December 16, 2020
The electoral college cast their votes on December 14, confirming Joe Biden as the next president of the United States. The Democrats held the House, but with a reduced majority. Control of the Senate depends on the results of the January 5 runoff elections in Georgia. Although President Trump has refused to concede the election, this finalizes the results, and the transition continues to move forward toward inauguration on January 20. Biden is announcing his nominees for cabinet positions, which will require hearings and confirmation by the Senate. The results of the Georgia Senate runoff elections are likely to affect how long the confirmation process takes.
Vilsack to be Nominated as Secretary of Agriculture: President-elect Joe Biden has selected Tom Vilsack to be nominated as secretary of agriculture. Vilsack served as agriculture secretary for eight years in the Obama administration. He was a top rural and agriculture policy adviser during Biden’s presidential campaign and is also a former governor of Iowa. It has been reported that President-Elect Biden wanted someone who could immediately step in to tackle the hunger and farm crises that have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. During his prior service, Vilsack was well regarded by agricultural groups. Since the end of the Obama administration, Vilsack has been leading the US Dairy Export Council.
New House Ag Leaders: Reps. David Scott (D-Ga.) and G. T. Thompson (R-Pa.) will head the House Agriculture Committee starting in January as chair and ranking member, respectively. Both are longtime members of the committee and were picked by their respective parties over several other contenders. Scott will succeed chair Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), who lost his re-election bid last month, while Thompson takes over for the retiring Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Tx.). Full committee membership will be finalized after the 117th Congress is convened.
In the Senate, there will be a change in leadership, as committee chair Pat Roberts (R-Ks.) is retiring, but the results of the Georgia runoff election on January 5 will determine the majority party for the Senate. As a result, the chair and ranking member will not be identified until after that.
FY21 Budget and COVID Relief
Discussions and negotiations continue on completion of the FY21 budget and COVID relief. A short-term continuing resolution extended the timeline until December 18. COVID relief is considered most critical because some unemployment benefits expire by the end of the year. A bipartisan group has been working on a compromise, but as of December 15 it has not been finalized. If a COVID relief agreement is reached, another continuing resolution may still be needed for the budget package.
In early December, FASS joined more than 170 other organizations and institutions across all disciplines and areas of science and research in a letter to congressional leadership, urging swift action to finalize the annual funding levels for science agencies and programs and provide emergency research relief funding to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The National Coalition for Food and Agricultural Research (NCFAR), a coalition organization that FASS is part of, wrote to members of the USDA Landing Team for the Biden administration transition, urging key investments in agricultural, food, and nutrition research, education, economics, and extension at the USDA. These and past letters can be found at https://www.fass.org/Science-Policy/Coalition-Letters.
Ag Guide: 4th Edition Now Available
The American Dairy Science Association® (ADSA®), the American Society of Animal Science, and the Poultry Science Association have published the fourth edition of the Guide for the Care and Use of Agricultural Animals in Research and Teaching (Ag Guide). The document, commonly known as "the Ag Guide," is primarily used within teaching and research institutions. It serves as a primary science-based reference document for meeting the needs and requirements of agricultural animals utilized in research and teaching. As such, it provides guidance to institutional animal care and use committees (IACUC), who have responsibility for the care and use of animals in their respective institutions. It is not a commercial farm guide, but it may be of interest to producers because many of the species chapters include standards for such things as floor space, feeder space, and drinker allocations.
Science Policy Updates
FASS Policy Statements are the primary tool used to encourage policymakers to base decisions on established peer-reviewed scientific results, where applicable. The statements cover a wide range of topics. A new statement, "Regulation of Food Made from Genome Editing," and an updated/revised statement, "Labeling of Foods Made from Genetically Engineered (GE) Organisms," were recently approved by the FASS Board and are posted with all previous statements on the FASS website at https://www.fass.org/Science-Policy/Policy-Statements. The Science Policy Committee is continuing to work on updating policy statements. Plans are also moving forward for a Science Policy symposium at the next ADSA meeting. It will provide insights on ways that scientists can most effectively advocate for research funding and the use of that research in policy making.
NCFAR Board Makes Plans
FASS is a member of NCFAR. One of NCFAR's key activities is the slate of "Hill Seminars" presented each year. They are designed to inform Capitol Hill staff and other policy stakeholders about the value of public investment in food and agriculture research through seminars featuring leading-edge researchers and extension specialists on topics of high interest. They help staff make more informed recommendations about federal funding for food and agriculture research, extension, and education (the USDA REE mission area). COVID forced a change in the delivery of the Seminars in 2020 from face-to-face meetings to webinars. Although face-to-face contact is preferred, webinars are needed for now and will continue. The NCFAR board met recently to review seminar plans for 2021. With the new Congress beginning in January and the likelihood of many new congressional staff, several actions were taken:
- Two training webinars will be held in January and February to bring new Capitol Hill staff up to speed regarding the USDA REE mission area.
- Five seminars or webinars will be initially scheduled, starting in March 2021.
Flexibility remains to identify additional seminars that are timely and will help advance the mission.
FDA Approves First-of-its-Kind Intentional Genomic Alteration in Line of Domestic Pigs for Both Human Food and Potential Therapeutic Uses
On December 14, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a first-of-its-kind intentional genomic alteration (IGA) in a line of domestic pigs, referred to as GalSafe pigs, which may be used for food or for human therapeutics. This is the first IGA in an animal that the FDA has approved for both human food consumption and as a source for potential therapeutic uses. The IGA in GalSafe pigs is intended to eliminate alpha-gal sugar on the surface of the pigs' cells. People with alpha-gal syndrome (AGS) may have mild to severe allergic reactions to alpha-gal sugar found in red meat (e.g., beef, pork, and lamb). (More information available here.)
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