USDA to invest over $5 bil. in food supply chain, focus is transformation, not relief; Public comments due June 21

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, June 11, 2021

WASHINGTON — Long on transformation framework and short on meaningful details, USDA announced this week (June 8) that it will invest more than $4 billion to strengthen critical supply chains. This follows the June 4 announcement of over $1 billion for ‘healthy food’ and security infrastructure.

What these words mean is still the subject of USDA gathering input through public comments due June 21 and a series of stakeholder meetings. The first one was a 30-minute webinar attended virtually by over 3000 people representing food and agriculture organizations the day after the funding announcement (June 9).

These announcements are billed by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack as part of the “Build Back Better” initiative to be funded by the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 (passed by the 116th Congress and signed by President Trump in January) and the American Rescue Plan Act (passed by the 117th Congress and signed by President Biden in March.)

Vilsack will co-chair, along with Secretaries of Commerce and Transportation, the Biden administration’s new Supply Chain Disruptions Task Force for a “whole of government response.”

According to USDA, its investment announcements will include a mix of grants, loans and “innovative financing mechanisms” for the food production, processing, distribution and market access priorities that will “tackle the climate crisis and help communities that have been left behind.”

It has been six months since CAA funds were appropriated and three months since ARPA funding was authorized. These relief and support funds passed by two sessions of Congress and signed by two Presidents are now sitting in wait of a task force establishing supply chain transformation priorities after public comments and industry stakeholder meetings.

Meanwhile, dairy producers and other sectors of agriculture are still waiting for details about relief that was to some degree spelled out in the prior congressional language of these Acts. 

This includes waiting for USDA’s implementation of what was supposed to be an expanded base option for dairy producers in the Dairy Margin Coverage program; waiting for participation details for the Dairy Donation Program that is supposed to be retroactive; and waiting for a response from USDA to the bipartisan request by Senators seeking relief payments for dairy farmers for the first half of 2021 retroactive to January 1.

In the detailed request for public comment, USDA is making it clear that the CAA and ARPA funds will be spent on transformation, not relief. Guiding the transformation is President Biden’s February Executive Order 14017 America’s Supply Chain.

USDA says it is interested in comments spanning everything from animal, soil, plant and climate health, traceability, monitoring and technologies to agricultural inputs, energy, markets, storage, distribution, and digital security.

“We always knew this, but the pandemic really highlighted it for the rest of the country: Our food system is brittle, and any shock to it can have devastating effects down the chain. Now is the time — not to go back to normal — but to build a new normal,” said Mae Wu, Deputy Under Secretary of Marketing and Regulatory Programs during the first stakeholder webinar this week.

“Before we dealt with the pandemic, we had a food system in which nearly 90% of our farms did not generate the majority of the income for the farm families operating those farms. We had a food and farm system in which soil erosion was occurring at 10 times the rate that soil was being replenished,” said Vilsack as the first stakeholder webinar kicked off.

“We all know we have a substantial number of waterways that are currently impaired, and we also appreciate the fact that we had a food system that was prepared to address climate change but not yet fully embracing the opportunity side of that claim,” Vilsack continued. “So we had a system that needed help. We had a system that also was seeing rapid consolidation and a lack of competition. Then Covid hit and by virtue of Covid we learned that what we thought was a resilient system, really wasn’t resilient at all and had a difficult time shifting from food going into foodservice to going into food assistance.”

Citing the President’s February Executive Order, Vilsack said the focus of the new task force, he co-chairs, is to strengthen supply chains by “beginning the process of transformation.”

In the Federal Register document, USDA states: “(Our) initial thinking includes, but is not limited to, funding, through a combination of grants or loans, for needs such as: supply chain retooling to address multiple needs at once (i.e., achieving both climate benefits and addressing supply gaps or vulnerabilities concurrently), expansion of local and regional food capacity and distribution (e.g., hubs, cooperative development, cold chain improvements, infrastructure), development of local and regional meat and poultry processing and seafood processing and distribution, and food supply chain capacity, building for socially disadvantaged communities.”

In one subsection, USDA notes that it is interested in comments on “the availability of substitutes or alternative sources for critical goods and materials…” For example, USDA says it “encourages commenters to consider agricultural products that could be domestically grown but are not practically available today for various reasons, and to describe whether and how such products (or their alternatives) could be made available through supply chain resilience efforts.”

