January 22, 2019
The December report is later than usual as I spent several days at the beginning of the month in meetings with the National Coalition for Food and Agricultural Research (NC-FAR) board and others in Washington, DC. Although the meetings were useful, there were no breakthroughs or insights gained as to when the government shutdown will end.
FY19 Ag Budget and Beyond – Where Are We?
The shutdown of USDA and several other agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, departments of the Interior, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, and others, has now extended over three weeks. On January 10, the House passed a standalone measure by a vote of 243–183 to fund the Department of Agriculture and related agencies through September 30, 2019. Ten Republicans joined Democrats in voting for the measure. The bill would also allocate funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), a top priority for lawmakers concerned that millions of Americans could lose access to food stamp benefits after temporary funding provided by the Department of Agriculture runs out at the end of February. This was one of a series of separate bills that the House has passed in an effort to reopen individual departments. This effort is not expected to succeed because Senator McConnell (R-Ky.), Senate majority leader, has indicated that he will not bring the bills up for a vote in the Senate. The hold-up continues to be over funding the border wall that President Trump demands, rather than any components of the departmental budgets. Although most people want the current impasse to end, conversations with members of Congress and others working on the Hill provide no indication of when that may happen.
The Farm Bill
After months of negotiation, the 2018 Farm Bill—technically The Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018—was passed by both houses of Congress and signed into law on December 20. It is a massive bill of about 800 pages that provides direction for farm programs, nutrition programs, conservation programs, research, and more for the next five years. In the end, there were no major changes from the 2014 Farm Bill. Like most other areas, research was essentially “status quo,” with existing programs remaining in place. No action has been taken on implementation of the bill because the shutdown that furloughed most USDA employees began almost immediately after the bill was signed. FASS will continue to monitor the situation and provide input and advocate for agriculture research when implementation moves forward. Although action is still needed on a FY19 budget, the FY20 budget will be the next major challenge as we work to ensure that the funding authorized in the Farm Bill is actually made available.
NC-FAR Board Meets
The National Coalition for Food and Agricultural Research (NC-FAR) year-end meeting and board meeting was held January 7, 2019, in Washington, DC. Although the government shutdown did affect meeting plans, important updates were received. Dr. Scott Angle, the new director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), provided an overview of the current situation at NIFA. He has been in the director’s role for about two months. Because of the shutdown, however, he is the only NIFA employee currently working; all others are furloughed. This creates current problems that will worsen as the shutdown continues. A few observations:
- Dr. Scott Hutchins was not approved as USDA chief scientist by the last Congress. It is uncertain when he will be re-nominated and what action will be required to move forward.
- No major changes in direction are expected.
- Input on research needs in the coming years is valued, including what projects NIFA should fund.
- Current review panels have been delayed. It is expected that upcoming deadlines for proposals will be extended when the shutdown is over.
- The director’s role is not to debate the planned move of NIFA but to make things as smooth as possible for all involved.
- Many people have been lost already because of concerns over the planned move. It is uncertain how many more will be lost when the move takes place.
- No general reorganization is planned, but operation in dual locations would require some changes to accommodate personnel needs when operating in two locations.
The executive director of the Foundation for Food and Agriculture (FFAR), Sally Rockey, reported on the organization. She thanked the group for their support of FFAR in the Farm Bill. FFAR has identified and seeks input on their 2019 realignment of six challenge areas. In addition, they are seeking input on the training needs of the next generation of agricultural researchers, as this has been and will continue to be a major FFAR focus. FFAR will host the inaugural Foster Our Future – cultivate.discover.grow event in Washington, DC, on February 5, 2019. It will demonstrate how research and science is changing the food and agriculture landscape.
