ORLANDO, FLA. —The North American Millers’ Association has many irons in the fire for 2023 in terms of the organization’s work to influence governmental policy on behalf of its members.

At NAMA’s annual spring conference at Signia Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek, a comprehensive overview of what’s on the agenda in Washington was presented by Kim Cooper, senior director of government affairs at NAMA, and Molly Miller, vice president of regulatory and technical affairs.

Many, but not all, of the policy outlook points presented by the pair concerned the upcoming farm bill.  An overview of the collaborative discussion presented by Ms. Cooper and Ms. Miller at the spring conference:

  • Increased congressional oversight of the Food and Drug Administration and US Department of Agriculture:

“FDA is getting a lot of scrutiny about what it is that they’re actually doing about the infant formula recalls and shortages,” Ms. Miller said. “There’s also a Reagan-Udall Foundation report report that gave FDA a lot of tough criticism, so we’re starting to see a lot more discussion of what FDA should look like, with maybe increased transparency at some point. USDA is a little bit better than FDA in the transparency space, but they’re not escaping scrutiny for other things, so Congress is jumping on them about some their processes for conservation payments and other activities starting to happen under the Climate Smart Agriculture Act.”

  • On the administrative side, NAMA and Congress are navigating a divided Congress with slim margins in the House and Senate as the relatively new House speakership of Kevin McCarthy just as a debt ceiling fight unfolds.

“One of the main concessions in the fight for the McCarthy speakership was that they were going to make sure that they cut spending, revert back to levels of fiscal year 2022,” Ms. Cooper said. “That’s very difficult to do. Every member of Congress has one little thing or another thing that they care about. No one wants to cut their things. Finding what they are going to cut is going to be very difficult for them to get to 2022 levels. Republicans see a good opportunity to make food cuts there to make a deal on the debt ceiling. Democrats, on the other hand, are not going to agree to any of those. This is really a messaging bill to say this is our opening argument for the White House to then come to the table and negotiate on the debt ceiling.”

  • On the matter of the farm bill, slim congressional margins will meet limited funding and not all stakeholders will get the results they hoped for when the bill becomes law, the NAMA duo said, noting late 2023 into early 2024 is a realistic timeframe for the legislation to be negotiated.

“SNAP is a huge part of that conversation, as is international food aid and research funding,” Ms. Miller said. “We are part of the SNAP Choice coalition, so I think the main priority for Republicans right now is talking about work requirements for the SNAP portion of the bill. But we do want to make sure there are no restrictions added for what you can buy with those SNAP benefits.

NAMA panelKim Cooper, senior director of government affairs at NAMA, left, and Molly Miller, vice president of regulatory and technical affairs. Source: Sosland Publishing Co.

NAMA is pushing to return feed-the-world programs to using US agriculture commodities as originally designed, rather than giving away cash. Such programs have “been chipped away at over and over and over and over again in the name of these added flexibilities and it's resulted in this huge increase of cash-based assistance, which is everything from cash vouchers to in some cases, literally cash in envelopes being handed out to people,” Ms. Cooper said. “Back about a decade ago, under the Obama administration, the emergency Food Security Program was stood up.”

The FSP falls under the state affairs office, so it isn’t a farm bill program, but “has $3 billion available in that bucket typically forecast for food security,” she said.

“They can use that funding on US commodities, but they don’t,” Ms. Cooper said. “This idea that the non-governmental organizations need more and more flexibility is just not true. This year we really looked at these programs and how much they’ve been chipped away over time. No more. We’re not going to stand for it anymore. We’re pushing back. We’re not going on defense on this, we’re only on offense. Our proposals are to essentially kick cash out of those food aid programs make them restore them back to fully US commodities and make sure that the cash-based assistance happening under that emergency food program is not funded by agriculture appropriations.”

To that end, NAMA administrators have this year convened 54 meetings, including with nearly every member of the Senate and House agriculture committees.

“Really positive meetings with committee staff,” she said. “Folks get it. These are food aid programs. They should have food as the cornerstone.”

NAMA is pushing to expand the definition of cover crop to include fields ultimately harvested since they still prevent erosion and build soil health.

“That message has not been super-welcomed by members of the House and Senate committees, but I think the message is that we need to make sure that we’re not giving up acres for things like conservation programs or cover crops,” Ms. Cooper said. “Moving forward, conservation became this like big buzz word in the last couple of years. But one of the challenges of the farm bill is very limited funding. And so the idea that we’re going to have millions of dollars available for cover crops is really just a non-starter. It’s important, that messaging says hey, we need to be thinking about food security, we need to be making sure the acres are there and that there’s a credit associated with that, with making sure that soil stays healthy throughout the year and that you're going to higher yields from other crops on that same land.”

 NAMA supports a coalition effort to increase mandatory funding for research by $8 billion, but expects closer to $1.5 billion in the farm bill, which likely would be supplemented with extra funding under the discretionary side and yearly appropriations processes.

“Additionally, under the farm bill research portion, we’ve supported wheat growers and all the barley growers in asking for increasing the authorization for the US Wheat and Barley Scab Initiative from $15 million to $20 million,” Ms. Cooper said. “It’s been fully appropriated at that fully authorized amount for the last few years, we don’t see a reason why they can’t bump that up. It’s not a guarantee that that funding is going to happen, but it's at least authorizing the program to go up to $20 million.

“One snag we’ve been hearing is that not only are you going to have to offset actual spending in the farm bill, but they are talking about process for in the authorization of the farm bill. Which makes things a little bit more complicated because you’re not actually spending that money, you’re saying you’re allowed to spend that money if other people agree at a later point in time. And they’re saying ‘OK, well, you still have to provide an offset for it’.”

The USDA’s Agricultural Research Service’s new national programming leader for small grains research, Oswald Crasta, PhD, has met with NAMA multiple times for discussion on priorities and how the funding has been used in the past.

Plus, “a few members of the health division had a virtual meeting with Dr. Crasta to introduce the companies and talk about what stakeholders are really interested in when it comes to research,” Ms. Miller said. “There are some areas where, as stakeholders, we can really help them to understand more about what’s needed in the oats space. He doesn’t have a lot of experience in oats and is very willing to learn. It’s going to be really good opportunity that to have that kind of exchange with ARS and deepen that relationship for us.”

The FDA’s rapid pace of employee turnover has impacted NAMA members and their customers vis-à-vis inspections.

“It’s really difficult to start that process over with them, basically educate them on inspections because the FDA has very few seasoned people left, so they’re going to be having a lot of dialogue with you, you’re going to be pushing back on a lot of things so,” Ms. Cooper said. “They’re going to ask you for crazy stuff. We already have some good discussions in the tech committee around FDA inspections to help support member companies.”

A primary focus for the FDA is on heavy metals and the Department’s “closer-to-zero” concept most recently regarding lead and baby food.  The FDA’s guidance on that issue is likely to impact the milling industry related to mycotoxins preventative controls.

“Not everyone at FDA is well versed on how mycotoxins work, so there are a lot of opportunities for NAMA to hopefully educate them and make sure that they’re trying to regulate from a place of understanding what’s actually reasonable, possible and good for health,” Ms. Cooper said.