Marquette Mining Journal: Sen. Peters outlines food, agriculture bill

MARQUETTE — A piece of bipartisan legislation that provides for additional agricultural inspectors and K-9 units may soon be signed into law.

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Michigan, who introduced the bill, discussed the legislation in a conference call Wednesday with Michigan Farm Bureau National Legislative Counsel John Kran.

The Protecting America’s Food & Agriculture Act of 2019 allows for safe and secure trade of agricultural goods across the nation’s borders, by having the U.S. Customs and Border Protection hire 240 agricultural specialists a year until the workforce shortage is filled, as well as hiring a support staff of 200 agricultural technicians and 20 K-9 teams, Peters said.

With the support of a range of groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, American Farm Bureau Federation, Michigan Farm Bureau, Michigan Agri-Business Association and Michigan Pork Producers Association, the bill has been passed by the U.S. House of Representatives and is now off to President Donald Trump’s desk to be signed into law.

“I think we got to be really diligent and work to make sure that all of our crops are protected from unfair trade practices. The other countries are realizing that if they focus on smaller industries, it’s often easier to evade some of our trade laws,” Peters said. “And that’s why I’ve introduced legislation to give increased powers to the Department of Commerce to self-initiate investigations for smaller industries. I’m working on that bill in a bipartisan way.”

As a member of the Homeland Security Committee, secured borders are one of Peters’ top priorities, he said.

Border security professionals facilitate, secure, conduct inspections and prevent illicit goods from entering the United States, Peters said, adding that the shortage of 700 inspectors across the nation is an issue.

Agricultural inspectors basically serve as the “first line of defense” against threats from harmful diseases, invasive species and pests through imported goods, Peters noted.

K-9 teams help detect illicit fruits, vegetables and animal products that may have otherwise been missed during initial inspections and there’s nothing “more sophisticated than a dog’s nose,” Peters explained.

This bill will help combat bigger pests — such as the African Flying Fever that’s taking place in parts of Asia and Europe — that are currently impacting the agriculture sector, Kran said.

In Michigan, spotted wing drosophila and the brown marmorated stink bug have impacted tart cherries, blueberries and apples. These are impacting the quality of the crops and decreasing the number of products available to consumers, Kran said.

“Farmers face a lot of challenges from many directions. And making sure we can safeguard our points of entry to the best of our abilities to help maintain our safe and affordable food supply for consumers and also to minimize the risk of farmers are really important,” Kran said. “We live in a global marketplace, with that comes a lot of great opportunities, but there’s also some challenges we face by opening our doors up. We’ve worked hard over the years to eradicate a lot of pests and diseases that impact agriculture negatively but we have some still that continue to serve us from time to time … We think this is a good step in the right direction to help alleviate some of those pests in the future.”

It’s vital that the federal government be “more aggressive in enforcing trade rules” to help protect both small and larger agriculture industries so they can compete on a level playing field, Peters said.

“Right now, it’s up to the individual industry to do it. But if you’re a big industry — if you’re the steel industry for example — you can hire an army of lawyers and economists to push against unfair subsidized trade by foreign governments. If you’re a smaller industry, like cherries, blueberries or other agricultural products, that’s very difficult,” Peters said.

Michigan has two of the nation’s busiest border crossings: the Detroit-Windsor crossing and the Blue Water Bridge.

With a shortage of eight agricultural inspectors in Michigan, Peters said that it’s important to fill those slots as soon as possible to ensure safe and secure trade practices.

“In Michigan, we are blessed to have the second most diverse crop base in the country — second only to California. But when you have very diverse crops, you also have to worry that they are susceptible to a wide variety of pests and invasive species,” he said. “So the more agricultural inspectors we can get on our border and get on borders all across the country and the more K-9 teams we can bring on board, the safer our farmers will be in the future.”

By:  Jackie Jahfetson
Source: Marquette Mining Journal