While the country still waits for the president-elect to choose an Agriculture secretary, outgoing Secretary Tom Vilsack issued an exit memo this week to his successor.
The memo details USDA's priorities and Vilsack's perspective on the department's work in rural America and food production in the country. It's a lengthy read that touches on everything from rural development to global food security to rural substance abuse.
The memo also highlights "Actions Needed" by the next administration. It begins by maintaining a strong farm safety net. The memo notes a stronger U.S. dollar and lower commodity prices are causing problems for producers even though exports remain historically high and median farm household income remains above the income for average Americans. The memo notes the importance of ensuring affordable credit for farmers, as well as changing farm programs through Congress. One program cited is the Margin Protection Program for dairy farmers that has not worked as intended in the 2014 farm bill. The memo also notes, "Moreover, it is important that a new Congress consider lifting restrictions on the Agriculture Secretary's use of the Commodity Credit Corporation to provide emergency assistance to producers."
Following up on a problem Vilsack has repeatedly emphasized to Congress, the memo states that the Forest Service budget must be fixed. "Last year, over 60 percent of the Forest Service budget went to fire management, up from 16 percent in 1995." Legislation is needed to end the practice of the Forest Service borrowing from other parts of its budget to deal with fires.
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Further, USDA needs to continue increasing investments to both improve water quality and wastewater services in rural America, while also dealing with water quantity challenges as well. The memo notes this takes elements from conservation, rural development and science to deal with these issues.
More support also is needed to help new and beginning farmers, the memo highlights. The average age of farmers is over 58 years old and more land continues to turnover -- "almost 10 percent of farmer land in the continental United States will change hands in the next five years," the mem cited. Beginning farmers are challenged by access to land, capital and technical assistance. "USDA must continue to aggressively expand and ease participation by new and beginning farmers in new and existing credit, land tenure, extension, conservation, and risk management programs."
While many in agriculture, especially in biotechnology, want to see the de-regulation regime of the Trump administration loosen rules on biotechnology approvals, the USDA memo also cites the need to update biotechnology regulations for the first time in 25 years. This requires continued work between USDA, EPA and FDA to get that done. The Obama administration started the process in late 2015.
Tied somewhat to that, the new Trump administration will also have to finish the work on a new law for disclosure of food that includes genetically modified ingredients -- GMO disclosure. A study is underway at USDA to look at how technology might affect whether consumers could use smart codes to get this information rather than place labels on every product.
USDA must also continue to modernize, which includes upgrading information technology and potentially losing offices. USDA was hamstrung by Congress when it came to closing or consolidating offices in agencies such as the Farm Service Agency.
More details of the USDA exit memo can be found at https://www.whitehouse.gov/…
Each department head in President Obama's administration produced similar memos as well.
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