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Vilsack comments on immigration reform, Senate farm bill, GMOs, COOL

In a wide-ranging speech to the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives today, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack urged passage of the Senate immigration reform bill, praised the Senate for passing the farm bill on Monday, and responded to questions about country-of-origin labeling and genetic modification.

Tom Vilsack

Vilsack said the agreement between the AgWorkforce Coalition and the United Farm Workers was a “delicate balance” that will allow current workers to achieve legalization and provide for a guest worker program in the future. He added that the process of current workers applying for legal status will allow the Agriculture Department to determine how many guest workers will be needed in the future.

People who don’t want to see immigration reform passed “see political advantage,” Vilsack said, adding that he does not see immigration as a Democratic or Republican issue but one “about rural America.”

In response to a question about whether immigration reform will stop continued illegal immigration, Vilsack said that there are fewer people coming across the border and that in the long term as economies improve in the developing countries there may be less incentive to move to the United States.

But he added, “What are you going to do if we don’t fix this system? Are you going to deport these people? There are 11 million of them.”

Noting that without the immigrant workers crops would rot on the ground, Vilsack said people should not take agriculture for granted. Successful farming, he said, “doesn’t have to happen here. It happens here right now because we are the best at it.”

Vilsack praised the Senate for passing the farm bill on Monday, but told the co-op leaders that to get the bill across the finish line they will have to stress its importance to the consumers, because the number of farmers who produce the nation’s food supply is now so small. The secretary noted that 200,000 to 300,000 farmers produce 85 percent of the food supply, while only 33,000 of those produce about 50 percent of it.

It’s important to pass a farm bill this year, Vilsack said, because “we need certainty” and a strong safety net. Without crop insurance during last year’s drought, he said, there would have been “chaos in the countryside” and it would have been better if the livestock disaster program had been in place. The Senate farm bill restores that program, he noted.

The farm bill also streamlines conservation, includes trade expansion programs and expands domestic market opportunities through local food production and other programs such as biochemical and bioplastics.

The bill would also, he noted, create a private-sector agricultural research foundation and help support specialty crops and organics, which the one-year extension of the 2008 farm bill did not.

Vilsack said the farm bill would also resolve the Brazilian cotton case, and pointed out that Brazil could retaliate against other farm products such as raisins and almonds and against “intellectual property that is inherent in agriculture.”

He said so much attention is being paid to the conflicts in the farm bill that too little attention is paid to “all the stuff in the middle,” such as programs to aid veterinarians and beginning farmers and ranchers.

In response to a question about tying crop insurance subsidies to conservation compliance, Vilsack noted that before direct payments were created this is how crop insurance worked. Big crop insurance premium subsidies are “a hard system to defend today,” he said, adding that the requirement that farmers follow conservation compliance rules gives people the assurance that society is getting something in exchange for the subsidies.

Vilsack said he considers the conservation compliance provision in the Senate farm bill “a pretty good deal” and that “the Senate is on the right track,” but he noted that the House sees it differently and “and at the end of the day, it gets worked out.”

The agreement between the AgWorkforce Coalition and the United Farm Workers proved that whatever disagreements there are with the farm bill between the House and the Senate “can be worked out with reasonable people in a room.”

(In a statement, Vilsack also said, “The administration intends to continue to work with the Senate through the conference process to achieve the savings included in the president's budget in the crop insurance and commodity programs while addressing the important priorities of the bill.”)

The secretary also repeated points he has raised within the last week about USDA efforts to combat climate change and food waste.

In response to a question about why USDA is persisting with implementation of country-of-origin labeling when it lost a case in the World Trade Organization to Canada and should expect retaliation, Vilsack said that he did not accept the premise of the question.

The WTO, Vilsack noted, told the United States it had the right to label, but that it needed to provide more information on the label. The new label, Vilsack said, will provide that information and that if the United States is in compliance there will be no retaliation. Congress, not USDA, created country-of-origin labeling, he said, adding that people who want to get rid of it should go to Congress. He noted that as long as it is the law, Vilsack said, it is USDA’s responsibility to enforce it.

Asked how farm leaders should respond to criticism of genetic modification, Vilsack said, “If I had a time machine I would go back 20 years and instead of saying the advantages to farmers I would make the case to consumers” on issues such as reductions in pesticide use and the assurance of a food supply.

He said that the public needs to be educated about “the tremendous challenge” the world faces in feeding people, and that there are environmental benefits to genetically modified crops.

“The message can’t come from the people selling this stuff — it has to come from people who are benefiting from it, but it has to be respectful of other methods of production,” he said.

“Do not ask me to pick which is better, which is holier,” he said. “One method of production is high value-added while the other produces great quantities of food.”

“We need to create ways in which we can create better stewards,” Vilsack said, but also create risk management tools for organic agriculture.

Noting that he has tried “to turn the temperature down” between the two types of agriculture, he said, “There are too few of us to fight with each other. I am trying to do that [talk to both audiences] but it is going to take more than the secretary of agriculture and the state secretaries of agriculture.”

Vilsack also noted that he spoke with the Chinese agriculture minister last week and that China appears to be stepping up biotech approvals.