The next few weeks in Washington could be the most consequential of the year, certainly until the election. Neither the House nor the Senate have any regular sessions scheduled over the next two weeks, but senators are privately discussing the shape of the next coronavirus relief package. 

Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., says the biggest issue with the agriculture provisions is how the USDA’s Commodity Credit Corp. authority is replenished. Roberts says he thinks it would be a mistake to restrict how Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue can distribute the next round of coronavirus aid to producers. That position puts Roberts at odds with House Ag Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn.

The president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, Zippy Duvall, agrees with Roberts. Imposing restrictions on how CCC funding can be used “slows the process down,” Duvall said in an Agri-Pulse Open Mic interview.

Appropriators prioritize high-speed internet

This week, the House Appropriations Committee will start moving the first spending bills for fiscal 2021, which begins Oct. 1.

The Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee will meet this evening to vote on its FY21 bill, which covers USDA, FDA and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. The full Appropriations Committee will debate amendments to the Agriculture bill on Thursday. 

The draft bill, released Sunday, would provide more than $1 billion to USDA for rural broadband expansion in FY21, a $435 million increase over this year’s funding level. The bill also earmarks $3.3 billion for agricultural research, a $90 million increase over 2020. There are also provisions to facilitate hemp production.

Read more about the Ag bill here.

EPA reportedly delaying 2021 RVOs

Normally at this time of the year, we would have in hand EPA’s proposed ethanol usage mandates, or renewable volume obligations, for the following year. But Reuters reports EPA has indefinitely delayed releasing the 2021 proposal. 

If that report is accurate, EPA may intend to sit on the proposal until after the election, according to analysts with ClearView Partners. 

Doing so also would allow EPA to put off issuing small refinery exemptions until after the election, the analysts say. Such a delay could avoid complicating Republican prospects in the critical state of Iowa. Trump needs to win the state, and Republican chances of keeping control of the Senate also could hinge on Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst’s re-election bid. 

If Trump loses, it will be difficult to finish writing the 2021 proposed rule before he leaves office in January 2021. But the analysts say EPA “could still choose to issue SREs” after the election.

Unions question USDA reopening

Unions representing some USDA employees are questioning the department’s plans to enter Phase 3 of reopening starting today.

In draft guidelines for “reopening and transitioning to normal operations” dated June 29, the management of the Economic Research Service says that in Stage 1 (July 6-17) of Phase 3, “employees MAY return to the workplace one day per week on their designated workday.”

“Although employees are not required to report to the office during Stage 1, it is highly encouraged for employees to test commuting and public transportation options,” the guidelines say.

Laura Dodson, acting vice president of AFGE Local 3403, which represents ERS employees, says workers are demanding that the agency “mitigate the risk of aerosol transmission of COVID-19 in the workplace” and are asking how the HVAC system will be modified to “comply with CDC guidance on air exchanges.”

USDA has not responded to questions about the ERS local’s demands.

According to the Federal News Network, the National Treasury Employees Union chapter representing 400 employees of the Food and Nutrition Service, also has expressed reservations about requiring employees to report back to the agency’s Alexandria, Va., offices. 

Federal News Network survey conducted in June found 75% of federal workers in the D.C. area had some level of discomfort with returning to work.

New proposal could expand meat processing options

A new bipartisan bill that has support from livestock groups and some consumer advocates could help small meat processing get up to federal inspection standards. 

Under current law, most state-inspected meat processors can’t sell products across state lines. The only exceptions are for plants located in seven states that participate in USDA’s Cooperative Interstate Shipment Program. 

The new bill, called the RAMP UP Act, would authorize federal grants to enable processors to move from state to USDA inspection. The bill’s sponsors include House Ag Chairman Collin Peterson and former committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla. 

“In the face of the novel coronavirus pandemic, expanding the ability of meat processors across the country to effectively fulfill consumer demand is critical,” said Barb Glenn, CEO of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture. 

Keep in mind: Helping small plants move to federal inspection gets around the objections that consumer groups, federally inspected packers and groups such as the National Pork Producers Council have raised with proposals to allow state-inspected processors to sell across state lines. 

Brian Ronholm, director of food policy for Consumer Reports, says the bill “represents a suitable approach in expanding capacity during times of food supply disruptions.”

Mexican cotton suffers from government’s anti-GMO stance

 Mexico’s refusal for two years to approve new biotech traits as well as a more recent ban on glyphosate is hitting Mexican cotton farmers hard, according to USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service. Mexican farmers are expected to harvest about 38% less cotton this year, producing just over 1 million bales.

Just last month, the Mexican Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources rejected 19 applications to plant new biotech cotton seeds. That was a major blow to farmers, according to FAS officials stationed in Mexico City.

“The permit rejections will have significant ramifications for cotton planning in Mexico, as producers have access to very few outdated GE seed varieties which are not compatible in all growing areas and result in poor yields and ineffective pest protection,” the officials write. 

She said it. “During the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve seen how disruptions in just a few meat and poultry facilities can create ripple effects throughout the entire supply chain. We must shift towards a more diversified and resilient processing model,” – Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine