Written by Ellen Essman and Peggy Kirk Hall
Many people are still working from home, but that hasn’t stopped legal activity in Washington, D.C. Bills have been proposed, federal rules are being finalized, and new lawsuits are in process. Here’s our gathering of the latest ag law news.
SBA posts Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan forgiveness application. We’ve been waiting to hear more about how and to what extent the SBA will forgive loans made under the CARES Act’s PPP that many farm businesses have utilized. The SBA recently posted the forgiveness application and instructions for applicants here. But there are still unanswered questions for agricultural applicants as well as talk in Congress about changing some of the forgiveness provisions, suggesting that loan recipients should sit tight rather than apply now. Watch for our future blog post and a discussion on the forgiveness provisions in our next Farm Office Live webinar.
House passes another COVID-19 relief bill. All predictions are that the bill will go nowhere in the Senate, but that didn’t stop the House from passing a $3 trillion COVID-19 relief package on May 15. The “HEROES Act” includes a number of provisions for agriculture, including an additional $16.5 billion in direct payments to producers of commodities, specialty crops and livestock, as well as funds for local agriculture markets, livestock depopulation losses, meat processing plants, expanded CRP, dairy production, other supply chain disruptions, and biofuel producers (discussed below). Read the bill here.
Proposed bipartisan bill designed to open cash market for cattle. Last week, Republican Senator Chuck Grassley and Democratic Senator Jon Tester introduced a bill that “would require large-scale meatpackers to increase the proportion of negotiable transactions that are cash, or ‘spot,’ to 50 percent of their total cattle purchases.” The senators hope this change would bring up formula prices and allow livestock producers to better negotiate prices and increase their profits. In addition, the sponsors claim ithe bill would provide more certainty to a sector hard hit by coronavirus. Livestock groups aren’t all in agreement about the proposal. You can read the bill here, Senator Grassley’s press release here and Senator Tester’s news release here.
New Senate and House bills want to reform the U.S. food system. Representative Ro Khanna from California has introduced the House companion bill to the Senate's Farm System Reform Act first introduced by Senator Cory Booker in January. The proposal intends to address underlying problems in the food system. The bill places an immediate moratorium on the creation or expansion of large concentrated animal feeding operations and requires such operations to cease by January 1, 2040. The proposal also claims to strengthen the Packers and Stockyards Act and requires country of origin labeling on beef, pork, and dairy products. The bill would also create new protections for livestock growers contracted by large meat companies, provide money for farmers to transition away from operating animal feeding facilities, strengthen the term “Product of the United States” to mean “derived from 1 or more animals exclusively born, raised, and slaughtered” in the U.S., and, similar to the Grassley/Tester bill above, require an increased percentage of meatpacker purchases to be “spot” transactions.
Lawmakers ask Trump to reimburse livestock producers through FEMA. In another move that seeks to help livestock producers affected by the pandemic, a bipartisan group of U.S. Representatives sent a letter to Donald Trump imploring him to issue national guidance to allow expenses of livestock depopulation and disposal to be reimbursed under FEMA's Public Assistance Program Category B. The lawmakers reason that FEMA has "been a valued Federal partner in responding to animal losses due to natural disasters," and that the COVID-19 epidemic should be treated "no differently." You can read the letter here.
More battling over biofuels. Attorneys General from Wyoming, Utah, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas and West Virginia have sent a request to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler to waive the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) because of COVID-19 impacts on the fuel economy. The letter states that reducing the national quantity of renewable fuel required would alleviate the regulatory cost of purchasing tradable credits for refiners, who use the credits to comply with biofuel-blending targets. Meanwhile, 70 mayors from across the U.S. wrote a letter urging the opposite, and criticizing any decisions not to uphold the RFS due to the impact that decision would have on local economies, farmers, workers, and families who depend on the biofuels industry. The House is also weighing in on the issue. In its recently passed HEROES Act, the House proposes a 45 cents per gallon direct payment to biofuel producers for fuels produced between Jan 1 and May 1, 2020 and a similar payment for those forced out of production during that time.
New USDA rule for genetically engineered crops. A final rule concerning genetically engineered organisms is set to be published this week. In the rule, USDA amends biotechnology regulations under the Plant Protection Act. Importantly, the new rule would exempt plants from regulation by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) if the plants are genetically engineered but the same outcome could have occurred using conventional breeding. For instance, gene deletions and simple genetic transfers from one compatible plant relative to another would be exempted. If new varieties of plants use a plant-trait mechanism of action combination that has been analyzed by APHIS, such plants would be exempt. You can read a draft of the final rule here.
Trump’s new WOTUS rule attacked from both sides of the spectrum. A few weeks ago, we wrote about the Trump Administration’s new “waters of the United States” or WOTUS rule. Well, it didn’t take too long for those who oppose the rule to make their voices heard. The New Mexico Cattle Growers Association (NMCGA) sued the administration, claiming that the new rule is still too strict and leaves cattle ranchers questioning whether waters on their land will be regulated. In their complaint, NMCGA argues that the new definition violates the Constitution, the Clean Water Act, and Supreme Court precedent. On the other side, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), along with other conservation groups, sued the administration, but argued that the new rule does not do enough to protect water and defines “WOTUS” too narrowly. Here we go again—will WOTUS ever truly be settled?
The Farm Office is Open! Join us for analysis of these and other legal and economic issues facing farmers in the Farm Office Team’s next session of “Farm Office Live” on Thursday, May 28 at 9:00 a.m. Go to this link to register in advance or to watch past recordings.