FDA Commissioner Robert Califf is trying to assure lawmakers that he’s going to prioritize beefing up the food side of the agency. However, he’s got work to do to win over key members of the committee that determines the agency’s funding.

Califf this week assigned Principal Deputy Commissioner Janet Woodcock to serve as a “strategic counsel” to work with him on making improvements to food-related sections of the agency. “We need to do smart improvements on the food side at FDA,” he told the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee.

But Connecticut Democrat Rosa DeLauro, who chairs the full Appropriations Committee, charged that Woodcock mishandled the infant formula issue while serving as acting FDA commissioner. Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif., also said he was hearing concerns about Woodcock’s new assignment. “Help me understand the rationale of this decision,” Valadao said.

Califf said Woodcock “knows every nook and cranny of the FDA” and that her assignment is only temporary. He also said “further changes” will be coming to FDA, but provided gave no details or timetable.

Drought news gets worse

There appears to be little hope for improvement anytime soon in the dry conditions that plague the Plains and West. The new U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook projects that the drought will spread across Iowa over the summer while expanding in South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas.

The U.S. is seeing its third consecutive year of La Niña, a climate phenomenon fueled by cooling waters in the equatorial Pacific. "Protracted La Niña's tend to be accompanied and even followed by enhanced drought coverage, especially west of the Mississippi,” said the author of the weekly U.S. Drought Monitor, Brad Rippey.  "So it’s consistent with climatological studies that we would see some eastward and northward expansion or intensification of drought."

 This week’s Drought Monitor shows that moderate to exceptional drought has expanded in Colorado and that extreme to exceptional drought has spread in Kansas. The southern Plains continues to bake, with temperatures soaring over 100 in places.

Why it matters: The U.S. winter wheat crop is already in trouble, and the ongoing drought doesn’t bode well for getting the next crop in, either. At the same time, areas of the upper Midwest have been so wet that farmers are having trouble getting corn and spring wheat crops planted.

Top USDA officials says drought is priority

Gloria Montaño Greene, USDA’s deputy undersecretary for farm production and conservation, says USDA is doing what it can to provide short-term relief to farmers at the same time the department tries to help producers make their farms more resilient.

“We’re looking at the tools that we currently have and the programs we have,” she said in an Agri-Pulse Newsmakers interview. “It’s an all-hands-on-deck” situation.

Newsmakers will be available today at Agri-Pulse.com.

Haaland questioned on drought, wildfires

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., used a Senate hearing Thursday to grill Interior Secretary Deb Haaland on drought conditions in the “agriculture basin” of Washington and said she is worried about the impact on wheat growers, given the ongoing war in Ukraine, suggesting a proposal for additional funding and research for aquifer recharge.

Haaland said the Bureau of Reclamation is assessing eligible projects to fight the drought. Cantwell said researching aquifer recharge is a “great idea” but “we need … to get on it quickly.”

By the way: Cantwell also pressed Haaland to work with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to improve forecasting capabilities while fighting wildfires.

Cantwell said inadequate forecasting for conditions like high wind has led to firefighter fatalities. Haaland said better forecasting can help, and that she will reach out to NOAA on the issue.

Ukraine supplemental headed to Bidens desk

A $40 billion supplemental spending bill to address the war in Ukraine won final passage in the Senate, 86-11, on Thursday.

The measure includes $4.3 billion for the U.S. Agency for International Development for international food aid and humanitarian assistance. Another $20 million is earmarked for USDA’s Bill Emerson Humanitarian Trust, an account used to buy U.S. commodities for food aid.

The Alliance to End Hunger, a food security advocacy group, said the bill shows  “our nation’s continued leadership in making sure people do not starve.”

Take note: A number of ag provisions proposed by the White House were dropped from the package after failing to gain traction in Congress, including measures to raise marketing loan rates and pay farmers $10 an acre to double-crop soybeans and wheat.

Ukrainian farmers get fertilizer aid

The Norwegian fertilizer giant Yara International managed to get about 200 truckloads of fertilizer to Ukrainian farmers, many of whom were desperately short on the input for their spring crops this year.

Wealthy nations and private companies need to step and do more to support Ukrainian farmers and the country as a whole, Yara President and CEO Svein Tore Holsether told BBC World News in an interview Thursday.

Meanwhile, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization is helping Ukrainians produce potatoes. FAO distributed 862 metric tons of seed potatoes to 17,740 households in time for spring planting.

US soy trade gets boost from China and Egypt

Export sales for old crop soybeans for 2021-22 delivery jumped in the second week of May to 757,700 metric tons – a 65% increase from the four-week average – thanks primarily to Chinese purchases of 392,600 tons.

Physical exports were stronger for the week of May 6-12 at 957,200 tons, including shipments of 271,300 tons to Egypt and 230,800 tons to China. Mexico, Indonesia and the Netherlands were other major importing countries.

 He said it: “There is a need for consistent leadership and the right resources for people to get their work done.” - FDA Commissioner Robert Califf on shortcomings of the agency’s food regulation.

Garrett Downs, Noah Wicks and Bill Tomson contributed to this report.