Alan Bjerga, NMPF: Hello, and welcome to the Dairy Defined podcast. It’s hot outside and that’s making people on Capitol Hill think about climate. This is an opportunity for dairy as the industry’s Net Zero Initiative needs sound public policy to work. Joining us is senior vice president for government relations, Paul Bleiberg, talking about these efforts and updating us on other important Capitol Hill efforts. Good having you here, Paul.
Paul Bleiberg, NMPF: Thanks for having me. It’s great to be on.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: The Senate recently passed the Growing Climate Solutions Act by a vote of 92 to eight. That’s an eye-popping bipartisan margin, but what does the legislation do and where does it fit into dairy’s environmental stewardship goals?
Paul Bleiberg, NMPF: Sure. So this legislation has been in the works for a couple of years now. The work began in the Senate in late 2019, and it was introduced in 2020 initially by Senator Debbie Stabenow from Michigan and Senator Mike Braun from Indiana. And the committee held a hearing on the bill last summer, and we submitted written testimony for that. And they marked it up this spring and then brought up to the floor where it received the vote that you referenced. The bill is very helpful to our overall efforts because environmental markets are a key tool in the toolbox of the Net Zero Initiative, but there’s often confusion as far as who farmers can work with to help them generate credits, whether it be carbon credits or other environmental credits that will get them the participation that they really want on environmental markets.
And what the bill from Senator Stabenow and Senator Braun does, is set up essentially an informal certification system at USDA where the department can informally give a thumbs up, so to speak, to different technical service providers that can work with farmers to help them generate credits. It’s a way for farmers to get a better idea of who the players are out there, who may be actors they can and should work with. And so from the standpoint of expanding that participation in environmental markets for dairies, we work on getting our carbon footprint to net zero. We think it’s a very helpful effort.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: Now markets is one piece of the puzzle. Another is technology. We’ve seen some recent progress with legislation that would cover some of the upfront costs that would otherwise hinder wider adoption of these systems. What’s the latest on that?
Paul Bleiberg, NMPF: So, the latest is really promising actually. We’ve had a bipartisan bill for some time in the Congress that would provide a 30% investment tax credit on the upfront installation costs you referenced, not just for methane digesters, but also for nutrient recovery technologies that can separate out nutrient particles like nitrogen and phosphorus from manure and help us deal with runoff issues in different watersheds around the country. We’ve been trying to move this bill forward for many years, but over the last year in particular, we’ve started to make some real headway. The U.S. Senate included our measure authored by Senator Sherrod Brown and Senator John Thune. They’re going to be introducing it in standalone form in the coming weeks, but they included the bill in a larger clean energy package that Senate finance chairman, Ron Wyden, moved through his committee.
Now we’re excited about that because we’re hopeful that that package can be lifted into broader legislation that might become well later this year. So by having our provision in that vehicle, we feel very good about that. Similarly, on the House side, we’ve also had good progress. Bipartisan bill was introduced by Ron Kind from Wisconsin and Tom Reed from New York. Last year, that bill was incorporated into a larger vehicle that moved in the House. And while that vehicle didn’t ultimately become law, we feel good about the prospects this year, because both the House and Senate have now shown interest in taking our proposal, lifting it into bigger legislation, and we’re hoping that the stars are aligning to get this done this fall.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: Now the big item on Congress’s agenda for the summer has been infrastructure. Climate, smart agriculture. That’s a phrase you hear thrown around every once in a while. That’s been part of the discussion. What’s the dairy angle?
Paul Bleiberg, NMPF: The dairy angle here is twofold. It’s first expanding funding as much as we can for conservation initiatives. And this is something that [inaudible 00:03:44] Stabenow is spearheading in the Congress right now, as infrastructure legislation is being worked on to try to get funding to plus up different conservation programs and opportunities as well that may reward essentially climate smart ag practices. Which really refers to practices that have a significant, meaningful environmental benefit, whether that’d be greenhouse gas reductions, carbon sequestration, other things like that.
There’s a lot of interest here in the dairy space in this approach because current conservation programs are helpful, but they don’t necessarily meet dairy’s needs all the time. Feed management, manure management, are a couple of areas that the programs today don’t quite emphasize. But if you increase the emphasis in these programs around environmental mitigation, around climate smart ag practices, we see there being a lot of benefit there because it may be able to encompass some of the work that we’re doing and help us build on it.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: Now let’s stick for infrastructure for a moment, but I want to transition into some broader topics. First of all, where does the infrastructure legislation even stand? And what are some of the key parts of it for dairy?
Paul Bleiberg, NMPF: So last week was a big week for the infrastructure process. It’s important to note that the process is proceeding down two different tracks. One is a package that’s being negotiated right now by a number of senators in both parties. And that’s referred to kind of as a hard infrastructure package that will encompass highways, roads, bridges, broadband, perhaps electric grid provisions, and a number of other related areas. The other package is being looked at through the likelihood of the budget reconciliation process. And this is a process that the Democrats in Congress can use if it has this sort of spending and revenue element, as long as they avoid extraneous provisions. And if they use this process, they can avoid the 60 vote threshold in the Senate.
And so in other words, the items that don’t have bipartisan support will probably move in this larger package through budget reconciliation, and both packages are going to move in tandem with one another, as we understand the state of play right now. So last week Senate Democrats who serve on the budget committee, reached an agreement around setting up that budget reconciliation process to move that package. And at the same time, the senators in both parties continue their negotiations on the bipartisan framework that they’re moving forward on a separate but related track.
As it relates to dairy, I think there are several items here. I mentioned broadband. I think we’re hopeful for some funding on rural broadband to be boosted in one of these packages just as we are for the climate smart provisions I mentioned a minute ago. And finally, the tax provisions we spoke about, the investment tax credit, may get added into these larger packages at some point. The discussions on tax are still playing out as we speak, but all three of these items may get folded in to one or the other package over the course of the next few weeks as Congress works on this.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: I want to throw just throw a few words at you and give us the updates on some of these hot button issues. So we’re going to play press the button here. First button, immigration.
Paul Bleiberg, NMPF: So progress is finally being made on immigration after many years of stalemate. The House re-passed the Farm Workforce Modernization Act earlier this year on a bipartisan vote. And this is an important bill for the dairy because it meets our two broad needs in this space, which is providing the permanent legal status we’ve been seeking for a long time. The certainty for our current workers and their families. And it also gives dairy finally access to the H-2A Guestworker Program, which up to this point has been limited to seasonal agriculture.
And since we milked cows every day of the year, that program doesn’t work for us. The bill isn’t perfect and we’d like to see it improved in the Senate. But we’re very pleased that it passed the House and that Senator Mike Crapo from Idaho and Senator Michael Bennet from Colorado, are working on the process in the Senate now to develop similar legislation and hopefully we can see this through a conclusion.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: COVID relief.
Paul Bleiberg, NMPF: COVID relief, we are working with the Department of Agriculture very closely on implementation of a number of different items. The December COVID relief package at some key dairy provisions that had Dairy Donation Program, which is going to go a long way toward expanding partnerships between the dairy industry and food distributors in minimizing food waste, reducing food insecurity, getting food into food insecure households as much as possible. That program had $400 million in dedicated funding. And it’s open to all dairy products. We’re very excited for that.
We know USDA Secretary Vilsack and his team had been working really hard at implementing that program and hope to see it out soon. Similarly, the department is also working hard on some direct assistance to producers for pandemic relief. Looking at uncompensated losses that hadn’t been met by previous programs. And we know they’re working very hard there as well. So a lot is being done right now at the department and the administration. And we’re excited to roll these programs out.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: Fake milk.
Paul Bleiberg, NMPF: So we’ve had some interesting progress lately. The Food and Drug Administration has indicated that sometime over the next year, they are going to put out guidance on this issue that we hope will lead to simply enforcement of the existing standard of identity. At the same time, they finalized a yogurt standard of identity after many, many years of work. And we were very pleased with the process they went through and we think it underscores, frankly, the point we’ve been making for a long time.
So we’re optimistic that the work FDA is doing right now is going to move us in the right direction. The Dairy Pride Act bipartisan legislation has been reintroduced in Congress and has strong support in both parties. And this bill would simply compel enforcement of the existing standard of identity for dairy. You’d think a bill wouldn’t be needed to do that, but given 40 years of inaction by FDA, it is absolutely necessary. So we’re going to continue working with members of Congress to push this issue forward, but also keep working with FDA.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: Anything we’ve missed?
Paul Bleiberg, NMPF: No, I think we’ve covered the waterfront and some of the key stuff being looked at on the domestic side right now.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: That’s it for today’s podcast. For more on NMPF’s policy priorities, visit nmpf.org and for more of the Dairy Defined podcast, this podcast is on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, SoundCloud, and Google Play under the podcast name, Dairy Defined. Thank you for joining us.