July, 2019

    August 13, 2019


    As I write this update, it is sad that local and national headlines once again must focus on the mass murders taking place across our country, most recently in Gilroy, California; El Paso, Texas; and Dayton, Ohio. Our condolences go to the friends and families of those killed and prayers for physical and mental healing for those injured and affected by these and other acts of violence that continue to occur here and around the world.

    Congress is currently on recess until early September, but since most members of Congress are home, it is a good opportunity to visit with them and become acquainted with their staff so they know that they have expertise available when needed. As you visit, provide reminders of the importance of agriculture and agricultural research to our future.

    The Budget Deal
    Before leaving for the August recess, the House and Senate passed the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2019. The comprehensive two-year deal raises the spending caps and sets the top-line spending for both discretionary defense and non-defense programs at about $1.37 trillion for FY 2020, which is about $50 billion higher than the FY 2019 level. For FY 2021, the top-line number increases to $1.375 trillion. The top-line spending numbers include $666.5 billion in new budget authority for defense and $621.5 billion for non-security programs in FY 2020, and $671.5 billion in new budget authority for defense and $626.5 billion for non-security programs in FY 2021. The measure also suspends the US debt ceiling through July 31, 2021, which greatly reduces the chance of a government shutdown over the next two years.

    This is an important, step but the work is not done. When they return, senators will need to work quickly on their Appropriations Bill for agriculture and other departments. There are only 13 legislative days on the calendar after their return before the start of the new fiscal year on October 1. In this time, they need to pass their version of the budget for each department, reach an agreement with the House on any differences, and have the bill signed by the president.

    Biotech Regulation
    The Farm Foundation recently hosted a forum titled “The New Biotechnology Regulatory Regime.” It featured a panel that included

    • Fan-Li Chou, PhD, biology coordinator in the Office of Pest Management Policy at USDA;
    • Mike Mendelsohn, chief of the Emerging Technologies Branch of the Biopesticides and Pollution Prevention Division in the Office of Pesticide Programs at EPA;
    • Laura Epstein, senior policy analyst in the Center for Veterinary Medicine at FDA; and
    • Stanley Abramson of Arent Fox LLP.

    The three agencies represented each have a role in the regulation of biotechnology. The speakers provided an update on the status of the use of biotechnology and the June 11 executive order on the regulation of biotechnology. The executive order is intended to address overlap in regulatory authority and ensure that appropriate oversight of biotechnology is provided. It includes a six-month time frame. The goal is not to be done in that time frame, but rather to have plans in place as to how issues are to be addressed by December 1; implementation will take longer. USDA has taken comments on a proposed regulation, EPA is considering rulemaking that would streamline their processes, and FDA is planning outreach to stakeholders as they look at a technical rewrite of their approval process.

    A bipartisan group of more than 20 members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee sent a letter to acting FDA Commissioner Ned Sharpless, urging the agency to “develop a more appropriate, workable approach” to regulating animal biotech. Under the current system, the agency regulates the DNA of intentionally altered animals as an “animal drug,” even if the genetic variations could have occurred naturally. This regulatory process can take years. “This burden is deterring many academics and developers from conducting research and will likely consolidate the industry to only the largest companies,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter. They cited potential benefits of animal gene editing, such as limiting the spread of African swine fever or allowing livestock producers to curb their use of animal antibiotics.

    Watch each of the agencies for input opportunities as the process moves forward.

    Trade Agreements (or Lack Thereof)
    Trade negotiations continue to generate news, including promises of new purchases by trading partners along with threats of new tariffs, but little real progress. It is challenging to write about because things seem to change at least daily. Negotiations are taking place on several fronts. A new agreement between the United States, Mexico, and Canada has been developed, but its fate in Congress is uncertain. Most evaluations show small benefits for each of the economies if it is enacted but significant losses if NAFTA lapses with no replacement. Talks are taking place with Japan, the European Union, and Great Britain (in anticipation of their leaving the EU). So far, there are no concrete results from any of these discussions. China generates the most interest and concern because tariffs have been added by both countries, and China has recently announced that they will stop all purchase of US food and farm goods and they are allowing their currency to drop on the world market. Both sides are likely to continue to seek new ways to retaliate until there is some resolution. In response to the uncertainty, the stock market has experienced wide swings and the Federal Reserve has dropped interest rates. The rural economy continues to suffer, and it is reported that the Administration will do another round of trade relief payments for 2020. This is in addition to the $10 billion for 2018 and $16 billion for 2019.

    USDA ERS and NIFA Move
    USDA’s inspector general recently released their report on the relocation of ERS and NIFA from Washington to Kansas City. But with lawmakers out of town for the long August recess and the relocation already underway, it's unclear whether the findings will have much impact.

    The report found that USDA officials have the legal authority to carry out the relocation but not necessarily the budget authority to do so. For example, investigators said USDA failed to meet a 60-day deadline to report to Congress how the department intended to use $6 million provided for NIFA relocation expenses in a fiscal 2018 spending package. The report also failed to answer significant questions about the motivation behind the move. Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney hailed the relocation as “a wonderful way” to shrink the agencies, which are facing an exodus of employees. It is expected that 70% or more of the employees scheduled to relocate will not move. This is certain to cause major disruptions for the work of both agencies.

    FASS Inc. Science Policy Coordination Activities – July 2019

    The FASS Science Policy Committee met by conference call on July 26. The primary item of business was action on the continued review and updating of the FASS Science Policy statements. One of the previous updates was approved by the FASS board, and two others were returned with comments. The comments were reviewed and will be updated for resubmission to the FASS board. Work continues on the other statements as all are deemed appropriate to maintain but need to include new information that has become available since they were developed. The committee also approved submitting a symposium proposal for the 2020 Midwest meeting.

    During the month, the science policy coordinator participated remotely in the Senate Agriculture Committee hearing on “Agricultural Research and 2018 Farm Bill Implementation” and the Farm Foundation Forum on “The New Biotechnology Regulatory Review Regime.”

    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 communicating occasionally with members of Congress on issues related to animal agriculture, we are looking for FASS science policy advocates. Please contact me for details.

    Ken Olson, PhD, PAS
    FASS Science Policy Coordinator