With help from Helena Bottemiller Evich and Ryan McCrimmon
Editor’s Note: Weekly Agriculture is a weekly version of POLITICO Pro’s daily Agriculture policy newsletter, Morning Agriculture. POLITICO Pro is a policy intelligence platform that combines the news you need with tools you can use to take action on the day’s biggest stories. Act on the news with POLITICO Pro.
— President Joe Biden has ambitious goals to cut greenhouse gases, but he and top officials have said very little about agriculture’s role in meeting those targets.
— The Department of Agriculture will begin the process of paying outstanding debt owed by farmers of color this week.
— The White House is expected to unveil the Biden administration’s first full budget this week. Elements to watch for on the ag front include more funding for USDA, climate plans, nutrition assistance, broadband and wildfire prevention.
HAPPY MONDAY, MAY 24! Welcome to Morning Ag, where your host is counting down her days to visiting the Mountain West again. (It’s really a getaway to escape the cicadas!) Send tips to [email protected] and @ximena_bustillo, and follow us @Morning_Ag.
BIDEN’S BIG BEEF PROBLEM: The president wants the U.S. farm industry to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions before any other nation. But his administration has shied away from difficult discussions about how to curb the flow of methane from livestock and dairy production, which represents a significant piece of all agricultural emissions, writes Pro Ag’s Ryan McCrimmon.
It’s an incredibly touchy subject: The culture wars have already seized on any whiff of Washington meddling with the way Americans consume meat. And the influential farm lobby remains opposed to new environmental regulations that stray beyond voluntary measures.
Instead, Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack is leaning into financial incentives and innovations like digester systems that capture methane fumes from manure pits and convert them into a source of energy.
Climate advocates say that’s not nearly enough. They want stricter oversight of large-scale animal operations and fewer taxpayer subsidies for such businesses.
“There are so many policies, from dietary guidelines to what school meals are reimbursed, to agricultural loans and government purchases, that are currently promoting overproduction of meat,” says Stephanie Feldstein, population and sustainability director at the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit environmental group.
For their part, meat industry groups say U.S. producers are already way ahead of their foreign counterparts when it comes to sustainable farming and ranching.
“The U.S. cattle and beef industry has had the lowest greenhouse gas emissions intensity in the world for 25 years,” says Ethan Lane, vice president of government affairs for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.
One area to watch: Some progressive lawmakers favor the sort of changes that environmentalists are seeking, including more federal support for alternative protein like plant-based meat.
House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro recently called for parity in research funding for such products and traditional meat — a key statement coming from the top lawmaker who’s in charge of allocating more than a trillion dollars in annual spending.
THE DEBT RELIEF IS COMING: Vilsack made his way to Georgia over the weekend to announce the start of payments to farmers of color to pay off their outstanding USDA loans. Vilsack was joined by several politicians including Sens. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.) and Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.) for a press conference to discuss the payments and meet with farmers.
USDA will begin sending payments out in early June, your host reported on Friday, to pay off direct and guaranteed loans. The Treasury will pay 100 percent of the outstanding balances to clear the debt, and farmers will receive an additional 20 percent to cover tax liabilities, fees and other loan costs.
The Farm Service Agency’s first notice of funding availability is expected to be published in the Federal Register either today or Tuesday. USDA will cover the prepayment penalty for guaranteed loans, Vilsack said, which is what banks use to compensate for potential loss of income when debt is paid off early.
Letters have begun going out to farmers who qualify. Some farmers even showed Vilsack letters during his visit.
Tackling the controversy: As MA readers will recall, several conservatives and white farmers have objected to the estimated $4 billion in payments. Banks raised concern over potential income loss. The New York Times even ran a feature this weekend about objections from white farmers.
The proponents of the payments have reiterated that Covid-19 exacerbated farming disparities for farmers of color. Vilsack previously noted that only 1 percent of Coronavirus Food Assistance Program payments, intended to cover lost producer profits amid crumbling supply chains, went to any farmer of color. Black farmers received the least amount of funds.
“The reality is we have been dealing with these issues for an incredibly long period of time,” Vilsack told farmers and reporters over the weekend. “The Department of Agriculture has a lot of work to do.”
