February 3, 2012
On January 9th, Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack announced that the Department of Agriculture will be undergoing a restructuring resulting in the closure of 259 offices in the United States and 7 offices in foreign countries. The announcement comes as a part of the Obama Administration’s Campaign to Cut Waste and is expected to save over $150 million annually.
USDA asserts that some of the offices to be closed are no longer staffed or have a very small staff and many are within 20 miles of another USDA office. In some cases, the use of technology has reduced the need for brick and mortar facilities.
Reaction to the Department’s proposal has been somewhat mixed. While many have applauded the efforts to streamline agencies and cut costs, concerns have been raised about the ability of the Department to maintain the same level of service after the closing of these offices.
With respect to the Department’s research agencies, the Agricultural Research Service will be closing 12 programs at 10 locations. The ARS closures are not a surprise, as they were included in the President’s FY 2012 Budget Proposal and were approved by Congress through the FY 2012 Agriculture Appropriations Bill.
Below is a listing of offices, by agency, that would be closed under the Blueprint for Stronger Service:
- Farm Service Agency (FSA): Consolidate 131 county offices in 32 states
- Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS): Close 2 country offices
- Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS): Close 15 APHIS offices in 11 states and 5 APHIS offices in 5 foreign countries
- Rural Development (RD): Close 43 area and sub offices in 17 states and U.S. territories
- Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS): Close 24 soil survey offices in 21 states
- Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS): Close 5 district offices in 5 states
- Agricultural Research Service (ARS): Close 12 programs at 10 locations
- Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services (FNCS): Close 31 field offices in 28 states
The Agricultural Research Service facilities to be closed are:
- Alaska: Fairbanks, Fairbanks North Star Borough – Subarctic Agricultural Research
- California: Shafter, Kern County – Western Integrated Cropping Systems Research
- Florida: Brooksville, Hernando County – Beef Cattle Research
- Georgia: Watkinsville, Oconee County – Southern Piedmont Conservation Research
- Louisiana: New Orleans, Orleans Parish – Formosan Subterranean Termites Research
- Ohio: Coshocton, Coshocton County – North Appalachian Experimental Watershed Research
- Oklahoma: Lane, Atoka County – Genetics and Production Research
- South Carolina: Clemson, Pickens County – Cotton Quality Research
- Texas: Weslaco, Hidalgo County – Kika de le Garza Subtropical Agricultural Research Center
- West Virginia: Beaver, Raleigh County – Appalachian Farming Systems Research Center
For more information on the USDA’s Blueprint for Stronger Service click here.
In addition to closing offices through the Blueprint for Stronger Service, the Obama Administration is looking to streamline other government functions. As a part of this broader effort, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has indicated that there would be efforts to establish a single food safety agency. The concept of a single food safety agency has been discussed for quite some time in Washington, as both USDA and FDA have major food safety responsibilities. According to OMB, if Congress allows the Administration to move forward with its plans, the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) would likely be merged into the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Whether Congress will go along with this plan is uncertain, as Congressional committees are generally reluctant to give up jurisdiction. In addition, during consideration of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which was signed into law in January 2011, the concept of a single food safety agency was not a major focus of the debate. Some believe that this would have been the best opportunity for advocates of a single food safety agency to succeed, because Democrats controlled the House and Senate, as well as the White House.
On January 20th, the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) released a proposed rule designed to streamline poultry inspections. The proposed rule would establish a new system for poultry inspections that will transition the responsibility for identifying visual flaws such as bruises to companies, while inspectors focus on more food safety critical issues like sampling for pathogens and improving sanitation. The changes would ultimately lead to a reduction of approximately 1000 inspectors nationwide. FSIS estimates that the changes will save the agency over $90 million over the first three years and save industry $250 million. A copy of the Federal Register notice can be found here and FSIS will be accepting comments until April 26, 2012.
FASS Washington Representatives Lowell Randel and Walt Smith participated in the ADSA and PSA mid-year meetings during the month of January. Lowell met with the PSA Board of Directors in Atlanta, while Walt traveled to Phoenix to meet with the ADSA Board of Directors. The FASS Washington Representatives discussed the current political climate in Washington, DC including prospects for the 2012 Farm Bill and 2013 appropriations as well as FASS Science Policy activities in Washington. In addition to the presentations given by Walt and Lowell, the FASS Science Policy Committee submitted a written mid-year report to the boards of each of the founding societies.
On January 18th, FASS Science Policy Committee Chair Jim Pettigrew and FASS Washington Representative Lowell Randel participated in a meeting of an Ad Hoc Coalition for agricultural research. The January meeting continued the discussion between scientific societies, commodity groups and industry about potential ways to work together to support funding for agricultural research.
While no concrete action items emerged from the meeting, it was a good opportunity to strategize with like minded organizations about how to protect, and hopefully increase the investment in agricultural research in the coming years. The group agreed to continue meeting with the goal of developing a more structured effort to support research. The group had its first meeting last fall, and led to the development of a letter to the Super Committee urging support for agricultural research. That letter garnered over 1200 signatures.
Each year, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) compiles a report on the funding of science across the federal government. Two years ago, AAAS added a chapter that looks at investments in the agriculture related sciences not just by USDA, but other agencies such as NIH, NSF, DOE and others. FASS Washington Representative Lowell Randel has been on the writing team for the new chapter since its inception and will participate on the team again for fiscal year 2013.