Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack sat in the hot seat for several hours of questions from members of the House Agriculture Committee on Thursday, January 20. In his rural economy update for members, he provided updates on many key questions posed by members, including animal biotechnology, support for biofuels, pandemic and ongoing regulatory actions by the Biden administration.
Each member had five minutes to request updates on the topic they wanted more information on. Here’s a quick look at some of the hot topics and answers offered by Vilsack.
Support for biofuels by the Biden administration
Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., asked about the Biden administration’s level of support for biofuels and asked why that administration would offer to retroactively lower levels from the previous year. Vilsack defended the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed lower levels for 2020, but added that his 2021 and 2022 levels are the highest in history, allowing for continued projected growth. Vilsack also boasted that this administration had offered $700 million in additional pandemic relief to biofuel producers and $100 billion to expand access to higher blends. “This administration is also supporting the industry with 65 [small refinery exemption] denied waivers that very well could have been granted under the previous administration,” says Vilsack.
Partnership with EPA on WOTUS, pesticides
On another EPA issue, Vilsack was asked about discussions with the U.S. rule waters agency – WOTUS – as well as a recent revocation of the food use of chlorpyrifos. On chlorpyrifos, Vilsack says, “We have ongoing discussions with the EPA. I don’t know if we have reached a consensus, but discussions are ongoing.
On WOTUS, Vilsack says he appreciates the relationship with EPA Administrator Michael Regan and was encouraged to see the EPA reaching out to farmer groups to listen to any concerns they might have about the implementation. implementation and rule formation. The USDA is also looking at ways to assist and provide assistance once the rules are determined and to provide assistance through conservation programs to encourage compliance.
Farm disaster payments coming this spring
The USDA is expected to provide $10 billion in disaster relief over the next few months, Vilsack shares. He hopes to see payments made this spring for the $750 million earmarked for the livestock industry. It is expected that there may be a second additional trance with more detailed application. However, the former will allow for a streamlined process to get it out as quickly as possible.
On the grain side, he hopes to use data from the Uninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program or data from the Risk Management Agency and NAP to create a pre-populated application to speed up the process. rapid access to aid for producers. A second installment may be required for other superficial losses. Vilsack says the goal is to make those payments this spring, possibly April or May.
In a series of questions from Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-Pa., Vilsack pledged to work with the dairy industry as it works on potential reforms to the federal milk marketing ordinance. “I hear like you heard about the concerns about the marketing order,” says Vilsack. But he also says it’s important for the industry to develop consensus opinion, as concerns are different based on regional differences.
On the issue of whole milk schools, Vilsack says that when it comes to milk consumption in schools, one problem is the cost of whole milk as well as the containers used at school which are difficult to open and create a fence. Also, often the temperature of milk offered in schools is not the temperature it should be. The secretary said the USDA is looking for ways to increase resources for schools and create milk dispensed in very cold temperatures and in less bulky containers.
Coordination of animal biotechnologies
At the end of the Trump administration, the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration signed a memorandum of understanding on how to regulate genetically modified livestock. With recent news about the successful transplant of a genetically modified pig heart into a human, two members asked for an update on the possibility of a clear path to commercialization. Vilsack says when he took office, the USDA thought they had done the job with a signed memorandum of understanding, but now the FDA doesn’t believe those who signed it at Human Health Services had the authority to do so. To do. As soon as the FDA commissioner is confirmed, Vilsack is committed to working to ensure there is an ongoing discussion to complete the MOU. “It’s a necessity to have clarity, and we’re looking forward to having that,” Vilsack says.
Along the same lines, Vilsack also says he doesn’t think the FDA should regulate food additives such as those known to reduce methane emissions as pharmaceuticals, saying the regulations also need to be modernized. “Other countries use these food additives in the dairy industry to gain a commercial advantage that their dairy product is produced sustainably.”
Line processing speeds
The speeds of pork and poultry slaughter lines have been the subject of legal challenges. On the hog side, Vilsack says that due to a court ruling, the USDA had to retract its hog line speed improvements made as part of its new pork slaughter inspection system. hogs (NSIS) that allowed hog processors to set maximum line speeds. The USDA is now working with nine companies, and five have requested a waiver, to allow those speeds to increase again without sacrificing worker safety or farmer profitability. On the poultry side, the USDA asked the court to refer the dispute to the USDA to create a similar waiver process. “The goal here is not to pit worker safety against farmer profits,” says Vilsack. The goal is to strike a balance between processors and workers while ensuring efficiencies for farmers.
Help for pork producers in the event of a pandemic
In December, the USDA issued a notice of availability of funding for hog producers who were unable to sell hogs in the cash market during the pandemic. Registration opened from December 15 to February 25. Vilsack says that when the USDA initially implemented it, it realized some issues with eligibility requirements that created challenges. “We are in the process of revising our application process. We hope to do that very soon,” says Vilsack, adding that he hopes to see payments made by the March deadline.