On November 14, the U.S. House Agriculture Subcommittee on Livestock and Foreign Agriculture addressed the issue of invasive species and their impacts on the U.S. food supply chain.
|In his opening statement to begin the hearing Chairman of the Subcommittee, Jim Costa (D-CA) pointed out, “Along our southern border and in seaports across the country the seasonal nature of the specialty crop industry means trucks and barges carry fruits and vegetables from outside the U.S. are potential vectors for dangerous pests that have not yet been established in the U.S. I have been at the U.S. border from California to Texas and I have seen first-hand the efforts to address foreign pests so they do not enter the U.S. For all these reasons and more I believe all my colleagues are here today joined to support our agriculture inspection efforts and resources at our points of entry. We cannot expect our Customs and Border Protection, or our Department of Agriculture to evolve its capabilities to match these ever-evolving threats. Today we want to hear whether we are providing the necessary resources to do that.” |
Testimony delivered by Bret Erickson, President and CEO of J & D Produce, Inc. Edinburg, Texas, aptly relayed the complexities of the global agricultural food supply chain and many challenges facing producers in the U.S. and abroad. Erickson farms about 6,000 acres growing fresh greens, sweet onions, cabbage, melons, 40 different kinds of kale, chards, collards, beets and herbs. J & D is also a grower/packer/shipper with operations in Deming, New Mexico, Vidalia, Georgia, Vineland, New Jersey, and internationally in Peru and Mexico. Their operations are year-round, and they hire 180 full-time employees and 500 seasonal workers.
J & D’s customers are wholesale and foodservice powerhouses that sell to consumers like HEB, Wegmans, Publix, Meijer, Kroger, Albertsons and Wal-Mart. Canadian retailers include Loblaw and Sobeys. J & D is the epitome of an international farm-to-customer food business that must deal with multiple challenges along the food supply chain daily. Some of the challenges are major policy issues that have plagued the industry for decades. Erickson shared with members of the House subcommittee those serious policy challenges he faces that prevent his business from growing. They include, in order;
Enough quality labor,
Food safety, and
Amidst these policy challenges J & D has been fortunate to witness “double digit increases year over year for the last decade for volumes of fresh fruits and vegetables” they produce. However, Erickson dubbed this fortune as “a bittersweet figure.” Erickson explained the main driver behind the increased volumes of their own imported products (J & D provides seed, supplies, and funding to grower partners in both Peru and Mexico) is growing demand for fresh fruits and vegetables in the U.S. “The population is growing and there are more mouths to feed. But we also must import more product because we don’t have the labor to harvest the volumes that are demanded by our customers. It also means that US consumers are able to purchase whatever item they want, be it strawberries, celery, cilantro, or cantaloupes every single day of the year,” said Erickson.
While volumes of fresh fruit and vegetable shipments have increased over the last decade U.S. ports are being “overloaded with product. Not only have the volumes exploded, but the variety of products, new exciting items that we have not seen before, which are coming from new regions of Mexico and other parts of the world bring with them new pests and diseases that we have never seen,” explained Erickson.
While the specialty crop industry experiences exponential growth in import volumes, federal agencies responsible for shipment inspections have not kept up with appropriate staffing levels. According to Erickson, “This creates bottlenecks and delays that can range from a few hours to 4-5 days, at times rendering entire loads of product useless or headed to the food bank as a donation because the quality has deteriorated to the point we can no longer send it to our customers without it being rejected.”
Erickson made it clear to Members of the House panel, “I am here today to ask the committee to find a way to secure additional resources that will put more manpower at our ports of entry. Specifically, we need more USDA’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) Insect Identifiers and Custom and Border Protection (CBP) Agriculture Specialists. Furthermore, I would like to request that more time and attention from USDA APHIS be directed towards training CPB Ag Specialists on insect identifications and that USDA grant more authority to well-trained CBP Ag Specialists to make identifications and make a determination if an insect is “good” or “bad”.
Erickson acknowledged some improvements have been made over the years at USDA, but urged that more needs to be done. He is correct. In addition it would serve the agriculture industry well if local, state and federal government officials began thinking in terms of how their activities within the food supply chain add to producers competitive advantages. Consider, trade volumes will continue to increase likely at a faster pace as demand for fruits and vegetables year-round continue increasing. This, combined with shrinking agriculture acreage, global labor cost inequities and the ongoing policy issues mentioned above means that U.S. farms will need every competitive advantage it can muster to remain globally competitive in the future.
|USDA is responding to both the future challenges and fluid characteristics of the agriculture food supply chain as described by Bret Erickson in his testimony. Recently USDA’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service convened a cross-cutting group of industry representatives and federal and state subject matter experts to come together and create a common vision on how we will collaborate in the next decade and beyond to better safeguard agriculture, facilitate safe agricultural trade and create the needed competitive advantages for U.S producers in global trade. In addition, USDA-APHIS Plant Protection and Quarantine (PPQ), with assistance from the North American Plant Protection Organization, has decided to convene a large-scale conference on plant health safeguarding and safe trade. The conference date and location is:|
International Year of Plant Health Conference
August 18-20, 2020
Omni Shoreham Hotel
Cansler Consulting and the California Agricultural Commissioners and Sealers Association are proud to be partners in this initiative.
Congress is also responding by introducing legislation such as S. 2107 and H.R. 4482 that would help CBP continue building upon its successes in maintaining adequate levels of pest detection and surveillance activities at U.S. ports of entry. The legislation would authorize the annual hiring of 240 Agricultural Specialists a year until the workforce shortage is filled, and 200 Agricultural Technicians a year to carry out administrative and support functions. The bill also authorizes the training and assignment of 20 new canine teams a year. For many years canine teams have proven their effectiveness in detecting agriculture materials, fruits, vegetables and animal products in countless inspections.