To-date, there are 297 public comments on the docket. A quick look through 55 that are viewable presently includes many food banks and feeding programs, some mentioning dairy, but few comments are logged from dairy organizations to-date.

For its part, the National Farmers Organization attached a document and stated: “The farmer dumping milk needs a market today, not in the long run. The person standing in a food line needs something to eat today, not in the long run. We need to look more carefully at what is going on if we are to understand, and effectively address, the dilemma of too much milk on one end of the supply chain and not enough dairy products on the other.”

Vilsack (who worked as a dairy checkoff executive for the four years between being Ag Secretary in the Obama and Biden administrations) also referenced milk dumping, saying the dairy industry had bottlenecks as foodservice demand shut down while retail demand for consumer-packaged goods skyrocketed.

In fact, in a recent Fortune magazine interview, Vilsack said the cost of $1.50 per gallon to put milk in a jug created a disincentive to donate excess milk instead of dumping it.

However, in reality, there was more to it than that in parts of the country where Governors brought the curtain down on the economy to strict degrees of people ordered to stay home, while also scolding them in public service announcements for buying too much food. Retailers hit the brakes by putting purchase limits on milk, butter and other dairy products, just as processors loaded up the silos with milk for the retail surge, only to find their retail orders came to a screeching halt as the purchase limits contributed to backing milk up from plant storage into farm pipelines faster than donation efforts could get organized or find facilities to bottle or process.

Facility issues were also cited at the time, in terms of separated cream filling storage silos with nowhere to go as butter capacity was busy switching to pull bulk butter from storage and convert it to print butter, and butter imports skyrocketed. It took a while to unwind the institutional governance of low-fat milk into making more whole milk available as consumers could choose. And it took a while for governments to allow institutions (like schools) to temporarily give whole milk. The result, in the Northeast especially, was a huge volume of dumped milk.

Among the viewable comments to USDA at the Federal Register, so far, are groups citing industry concentration and consolidation.

In its comments, the Montana Cattlemen’s Association pointed out that Secretary Vilsack, along with then Attorney General Eric Holder, held concentration and antitrust listening sessions across the U.S. during the Obama administration, and nothing ever came of it. One of those USDA / DOJ national listening sessions was on dairy, specifically, in Madison, Wisconsin in 2009.

The National Grocers Association echoed these concerns, detailing the way a few global companies already control food retail, foodservice, food processing and distribution, and how this affects farmers and ranchers, independent retailers and restaurants, and thereby affects regional food supply chains, and ultimately consumers and America’s security.

Both the cattlemen and grocers call for specific actions that would increase competition, regional processing and market access and thereby make the U.S. food system more secure and critical supply chains more resilient.

During the stakeholder webinar, Vilsack addressed a question on market competition by saying USDA will “first make sure the markets that do exist are as open and transparent as possible” by looking at the current rules along with other federal agencies and taking any steps to rectify. But he also pointed to developing new markets.

At the other end of the public comment spectrum, groups like the Good Food Institute, a lobbying organization for plant-based and cell-cultured replacements for animal-sourced foods, paint a picture of how their streamlined lab-style production through pop-up bioreactors and fermentation vats in rural, suburban and urban areas can be built to provide supply chain resiliency and food security. GFI also claims that their models would be a climate mitigation strategy.

GFI addressed each of the USDA bullet points on supply chain resilience, climate action and new market opportunities to describe why the CAA and ARPA funds should be used for research and infrastructure that shifts away from animal agriculture to plant-based and cell-cultured through digital and genetic technologies that are already within the USDA Agricultural Research Service wheelhouse.

GFI lays out their description of how recombinant proteins and GMOs, along with the storability of frozen cells and dry plant-based powders, can be turned into food quickly, and in exact amounts needed, and can be grown and manufactured anywhere — without waiting for animals to grow — leaving land available for so-called ‘climate strategies’ and biodiversity. 

But, they say, research and infrastructure are needed to make their science-fiction novel come true. This, despite the huge investments of tech industry billionaires in these replacement technologies, and the way the largest meat and dairy processors are diversifying, to brand – and blend – such alternatives to look, taste, and feel like the real thing.

Interestingly, the food economy is, right now, dealing with supply chain disruptions and inflationary price hikes on animal-sourced products from eggs and milk to bacon, beef, and chicken wings. The price squeeze is having a big impact on independent grocers, independent restaurants, and consumers. At the same time, prices paid to dairy and livestock producers are turning lower just as farmers and ranchers were hoping to get back on their collective feet.

