another five years. The bill was widely supported by agricultural groups who depend on the reauthorization to provide the structure for the grain inspection system.
The Federal Grain Inspection Service (FGIS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture establishes official marketing standards for grains and oilseeds under the authorization of the U.S. Grain Standards Act, which was first signed into law in 1916. The existing authorization law, which passed in 2015 and included provisions to ensure uninterrupted export inspections, expires Sept. 30.
“The entire federal grain inspection system needs the certainty, predictability and transparency that the bipartisan U.S. Grain Standards Reauthorization Act of 2020 provides,” Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Pat Roberts (R., Kan.) said. “The Senate Agriculture Committee has never let this reauthorization lapse, and as is customary in our committee, we have listened before putting pen to paper. I appreciate our stakeholders’ input while crafting this bill. It will serve them well and help maintain our country’s reputation as a reliable exporter of quality grain.”
Support came from many major agricultural groups, including the National Grain & Feed Assn. (NGFA), North American Export Grain Assn. (NAEGA) and American Farm Bureau Federation, as well as soy, wheat, sorghum, corn and canola groups.
NGFA and NAEGA said in a June 23 support letter to Roberts and Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.): “Stakeholders – ranging from producers to grain handlers and processors to end users and consumers – benefit when [FGIS] and its delegated and designated state and private agencies provide state-of-the-art, market-responsive official inspection and weighing of bulk grains and oilseeds and do so in a reliable, uninterrupted, consistent and cost-effective manner.”
“As our farmers face unprecedented uncertainty and trade instability, it is vital that we maintain the integrity of our grain inspection system,” Stabenow said. “This bipartisan bill protects the interests of American farmers and ensures our credibility as a reliable producer of high-quality crops.”
NGFA and NAEGA said they support reauthorizing all expiring provisions of the current law for another five years, including: the ability for Congress to appropriate funding for standardization and compliance activities that have broad societal benefits, including to farmers and consumers; authorization for the USDA Grain Inspection Advisory Committee to operate, and the current statutory limitation on the amount of money FGIS can spend on administrative costs not associated with direct inspection and weighing activities.
The reauthorization bill also includes a number of improvements NGFA and NAEGA advocated for that they said will promote increased data and information sharing to benefit the system and its users, including:
- Requiring delegated state agencies to notify users of official inspection or weighing services at least 72 hours in advance of any intent to discontinue such services;
- Ensuring that FGIS user fees are directed solely to inspection and weighing services;
- Reporting requests for waivers, exceptions and other specific services received and granted by FGIS, and
- Directing FGIS to complete a comprehensive review of the current boundaries for the officially designated grain inspection agencies in the domestic marketplace.
NGFA and NAEGA also highlighted their concerns about ongoing non-tariff trade barriers that have restricted exports of U.S. grains and oilseeds, noting that the reauthorization bill retains the provision that prohibits the “use of false or misleading grade designations” for U.S. grain exports.
The National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG) and U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) applauded the advancement of the bill.
“Thanks in part to the advantage and premium international buyers place on the grain inspection system, U.S. wheat continues to maintain its competitiveness in the international market. Given the current uncertainty in trade agreements and many of the bearish factors working against U.S. wheat exports, it is critical we maintain one of our key advantages,” said NAWG president Dave Milligan, a Cass City, Mich., farmer. “To avoid any disruption in inspection services and keep the flow of grain moving NAWG encourages Congress to act quickly to reauthorize the Grain Standards Act before expiration in September.”
USW chairman and Paulding, Ohio, wheat farmer Doug Goyings added, “Our exports markets are critical to U.S. wheat farmers’ bottom lines as they see 50% of U.S. wheat exported each year. The grain inspection system is one of our key advantages over our competitors that has helped wheat and other U.S. commodities grow export markets. Our overseas customers value the independent system in place through the Grain Standards Act.”
Port worker negotiations
During comments at the business meeting, Stabenow and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio) also acknowledged the ongoing labor negotiations at export grain terminals in the Pacific Northwest.
“I have heard troubling reports that certain foreign-owned grain companies may be failing to make good-faith efforts to reach an agreement with their workers. It’s concerning to hear they are threatening workers’ pensions and access to health care,” Stabenow said. “I would urge all parties to engage in the process in good faith. If left unresolved, these negotiations will undermine certainty for everyone involved in the grain trade, which is the purpose of our meeting today.”
Thousands of West Coast dock workers are covered by contracts with Marubeni, Mitsui and Louis-Dreyfus that expired more than two years ago, on May 31, 2018. All three companies began the bargaining process by demanding that workers forfeit long-standing benefits and work rules. Company officials have refused to compromise on their take-away demands for more than two years while remaining profitable, the International Longshore & Warehouse Union stated in a release.
“Our families cannot and will not give up living standards that American workers have fought so hard to win,” said Jared Smith, a grain worker at the United Grain terminal owned by Mitsui in Vancouver, Wash. “Our families deserve a secure future from these foreign-owned companies that are healthy, profitable and control much of the world’s grain supply. They’re supposed to negotiate, not dictate.”
The company’s “take-it-or-leave-it” approach has effectively ended meaningful negotiations since the spring of 2019.
Workers remain committed to reaching a fair agreement with the companies, noting that they were able to reach a settlement in May 2018 with the only remaining U.S.-owned grain export terminal operator, Cargill-CHS (TEMCO). The TEMCO agreement protects working families, assures no disruptions in grain exports and maintains a highly skilled workforce in export terminals that benefit farmers, workers and the U.S. economy.
“We won’t allow big foreign corporations to bully workers into giving away long-established pension and health care benefits that help 3,000 American workers in Oregon and Washington,” ILWU president William Adams said.
“We’re committed to working with America’s farmers to ensure that grain exports get the government inspections needed by overseas customers but can’t allow foreign corporations to attack the health, welfare and pensions of American workers – then receive a government seal of approval for their exports,” Adams said. “It’s time for these ‘big three’ conglomerates to bargain in good faith for the benefit of American workers and farmers.”