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At Budget Hearing, Blunt Questions USDA Secretary About ERS & NIFA Transition to Kansas City, Looming Threat of World Food Shortage

May 10, 2022

WASHINGTON – At a U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies hearing today, U.S. Senator Roy Blunt (Mo.) asked U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack for an update on the transition of the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture headquarters to Kansas City, Mo. Blunt supported relocating the two USDA agencies to Missouri given its central location and the presence of several leading land grant institutions. 

Blunt also questioned Vilsack about the administration’s efforts to address the looming threat to global food supply caused by Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Following is a Transcript:

BLUNT: Thank you, Chairman. Secretary, great to see you. I think every appearance may be some kind of record because of your long service in this job, and I'm grateful that you've done that, and continue to be willing to do it. You and I have talked about this before. I was a supporter of relocating the headquarters of ERS and NIFA to another location. That turned out to be in Kansas City, and, of course, I was even more pleased with that. There was a report issued by GAO that stated that the previous administration's decision to relocate those agencies was not fully consistent with an evidence-based approach. You then pointed out, or the department pointed out, that the GAO used metrics established after the relocation, and that that was not exactly a fair analysis of what they would have been looking at the time. I've been to that location recently. They are about to really come alive, frankly, for the first time. A great space but highly underutilized because people have been working from home. I'm wondering, based on your previous role and the perspective you would have, if you've seen yet a way that this move alters operations or applications. I think that location is within a three-hour car drive from eight different land-grant universities, which we thought was one of the principal advantages you might have in the future. But have you seen a difference yet in operations there? Or what have you seen in terms of filling job vacancies in that location?

VILSACK: Senator, we have a goal of about 750 people between the ERS facility and the NIFA mission area. We're about 650. We've seen about 450 folks who have been hired in those two mission areas. So the hiring has been, I think, robust. I think people are anxious and interested in working in that environment. You know, we’ve got some great people who work over there, and they churn out the work regardless of pandemics, regardless of whatever the challenges may be. We had a morale issue, which we're dealing with. And I think as we hire more folks, that issue becomes less of an issue. The work is getting done, and it's getting done on time. You know, the reality is that those agencies have great working relationships with land-grant universities and minority-serving institutions all across America. You know, I think, I would say that if, as we look at this concept, the challenge, I think, is to do it in a way that provides less disruption than the way it was handled before. And I think there are ways to do that. And I think this is, you know, I think we're going to see a lot of good work coming out of that facility. I have no doubt about that.

BLUNT: Well, I appreciate that. And I think, for lots of reasons, cost of living and other things, there are reasons to look at other locations now as we think about expanding here or moving somewhere else. And I appreciate your sense that—what the impact on the current workforce and how you maybe transition is important there. You know, those agencies, among others, really looking carefully at world food need right now and what happens as result of what's happened in Ukraine, what concerns do you have? And what should the department do? Should we make more American acreage available for, in some foreseeable window that might not be available otherwise? Or should we step back from taking more acres offline as we try to figure out what happens with this great food producing part of the world being so impacted in Africa and other places that have benefited from that raw, unprocessed food stuff being impacted?

VILSACK: Senator, I'm traveling to Germany tomorrow and then to Poland in order to get a firsthand look at the situation in Ukraine. We have a twin challenge here. We've got an immediate global food security challenge by virtue of the disruption that the invasion has caused, and the impact it's going to have on unstable, potentially unstable conditions in the Middle East and North Africa because of food shortages. So we need to address that. And that's one of the reasons why we tapped the Bill Emerson Trust. Part of the challenge there isn't just tapping the trust but making sure that it's replenished, which I think is important. And the supplemental appropriations bill that you're considering would begin that process. The other challenge with that trust is the transportation cost. It's amazing to me that it costs more than the value of the product we're transporting to get that food to Ethiopia and some of the North African countries. So I think there is an opportunity for us to look at ways in which that could potentially be addressed. I would say with the second challenge we have is the issue of climate because that's going to impact our long-term capacity to meet global food needs. And I'm really, really excited about the reaction to the Climate-Smart App and Forestry Product Partnership Initiative. We got 450 applications from 350 organizations and groups—commodity groups, nonprofits, for-profit organizations, all 50 states—probably three to four times the billion dollars that we put on the table. So there's tremendous interest in doing that as well. So I think what we have to do is figure out ways in which we can do both. And one thing we could do is look for ways, creative ways, to help double cropping opportunities expand, expand the number of counties that are insured, figure out other administrative ways to make it easier for farmers reducing the risk of double cropping.


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