That paradox is not sustainable nor resilient for producers or consumers, but growing cells in bioreactors or harvesting yeast-excrement from fermentation vats — instead of animals on farms —simply gives even more control of food to even fewer entities that would control the genetic alterations that make it scientifically possible.

USDA states in its press release that it wants to address competition and small and medium sized processing capacity and that it wants fairness, competition, equity, and access for producers and consumers, while accomplishing climate mitigation at the same time. 

The question is: What do these buzz words actually mean? The June 9 stakeholder webinar gave a glimpse.

Vilsack explained that USDA is putting the series of funding announcements into a series of four supply chain ‘buckets’: production, processing, distribution / aggregation and markets / consumers.

He said USDA will begin by providing assistance for beginning farmers and socially disadvantaged farmers, including the debt relief for farmers of color.

“We’ll look for ways to provide assistance for those who work on the farms and those who work in the processing facilities. We’ll look for how we can encourage those transitioning from conventional to organic agriculture if they choose to do so,” said Vilsack. “All of this will be designed to create greater resilience in terms of the number of people available to farm and the types of farming systems that we have. You’ll also see investments in urban agriculture.”

Vilsack said on the food processing side, USDA is “very focused” on ways to create more options for farmers by “shoring up and expanding” existing small and medium size processing to create more markets for farmers.

He highlighted “food hubs” in the distribution bucket and “access to healthy foods” in the consumer bucket.

Answering a question later about how government grant-writing is beyond the scope of most farms, especially small farms, Vilsack said: “One way for folks to get expertise and capacity is to join with others who are similarly situated to form a food hub to aggregate products. There is money for food hubs in this.”

Calling the Dairy Donation Program an investment in the production / producer bucket, and referencing it four times in the webinar, Vilsack said the DDP “will enable producers to more quickly shift in the event of a disruption from foodservice or retail that might not be available for whatever reason into food assistance mode.”

He identified the need to “significantly invest in storage and refrigeration infrastructure to accept significant quantities of food to be stored for a period of time and distributed over a period of time. Right now, we are not equipped to handle a great influx of meat, and produce all at one time, and as a result, animals were destroyed and milk was dumped,” he said.

Vilsack said another way to look at USDA’s incremental roll out of the CAA and ARPA funds is that it reflects “how we are going about the transformation of our food and farm system. We need to continue to invest to make sure there are multiple ways for people to get into the farming business and to stay in business.”

To be profitable, he said, “means we need to develop more new and better markets to be invested in. We want to make sure it is sustainable, circular, regenerative in its approach. We want to make sure it is equitable in its application so that people of all races, ethnicities, gender and so forth are able to access the programs completely at USDA,” said Vilsack.

For producers, allied industry, consumers and organizations, now is the time to visit the USDA Federal Register Docket at https://www.regulations.gov/document/AMS-TM-21-0034-0001 to read the guidelines for commenting and submit a “Supply Chain Comment” referencing Docket AMS-TM-21-0034-001 by June 21, 2021.

Comments may also be sent to Dr. Melissa R. Bailey, Agricultural Marketing Service, USDA, Room 2055-S, STOP 0201, 1400 Independence Avenue SW, Washington, DC 20250-0201. For further information about how to comment and the guidelines for commenting, contact Dr. Bailey by phone at 202-205-9356 or email melissa.bailey@usda.gov

(Author’s Note: The pandemic revealed that the institutional feeding models replete with anti-fat rules based on un-scientific Dietary Guidelines are part of the supply chain disruption problem. Governmental and non-governmental organizations continue to try to systemize food distribution into dietary lanes that don’t reflect the science or consumer attitudes about healthy fat and animal protein. Now ‘climate’ is being used as a potential animal-dilution driver. When someone wants to give families a gallon of whole milk (instead of fat-free or low-fat) when they pick up the school lunches for their children during a pandemic, the last thing any governmental or non-governmental organization should be telling them is “you can’t do that, it’s against the rules,” or pushing them into an adjacent parking lot so they aren’t “next to” the institutionally rule-inundated food. That is just one aspect I plan to write about in commenting to the USDALoosen those dietary restraints that give all the power to the global consolidators in foodservice, processing and distribution. Let free-enterprise and good will work for good.)

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