In a large hour-long online appearance today as part of the National Press Club’s Newsmaker series, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack discussed the wide range of activities the Department of Agriculture does.
In a 10-minute introduction, Vilsack reiterated points he made in previous speeches: USDA has staffed to help with coronavirus vaccination, increased nutritional benefits, and is working on helping farmers.
As part of his responsibility for the Biden administration’s “Build Back Better” initiatives, Vilsack said he wanted to “turn American agriculture” into a better system for the country’s farmers through more exports, better regional and local markets and more price transparency.
He also said the climate issue should be seen not only as a “challenge” but as an “opportunity” that can create more sources of income for farmers through efforts such as carbon sequestration and transformation of crops. waste into products.
Vilsack said he wanted to start tackling carbon sequestration using the Idle Land Conservation Reserve program. Of the 26 million acres allowed in the program, 2 million acres are open for registration, he added. But he also repeated previous statements that he believed the Commodity Credit Corporation should be used to create a carbon bank.
But he added that agricultural efforts on carbon sequestration will not result in net zero emissions by 2050 if forests continue to burn, and better forest management is needed.
Discussing food security, he also stressed once again that he believes “nutrition security” is vital.
When asked whether Congress should make the current 15% increase in the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance program permanent, Vilsack said Congress should wait until the USDA has completed its assessment of the Thrifty Food plan on which the benefit levels are based. He said the Thrifty Food plan is outdated because it assumes a family spends an hour and a half preparing meals at home from scratch today and a family eats 20 pounds of beans a week.
About 1.5 million SNAP beneficiaries now buy food online, Vilsack said, suggesting that number should increase. He also said he wanted to know if restaurants could be linked to SNAP “in a creative way”.
Pursuing a version of the Farmers to Families Food Box program will be resource-dependent, but food banks are definitely interested in getting more fruits and vegetables, he said.
On the issue of restoring nutritional standards in schools, Vilsack said it hinged on the supply chain’s ability to deliver better 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 “really serious” about nutrition, schools need more resources.
Regarding the plight of farmers of color, Vilsack said farmers who got loans when their neighbors didn’t have likely turned into bigger farmers, and noted that even COVID-19 aid was based on the waist.
The USDA plans to complete the development of rules on the issue of heir ownership, which it said had languished under the Trump administration.
One of its goals, said Vilsack, is to increase the number and variety of meat processing facilities. The pork industry “did not take the pandemic seriously” which led to the exposure of their workers and the closure of factories, which forced pig farmers to euthanize their animals because of they had no place to deliver them.
Regarding 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, but will continue to import it. for animal feed.
Regarding China, he said there was unlikely to be another trade-related bailout for farmers, but to meet its phase one commitments, China “could do more” in the import of biofuels, distillers’ grains and dairy products.
The United States returned to its level of exports to China before the Trump administration imposed tariffs, but overall market share suffered from the trade war, he said. He reiterated previous statements that US-China relations are “multi-layered.”
On the issue of opioid drug abuse, Vilsack said the needs are twofold: to improve the rural economy and provide services to people who have become dependent.
“If your future is not going to be better than it is today, there may be an incentive for you to try to escape a today that is not full of hope,” he said. . “It’s a disease, it’s not a character flaw. They need services, they need professionals.
In summary, Vilsack said agriculture and food “is a tough business” with “very small” margins.
Americans pay a small percentage of their income for food and “None of us want to go to 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 through government involvement, Vilsack said.
When asked if he wanted to include anything in President Biden’s infrastructure package, Vilsack said if he wears his rural development hat it will be broadband, but if he wears his hat forestry, it would represent tens of billions of dollars more for forest management.
But he added that as a secretary he also wanted “children to eat better.”
The USDA, he said, must manage all of its programs properly and fairly.
“This is the beauty of the Ministry of Agriculture,” he concluded.
The interview was posted on the National Press Club’s YouTube channel.