November 19th, 2013
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman spoke about all aspects of farming and commerce in America and around the world.
Secretary Vilsack, formerly the governor of Iowa, first discussed the upcoming Farm Bill. The bill is passed every 5 years to regulate farm production and prices in the U.S.
“It's a very expansive bill and often doesn't get fully appreciated by Americans,” Vilsack said.
Although we’ve had the best farm economy in the last 5 years – probably in the history of the country – rural America hasn't done as well, Vilsack said.
Ambassador Froman was asked about the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership, which involves 12 countries and 40 percent of the global economy. He described it as “the most transparent trade negotiation there’s ever been.”
“Our exports are driving about a third of our growth in this country right now, and the only way that we can keep up with that is to keep on opening markets, making sure that we have a level playing field that we can compete on, and then making sure that we enforce our trade rights,” Froman said. “And that’s what we’re doing.”
With climate change promising more extreme weather patterns like droughts and floods, food security is expected to be an issue.
“I can’t guarantee that we’re not going to have shortages,” Vilsack said. “But I can guarantee you that we’re very focused on making sure that we are in a position to adapt and mitigate as best as possible.”
Vilsack spoke about developing climate change hubs for research at universities to better understand long-term impacts. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is also looking at how technology and best practices in farming can minimize impacts of drought.
“We can debate what’s causing it, but there's no question that it is changing,” Vilsack said. “It’s no question that we’re dealing with warmer temperatures and more intense storms and weather patterns, and so we have got to be in a position to respond to that.”
On top of that, food production needs to increase by 70 percent in the next 40 years.
“It is going to require a global commitment,” Vilsack said.
Agricultural production directly impacts global commerce, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership is trying to take on conservation issues for the first time, like illegal logging, overfishing and trafficking of wildlife, according to Froman.
“Our trade agreements ought to reflect both our interests and our values,” Froman said, including labor, environment and public health.
Meanwhile, international trade perpetuates the use of fossil fuels that are contributing to global warming.
For a lot of the countries, it’s very painful to reduce fossil fuel subsidies and raise energy prices. In India and Russia, a social safety net needs to be in place, Froman said.
“One of the tragedies about fossil fuel subsidies generally – not only that it leads to the overuse of fossil fuels – but the vast majority of the subsidies go to people who don't need them,” Froman said. “They go to companies or people who can afford to pay the full price of fossil fuel.”
Vilsack talked about the development of new technologies that don’t require as much energy as they used to and the government’s aim to expand and diversify its energy portfolio. The USDA is looking into converting diseased wood into energy, he said.
The trend of local, organic food has been gaining popularity and the USDA is investing in a local and regional food system, VIlsack said. There are currently 35 states with farm-to-school programs and a recent study showed nearly 50 percent of American schools are very interested in being able to source locally, he said.
In addressing how organic and non-organic producers can live in the same world, “we are creating a dialogue that has been missing in American agriculture for some time,” Vilsack said.
“We’re trying to build a new rural economy,” Vilsack said.
GMO labeling laws are a hot topic in the U.S., and it’s clearly a big issue in the trading world, according to Froman.
“We encourage countries to develop regulations in accordance with science,” Froman said.
Because the philosophy of labeling in this country is on nutrition and known hazards, it's difficult to make the case for GMO labeling. Vilsack revealed an idea to create QR codes on food products with extra information like GMO labeling so interested customers can access the information, if they wish.
“I think we’re talking about 20th century technologies in a 21st century world,” Vilsack said about the GMO-labeling debate.
When asked about fracking, Vilsack somewhat skirted the question, responding, “I spend a lot of time thinking about water and the availability of it and the quality of it.”
“For far too long, we have not looked at our forests as the conservers and preservers of water that they are,” Vilsack said.
Internet freedoms are a topic of concern. Froman addressed the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s recent reports about the leaked Trans-Pacific Partnership, saying “I’ve seen those reports and I think they are close to 100 percent wrong.”
A few protestors attended the program, which took place soon after the WikiLeaks release of the "secret negotiated draft text" of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
"One of the challenging things about a trade agreement is that nothing's agreed to until everything's agreed to," Froman said.
- Danielle Torrent
November 18, 2013
Photos by Rikki Ward
The Commonwealth Club of California