President Joe Biden announced new steps Wednesday to address spikes in food prices and ag inputs after lawmakers were unable to agree on including other proposed crop incentives in a $40 billion supplemental spending bill for the war in Ukraine.

The Agriculture Department will double the amount of funding for domestic fertilizer production to $500 million, increase technical assistance for adoption of precision agriculture methods and insure double cropping in up to 681 additional counties, bringing the total eligible counties to 1,935.

Biden visited an Illinois farm on Wednesday where soybeans will be planted after the winter wheat is harvested. Biden acknowledged that double cropping isn't without risk to farmers, due to weather variations.  "But it's a risk we need to take," Biden said. 

Biden also said the country "desperately needed" additional fertilizer production capacity. "We can't take chances. It's critical to get this done," he said. 

The top Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, John Boozman of Arkansas, called the president's measures a "positive step" but said "it will take years for the benefits" to be realized. 

The Ukraine aid package passed the House 368-57 Tuesday night, and is expected to receive Senate approval fairly quickly. In addition to omitting additional ag provisions, the bill would provide just $20 million for an account used to purchase American commodities for overseas food aid.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman David Scott, D-Ga., said he would continue working with leaders of the Senate Agriculture Committee and Republicans on House Ag on potential measures to alleviate commodity shortfalls. “We were not able to come to agreement on steps that need to be taken at this point in the U.S. growing season in time for this supplemental request," Scott said in a statement. 

The Biden Administration had proposed $500 million for boosting crop production by raising marketing loan rates and paying farmers $10-an-acre to double-crop soybeans and winter wheat, but neither idea caught on with lawmakers.

House-Ag-Chiarman-Scott-2.jpgHouse Ag Committee Chair David Scott, D-Ga.

A third proposal, circulated by House Ag Democrats to eliminate a crop insurance penalty for cropping prevented planting acreage also was left out of the legislation. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack expressed support for the idea, but critics say that floating the proposal during the planting season could encourage producers to take unnecessary risks and ultimately increase insurance losses significantly.

The House bill would address the global food crisis primarily by providing the U.S. Agency for International Development with $4.35 billion for its International Disaster Assistance to address "humanitarian needs in Ukraine and in countries impacted by the situation in Ukraine, including the provision of emergency food and shelter."

USAID has used the account extensively to alleviate hunger through either cash vouchers or purchasing food in or near the country where it is to be distributed, rather than procuring U.S.-grown commodities, as is done with other international food aid programs. The IDA account has only rarely been used for distribution of American-produced food, according to a farm group source.

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The bill earmarks $20 million for the Bill Emerson Humanitarian Trust, which can be used to purchase U.S. commodities and ship them overseas. Another $150 million would be provided to the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program, a Treasury Department account that funds agricultural development overseas. 

Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., said after a White House meeting Tuesday that Russia is waging war not just against Ukraine but “against the world's most vulnerable people” and “creating a global food crisis.”

The White House had requested the $20 million for the Bill Emerson account, plus another $100 million for the Food for Progress program, which is used to buy and then sell U.S. commodities to fund agricultural development work in low-income countries.

In a statement to Agri-Pulse responding to the bill, the American Soybean Association said “U.S. soy farmers have an important role in growing crops that meet the high-quality requirements for food used to deliver high-quality protein to vulnerable populations worldwide. Those foods remain safe for people to eat months after they are shipped from the United States."

USDA announced April 27 that it would spend the full $282 million available in the Bill Emerson account to buy U.S. commodities for distribution in Yemen and five African nations experiencing severe drought and food insecurity. USDA is spending another $388 million from its Commodity Credit Corp. to cover the shipping and handling expenses, including the cost of ocean transportation.

Boozman told Agri-Pulse Tuesday the proposal on prevented planting acreage is premature, but he didn’t rule out supporting such a plan later in the year if it appears additional production will be needed.

Under normal rules, farmers who file prevented planting claims would receive just 35% of the indemnity if they plant another crop on the acreage.

“We're talking to USDA about it and seeing how that can be done in such a way that it could be helpful,” Boozman said.

John BoozmanSenate Ag Committee Ranking Member John Boozman, R-Ark.

Boozman said he supported some administrative steps Vilsack is taking, including expanding the number of counties where double cropping is insurable and allowing farmers with Conservation Reserve Program contracts expiring Sept. 30 to prepare the land for planting winter wheat this fall.

USDA also is looking at allowing winter wheat to be planted in lieu of a dedicated cover crop for land receiving conservation program benefits. 

On Tuesday, Vilsack continued to defend the proposal to eliminate the penalty for cropping prevented planting acreage.

“We’re faced with a crisis here, and sometimes you have to take a look at extraordinary measures, and this is an extraordinary measure,” Vilsack told reporters after a wide-ranging hearing before the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee. “This doesn’t mean you do it permanently. It does’t mean you do it every year. But you do it … to buy time to be able to address the longer-term challenges.”

During the hearing, Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., pressed Vilsack to consider expanding double-cropping incentives to crops such as sorghum and sunflowers. “We're going to try to be as comprehensive as we can be,” Vilsack said.

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