NC-FAR has approved plans for their 2019 Lunch-n-Learn seminar series. Current topics include
- GMO free,
- Open source data,
- ERS highlights,
- Role of soybean genetic improvements as a part of US food security,
- Gene editing—CRISPR 2.0,
- Using gene drives to stop America's worst weeds,
- Combating herbicide resistance in managed turf systems,
- Breeding new corn varieties for specialty whiskey,
- Status of gene editing in food animals,
- Combating AMR: National Institute for Antimicrobial Resistance Research and Education,
- Farm/rural financial and mental health stress with suggested coping strategies, and
- Rural broadband.
Congressional staff members from the Senate and House agriculture committees discussed the 2018 Farm Bill. They noted that the research title was bipartisan and, they believed, very good for research interests. They recognized the need for increased funding but were limited in any progress in that area. Moving forward, a priority will be to ensure a more permanent framework for maintenance. They welcome input on implementation priorities and noted that Senator Roberts (R-Kans.) will retire at the end of the current term.
Update on USDA ERS and NIFA Move
Although the government shutdown may slow the approval of plans for the move, it proceeds as planned within USDA. At the end of the last session of Congress, a bill was introduced that would temporarily stop the move, and similar language will likely be introduced in the new Congress. USDA plans to reduce the number of potential sites from the current 136 to a smaller number. This is expected to result in more groups and members of Congress taking a stand in opposition to the move.
FASS continues to work with coalitions that have recommended to USDA that it
- Delay any further actions on relocation until questions can be addressed,
- Convene a formal public comment period, and
- Provide data and analysis used to inform the decision to relocate.
We are using a variety of communication tools to reach Congress and asking members to
- Hold oversight hearings,
- Request an independent study with a cost-benefit analysis of the plan, and
- Delay or prohibit relocation and reorganization until questions and concerns are addressed in appropriations or the Farm Bill.
Copies of current letters are on the FASS website.
The 116th Congress
As a result of the midterm elections, Democrats took control of the House for the 116th Congress. This means that they now control what legislation moves forward in the House and the timeline for it. Democrats also chair the House committees and have the majority of members on each committee. Committee membership has not yet been announced, but Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) was selected as chair of the House Ag Committee.
Although a nomination hearing was held by the Senate Ag Committee for Dr. Scott Hutchins to serve as undersecretary for research, education and economics and chief scientist; Dr. Mindy Brashears to serve as undersecretary for food safety; and Naomi Churchill Earp to serve as USDA assistant secretary for civil rights, and all were approved, no action was taken by the full Senate on their nominations. This means that officially the process starts over. It is anticipated that the nominees will be resubmitted, but it is uncertain whether new hearings will be held.
FASS Inc. Science Policy Coordination Activities – December 2018
Last month, Dr. John McNamara announced that he was stepping down as chair of the FASS Science Policy Committee at the end of the year. We appreciate John’s enthusiastic leadership and his many hours of work on committee activities. He helped provide added visibility for FASS and the importance of animal research.
As noted above, we spent several days in early January in Washington, DC. During that time, we participated in the NC-FAR meeting and visited with coalition partners, the new director of NIFA, members of Congress, and their staff.
The new director of NIFA, Dr. Scott Angle, who has been in this position for about two months, is a soil scientist. He is facing major challenges currently with the government shutdown and no other staff in the office. We assured him of support from FASS but also highlighted the importance of animal research and equity in funding between the plant and animal sectors.
When meeting with members of Congress and their staff, I encouraged them to support animal agriculture and animal research. I also invited them to call on FASS when information is needed relative to animal and food issues.
Please contact me if you have questions, ideas, or suggestions on any of these issues. We will provide additional information as it becomes available. We need to work together to maintain a strong and effective national research effort.
If you are interested in science policy and being and an advocate for agricultural science, the FASS Science Policy Committee is looking for you. We currently have openings for a couple of additional members on the committee. Please contact me for details. If you are interested in communicating occasionally with members of Congress on issues related to animal agriculture, we are also looking for FASS science policy advocates. Again, please contact me for details.
Ken Olson, PhD, PAS
FASS Science Policy Coordinator