Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack sat in the hot seat for several hours of questioning from House Agriculture Committee members on Thursday, Jan. 20. In his update on the rural economy for members, he provided updates on many key issues asked by members including on animal biotechnology, biofuels support, pandemic assistance and ongoing regulatory actions by the Biden administration.
Each member was given five minutes to ask for updates on whatever topic they wanted more insight. Here’s a quick look at some of the hot topics and answers offered by Vilsack.
Biofuels support by the Biden administration
Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., asked about the level of support by the Biden administration for biofuels and questioned why this administration would propose retroactively lowering previous year levels. Vilsack defended the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed lower levels for 2020 but added its 2021 and 2022 levels are the highest in history allowing for a continued projected growth. Vilsack also touted this administration has offered $700 million of additional pandemic assistance to biofuel producers and $100 billion to expand access to higher blends. “This administration is also supporting the industry with 65 [small refinery exemption] waivers denied that very well may have been granted under the previous administration,” Vilsack says.
Partnership with EPA on WOTUS, pesticides
On another issue relating to EPA, Vilsack was asked about discussions with the agency on the waters of the U.S. rule – WOTUS – as well as a recent revoking of food use of chlorpyrifos. On chlorpyrifos, Vilsack says, “We have ongoing discussions with EPA. I don’t know if we’ve reached consensus, but discussions are ongoing.”
On WOTUS, Vilsack says he appreciates the relationship with EPA Administrator Michael Regan and was encouraged to see EPA reach out to farm groups to listen to concerns they might have about the implementation and formation of the rule. USDA is also looking at ways to help and provide assistance once rules are determined and providing assistance through conservation programs to encourage compliance.
Ag disaster payments coming this spring
USDA is set to deliver $10 billion in disaster assistance in the next few months, Vilsack shares. He hopes to see payments made sometime this spring for the $750 million for the livestock industry. The expectation is that there may be an additional second trance with a more detailed application. However, the first one will allow a simplified process to get it out as quickly as possible.
On the grain side, he hopes to use data from the Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program or NAP and Risk Management Agency data to create a pre-filled out application to speed up the process to get producers aid quickly. A second tranche may be needed for other shallow losses. Vilsack says the goal is to get these payments out this spring, possibly April or May.
In a line of questioning from Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-Pa., Vilsack committed to working with the dairy sector as it works on potential reforms to the Federal Milk Marketing Order. “I hear as you have heard about concerns about the marketing order,” Vilsack says. But he also says its important for the industry to develop a consensus opinion as concerns are different based on regional differences.
On the issue of whole milk schools, Vilsack says as it relates to milk consumption at schools one issue is the cost of whole milk as well as the containers used in school which are difficult to open and create a barrier. In addition, often times the temperature of milk offered at schools is not the temperature it should be. The secretary says USDA is looking at ways to increase resources for schools, and create milk distributed at very cold temperatures and in containers which are less cumbersome.
Animal biotechnology coordination
At the end of the Trump administration, USDA and the Food and Drug Administration signed a Memorandum of Understanding on how to regulate genetically engineered livestock. With recent news on the successful transplant of a genetically engineered pig heart in a human, two members sought for an update on allowing for a clear path of commercialization. Vilsack says when he came into office USDA thought it had the work done with a signed MOU, but now FDA didn’t believe those who did sign it at the Human Health Services had the authority to do so. As soon as the FDA commissioner is confirmed, Vilsack committed to working to ensure there is an ongoing discussion to complete the MOU. “It’s a necessity of having clarity, and we’re anxious to have that,” Vilsack says.
In a similar line of questioning, Vilsack also says he doesn’t believe FDA should be regulating feed additives such as those known to reduce methane emissions as pharmaceuticals, saying regulations there also need modernizing. “Other nations use these feed additives in the dairy industry to get a market advantage that their dairy product is sustainably produced.”
Line processing speeds
Both the pork and poultry slaughter line speeds have faced court challenges. On the pork side, Vilsack says due to a court ruling USDA had to withdraw its pork line speed improvements made under its New Swine Slaughter Inspection System (NSIS) that enabled pork processors to establish maximum line speeds. USDA is now working with nine businesses, and five have applied for a waiver, to allow for those speeds to again increase without sacrificing worker safety or farmer profitability. On the poultry side, USDA has asked the court to remand the litigation back to USDA to create a similar waiver process. “The goal here is not to pit worker safety versus farmer profits,” Vilsack says. The goal is to find a balance between processors and workers and still provide efficiencies for farmers.
Hog producer pandemic assistance
In December, USDA published a notice of funding availability for hog producers who were not able to sell hogs on the spot cash market during the pandemic. The signup opened Dec. 15 until February 25. Vilsack says when USDA initially set it up, it realized some issues relative to eligibility requirements that created challenges. “We’re in the process of revising our application process. We hope to get it done very soon,” Vilsack says, adding he hopes to see payments made in the March timeframe.