NAWG Weekly Update: February 11, 2016

Administration’s Proposed FY 2017 Budget Invests in Research, Cuts Crop Insurance
On Tuesday, President Obama unveiled his FY 2017 budget request, which kicks off the FY 2017 appropriations process in Congress. Cabinet secretaries are now in the process of testifying before Appropriations Subcommittees in the House and Senate to discuss their budget justifications. Agriculture Secretary Vilsack appeared on Thursday before the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee to defend the budget request for the Department of Agriculture. Those subcommittees will then work to draft and consider their own appropriations bills.

Within the realm of agriculture, the budget request includes a significant increase in funding for USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI). Specifically, the Administration’s proposal nearly doubles funding for AFRI to the Farm Bill-authorized level of $700 million, allocating $375 million in discretionary spending and $325 million in mandatory funding.

In addition to a significant investment in agricultural research, the request includes full funding for conservation programs. Furthermore, to lay the foundation for the hopeful elimination of the Cuban embargo, the Administration requests funding to place five USDA employees at the new embassy in Cuba to promote American agricultural products.

Unfortunately, the Administration is once again proposing severe cuts to crop insurance. Specifically, the budget would cut $18 billion (over ten years) by reducing the premium subsidy for policies with the Harvest Price Option (HPO) by ten percentage points and by reducing the subsidy for particular prevented planting options. The Administration has proposed similar cuts in the past, which have been rejected by Congress. However, the inclusion of this provision continues to underscore the need for grassroots engagement by farmers across the country to defend the crop insurance program and Title 1 during the upcoming appropriations process.

USDA APHIS Notice of Intent on Biotechnology Regulation
Last week the U.S. Department of Agriculture published a Notice of Intent in the Federal Register, indicating plans to prepare an environmental impact statement on the introduction of biotechnology products. The goal of the Notice is to identify “reasonable alternatives and potential issues to be evaluated in the environmental impact statement” as well as to redefine the term “biotechnology”. This is the first step in beginning USDA’s overhaul of its biotechnology regulations since its current processes were developed over thirty years ago. USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) hopes to accelerate the development of new crop traits considered to be of little risk to the environment, as well as determine regulatory requirements for specific new breeding techniques, such as gene editing.

New breeding techniques are valuable to breeders as the technology continues to advance, especially to public breeders of wheat who are excited to incorporate the technology into their respective programs. These techniques vastly differ from biotechnology, as currently defined, which adheres to strict regulation and serves as one tool of many for a breeder to use when overcoming challenges related to plant pests and nutritional improvements for the consumer.

The USDA Notice of Intent specifies broadly a process of analyzing new crop traits and determining which class of traits would be subject to regulation. APHIS has asked for public comments to “further define the scope of the alternatives and environmental impacts and issues for APHIS to consider.” NAWG continues to work with industry to provide comments on this federal register posting, and encourages states to provide comments as well. These comments are due by March 7, 2016.

U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba Celebrates One-Year Anniversary
NAWG is a member of the U.S. Ag Coalition for Cuba, a broad coalition of more than 100 agriculture organizations and businesses seeking to liberalize trade with Cuba. The coalition formed a year ago following President Obama’s announcement of several Administration efforts to ease some trade and travel restrictions. The anniversary celebration included an event at the National Press Club on Wednesday, where coalition members and the media heard from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack as well as several members of Congress and Senators that have been champions of legislation to ease trade restrictions. As part of the program, Kansas wheat farmer Doug Keesling introduced Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), who discussed her legislation to enable private financing of agricultural exports to Cuba. Following the event, NAWG hosted a Congressional Hill visit briefing to prepare coalition members for a lobby day, which took place Thursday.

NAWG and U.S. Wheat Associates Host Joint Board Meeting
The 2016 Joint Winter Wheat Conference of the National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG) and U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) concluded Saturday in Washington, D.C. The four-day meeting brought wheat growers and industry partners from across the nation together to discuss critical issues in agriculture and policy, and to plan for upcoming events. NAWG and USW board members discussed key issues such as trade legislation, environmental and renewable resources, and biotechnology. Attendees heard remarks from several legislative staff, as well as Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman, Pat Roberts (R-KS). In addition to the policy meetings, wheat grower leaders took advantage of Congress being in session and were on Capitol Hill visiting their representatives and senators. Many of NAWG’s industry partners participated in the meetings. The next board meetings will be held at the Commodity Classic in New Orleans March 3-5, 2016.