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Coronavirus
U.S. Capitol Building Getty Images/Saul Loeb

Senate COVID package stalls

Legislative Watch: COVID package not likely until after election; stop RFS waivers; food insecurity drops in '19; talks with U.K. resume; seasonal produce plan released.

The $650 billion Senate Republican targeted coronavirus relief package that included additional funds for agricultural producers failed Thursday to reach the necessary 60-vote threshold for passage. Senate Republican leadership proposed a smaller package in an effort to unify Republican members.

The bill included $300 in weekly federal unemployment insurance through Dec. 27; established coronavirus liability protections for businesses, schools, universities, hospitals, local governments, etc.; provided $29 billion for health care; and $105 billion for schools and universities.

USDA would have received an additional $20 billion for farm assistance. It continued the approach used under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act which gives USDA the authority to determine how the funds would be used to provide assistance to producers.

With both sides so far apart in what the size and scope of a coronavirus package should be, the prospects of a bill passing before the election seems remote at this time.

Industry wants Trump to stop RFS waivers
The renewable fuels industry and agricultural organizations are calling on President Trump to stand up for the Renewable Fuel Standard and tell the Environmental Protection Agency to reject "gap-year" refinery exemptions.

In a letter to Trump, agricultural organizations and biofuel plant owners and managers say, "Over the past three years, special exemptions approved by Environmental Protection Agency have destroyed demand for billions of gallons of biofuel, needlessly depressing the market for U.S. corn and soybeans. Now, EPA is considering 67 'gap-year' exemptions covering periods as far back as 2011. The new handouts would destroy as much demand as we lost to the 85 exemptions already granted by this EPA."

Reuters reports this week that Trump is instructing the EPA to deny small refinery petitions. EPA has yet to act on the 98 pending waiver requests of which 67 are retroactive for years 2011 through 2018.

The issue of RFS waivers has become a political headache for Republicans in the Midwest. Last month, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden released a statement stating his strong support for the biofuels industry and criticizing the Trump administration for how it has dealt with the RFS mandate and waivers.

Food insecurity down in 2019
The level of food insecurity in 2019 for U.S. households was 10.5%, continuing to decline from a high of 14.9% in 2011 according to USDA's recent "Household Food Security in the United States in 2019" report.

USDA defines food-insecure households as households having difficulty at some time during the year providing enough food for all their members due to a lack of resources.

Findings from the report include:

  • 4.1% of U.S. households had very low food security.
  • Children were food insecure at times in 6.5% of U.S. households.
  • Food insecurity varied from state to state, with New Hampshire at 6.6% and Mississippi at 15.7%.
  • 58% of food-insecure households in the previous month had participated in one or more of the federal nutrition assistance programs — Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program; Women, Infants and Children; and National School Lunch Program.

USDA notes the 2019 statistics collected in December do not reflect the impact of coronavirus pandemic that began in 2020.

U.S.-U.K. talks resume
The United States and the United Kingdom are scheduled to resume another round of negotiations on a free trade agreement next Friday. The two sides plan to exchange market access offers and are expected to address issues concerning agriculture, procurement and trans-Atlantic business mobility.

The U.K. is also in negotiations over the withdrawal agreement from the European Union.

Administration releases seasonal produce plan
The U.S. Trade Representative, USDA and the Department of Commerce released the administration's seasonal produce plan that outlines steps it plans to take to address the concerns raised by fruit and vegetable producers in the Southeast. These producers have claimed over the years that the North American Free Trade Agreement eroded their markets in favor of imports from Mexico.

Steps to be taken:

  • "USTR will request the International Trade Commission to initiate a Section 201 global safeguard investigation into the extent to which increased imports of blueberries have caused serious injury to domestic blueberry growers.
  • USTR will pursue senior-level government-to-government discussions with Mexico over the next 90 days to address U.S. industry concerns regarding U.S. imports of Mexican strawberries, bell peppers, and other seasonal and perishable products.
  • USTR will work with domestic producers to commence an investigation by the ITC to monitor and investigate imports of strawberries and bell peppers, which could enable an expedited Section 201 global safeguard investigation later this year.
  • The Department of Commerce will:
    • establish an outreach program to connect with Southeastern and other growers of seasonal and perishable fruits and vegetables, to enhance understanding of applicable trade remedy laws and processes; and
    • establish a formal channel for stakeholders to provide information related to unfair subsidies for foreign producers and exporters of seasonal and perishable fruits and vegetables, including those in Mexico — building on ongoing efforts to partner with U.S. industry to identify such subsidies.
  • The USDA will:
    • increase targeted outreach to producers of seasonal and perishable fruits and vegetables to maximize the use of existing USDA programs; and
    • develop a market promotion strategy for domestically produced produce; and
    • initiate conversations with relevant federal partners to better understand the extent to which imports of seasonal and perishable products are utilized to enable criminal activity.
  • USTR, the Department of Commerce and the USDA will establish an interagency working group to monitor seasonal and perishable fruit and vegetable products, coordinate as appropriate regarding future investigations and trade actions, and provide technical assistance to members of Congress in developing legislation on this issue."

The Fresh Produce Association of the Americas in statement strongly disagrees with the actions announced by the administration. FPAA says, "This politically motivated action directly undermines the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, positioning the U.S. as an unreliable trading partner despite any trade agreements they negotiate. Mexico is our largest trading partner, with a climate ideally suited for fresh fruits and vegetables. Sadly, partisan politics failed to consider the best interests of American farmers, American businesses and American consumers who will likely see increased food costs and lower overall farm exports. The complaint was based on an intentionally misleading propaganda campaign from Florida and Georgia growers based on rhetoric without data that support their claims."

Source: P. Scott Shearer, who is solely responsible for the information provided, and wholly owns the information. Informa Business Media and all its subsidiaries are not responsible for any of the content contained in this information asset. The opinions of this writer are not necessarily those of Farm Progress/Informa.
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