Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said today, May 10, he is bothered that it will cost more to ship U.S. commodities recently purchased with funds from the Bill Emerson Humanitarian Trust than it cost to buy them and that the issue of the transportation cost “needs to be addressed.”
Vilsack made the statement in response to a question from Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., at a Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on President Biden’s fiscal year 2023 request.
Vilsack did not use the term “cargo preference,” but his statement would appear to give some sign of support to a proposal by Sens. Chris Coons, D-Del., and Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, to temporarily waive the U.S. law requiring that 50% of Title II food aid shipments (by tonnage) be carried on U.S.-flagged vessels staffed by crews in which at least 75% of the sailors are U.S. citizens.
Under current law, the president, the defense secretary or congress can waive the 50% cargo preference requirement temporarily.
USDA and the U.S. Agency for International Development recently announced that they would use all $282 million in the Bill Emerson Humanitarian Trust to procure U.S. food commodities to bolster existing emergency food operations in six countries facing severe food insecurity: Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan and Yemen. They also announced that USDA will provide $388 million in additional funding through the Commodity Credit Corporation to cover ocean freight transportation, inland transport, internal transport, shipping and handling, and other associated costs.
There have been efforts to waive cargo preference or get rid of the law in the past, but shipping companies and unions have successfully blocked those efforts.
Vilsack also noted that he is traveling to Germany and Poland on Thursday to assess the situation in Ukraine and its impact.
PFAS, PFOS AND PFOA
During the hearing, Vilsack had two contentious interactions with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.
Collins complained that she had written Vilsack twice about USDA’s role in addressing problems caused by contamination from per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — known as PFAS, PFOS or PFOA chemicals — and that he did not respond to a letter she sent in October and had responded to a second letter she and the Maine delegation sent today at 1:24 a.m.
Some Maine farmers have been told they cannot sell their milk or meat from their cattle because of contamination from PFAS.
Vilsack apologized for the tardy response and said he is making a special effort to respond to congressional inquiries.
Collins maintained that the dairy indemnity program only covers milk, but Vilsack said USDA had been providing aid based on livestock.
Vilsack said he is working with the Environmental Protection Agency to come up with a national standard for PFAS and that he would be happy to work with the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee or any other committee to establish the level of resources needed to deal with the farmers’ problems.
Vilsack noted that, while Maine has been one of the first states to deal with the issue, it is a national problem because sludge containing PFAS was spread as fertilizer all over the country.
Collins also said USDA should ask for more money for potato research. Vilsack responded that he relies on the Agricultural Research Service to give him a list of research priorities and that there are many commodities in need of more research.
Collins noted that potatoes don’t get direct farm subsidies, but Vilsack responded that the government spends money buying potatoes for nutrition programs.
Collins signaled that she doesn’t trust Vilsack on potato issues because in his term as agriculture secretary during the Obama administration he tried to get rid of a lab at the University of Maine and eliminate potatoes from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants and Children. Vilsack said that the WIC proposal was not against potatoes but to try to get beneficiaries to consume foods they normally do not. He also noted that USDA is trying to increase potato exports to Mexico.
Vilsack said he is not against potatoes, but Collins said “it feels like it.”
Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., ranking member on the subcommittee, said he is concerned about a recent increase in the quota for imported sugar. Vilsack said USDA made the decision to allow more imports because the stocks-to-use ratio had fallen to 12%, which is below the 13.5% to 15.5% USDA tries to maintain. Hoeven said that U.S. growers are worried the ratio will rise above 15.5%.