Tom Vilsack’s return to USDA has been on hold for reasons because of delays in getting the 50-50 Senate organized. But incoming Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow tells Agri-Pulse she hopes to get Vilsack’s nomination for agriculture secretary approved “as soon as possible” once she takes over the committee.

The committee has been without a chairman to call a hearing for Vilsack due to the retirement of Sen. Pat Roberts. And Stabenow has been unable to take over the panel because of the dispute between Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell over the Senate organizing resolution.

Take note: Stabenow has already said that climate legislation will be a top priority for the committee. But she says she also wants to move a child nutrition reauthorization bill. It’s been more than 10 years since the last child nutrition bill, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, passed Congress.

By the way: Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, told reporters Tuesday he doesn’t want to see Vilsack make any changes in the way that the 2018 farm bill is being implemented.

“We don’t normally change a five-year farm bill in the middle, and I don’t want Biden coming in and changing it, because we have to have certainty for farmers for that five-year period of time,” Grassley told reporters.

Stabenow eyes more COVID relief

With another COVID relief package under negotiation, Stabenow is working on getting additional aid for food processors, local farmers and others in the food supply chain. Her effort includes getting provisions enacted from the Food Supply Protection Act she introduced last year.

The bill included grants to states for local food purchasing as well as aid for retooling processors and other parts of the food supply chain to respond to the pandemic.

“I'm hopeful that in this next COVID package we can take another step … to deal with the breakdowns in the supply chains,” she told the International Dairy Foods Association on Tuesday.

Don’t miss this week’s Agri-Pulse newsletter, which includes a look at the possibility of action this year on farm labor reform.

Ag groups back USTR nominee

More than 100 national and state farm groups have signed a letter endorsing Katherine Tai’s nomination to be U.S. Trade Representative.

Tai, who advised the House Ways and Means Committee during the last Congress, “is eminently qualified and deeply familiar with the mission” of USTR “in opening foreign markets and reducing barriers for U.S. food and agriculture workers and exporters for the benefit of consumers in the U.S. and across the globe,” the letter says. “We especially value Ms. Tai’s demonstrated ability to build bipartisan support for trade policies.”

Grassley expects slow-going for new trade pacts under Biden

The Trump administration put a high value on speed when it came to international trade deals, but Grassley, who is ending his tenure as Finance Committee chairman, says he expects the opposite from the Biden team.

“I think this administration is not going to be anti-trade, but I think they’re going to be slow negotiating and I hope they can speed up,” said Grassley.

British press accounts say President Joe Biden discussed the ongoing talks for a free trade agreement with Prime Minister Boris Johnson over the weekend. Notably, that wasn’t mentioned in the White House summary of the call.

US refuses WTO plan for appellate judges

The Trump administration has been blocking the appointment of appellate court judges in the World Trade Organization for years over a long list of gripes. But this week, it was the Biden administration that stymied efforts to get the appeals court back in operation.

A Mexican representative at the WTO, speaking on behalf of 121 other members, introduced a proposal that would allow the organization to resume operations of the appellate court, according to a Geneva official.

About 20 representatives of other nations stood up to speak, stressing the importance of reconstituting a functioning appellate court, but the U.S. representatives said they were not yet prepared to agree because of the ongoing transition process in Washington.

FDA pulls CBD guidance, USDA reviewing hemp rule

USDA hemp regulations and FDA draft enforcement guidance on cannabidiol, or CBD, are both getting another look as part of the Biden administration’s regulatory review.

USDA’s final rule with provisions for a domestic hemp production program is being reviewed, a spokesperson says, in line with the administration’s regulatory freeze memo issued last week.

Editor's note: Our original report, based on information provided by USDA, said the department had withdrawn the rule, but Wednesday USDA said it was simply reviewing it. 

New study finds lower carbon footprint for ethanol

Greenhouse gas emissions from corn ethanol are 46% lower than gasoline, according to a study that the ethanol industry hopes will ensure a role for biofuels in U.S. climate policy moving forward.

The study, which is scheduled for publication in Environmental Research Letters, shows calculations for the emissions from converting land to corn production need to be updated, according to lead author David MacIntosh, who is chief science officer at EHE, an environmental consulting firm. Land conversion is a factor that’s considered in assessing the greenhouse gas emissions of biofuels.

Biofuel industry group Growth Energy says previous modeling showed ethanol produced 39% lower emissions than gasoline.

Daschle: Schumer, Biden need GOP help

Former Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle knows something about operating in a 50-50 Senate, and he says that Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is going to need to have a good working relationship with GOP Leader Mitch McConnell to get much done.

Speaking to the Iowa Renewable Fuels Conference, Daschle says Biden understands the need for bipartisanship. “He can’t rely on that 51 votes. He’s going to need to rely on moderate senators on both sides of the aisle to move his agenda,” Daschle said.

She said it. “The reality is we really run it as co-chairs in the committee. And I think that has served us very well.” – Incoming Senate Ag Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, saying she expects to have a close working relationship with the incoming ranking member, John Boozman, R-Ark., similar to what she had with former Sen. Pat Roberts.

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