October 10, 2017
Congress was back in session in September. There was activity, but health care, hurricanes, and the investigation into Russian involvement in our elections captured most of the attention. Health care legislation died, but it is unlikely to go away. The Russian investigation can be expected to continue to raise headlines periodically in the coming weeks, so it too is unlikely to go away. Hurricane relief fits with other issues of interest and may be used in an effort to move other legislation forward. Here are some recent developments:
Hurricane Damage and Relief
The country has never been hit with three major hurricanes so close together before. Reporting is focused on the loss of life and the impact on people’s lives due to loss of homes, access to water, food, medical care, power and other necessities of life. We are now starting to hear more about the impact of the hurricanes on agriculture.
In Texas, no official estimate has been given on the number of cows, horses, and other livestock that died as a result of Hurricane Harvey, but farmers and ranchers report the final count is likely in the thousands; the 54 counties that bore the storm’s brunt are home to about 1.2 million cattle, a quarter of the state’s total.
Florida’s senators have urged Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to approve disaster aid “as quickly as possible” so that farmers and affected communities can rebuild. They noted that nearly all agricultural operations, including citrus, sugarcane, and dairy, across the state suffered “intense damage” from Hurricane Irma. Two weeks after Irma battered through the peninsula, growers in affected areas are still trying to figure out how they will deal with the damages. The Florida Farm Bureau estimates that 60 to 70% of the state’s crops were destroyed, causing a potential economic loss of billions of dollars for the state's agriculture industry.
Less than a week after Hurricane Maria battered through Puerto Rico, the island lost an estimated 80% of its crops, according to Carlos Flores Ortega, secretary of the Puerto Rico Department of Agriculture. Plantain and coffee crops were dealt the largest blow, but all agriculture, including dairy livestock, suffered major losses. Puerto Rican Department of Agriculture preliminary figures estimate a $780 million loss in agriculture yields. According to NPR, dairy farmers in Puerto Rico, who make up a large portion of the island's agricultural output, are scrambling to get their operations back together in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. "They have found cows all over the place, and they're still looking," said one farmer, who used to have 670 cows. He's been able to locate only about a quarter of his herd.
FY 18 Budget
Senate Republicans released their 2018 budget blueprint Friday, which includes two potentially key items for agriculture. First, it clears the way for a tax overhaul that is likely to have only GOP support, and second, it gives flexibility to lawmakers when setting spending amounts for the 2018 Farm Bill. Details are short; however, independent estimates found that it might allow tax writers to add up to $1.5 trillion to the deficit over 10 years. The Senate measure includes $1 billion in savings over 10 years, as opposed to the $203 billion in mandatory cuts laid out by the White House earlier this year. What's next? The House version was introduced in July, but it has yet to go to the floor for a vote because of disagreements between Republicans over how much should be cut. The House measure includes about $10 billion in cuts over the next decade to Farm Bill programs. As noted, there is still a long way to go before a budget is passed and signed. The potential impact on research is still unknown.
With health care off the table for now, the focus has moved to tax reform. Basic blueprints have been floated, but details are limited and currently appear fluid. Groups are weighing in with their wants and concerns, but it is far from certain what will emerge.
Discussions continue in many venues over the shape of the Farm Bill, which includes both old and new players in the arena. There are few areas of agreement, but in general, there appears to be a desire to not cut food aid or conservation programs and to support agriculture research and technology. A positive in advocating for ag research occurred when it was announced that American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall is joining the board of directors for the Supporters of Agricultural Research (SoAR) Foundation, a move that adds the clout of the nation’s largest farmer organization to the group's push to increase funding for research in the 2018 Farm Bill. “Agricultural research and investment have given American farmers and ranchers a firm foundation to battle the challenges of the twenty-first century,” Duvall said in a statement. “The Farm Bureau clearly supports ongoing efforts to elevate food, agricultural, and natural resources research as a national priority.”
One item of note for the Senate Ag Committee is that the GOP primary runoff in Alabama creates an opening on the committee because Senator Luther Strange is a current member of the committee. It may not have direct effects on the committee, but other senators may be concerned about potential primary challenges.
Action to fill vacancies in USDA leadership positions continues to move slowly. On September 19, Stephen Censky and Ted McKinney were cleared as part of a large number of nominations approved by voice vote en bloc by the Senate, a day after the two were advanced by the Agriculture Committee. Censky, former CEO of the American Soybean Association, will serve as the deputy agriculture secretary, and Ted McKinney, former director of the Indiana State Department of Agriculture, fills the newly created position of undersecretary for trade and foreign agricultural affairs.
The Senate Agriculture Committee held a confirmation hearing on Thursday, October 5, to consider Greg Ibach, nominated to be undersecretary of agriculture for marketing and regulatory programs, and Bill Northey, of Iowa, to be undersecretary of agriculture for farm and foreign agricultural services. It is expected that the committee will hold a markup on the nominees shortly after returning from recess on October 16 and send the nominations forward for a final vote as soon as possible after that.
On other nominations, Senator Stabenow, the Senate Agriculture Committee’s ranking member, said she could not support Sam Clovis to be the USDA’s chief scientist. She said, “Since day one, I've been concerned that Sam Clovis is not qualified to lead the important science and research arm of the USDA.” It is still uncertain if or when his nomination will be considered.
In another move affecting staff at the USDA, Ann Bartuska, the acting deputy undersecretary for research, education, and economics at USDA, will join Resources for the Future (RFF) as vice president for its new land, water, and nature program, the group announced. Bartuska will help run a program that aims to “deliver research and solutions for cost-effectively managing key land, water, and marine resources that support a thriving economy and society, while ensuring healthy and productive natural systems and building resilience in a changing climate,” the organization said.
New Land-Grant Center
West Virginia University in Morgantown opened a new academic center on September 28 focused on the nation's land-grant colleges and universities. The Center for the Future of Land-Grant Education will be a hub for researchers aimed at providing accessible public higher education. It arrives in an era of decreased public funding and persistent disconnect between higher education and the public, the university said.
It will be led by Nathan M. Sorber, a land-grant-movement scholar and coordinator of the university's higher education administration program. Each state has at least one land-grant school as part of a system established by Congress in the 19th century to bolster agricultural and technical education to a broader portion of the population. Learn more about the center here.
The FASS Science Policy Coordinator participated in a Farm Foundation Forum, examining specific issues and challenges facing agricultural innovation in the United States. Panelists at the forum were Ken Ash and Catherine Moreddu, both of the OECD, and Margaret Ziegler of Global Harvest Initiative. The issues identified were not unusual. They included food safety, quality, and availability; animal welfare; sustainability; and environmental issues, including water and greenhouse gases.
Relative to the Farm Bill, panelists noted that in the current environment, more money is not likely, so there is a need to focus on how to make the best, most effective use of what is available. Looking at existing practices, technology can reduce greenhouse gas production by animals. It is important for research to focus on enhanced productivity as that generally reduces gases.
The speakers observed that farm/commodity groups give good lip service to research but, in the end, their focus/push is on commodity programs. Universities provide the scientists needed by academia and industry for the future. Private sector support is important and needed, but it is important for universities and scientists to speak to legislators and the public about the importance of funding research.
FASS Science Policy Rep Named to NC-FAR Board
Dr. Ken Olson, FASS Science Policy representative, was recently named to the board of directors of National C-FAR, a nonprofit, nonpartisan, consensus-based and customer-led coalition that brings food, agriculture, nutrition, conservation, and natural resource stakeholders together with the food and agriculture research community. Through education and outreach efforts, National C-FAR is seeking to sustain and enhance federal funding for food and agricultural research, extension, and education to help bring about research outcomes that provide a range of major public benefits. FASS is a longtime member of National C-FAR.
For additional details contact
Ken Olson Ph.D., PAS, FASS Science Policy Coordinator
For those interested in learning how to increase agricultural productivity and influence priorities in the upcoming Farm Bill, it is educational to read the recent National Geographic article on agricultural production in the Netherlands, including the research/production cooperation between producers, consumers, and Wageningen University. Their intense focus on efficiency has yielded real-world practices that could easily be adapted in large segments of agriculture in the United States. This type of research, especially the academic/business partnerships to speed implementation and benefit to producers and consumers, could dramatically improve nutritional security in the United States.
Be on the lookout for announcements in agricultural list serves, publications, and online notices for two webinars that the FASS Science Policy Committee (SPC) is working on, one likely to be presented between Thanksgiving and Christmas and one after the holidays in mid to late January. They are aimed at academics, producers, consumers, and decision makers. The first topic is the impact of public/private partnerships in research on productivity in animal agriculture, and the second is the role of animal products in the human diet. We hope that these can be used in Farm Bill discussions and in college classes and extension seminars across the United States.
The chair of the FASS SPC will be attending two separate and relevant workshops in Washington, DC, in November that have implications for animal agriculture research and practice.
The first is titled “Livestock High-Throughput Phenotyping and Big Data Analytics (Livestock HTP and Big Data),” being held by USDA and NIFA as part of their continuing effort to support integrative sciences through the FACT (Food and Agriculture Cyberinformatics and Tools) program for planning and conducting research. The chair will report to the committee and membership on this very relevant priority for animal agricultural research, integrating across animal disciplines (genetics, disease, nutrition) as well as plant and cropping systems, consumer needs and preferences, and overall profitability and sustainability. This workshop is part of the larger effort by USDA and NIFA to fund integrative sciences to improve nutritional security for the US population: NIFA Introduces New Vision for Data Science in Agriculture | National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
For information on this workshop, click here.
The second event is The Science of Science Communication III (SSCIII) by The National Academy of Sciences. This workshop contains many relevant speakers and working groups to help individuals and organizations better communicate evidence-based science to any audience. Clearly, in animal agriculture there is no shortage of need for that aspect of research and education. The chair hopes that this information will help the SPC to continue and improve our efforts to increase support of animal agriculture, agricultural research and education, and nutritional security. More information on this program and workshop can be found here.
For additional details and input on the FASS Science Policy Committee, please contact the FASS SPC chair, John P. McNamara, at 509-592-0099 or firstname.lastname@example.org.