The Supreme Court has a packed schedule of cases today that are important to various sectors of the food and ag industries.

The justices will hear arguments on the Biden administration’s vaccine mandates for healthcare workers and businesses with 100 or more employees and will also hold a conference to consider three petitions with big potential impacts on agriculture.

The healthcare worker mandate has been blocked in about half the states by court orders; the employee mandate is currently in effect after being temporarily blocked by a federal appeals court.

One of the petitions being considered challenges California’s Proposition 12, which requires that pork sold in the state come from sows with specific housing requirements. The National Pork Producers Council and American Farm Bureau Federation have asked the court to review a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision upholding the law.

The other petitions seek review of an appeals court decision that found EPA did not have authority to allow year-round use of E15, and of the federal government’s definition of “waters of the U.S.”

See our Washington Week Ahead for more on the cases.

Vilsack to recuse himself on pipeline project

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has been told to recuse himself from specific matters involving Summit Carbon Solutions, which is seeking to build the world’s largest carbon capture and storage project.

Vilsack’s son, Jess, is now general counsel for the company, which is planning to build a pipeline that would capture and sequester carbon dioxide from ethanol plants in Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, South Dakota and North Dakota, and store the CO2 in North Dakota.   

In a statement to Agri-Pulse, a USDA spokesperson said, “The secretary proactively informed the USDA Ethics Office, on Oct. 20, 2021, about his son moving into a new job in November 2021, and the Ethics Office provided him with guidance that he would need to recuse himself from specific party matters (such as contracts or cooperative grants) that the company may seek with USDA.”

That would still allow Vilsack to participate in “broad government policy matters” affecting ethanol, the spokesperson said.

Keep in mind: Such pipelines are seen as a key method of reducing the carbon footprint of ethanol and expanding the biofuels market.

The progressive journal Mother Jones reported Thursday on Jess Vilsack’s connection to the project. A group opposed to the Summit project, Food and Water Watch, said Vilsack’s recusal isn’t enough. His “subordinates are fully aware of his son’s position with this company," said Mitch Jones, FWW’s managing director of advocacy programs and policy. Electric cars_energy

Poll: American consumers not ready for EVs

President Biden has some work to do if he’s going to sell Americans on switching to electric vehicles, a key aspect of his climate policy.

According to a new survey from the consulting firm Deloitte, 69% of American consumers prefer that their next vehicle be gas or diesel. Some 17% want a hybrid car. Only 10% favor either a plug-in hybrid or battery EV.

By the way: The House Ag Committee has announced a hearing next week on the implications of EV investments for agriculture and rural America.

FAO: Food prices slip in December

Global food prices remain at their highest level in the last 10 years, despite a small decline from November, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.

FAO’s Food Price Index, which tracks food prices, averaged 133.7 points in December. That was down 1.2 points from November, but it was 25.1 points, or 23.1%, above December 2020. The index averaged 131.9 points in 2011.

Vegetable oil prices were down 3.3% in December from recent record highs, FAO said. But the decline was driven by weakening prices for palm and sunflower oil. Soybean and rapeseed (canola) oil prices remained unchanged. Soybeans unloading at grain elevator

US soy finishes 2021 with strong exports to China

Brazil has begun harvesting its 2022 soybean crop, but the U.S. was still exporting plenty of its old crop to China in late December, according to the latest USDA trade data. 

The U.S. shipped 913,000 metric tons of soybeans to China in the final week of 2021, from Dec. 24-30. That accounted for a little more than half of all U.S. exports for the week, which totaled more than 1.7 million tons.

Overall U.S. export sales commitments for the seven-day period were not nearly as strong, totaling just 382,700 tons. That was a marketing year low and represented a 63% drop from the prior four-week average, USDA said.

Chinese buyers committed to purchasing about 354,000 tons of U.S. soy during the final week of December. But those purchases, together with commitments from buyers in Mexico, Spain, Germany and the Netherlands, were overshadowed by cancellations of 625,200 tons that had been destined for “unknown destinations.”

Report: Drought takes toll on Brazil’s soy crop

Drought conditions are taking a heavier toll on Brazil’s soybean crop than expected, according to the consulting firm AgRural. Brazil is now expected to produce 133.4 million metric tons of soybeans, down from the 145.4 million tons that the firm was predicting in November.

If the new forecast is accurate, Brazil won’t beat the record harvest last year of 137.3 million tons.

Lawsuit threatened over pyrethroids’ impact on endangered species

An environmental group is threatening to sue EPA for not consulting with federal wildlife agencies over the impact of pyrethroids on endangered species.

“Despite pyrethroid pesticides representing one of the most dangerous and harmful groups of pesticides for aquatic wildlife, as well as causing significant harm to other wildlife and plants, the EPA has failed to take a single action to implement any on-the-ground conservation actions to protect any endangered species from these toxic chemicals,” says a letter dated Thursday to EPA from the Center for Biological Diversity.

Under the Endangered Species Act, the center had to file a Notice of Intent to Sue 60 days before filing suit.

He said it. “While normally, high prices are expected to give way to increased production, the high cost of inputs, ongoing global pandemic and ever more uncertain climatic conditions leave little room for optimism about a return to more stable market conditions even in 2022,” - FAO economist Abdolreza Abbassian on the outlook for global food prices.

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