Democratic members of Congress are also praising the rollout. “I commend USDA for moving forward with implementation, which is a positive step,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who first introduced a bill related to Black farmer justice this session, told POLITICO in a statement, urging USDA to act quickly.
What’s next in ‘tackling discrimination’? The internal and external reviews of USDA, its branches and programs are still underway. Results for the internal review are expected sometime in the summer. It’s still unknown when the external review — being conducted by an equity commission — will be completed.
On the Hill, Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.), who helped include the payments in the Covid package, said he is looking forward to working with Vilsack on additional legislation to increase market access for farmers of color.
BIDEN UNVEILS FULL BUDGET PROPOSAL: Biden is expected to release his full budget proposal on Friday.
Hot ticket items: MA readers might remember the skinny budget released in April included a 16 percent increase to USDA’s discretionary budget.
That request mirrored many of the rural priorities included in his infrastructure blueprint, like broadband access and helping rural communities move to cleaner energy sources. It also would expand funding for USDA research and education programs, wildfire prevention and nutritional assistance programs.
Coming up: This budget will be the first big look at Biden’s agriculture priorities and is expected to detail his requests for mandatory spending, a tax overhaul, infrastructure investment and job creation.
JBS HAS BEEF WITH NCBA: Our Helena Bottemiller Evich scooped on Friday that JBS, the world’s largest meatpacker, parted ways with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the preeminent trade group for beef in Washington. It was a sign of just how contentious concerns about consolidation and antitrust have become.
Cameron Bruett, a spokesperson for JBS, said the company “suspended” its membership in NCBA a year ago as part of an internal review about the “benefit and effectiveness of our trade association investments.” The Brazilian company said it plans to stay involved with the group.
Antitrust pressure grows: NCBA last week joined with an unusually broad range of farmer and cattle producer groups to call for more transparency in the market and to ask the Department of Justice to publicly report on its ongoing antitrust investigation. Sixteen members of Congress also wrote to the DOJ last week seeking an update on the probe.
NCBA mum: An NCBA spokesperson confirmed JBS is no longer a member, but did not respond to a request for comment.
R-CALF USA, a group that represents producers, has long criticized NCBA for not representing the interests of producers. The group’s CEO, Bill Bullard, said he was surprised to hear JBS had left.
“That shows that we are right — that one organization simply cannot represent the interests of both the cattle producer and the meatpacker that buys cattle,” Bullard said.
Ranchers rejoice: We saw quite a few ranchers cheering the move on social media.
REGENERATIVE FARMING: Twenty-five farmers in New Jersey embarked on Friday on a soil health and carbon sequestration research project funded by USDA in the hopes of coming up with climate-friendly policy changes and recommendations.
Farmers enrolled in the study will commit to either planting cash crops into living cover crops, grazing cover crops, or using a roller-crimper to kill the cover crops, according to the project’s website.
During an event unveiling the project, Booker, who represents New Jersey, said Friday that fixing America’s food system is at the top of his agenda. He took the opportunity to tout the introduction of his Climate Stewardship Act. Although the bill has support from groups including the Family Farm Action Alliance, American Forests and the Forest Climate Working Group, it has not garnered much traction on the Hill.
— Katherine Stewart will serve as the staff director for the House Agriculture Nutrition, Oversight, and Department Operations Subcommittee. Stewart previously served as the legislative director for Rep. Alma Adams’ office.
— Detrick Manning will become press secretary for the House Agriculture Committee. Most recently, Manning served as communications deputy for Mayor Robert Garcia of Long Beach, Calif.
— The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration released its report on the U.S. Seafood Import Monitoring Program. The National Fisheries Institute, however, opposes an expansion of SIMP, which both organizations say does not stop illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.
— Lawmakers in the European Parliament’s agriculture panel Friday voted for a resolution in favor of phasing out caged farming in the EU. Pro Europe’s Eddy Wax has more.
— Carbon storing provides an added option and financial incentive for agriculture as all sectors work to reduce emissions. NBC has more.
— Deere & Co. expects to see both a boost in net income this fiscal year and continued supply-chain issues. Bloomberg has the report.