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Vilsack promises regulatory speed-up

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Wednesday promised to speed up the Agriculture Department’s regulatory process as he took his campaign to encourage a revitalization of rural America to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

“It takes too damn long for us to do things in government,” Vilsack said when answering a question at a Chamber-sponsored conference entitled “Agriculture: Growing Innovations & Opportunities.”

Vilsack has been an advocate for biotechnology, but biotech companies have complained that the process for approving new products is slow. The secretary also said he would try to convince the Chinese, with whom he was meeting later in the day, “to synchronize” their regulatory process with that of the United States.

“We need to explain the importance of these technologies,” he said.

Vilsack called agriculture “the most sophisticated and complex” industry in the United States. A farmer, he noted, has to know not only how to farm, but to market his products. He also noted that farmers need high-speed Internet service in order to market their products because if a farm has it, “you've got the whole world open to you.”

USDA has increased the availability of broadband in rural areas, Vilsack said, but “it’s only a fraction of what’s necessary.”

In his speech, the secretary said that the last four years have been “the best” in terms of farm income and exports, and added that one reason Congress needs to address the estate tax is that land values have risen so fast.

But he also noted that agriculture is so mechanized that agricultural prosperity does not translate into population growth. To keep its population, Vilsack said, rural America has to undertake a broader rural development strategy.

He also mentioned, but did not stress his view that too many rural Americans have developed a “preservation mentality” rather than focus on the strengths and changes that rural America needs to retain and attract young people.

Vilsack then presented the chamber audience with a four-pillar rural development strategy that he has discussed in previous speeches:

  • Exports: Clearly the first of the four pillars, Vilsack said, but dependent on additional funding for agricultural research to maintain productivity.
  • Local and regional food systems: Offer the greatest opportunity to keep people on the land, but need more help in connecting with local institutions such as schools, universities and hospitals that can offer a sustained market.
  • Conservation and recreation: Provides farmers with the opportunity for additional income through payments for saving water that is consumed in cities and by creating habitat that encourages more hunting and fishing and other tourism. Hunters and fishermen spend $145 billion per year, Vilsack noted.
  • Biobased economy: Offers not only the opportunity to create fuels from renewable sources, but also other products. USDA, he said, is using its biobased preference procurement program to encourage new products. Coca-Cola, he said, uses 10 billion bottles per year and bottles made of renewable and reusable materials could help the company meets is environmental responsibilities and create jobs throughout rural America. He said forestry companies are experimenting with tornado-resistant structures made of wood that could replace steel and strong fiber board that could replace glass because it is lighter. He also said that asphalt made with hog manure as an adhesive at The Ohio State University “makes the tires squeal as you go down the road.”