WASHINGTON – In its first meeting of the new congressional session, the US Senate Committee on Agriculture, Food and Forestry met on Wednesday for a hearing on trade and horticulture titles in the upcoming agriculture bill.
Lawmakers prioritized implementing the country’s agricultural trade agreements, expanding access to international markets and supporting low-income producers.
“The success of our agricultural economy requires continued investments in markets and opportunities for farmers,” said Senator Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat and chairwoman of the committee. “Unlawful farming helps farmers put food on tables here and around the world.”
According to the Congressional Research Service, the farm bill is “an omnibus, multi-year law that governs a series of agricultural and food programs.”
The law provides funding for federal farm insurance, SNAP benefits, international food assistance, and agricultural resource protection, among other programs. The charge is renewed approximately every five years, and includes mandatory costs that must be consistent with previous farm bills.
Current base spending for the 2023 farm bill is about $648 billion over the next five years.
In the last agriculture bill, projected spending under the horticulture heading was about $1 billion over five years, and projected spending under the commercial heading was about $1.375 billion over five years.
Stabenow has set programs under both titles to produce a record $191 billion in U.S. agricultural exports by 2022, amid a war in Ukraine and supply chain problems.
“These titles represent the breadth of American agriculture,” Stabenow said. “Supporting our specialty farms and organic farmers, strengthening our local food systems, building new markets overseas for all our goods and products, and delivering critical food aid around the world.”
Mixed picture on trade
The Senate committee received a mixed update on the state of US agricultural trade from Agriculture Department officials.
Assistant Secretary for Trade and Agricultural Services Alexis Taylor spoke of economic activity driven by last year’s record high agricultural exports, which represent a 14% increase over the previous year. She said 1 million jobs were supported by the agricultural export industry last year.
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Yet despite these large numbers and record farm income, USDA Marketing and Regulatory Programs Assistant Secretary Jenny Lester Moffitt noted that 89% of American farmers supplement their income with off-farm activities.
“Over the past few years, we’ve seen the challenges that farmers and ranchers face, especially in accessing markets to get their fair share of the food dollar,” Moffitt said.
The minister added that strengthening local food systems is an ongoing priority for the farm bill and the broader USDA.
She highlighted the work of Eastern Market in Detroit and an Alabama school-to-school initiative in raising state and federal funds to build local food systems.
“Using resources to support better and more competitive markets for us farmers, ranchers and consumers is in the best interest of our nation’s economy, our nation’s food system and the environment,” Moffitt said.
Removal of trade barriers
At the hearing, a bipartisan group of senators highlighted problems with inconsistent trade barriers, including blocking Mexico’s genetically modified potential.
In December 2020, the president of Mexico issued a decree calling for the elimination of GMO corn from human consumption throughout the country by 2024.
About 90 percent of U.S. corn is grown with GMO seeds, and Mexico is the largest importer of U.S. corn, accounting for 27% of all U.S. exports.
Republican Senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst of Iowa, Roger Marshall of Kansas, John Thune of South Dakota and Deb Fischer of Nebraska expressed concern about the ban. They urged the USDA to commit to rejecting Mexico’s position, and to pursue legal recourse through the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement.
“Our farmers feel that this administration is putting Mexican council workers ahead of farmers,” Marshall said. “What are we waiting for to break this mechanism? I’m tired of talking. We think it’s time to act.”
In response, Taylor said the USDA was “urgently negotiating” with Mexico, and that the department would assert its “scientific rights” to export GMO shrimp.
Democratic Senators Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith from Minnesota spoke about the challenge of geo-markers that impose restrictions on milk exports to the European Union.
A trademark on a food is a name that indicates the place of origin, such as Asiago or Parmesan cheese. US farmers cannot label an exported product as “Parmesan cheese” because it is not from Parma, Italy.
Taylor vowed to fight these restrictions for the rights of US dairy producers. She said the ministry is negotiating with the World Trade Organization, the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum, and the European Union to ease the austerity of the dairy industry.
“I haven’t seen feta on the map yet,” Taylor said. “We act to ensure that intellectual property rights are respected, but these common names we use do not hinder our business.”
Diversification of international markets
Several committee members cited national security interests in developing new markets for US agricultural commodities, particularly given international competition and controversy over biotechnology.
“I am concerned about this administration’s lack of focus on expanding market access for U.S. agricultural products,” Thune said.
Taylor said the USDA believes Southeast Asia is a target sector for exports, noting that the region has the highest rate of economic growth in the world. She added that Vietnam will have more than 5 million middle class families in the next five years.
“We have an opportunity today and soon to create consumers, lifelong consumers of American agricultural products,” Taylor said. She added that continued work on the Indo-Pacific Economic Cooperation will be important to increase opportunities.
Taylor also identified Africa as an emerging market for US agricultural goods, noting that Kenya was an “attractive market”, and continued US technical support in the African Continental Free Trade Act.
It helps small farmers
Other committee members also pointed to challenges for small and underrepresented farmers to take advantage of USDA programs in the next farm bill.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said the USDA and lawmakers need to fix the Local Farmers Market Program.
“I heard concerns from organizations in Ohio about the application process,” Brown said. “The program can be very difficult to reach for under-resourced and under-served communities. I know we can make it right.”
The horticulture title of the 2018 farm bill created the program, which combined and expanded the existing USDA farmers market, local food marketing, and value-added production grant programs. In the 2018 law, 50 million dollars of annual mandatory expenses were allocated.
Taylor replied that in 2023, the application process will be easier. She added that USDA has worked with universities and producers to create guidebooks to help communities access resources.
Senator Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democrat, asked Moffitt about the state of the hemp industry’s development, and the steps being taken to guide farmers through the process of starting operations.
“Farmers in Colorado were eager to plant it and grow it,” Bennett said. “Unfortunately the onerous testing requirements and lack of processing facilities have reduced the potential of this versatile crop that people across the country are interested in growing.”
Moffitt responded that the USDA has taken steps to streamline and simplify the process for beginning hemp growers, and released the first National Hemp Report last week to provide market information to growers.