Washington Insider-- Wednesday

New Turn Toward Science

Here's a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN's well-placed observer.

USDA Publishes Final Rule On Hemp Production

USDA Monday published its final rule to be the framework for the U.S. hemp industry. The 301-page package includes some changes from an October 2019 interim final rule that provided initial guidelines to implement the 2018 Farm Bill which removed hemp from the Controlled Substances Act and set a legal definition for hemp as 0.3 delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) on a dry weight basis.

The finished regulations come after 5,900 public comments and letters from members of Congress. The final rule package takes effect March 22 and provides steps for USDA to review and approve plans submitted by state, territorial and tribal governments for regulating hemp production.

The rules also lay out how the department will regulate farmers in states or tribal lands that have not outlawed hemp but also have not submitted plans. Under the final rule, farmers will not be labeled as negligent if test samples of their hemp crop register at 0.5% (THC) on a dry weight basis. The regulation would put the negligent threshold at 1% THC. Being declared negligent three out of five years could result in a farmer being barred from hemp production for five years.

The hemp industry argued that given the volatile nature of THC in hemp plants that a farmer who followed all the rules could still exceed the 0.5% threshold. The rule also would allow farmers with crops that test above 0.3% THC level to continue to dispose of so-called hot plants by plowing the plants under to amend the soil, cutting and blending the plants with manure or other material to make compost and burning the plants.

The options allow farmers to get some use out of the plants or avoid more costly methods of destruction.

Biden Names Top Deputy Picks For Several Agencies

President-elect Joe Biden on Monday nominated five deputies to serve in the second spots at USDA, Transportation, Health and Human Services (HHS), Interior and Education. The nominees, who must be confirmed by the Senate, include Jewel H. Bronaugh at USDA; Polly Trottenberg at Transportation; Andrea Palm at HHS; Elizabeth Klein at Interior, and Cindy Marten at Education.

Klein, Palm, Bronaugh and Trottenberg worked in their same departments during the Obama administration. Bronaugh would be the first Black woman to serve in the senior role at USDA.

Biden had been under pressure to nominate a Black person to be Agriculture secretary but went with Tom Vilsack, who had the role under President Barack Obama.


Washington Insider: New Turn Toward Science

Bloomberg is reporting this week that a new round of scientific nominations and vaccine plans is being debated by President-elect Biden's transition team and suggests that the incoming administration is vying to make good on promises to build on science-based policy decisions.

Throughout his campaign and after the election, Biden promised to make such decisions, which he reiterated during remarks on Friday regarding a new vaccine “rollout.” He said his administration “will lead with science and scientists,” and the most recent slate of personnel announcements seems to back that up, Bloomberg said.

When leading geneticist and Broad Institute founder Eric Lander becomes Biden's science adviser and head of the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), it will mark the first time a president has elevated the position to the cabinet. The Biden team also announced a slate of other top positions in OSTP.

Several groups have advocated for years for elevation of the science adviser to the cabinet and are calling the inclusion of Lander as “an urgently important, strategic turning point for our nation.” They called the announcement as “an all-too-clear harbinger,” Bloomberg said.

The Biden approach contrasts to that of the last administration, the report said, and noted that President Donald Trump didn't name a science adviser for over a year and half into his administration, marking the longest vacancy in that position since Congress created it in 1976. “An evidence-based approach to policy must direct the way forward on the nation's health challenges,” said David Skorton, president and CEO of the Association of American Medical Colleges.

President-elect Biden plans an early blitz of executive action to reverse some of President Trump's most contentious policies in an effort to address the pandemic, according to an outline of Biden's first 10 days in office. The plan, spelled out in a memo over the weekend by Biden Chief of Staff Ron Klain to incoming White House advisers, will address what Klain called “four overlapping and compounding crises,” with COVID-19 at the top.

Klain said Biden would begin with about a dozen executive actions today, and that the so-called first-day orders will focus on measures to mitigate the pandemic and its economic fallout and also will include extending student loan forbearance past Jan. 31 and a temporary ban on evictions, Klain said. Biden also will launch a “100 Day Masking Challenge,” imposing new mandates requiring masks on U.S. property and for interstate transportation.

The incoming administration's promise of administering 100 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine in 100 days is “absolutely a doable thing,” Dr. Anthony Fauci said. Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said he believes that Biden won't hesitate to “use whatever mechanisms we can” to expedite the production and distribution of more shots, including through the Defense Production Act. “The feasibility of his goal is absolutely clear,” he said.

Biden also intends to install David Kessler, who served as commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration in the 1990s, to serve as the chief science officer of the COVID-19 response. His job will include steering what the Trump administration had called Operation Warp Speed. He will replace Moncef Slaoui, who served as science chief for the vaccine development and distribution initiative for the Trump administration.

Reports indicated that the incoming administration will reject a move by President Trump to rescind coronavirus-related travel bans for non-American citizens arriving from the European Union, the UK and Brazil, which means the curbs will stay in effect. Trump said in a White House announcement Monday that the bans could be lifted because of a decision last week by the administration to require international travelers to present either the results of a negative recent coronavirus test or evidence that they had already recovered from the disease, but the incoming administration plans to block Trump's move.

The new virus variant that emerged in the UK could become dominant in the U.S. as soon as March, government public-health researchers said in a report Friday. Several lines of evidence indicate the strain spreads faster than other versions, and steps should be taken to reduce its transmission, including further genomic surveillance and adherence to public-health measures like masks and testing, the CDC said.

In the meantime, efforts are still underway to find out where and how the virus began. The state department on Friday said it has new information suggesting the pandemic may have emerged from a laboratory in Wuhan and not contact with infected animals, the latest salvo in the outgoing administration's efforts to pressure Beijing over the virus's origins.

In response, China accused the U.S. of spreading “lies” and “conspiracy theories.” The state department's “fact sheet” on the coronavirus origins released Friday was “full of fallacies,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying charged, dismissing the claims as the “last madness” of outgoing Secretary of State Michael Pompeo.

So, we will see. The new administration appears to be moving rapidly to assume control of the government, and to nominate and confirm officials. Still, the tensions over how extensive the policy changes will turn out to be should continue to be watched closely by producers as they emerge, Washington Insider believes.

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