Vilsack talks SNAP, Mexico GMOs, carbon bank at National Press Club
In a wide-ranging, hour-long online appearance today as part of the National Press Club’s Newsmaker series, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack discussed the wide range of Agriculture Department activities.
In a 10-minute introduction, Vilsack reiterated points he has made in previous speeches: USDA has provided personnel to help with coronavirus vaccinations, has increased nutrition benefits, and is working on aid to farmers.
As part of his responsibility to the Biden administration’s “Build Back Better” initiatives, Vilsack said he wants to “transform American agriculture” into a better system for the nation’s farmers through more exports, better regional and local markets and more transparency regarding pricing.
He also said the climate issue should be looked at not just as a “challenge,” but as an “opportunity” that can create more revenue streams for farmers through such efforts as carbon sequestration and turning waste into products.
Vilsack said he wants to begin addressing carbon sequestration by using the land-idling Conservation Reserve Program. Of the 26 million acres that are allowed in the program, 2 million acres are open for enrollment, he added. But he also repeated previous statements that he believes the Commodity Credit Corporation should be used to create a carbon bank.
But he added that farm efforts on carbon sequestration will not result in net zero emissions by 2050 if the forests continue to burn, and that better forest management is needed.
Discussing food security, he also made the point once again that he believes “nutrition security” is vital.
Asked whether Congress should make the current 15% increase in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program permanent, VIlsack said Congress should wait until USDA has completed its evaluation of the Thrifty Food Plan on which benefit levels are based. He said the Thrifty Food Plan is out of date because it assumes that a family spends an hour and a half preparing meals at home from scratch today and that a family eats 20 pounds of beans per week.
About 1.5 million SNAP beneficiaries are now buying food online, Vilsack said, suggesting that number should increase. He also said he wants to find out if restaurants could be tied into SNAP “in a creative way.”
The continuation of some version of the Farmers to Families Food Box program will depend on resources but food banks are definitely interested in getting more fruits and vegetables, he said.
On the question of restoring nutrition standards in schools, Vilsack said that is dependent on the supply chain being able to provide the higher quality products.
But he added that the issue of school nutrition standards is very important because there are retired admirals and generals still concerned that young Americans are so overweight and obese that too few of them can qualify for the military.
If the United States is “truly serious” about nutrition, schools have to have more resources.
On the situation of farmers of color, Vilsack said that farmers who got loans while their neighbors did not are likely to have become bigger farmers, and noted that even the COVID-19 aid was based on size.
USDA plans to complete rule making on the heirs property issue, which he said had languished under the Trump administration.
One of his goals, Vilsack said, is to increase the number and variety of meat processing facilities. The pork industry “didn’t take the pandemic seriously” which led to their workers being exposed and the shutdown of plants, which forced hog farmers to euthanize their animals because they had no place to deliver them.
On trade with Mexico, he said it is important to be aware that the Mexican government has said it wants to stop importing genetically modified corn for food use, but will still import it for feed.
On China, he said it’s unlikely there will need to be another trade-related bailout for farmers, but that to fulfill its phase one commitments, China “could be doing more” in importing biofuels, distiller’s dried grains and dairy products.
The United States is back to where it was in exports to China before the Trump administration imposed tariffs, but the overall market share has suffered due to the trade war, he said. He repeated previous statements that the U.S. relationship with China is “multilayered.”
On the opioid drug abuse issue, Vilsack said the needs are two-fold: to improve the rural economy and to provide services to people who have become addicted.
“If your tomorrow is not going to be any better than today, there may be an incentive for you to try to escape a today that is not hopeful,” he said. “It is a disease, it is not a character flaw. They need services, they need professionals.”
Summing up, Vilsack said that agriculture and food “is a tough business” with “very small” margins.
Americans pay a small percentage of their incomes for food and “None of us wants to go into the grocery store and pay more for what we eat.”
The question is whether people are willing to pay more for a more resilient food system, either through their own purchases or government involvement, Vilsack said.
Asked if there were one item that he wants included in President Biden’s infrastructure package, Vilsack said that if he is wearing his rural development hat, it would be broadband, but if he is wearing his forestry hat it would tens of billions of dollars more for forest management.
But he added that as secretary he also wants “kids to be able to eat better.”
USDA, he said, has to manage all its programs well and equitably.
“That is the beauty of the Department of Agriculture,” he concluded.
The interview has been posted on the National Press Club’s YouTube channel.
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