House Democrats have set up a new task force to focus on ag and nutrition programs in the next farm bill, and the group has a pretty busy schedule in mind. Agri-Pulse’s Noah Wicks caught up with the chairman of the task force, Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson, after the group’s first meeting Wednesday evening.

The task force, formed by Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, plans to meet at least weekly, possibly as many as two or three times a week. Eventually, there will be field hearings as well, Thompson said.

Among the questions the group will consider: “What we should do in terms of working with large farming operations and small farming operations? Are the programs in their current form conducive for both operations to be successful? Or do we need to look at it in a different manner? So really, nothing’s off the table, but obviously we have significant work before us,” Thompson said.

Take note: Nutrition assistance will be a major focus.

“We want to look at the current state of affairs around nutrition and other ag issues (to) see whether or not we can improve on those issues, and be a voice for Democrats in the discussion, especially around our values,” Thompson said.

He added, “We want to look at communities that are vulnerable because of a lack of availability of fruits and vegetables. We want to look at the health outcomes of communities where nutrition is not available to them. We want to make sure that we try to come up with sound policies that address those communities, because they too live in America.”

The lineup: The task force includes Chellie Pingree of Maine, Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, Lou Correa and Josh Harder of California, Sharice Davids of Kansas, Jahana Hayes of Connecticut, Mark Pocan of Wisconsin and Kim Schrier of Washington. McGovern, Davids, Hayes and Pingree are also members of the House Ag Committee. 

Lawmakers heading out as debt talks continue

House members will head back to their districts after votes today while they await a possible agreement to increase the debt ceiling. 

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., reiterated Wednesday that lawmakers would have 72 hours to read the resulting bill before they have to vote on it. 

Study: Conservation practices more than pay for themselves – in time

A new study conducted of farm conservation practices found they can return 15% to 25% on the investment. But the study by the Boston Consulting Group, which focused on 100 farmers in Kansas, says that farmers will need help to cover the costs of “regenerative” practices such as cover crops for a transition period of three to five years. The study found that farmers face a profitability loss of up to $40 an acre during the transition.

Sonya Hoo, a partner and managing director for BCG, told reporters that during the transition farmers will likely need several sources of financial assistance. Those could include USDA cost-share programs, bank loans, price premiums from buyers and payments from ecosystem services markets. “There’s no silver bullet here,” she said. 

By the way: The study was conducted for the One Planet Business for Biodiversity (OP2B) coalition, an offshoot of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. OP2B’s member companies include Danone, Mars, PepsiCo, Nestlé and Walmart.

Government review: Enlist herbicides relatively safe for endangered species

A federal agency’s endangered species review of a pair of widely used herbicides finds they aren’t  likely to jeopardize the continued existence of any listed species, or adversely modify their critical habitats. 

In its biological opinion, the Fish and Wildlife Service said EPA has proposed removing most county-level restrictions on Enlist One and Enlist Duo, which are used on Corteva’s Enlist corn, cotton and soybeans engineered for tolerance to glyphosate and 2,4-D.

County-level restrictions would be completely removed in Arizona, Colorado, New York, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina.

Comments on the opinion can be filed in the regulatory docket until July 24.

UN calls for $7B in aid to Horn of Africa

Five consecutive droughts together with years of conflict have thrust more than 40 million people into dire straits in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, leading the United Nations to call for $7 billion to respond to mass hunger and displacement.

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We must act now to prevent crisis from turning into catastrophe,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said at a Wednesday event hosted by Italy, the UK, Qatar and the U.S. “Let us act together now – with greater urgency and far greater support.” 

Guterres said the UN secured $2.4 billion in pledges Wednesday, adding that in Kenya “parched landscapes and perished livestock have driven families from their homes in search of water, food, and incomes.”   

Lawmakers unveil legislation to press Biden for FTA with UK

The top two lawmakers on the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Trade – Reps. Adrian Smith, R-Neb., and Jim Himes, D-Conn., have introduced a “sense of Congress” bill, advocating for the Biden administration to negotiate a free trade agreement with the United Kingdom.

The Trump administration began talks with the UK on an FTA, but they have been idled since Biden took office, even though the British have repeatedly stressed they would like to see negotiations resume.

“American manufacturers, agriculture producers, and consumers alike stand to benefit greatly from proactive and tangible action maximizing trade opportunities with our allies,” said Smith. “Building on our outstanding, historic relationship with the United Kingdom provides a valuable opportunity to mutually enhance economic resiliency, strengthen supply chains, and increase market growth.”

He said it: “There were times I thought I was Don Quixote charging windmills or Sisyphus trying to roll the huge boulder up the hill.” – Former Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., on the years-long effort to get USDA’s National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility built in his home state

Noah Wicks, Bill Tomson and Steve Davies contributed to this report.