January 24, 2017 - Activity in the hallways of USDA’s D.C. headquarters is still muted, but Trump administration officials are starting to fill up the political-appointee offices. New faces in the communications department, Rural Development and other agencies are beginning to filter in. One of the first offices filled was the White House Liaison on the fifth floor of Whitten Building, overlooking the National Mall. The office is responsible for processing the arrival of political appointees, some of whom are already waiting to get their new USDA ID badges.
Meanwhile, not all of the vestiges of the Obama administration are gone. The portraits of former agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack have been taken down from the walls, but there is someone filling the seat until Sonny Perdue is confirmed by the Senate. Michael Young, director of USDA’s Office of Budget and Program Analysis, is now technically the acting USDA chief, sources tell Agri-Pulse.
The Senate Agriculture Committee still has not yet set a date for the confirmation hearing on Perdue, a former Georgia governor from 2003 through 2011. But word did leak out that the first farm bill field hearing will be held Feb. 23 in Manhattan, Kansas, to be followed by another one in Michigan – with no date announced yet.
A new justification from Trump administration for pulling out of TPP. President Donald Trump has often complained in general terms about his dislike of the Trans-Pacific Partnership that the Obama administration negotiated with 11 other countries, but White House spokesman Sean Spicer offered a more detailed critique Monday.
Speaking at his first full press briefing after Trump signed an executive order to withdraw from TPP, Spicer said a big problem with the pact and those like it is that they give too much away to smaller countries.
“When you enter these multinational agreements, you’re allowing any country, no matter the size … to basically have the same stature as the United States in the agreement,” Spicer said. “So we’re basically on par with some very small countries who are getting access to our amazing market …  And in return, we’re negotiating at the lowest common denominator.”
Trump is moving fast on his trade agenda, including setting up a renegotiation of the decades-old North American Free Trade Agreement between the U.S. Mexico and Canada.
Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto is scheduled to meet with Trump on Jan. 31, but the work of setting up a process to begin trade negotiations will get going sooner than that, White House spokesman Sean Spicer said in his first full press briefing at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Luis Videgaray, Mexico’s foreign minister will meet with White House officials on Jan. 25 “to sort of set the table” for Peña Nieto’s visit, Spicer said.
House Ag Republicans plan farm bill. Republican members of the House Agriculture Committee spent yesterday on a retreat going over lessons from previous farm bills and planning for how to approach writing the next one. 
Twenty of the 26 Republican committee members were in attendance, and they heard from Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts as well as the House committee’s chairman, Mike Conaway, the committee’s former chairman, Frank Lucas of Oklahoma, and Tom Sell, a top aide to another former chairman, Larry Combest. 
Conaway tells Agri-Pulse he’s committed to getting a new farm bill enacted before the 2014 law expires next fall but he says he hasn’t set a timeline for marking up the new legislation. He also isn’t sure yet how much money the committee will have to work with.  
Conaway encouraged committee members to be ready to defend farm programs and to talk to colleagues about spending cuts that have already been made in recent years. He says he also is urging farm groups to provide their proposals for the next farm bill as soon as possible. “Good ideas that show up at the last minute may not sound as good as if they show up early,” he said. 
China pushes forward on developing biotech crops. China continues to frustrate U.S. farmers and agriculture exporters by delaying approvals of new crop traits developed in the U.S. and elsewhere, but the country is also moving forward with a massive effort to develop its own biotech food and fiber, according to a new USDA report.
“Biotechnology is designated as a strategic emerging industry in China, and the government invests heavily in biotechnology research,” according to the report published by USDA’s Foreign Agriculture Service.
That may help understand why China continues to move very slowly and secretively on approving new foreign traits. U.S. government officials were hoping that China would announce the delayed approval of new genetically modified soybean, corn and alfalfa traits in November at the annual Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade (JCCT) meeting between the two countries. Instead, China did not issue any approvals or give any explanation.
Meanwhile, China is spending billions of dollars on research and rewriting biotech labeling laws as it pushes ahead with a comprehensive plan devised last year, according to the FAS report. The 2016 plan – which FAS calls “a roadmap for commercialization of GE crops in China” – calls at first for the development of biotech crops that are “not for food use,” then the production of feed and industrial crops and then rice, wheat and soybeans for human consumption.
China has previously approved domestic traits for commercialization in China, but with sporadic success. The country approved biotech cotton, tomato, sweet pepper, petunia, poplar, and papaya, but only cotton and papaya are being grown legally.
Phil Brasher contributed to this report.


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