Worries of a possible rail strike have been growing in Washington amid ongoing concerns about the health of the U.S. economy.

The Consumer Brands Association reported Wednesday that railroads were preparing to stop shipments of crops as early today and were already delaying fertilizer shipments .

Meanwhile, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh continued working Wednesday to try to resolve the impasse ahead of the end of a cooling-off period on Friday. “I know the administration is very concerned,” said Sen. John Boozman, the senior Republican on the Senate Ag Committee. “The problem is that the transportation sector is so fragile right now.”

About 4,900 machinists, mechanics and facility maintenance personnel voted to authorize a strike Wednesday after rejecting a tentative agreement with the National Carriers Conference Committee.

The union said it would wait until Sept. 29 to strike. The contract the workers rejected included recommendations from an emergency board President Biden appointed to arbitrate the dispute which included a 24% compounded wage increase from 2020-2024.

By the way: Republicans tried to get the Senate Wednesday afternoon to vote on ratifying the board’s recommendations, but Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., blocked the move.

Key Rs diverge on climate projects

Boozman is fairly complimentary of the way Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack put together the $2.8 billion in climate-smart commodity projects announced Wednesday. In an interview with Agri-Pulse, Boozman said he hadn’t had a chance to review the whole list but believes the projects will “make a difference, not only in climate, but in just making things more efficient for agriculture.”

Vilsack also satisfied Boozman’s concerns that USDA can pay for the projects out of the department’s Commodity Credit Corp. account without causing problems for other farm programs that rely on CCC funding.

“I think we'll have the opportunity as time goes by to review the projects, to see how they're working,” Boozman said. He said there could be some “good ideas” that come out of the projects that lawmakers can consider as they write the next farm bill.

But, but, but: Boozman’s counterpart on the House Ag Committee, Glenn “GT” Thompson of Pennsylvania, was highly critical of Vilsack’s plan, accusing the secretary of abusing his CCC authority. “The Biden administration is unilaterally spending billions of dollars without congressional input. … It’s as though Secretary Vilsack is intent on having Congress once again limit his ability to use the CCC,” Thompson said in a statement.

On nominees: Boozman expects the committee to move relatively soon on some USDA nominees.

Stacy Dean’s nomination to be undersecretary for food and nutrition programs has been held up while the committee waits for a Government Accountability Office report on USDA’s update of the Thrifty Food Plan. The TFP update resulted in a significant increase to SNAP benefits. Boozman says he expects to see the GAO report in the “very near future.”

Vilsack taps CCC for food aid, too

Vilsack is using the CCC to provide nearly $2 billion for food assistance, including nearly $1 billion to buy U.S.-grown food for food banks.

Nearly $500 million will go the Local Food Purchase Assistance program, which states use to buy local foods for emergency food systems. The remaining $500 million will go to schools for purchasing food.

Food concerns cross ideological divide

A new survey confirms there are some ideological divisions among Americans over food, especially when it comes to what’s best for the environment. But the Purdue University research also finds that large numbers of conservatives have doubts about the safety of conventionally produced foods.

Some highlights:

Two-thirds of liberals and about one-third of conservatives believe agriculture is a large contributor to climate change and that eating less meat is better for the environment. (Ag is responsible for about 10% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.)

When it comes to genetically engineered food, the difference isn’t so great. Only 36% of conservatives agree that genetically modified food is safe to eat, compared to 43% of liberals. And 40% of conservatives think organic products are safer than conventional foods; 55% of liberals believe that’s true.

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Some 50% of conservatives believe climate change will affect food prices, and 56% believe that local food is better for the environment.

Purdue economist Jayson Lusk tells Agri-Pulse the survey results on biotech food may stem from education differences.  Previous research indicates higher educated consumers are "more likely to think GMOs are safe, and liberals tend to be more highly educated," he said.

White House urged to include ag in food discussions

The U.S. food and agricultural sector must be “at the heart of any discussion” about how to end hunger and improve nutrition, according to a new memo from a collection of well-known advocates offering input on the upcoming White House hunger and nutrition conference.

“We must seize the opportunity to transform the U.S. food and agricultural system to address hunger, nutrition, and disease,” they say in the memo released today. “Doing so will not only help our nation become healthier, but it will also unlock solutions to other interconnected and critical challenges of our time like curbing climate change, restoring biodiversity, advancing racial equity, improving local and regional food systems, and strengthening farm, ranch, and rural economies.”

Signers include Todd Barker, CEO of the Meridian Institute; Martin Bloem, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future; Rev. Eugene Cho, president and CEO of Bread for the World; Melissa D. Ho, senior vice president for freshwater and food at World Wildlife Fund; Ferd Hoefner, principal at Farm, Food, Environment Policy Consulting, and Mike Lavender, policy director at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

FAS resuming weekly export sales reports

USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service is set today to resume publishing its weekly export sales reports. FAS on Wednesday confirmed previous reporting by Agri-Pulse that the report released today will contain four weeks of data.

FAS stopped releasing the weekly reports after problems installing a new reporting system. FAS has returned to using its old system until it can work out the problems with the new system that exporters use to enter data.

She said it. “We already have high input costs, so the last thing we want to see is supply chain disruptions and further increases to those inputs.” - Allison Rivera, executive director of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, on the possibility of a rail strike.

Questions, comments, tips? Email philip@agri-pulse.com.